Seeing Lhasa is an interesting title and a book. One’s ability to understand or in other words “see” a place is directly influenced by the author’s understanding of the place, how he chose to portray it especially if you are a novice. The effectiveness of his argument will also depend on a large extend to your understanding of the place, your political biases (in this case) and his/her persuasive skills. However any book that analyses “how it was back in the day” needs to be read with an understanding that it is subjective, based on the author’s own political and social standing and may often conflict with your recollection, association of a place and events. Therefore as a reader it becomes important to be critically aware of such biases and how these may influence the work.
In “Seeing Lhasa” Harris & Shakya presents a historical case to revisit the stereotypical notion of Tibetan society (particularly Lhasa) as a remote untouched Shangrila and/or a primitive form of society. Their depiction of the city is one of a thriving and complex commercial, cultural and political centre ruled by a sophisticated (often indulgent) class of nobility and a strong clergy, reminiscent of many feudal structures. Their narrative to past events, role and description of important figures, lifestyles, are presented with period pictures that makes a compelling argument to consider the Tibetan society as a complex and highly evolved socio-political system prior to the arrival of Chinese. This portrayal of a bustling Lhasa defies the common impression of it as a ‘forbidden’ and to some extent a puritanical city in the minds of many people and by doing so serves an important purpose. Firstly, it curbs the tendency to romanticize or demoralize a place by laying emphasis on its inaccessibility, foreignness, which in effect often alienates the natives’ experiences and creates a sense of emotional detachment from their world, and issues. Secondly such notions are based on a Eurocentric and colonialist definition of societal development that is measured mostly in terms of its technological advancement. This framework does not do justice to either the unique context of the region nor does it aptly represent the characteristics and strengths inherent in traditional societies. It is with regards to debunking such popular misrepresentations, and creating a sense of appreciation for a culture that was able to survive and flourish in a harsh environment that “Seeing Lhasa” makes its mark as a book.
A key highlight of the book is Tsering Shakya’s recollection of the city, as a child growing up in Lhasa. The language is intimate and at times humorous, with a hint of melancholy for a lost past- often reminiscent amongst authors living in exile. In his narrative of street humor, trends, gossip, and other idiosyncrasies of the time, he creates a rich case study-like portrayal of life that not only adds a humanistic appeal to the subject but also strips away the tendency to dehumanize historical figures, time and place, which often characterizes a history text. His reflections oddly remind you of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. Although one is a historical non-fiction and the other is a literary fiction based in Africa, there are in both works a strong underlying theme of fear and fascination for modernity in traditional cultures. In today’s world of fast paced globalization that provoke clashes between cultures and worldviews as much as it brings them closer, Seeing Lhasa continues to claim a relevance that goes beyond its geographic space.