Abdul Wahid Radhu
(Journeys from Leh to Lhasa)
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2017
Pp 253 | 450
Enigmatic tales about life in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan spaces
The work is deceptively titled – this is what strikes the reader as a first impression, with the additional lure of the subtitle. The book is a memoir of the author (1918-2011), with its rich and enigmatic range of tales about life in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan spaces (Gilgit, Jammu-Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet, and of course India), ensuring pleasant reading. Yet there are, as the perspective, challenging layers that discuss hard subjects and issues: a turbulent history, political situations on constant flux, contributing to changing dynamics of the social and cultural life in the tract (the centuries-old interplay between Buddhism and Islam in the region), the natural landscape that is both magnificent and challenging... which may obstruct an enthusiast reader. An intellectual exercise with the contents preceding the actual memoir: the introductory piece ‘Life in the Borderlands’ by Siddiq Wahid, the author’s son; a brief foreword by His Highness The Dalai Lama; and a preface by Marco Pallis, the author’s friend of seventy-five years acts more as a deterrent.
Outside all that obstructive stuff, the charismatic author Khwaja Abdul Wahid Radhu (1918-2011), with a degree in Geography from Aligarh Muslim University and the legacy of the trans-Himalayan Khwaja-Radhu merchant’s family of Leh and his extravagant experiences, takes over easily: It would never have occurred to me to consider myself a noteworthy person with any sort of claim to distinction and I was far from thinking that my life, vagabond and eventful, richer in setbacks than in accomplishments, was worth recounting...’ (Vide, the inaugural sentence).
The sentence was first scribbled along a protracted journey from Leh to the Tibetan capital Lhasa seventy-five years earlier. By a caravaneer. The travel was part of the ‘tribute mission’, which the family had secured the right to in the first half of the nineteenth century, where the family members (and eventually the author) led the biannual caravan carrying tribute items of the kings of Ladakh to the offices of the Dalai Lama. It was an ancestral honour that the author has referred to repeatedly along the course of his narration.
Abdul Wahid Radhu is often described as the ‘last caravaneer of Tibet and Central Asia’. A ‘caravaneer’ in the context of the book is a participant in the ‘Lo phyag’ (the Tibetan terminology for the tribute mission) along the long caravan journey on its tribute mission to the offices of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. He was a descendant of the Radhu clan of Kashmir whose members participated in the centuries-old interplay among religious and trade scenes of the Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet and Central Eurasia from seventeenth century onwards. The patriarch of the clan Muhammad Ashai Radhu (1635-1714), a pious teacher in Kashmir founded the Chisti order there and appended his name with ‘Chisti’. His descendants emigrated from Kashmir and through commerce and kinship into Tibet, Chinese Central Asia and even mainland China. ‘Lo phyag’ used to be a triennial tribute (some time in the first half of the nineteenth century). It was a tribute-cum-trade mission steeped in politics, offshoots of numerous political conflicts: monarchic (Buddhist) Ladakh and Mughal (Muslim) Kashmir against ecclesiastic (Buddhist) Tibet in alliance with tribal (shamanist) Mongol.
The thematic scope of the book, its unfamiliar terrains notwithstanding, is too huge to be squeezed into a review. The thirteen chapters hardly spare a clue to the contents: Trans-Himalayan Vocation, Tradition and Prestige, The Beginning of Decline, Zahir and Batin... to mention a few titles of the chapter. The last chapter is titled Repression, Desacralisation, Evocation that precedes an epilogue. The relevance of the book, by its scholastic appeal, could be of a restricted nature. But the memoir in its flowing narration transcends a largely alien subject to embrace a universal appeal. Narrated with a rare blend of wit and humour and self-ridicule, the book entertains the reader. Among the several themes, about the here and now, natural landscape with its charm and challenges dominates. The author exchanges intermittently pages from his original journal, which lends the narrative a variation of tone and tenor: 21 September 1942. We took leave of the gopa (village chief) of Matho. Climbing the length of the track to Martselang, we took a last glimpse at Leh. The weather is fine and sunny and e are travelling at a pleasant pace... everyone was tired. We only set up the small tents and the servants slept under the stars...an old family friend came at five o’clock with a teapot and some gifts. What a fine way to greet guests! There is something very admirable about the manners of these people towards each other. We talked leisurely and spoke of the future. Tibet will not be able to remain a passive spectator. She must change...’
Elsewhere he writes: ‘my life as a married man lasted three weeks, during which time I was very busy preparing for my departure with the Lopchak caravan on 19 November. I wasn’t to see my wife again for a year and a half...
And thus continues the narration, on a number of subthemes like the risks entailed in the travel (down to encounters with) and the irresistible attraction of Tibet. Even there is liberal presence of the political scene of the period. Yet Radhu, the dreamy romantic, entertains in telling his story.
Only the jargonised introduction and preface may get in the way.
Issue 78 (Mar-Apr 2018)