When the British invaded Tibet in 1904, the Tibetan rulers fled,
and waited from a distance for the river to turn blue.
It is not clear what they did with their time. The victors
were meticulous in their notes about the land they sought
to strip. They observed, as though they were first
to discover, how dryness dulls leaves. The only wet thing
being water, even there, no great beauty. Tibet,
the correspondent Perceval Landon wrote, was undiscovered
land or the last country to be discovered by the civilized world.1
Noting the night-sky’s fury spilling, staining, from where
the army camped upon a tongue of land, the empire’s scribe
related it was fitting that the English, faithful servants
of progress had taken up the task. The diary of the conqueror
is transparent, the pure white remains referent. Oaks grow
here, though in a chastened way. A lone bird in the air,
rock, lichen, feathery stunted juniper. A curious place.
The men were shocked to see English stock
growing in five pots outside a house. Flowers recorded
and named, the sameness of native, nameless. Covered in dust
its people, arriving or leaving, the same. Men and women
the same; dusty, formless. Two-legged hills, squatting river
beds, water as foolish about its path as the people. Covered
in dazzling sunshine, dust, statues of scowling Buddhas
stared morosely in every home. An unprofitable selfishness
condemns hermits to caves, they produce nothing but prayers,
the scribe wrote. Prayers around necks, prayers crusting lips.
For medicine Tibetans ate superstition requiring neither research
nor cleanliness: dragon’s blood, powdered lizards, dry yellow
dust, particles and scrapings from a cup, bits of paper with prayers
in pills. Dead, Tibetans were cut in pieces and left for vultures. Loam,
as fertile as the Darling Downs.
The scribe notes that the Tibetan housewife throws a stone better
than her European counterpart. Despite her grimy face,
despite the baby in her arms, despite the turquoise crown,
despite looking like winter stone. Perhaps he was thinking
of a particular woman at home recalled against a cloudless,
blue sky. It was not the usual kind of fighting. The straight lines
of a barren landscape, the excessive friendliness of the dust,
and sometimes, the people viewed in words. The scribe
in the army shows how empires write stories. Stripes on hillside
prove respite from the monotony of sameness: the umber of clefts,
rude red willows, here and there sullen maroon swaddling men in robes.
Same view on the other side of the river or valley. Here and there,
crumbling houses, here and there thistles straddling rocks.
The heaviness of the lungs, here and there, a light. References
to hills, references to maps, references to birds and rocks. Hardship,
all necessary. All records necessary for it is from behind boulders
that hiding Tibetans spring like they are only just entering
their own story. The day’s work is recorded in counting the dead
and the wounded. A lark. A spider dizzy in the frost.
1 Perceval Langdon. Lhasa: An Account of the Country and People of Central Tibet and of the progress of the mission sent there by the English government in the year 1903-4. Hurst & Blackett, 1905