Excerpts: White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings by Tsewang Yishey Pemba

white-crane-3dPaul Stevens and Rilo, the old hunter, hid behind a rock and watched. Tenga Dragotsang, Mingma and some of the other Tibetan guerrillas had taken another route to go ‘hunting’ for the day. It was almost like the old days when they had hunted mountain sheep close to the Golok country, and Tenga had pretended to have hurt his leg. Paul could still see Tenga and Rilo dancing triumphantly in the flickering light of the campfire on that icy mountainside. The wily sham! Now, they hunted soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who had come to ‘liberate’ them. Rilo had become just as skilful and uncanny in tracking down, scenting out and hunting this species of  animal as mountain sheep and  bears.

Paul brought out his binoculars but Rilo pushed them away. ‘The reflection…the Chinese may detect us…’ he explained.

‘What can you see, Rilo?’ asked Stevens.

‘Chinese Communists,’ said the hunter, shielding his eyes. ‘Ten…twelve of  them. What a feast!’

Paul peered down the mountainside but wasn’t quite convinced. ‘Paul-o, let’s go into that clump of  trees. I’m sure that’s the way they’re heading. Just the spot for an ambush.’ ‘Agreed…’ said the young American.

Stevens, Rilo and seven Khampas scampered down the slope and ran into the trees and hid behind logs and a large rock.

‘Paul-o…you fire first,’ instructed Rilo. ‘Aim for the last man in the column.’

They waited. In spite of the intense cold and the snow, Paul found beads of  sweat on his forehead. His mouth went dry.

He saw a Khampa squat down behind a rock and urinate into the snow.

Paul’s heart thumped and his hands trembled as he waited. He heard voices approaching. He checked and rechecked that his rifle’s safety catch was released. He saw Rilo waiting behind the stump of a tree, gesturing to him excitedly that the Chinese were close. Every Khampa was ready for the kill, waiting tensely.

The Chinese platoon came along in a single file, their rifles slung behind their backs, talking casually to each other; unaware that they were walking into a Khampa guerrilla trap.  The air  was bracing and cold. Occasionally a clod of snow fell off an overladen branch and sprayed the air with a shimmer. The sun was shining brightly and the glare from the snow had induced one or two of the PLA men to don snow-goggles. Some of  them were vigorously thumping their gloved hands together to keep warm. They were rosy-cheeked, their breaths vaporous in the clear Tibetan morning air as they laughed and turned to each other, joking and poking fun.

Paul raised his rifle and took careful aim at the last man in the column, following him in his sights as he walked up the forest track—a young boyish-looking soldier. Paul fired and saw the soldier twist and stumble and the serene stillness of the mountains was shattered by the sounds of rifle fire as more Chinese soldiers went down. But they were not all dead or severely wounded for, in an instant, the Chinese fired back. Some Khampas darted out and ran from tree to tree, inviting more enemy fire mostly from automatics. And then the firing ceased.

‘Paul-o! Paul-o!’ There was loud whispering close to him.  He turned and saw Rilo just a few yards away, flat on his belly. He was smiling and appeared triumphant. A good kill… ‘Some Communists behind that log there…’ he whispered, prodding into the distance with his forefinger.

‘Where?’ whispered Paul.

‘That log…behind that log…’ said Rilo hoarsely. ‘Paul-o… I’ll go from behind. You stay here. Don’t move…don’t show yourself…’ Paul nodded. Rilo wriggled away in the snow, the jagged scar across his face showing white against his ruddy skin. Paul waited. There was a soft thud close to him as if a stone had been thrown at him to draw his attention. He turned, thinking it might be a Khampa warning him of danger or perhaps a lump  of snow fallen from a tree. In an instant he saw it was a grenade. Paul lay flat on his face and instinctively covered his head with his hands as at the same instant the grenade exploded with a tremendous roar, scattering snow and fragments of earth in a wide arc. The next moment bursts of automatic fire came from all sides and Paul looked up and saw a Chinese soldier dashing towards him, so close that he could have stretched out his hand and touched him. Paul fired, saw him lurch, stumble and disappear behind a slope. And then from every direction he saw his friends running, shooting, and shouting in excitement, and Paul realized the Communists had been overcome.

Paul, his rifle ready, went cautiously towards the slope where the man, wounded in his thigh, was trying to staunch the blood. Paul stopped a few yards away from him. Beware of a wounded animal… ‘Ta-le Lama! Ta-le Lama!’ (Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama!) screamed

the man in a pleading whimpering voice. Then Rilo came running and upon seeing the wounded man, he gave an eerie sadistic scream, laughed hysterically, dancing about in the snow and making leering taunting faces at the terrified PLA soldier. Just like Mingma…when we shot that mountain sheep, thought Paul.

Ta-le Lama! Ta-le Lama!’ the man continued shouting.

Rilo, his arms akimbo, sauntered up to the Chinese, wagging his head at him, like a mischievous little boy taunting a caged animal, just to show how unafraid he is of the beast.

‘Paul-o!’ said the old hunter. ‘Finish the cursed Gya  Kongteng

off! Finish him off! No cursed good to anybody now!’ ‘But Rilo…’ protested Stevens. ‘He’s wounded…’

‘So what?’ Rilo gave a cackling laugh. ‘Finish him off!’

Some Khampas stood around the boyish PLA soldier. Paul hesitated. He had never killed a man in cold blood.

‘All right!’ shouted Rilo, unsheathing his sword. ‘If you’re so cursedly squeamish, I’ll do it.’

The young soldier gave a terrible frightened scream, covered his face and began to shiver and shouted, ‘Ta-le Lama! Ta-le Lama!’ ‘All right, Rilo,’ said Stevens, ‘leave it to me…’ He  motioned to the Khampas standing around to move away, pulled back his rifle-bolt to see if he had a bullet left, aimed and fired. Rilo ran to the dead soldier immediately, to be there before the others, placed his foot against the man’s to compare shoe sizes, gave a whoop of delight, took off the boots, tied the laces together, and slung the boots over his shoulder. He held the sagging head up, took off the snow-goggles and the fur hat and stuffed these into his own chuba pocket. Rilo made a funny face at the blood soaking through the man’s quilted jacket and went gingerly through the pockets, scattering what he didn’t fancy here and there in the snow—pocket book, a pen, some family photographs, Chinese preserved dried fruits. Paul stood there alone, smoking a cigarette and watching Rilo’s antics. Every Tibetan guerrilla was busy rifling the Chinese dead, taking whatever appeared useful. Some of them urinated over the corpses in a gesture of utter contempt. Others drew their daggers and vented their rage by scooping out eyeballs, slicing open abdomens and amputating genitalia. Then it was time to return home to their caves. It had been a perfect ambush: all the Communists dead, not a single Tibetan killed or wounded, and plenty of booty and weapons. Rilo led the way, dancing at times with mincing steps, whistling cheerfully one of his favourite tunes—the stirring Chinese Communist song, ‘The East is Red!’

It was not very long before the Tibetans of Dragotsang’s valley was not very long before the Tibetans of Dragotsang’s valley learnt what the Chinese Communists meant by ‘Liberation’, and how their daily lives would be completely changed under the benign salubrious sun of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Their skins were beginning to be turned inside out. The colour of their brains was being changed. All land was declared to belong to the ‘serf ’ masses, and it was promised that a fair and equitable distribution would be undertaken very soon. Chairman Mao, it appeared, had incarnated as a modern day King Muni Tsenpo. The Communists—since they had identified themselves with the proletariat—bestowed their favours on ex-convicts (victims of feudal-capitalist-reactionary cliques); prostitutes (enslaved concubines of landlords and rich merchants); blacksmiths (workers who formerly had been regarded in Tibetan society as socially inferior); and beggars (true sons of the working class and peasantry). The monasteries were derided as the residencies of pampered   parasites   and   relegated   to    the   helminthic classification of tapeworms and roundworms. The incarnate rinpoches were denounced as false tin gods who enshrined all that was base, evil and superstitious in  the Tibetan religion. The monks were castigated for being truculent, corrupt, lazy and arrogant, some of them unashamed homosexuals, They were ordered to come out immediately from their monasteries to work in the fields and join the workers and peasants in the building of a ‘materially modernised, politically democratic and highly civilized socialist Tibet’.


Excerpted from ‘White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings’ written by Tsewang Yishey Pemba, published by Niyogi Books.


White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings is a historical fiction set in the breathtakingly beautiful Nyarong Valley of the Kham province of Eastern Tibet in the first half of the twentieth century. The book authored by late Tsewang Yishey Pemba is published by Niyogi Books.

Dr Pemba skillfully weaves a dazzling tapestry of individual lives and sweeping events creating an epic vision of a country and people during a time of tremendous upheaval. The novel begins with a never-told-before story of a failed Christian mission in Tibet and takes one into the heartland of Eastern Tibet by capturing the zeitgeist of the fierce warrior tribe of Khampas ruled by chieftains. This coming-of-age narrative is a riveting tale of vengeance, warfare and love unfolded through the life story of two young boys and their family and friends. The personal drama gets embroiled in a national catastrophe as China invades Tibet forcing it out of its isolation. Ultimately, the novel delves into themes such as tradition versus modernity, individual choice and freedom, the nature of governance, the role of religion in people’s lives, the inevitability of change, and the importance of human values such as loyalty and compassion.

About the Author:

tsewang-yishey-pembaTsewang Yishey Pemba was born at Gyantsein Tibet in 1932. His father, a Tibetan cadre officer in the British Trade agency, brought him out of Tibet for formal schooling at the age of nine and enrolled him in the Victoria Boys School at Kurseong near Darjeeling in 1941. He was the first Tibetan to become a doctor and surgeon in Western medical science from the University of London in 1955. He was awarded the prestigious Hallet Prize by the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1966. Dr Pemba also founded the first hospital of Bhutan in 1956 and was a member of the Bhutan delegation to WHO in Geneva in 1989. Dr Pemba has written the first Tibetan- English novel, Idols on the Path (1966), and an autobiography, Young Days in Tibet (1957), in English. He passed away on 26 November 2011.He is survived by four children.