Sunday, December 16, 2007

All the way to Lhasa - A tale from Tibet

All the way to Lhasa - a tale from Tibet
Written and illustrated by Barbara Helen Berger

Ages : 4-8

Tibet is a place of eternal fascination for me. A fascination that started 15 years ago from the pages of an old magazine and burns to this day. Which is perhaps why I picked out this book from the special multicultural shelf in our library, where our librarian diligently picks out and organises some of the titles from around the world, every week.

Now, we didn't read it right away after bringing it home, Winkie and I. In fact, we didn't read it for a long time. It sat there, unobtrusively amongst many of the other books in a little pile. Over this weekend, Winkie picked it up by chance, and brought it to his father to read. And together, they explored the book over dinner. The story is only a few pages long, but they managed to stretch it, with the aid of their imagination, to the whole duration of the meal. By the end of it, it had become Winkie's current favorite.

But I still hadn't read the book with him yet. So I didn't have a clue as to the special things that lay inside it. Last night, when I asked him to pick something up for our bedtime read, he put this in my hands. And I finally had the unique pleasure of reading a simple story, on my most favorite subject, in the most beautifully designed pages I had ever seen! Let me share this delight with you...

Remember the story of the hare and the tortoise? The moral of slow and steady wins the race. Well, that is the skeletal theme of this book, BUT without the hurry, minus the sense of competition and no full blown fanfare of being a winner. Slow and steady is the theme of the book and it all takes place slowly. Simply. Subtly. What then can a child take home from this, you may wonder, if subtlety is the undercurrent? Well, that is where the power of illustration and the magic of interactive reading from a feeling parent can fill in all the gaps.

The book opens up to a scene of some hilly plains of Tibet. A wise old lady sits on a little patch of grass, wearing deep red flowing robes, as that of a Buddhist monk. She has beautiful silver white hair cascading down her shoulders, a prayer bead in her hands and the most benevolent expression on her face. You take to her immediately. From a distance, you can see a rider galloping fast towards her on his horse, and behind him, in the far distance, another traveller, walking by foot, pulling his yak.

The rider approaches the old woman first and asks her how far it is to the holy city of Lhasa. She replies that it is very very far and that he will not make it there, before night. The rider pays no heed and kicks his horse and rides quickly away. Then comes the second traveller. A young boy, walking with his yak, one foot in front of the other and asks the old woman the very same question. How far is it to Lhasa?.....Very far...replies the old woman. However, she adds that he will be able to reach before nightfall. The smile on her face as she tells him that is very kind and loving. It almost makes you wish the boy would remain with her for a little while and perhaps listen to a story or two from her wise lips. But he doesn't. He gives his yak a gentle tug and with one foot in front of the other, walks on. Slowly and steadily. Passing a panorama of landscapes and weathering many a harsh element of nature. Until he finally catches up with the rider and his horse, who are seen resting out of sheer exhaustion. Seeing them, the boy too feels tempted to stop and rest, but so great is his desire to make it to the holy city of Lhasa, that he trudges along, one foot in front of the other with his yak. And finally, in the last rays of the sun before night, he hears the call of the deep horns. He hears bells, he hears the drums. And he finally greets the sight of the holy city of Lhasa, characteristically depicted by the beautiful white stupa with golden spires serving as the gateway, and leading to the beautiful, shimmering Potala Palace.

The story, as I just narrated, is a very simple one, with not much fanfare. What sets it apart are the beautiful illustrations that lend utter enchantment to the simple lines. The author and illustrator Barbara Helen Berger heard this parable from Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and was inspired to share it as a picture book. She has also long had a fascination for Tibet art and culture which she has richly integrated into the storyline....beautiful little things of delight and absolute cultural significance...such as...

~ The benevolent old lady dressed in garbs of deep burgundy and yellow, the holy colours.

~ The little prayer verse craved into stones, in the snow...Om Mani Padme Hum...the most famous mantra in Buddhism. I searched online for a meaning of the verse, but found that it cannot be captured in just a line or two. Suffice it to say that it is considered the true sound of truth. Tibetans consider it a blessing even to hear or see the syllables!

~ The depiction of the prayer flags. Flags are printed with prayers and strung up in high places. They flutter and snap in the wind, blessing all those who pass.

~ The depiction of a white stupa or shrine - They are supposed to help a traveller remember the nature of his journey. With the golden spire gleaming on the top, they are represent the mind of enlightenment.

These are just some of the few pictorial elements of the book that ties in with a rich cultural feel. From a purely clinical review point of view, one of the biggest contributions of this book to us, as parents, is the gentle opportunity to open up our child's eyes (and very often, our own) to a whole new separate culture. There are many opportunities to discuss this through the myriad questions that the book brings up in our minds. Where is Tibet? What is so special about Lhasa and the Potala Palace? What are prayer flags? What are those little verses carved in rocks? Why is the old lady wearing that outfit? Why is the little boy pulling a yak and going to Lhasa? What is a stupa? What are all the geographical features of Tibet? And so on and on. Huge questions, which we can try to find simple answers for and present in an easier way to the little enquiring minds.

This is exactly what I love about a multicultural book. Right from the second you open the front cover, and take the first tentative step inside, you are thrown open into a far and distant land, with all your senses wide awake! It cannot be any better described than this little para from the author's website...I quote...

"A picture book is a world between two covers. Open the book like a door, and go inside. Art and words are singing together, telling a story, going somewhere. You come too! Turn the pages with your hand. A picture book is a journey for eye and ear, heart and mind. It is a journey for the one who reads it, and for the one who makes the book."

This is exactly what describes All the way to Lhasa!


Anusha said...

how beautiful! I love the multiculutral shelf our library has and am always pleased to see books such as "counting in arabic", "wedding in africa".
and while Kodi may be too young for this, I think I'll pick it up anyway - for myself. :)

ranjani.sathish said...

A beautiful and interesting review, Tharini !I would like to pick this book for myself as well as my son :-). As you have mentioned such books provide lot of ideas for discussion about a country and it's culture. I hope I am able to get it in our library.

Summer of 69 said...

Yeah! Can imagine the possibilities! One thing leads to another at this age. Ostrich, kangaroo, Australia...Seeing them in the encyclopedia and globe...he now wants to REALLY SEE them.After this book, we may add Tibet to the list :) Current favorite here is the Karadi Tales, series.

Praba Ram said...

Oh, the magic of books - All the way to Lhasa sure feels like a magic carpet that you can ride on that can take you to Tibet..

Can't get enough of your reviews, T - even more magical - transports me to a whole,different world! :-)

Thank you, T!

Tharini said...

Kodi's Mom : Yeah! Everytime I go there, I swipe the whole shelf clean! :)

Ranjani : This book is a treat for the self, for sure. Hope you find it.

Vidhur : That is so cool. I think this book might be an experience for him then!

Praba : Thanks so much. :) Magic carpet ride, all the way! Hop on, and hold tight! :)

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