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Nicholas and Deki Rhodes. A Man of the Frontier: S. W. Laden La (1876-1936): His Life and Times in Darjeeling and Tibet.

Nicholas and Deki Rhodes. A Man of the Frontier: S. W. Laden La (1876-1936): His Life and Times in Darjeeling and Tibet. Kolkata: Mira Bose, 2006. $20.00 (Rs.300 in India), ISBN 978-81-901867-2-8.

During the time of the British empire of yore, among the first acts of Great Britain after occupying a country was to train and cultivate selected "natives" who could then be the vehicle by which it implemented its political strategy. Those of us familiar with the history of British India know of the many Indians who were incorporated into the British administration and who went on to become Brown Sahibs. This book is the story of one such individual, S.W. Laden La (his full name is spelled variously but in conventional style it could be Sonam Wangphel Lekden, with the la being the honorific suffix that is added to names), an Indian citizen of Sikkimese-Tibetan heritage who became an agent and initiator of British India's policy towards Tibet. He was born in 1876 and passed away in 1936.

To begin with a somewhat Buddhist analogy, like Trulkus who seem to have their destiny defined upon their recognition at a tender age, Laden la's future, too, seem to have been decided for him when British Indian officials eyed him, soon after his uncle Ugyen Gyatso (who worked for the British-run Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling) had adopted him. As an interesting aside, the authors quote Sir Alfred Croft, Director of Public Instruction in India, as saying that the objective of this particular school was "to train up interpreters, geographers and explorers, who may be useful if at any future time Tibet is opened to the British." However, Laden La was educated in a different school meant for British students and the authors surmise that Sir Alfred may have felt "that an intelligent local person, like Laden La, who had received a British education, could one day play a very important role, both in local administration and in fostering good relations with Tibet." Indeed, that was the direction Laden La's life took subsequently.

After getting a good modern schooling as well as grounding in his Tibetan Buddhist culture, Laden La rose up in the local governmental system in Darjeeling, starting first in the printing press and then moving to the police service, eventually becoming the Superintendent of Police. As we learn from the book, his contribution to Darjeeling society was not limited to his official work, but included involvement in the broader community affairs. As an indication of the community's appreciation of his service, even to this day a main road in Darjeeling town remains named after him.

However, it would be more accurate to assume that his place in history (in terms of British politics) is less on account of his formal career in Darjeeling and more to do with the political assignments (which seem to have involved both covert and overt works) given to him at various times on matters regarding Tibet (including a stint of leave of absence while he went to establish the police force in Lhasa at the request of the Tibetan Government). His work on Tibet could have been a major factor (if not the only one) for him being bestowed with the Order of the British India with the title of Sardar Bahadur (heroic leader). The book touches on this aspect of his life and in a very positive light.

In a way Laden La was part of the "Great Game" in which Great Britain competed with rival Russia and China in its attempts to hold sway over Tibet in the beginning of the 20th century. He was thus a player in the British Indian master plan on Tibet, being involved in major events beginning with the Younghusband Expedition of 1903-1904, the 13th Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1910, and the Tripartite Simla Convention of 1913-14.

Following his retirement, Laden La became involved in spiritual and scholarly pursuit that included interest in theosophical thoughts and assisting other scholars in researching Buddhist scriptures. The book ends with his abrupt passing away one December night in Kalimpong while he was in the process of beginning yet another facet of his post-retirement life, that of a full time politician. He was planning to stand for elections to the newly created Bengal Legislative Assembly.

As a record of history, the book tries to shed light on developments relating to India and Tibet as also local matters around Darjeeling, including the fact that Laden La was a champion of a separate Darjeeling administrative province.

The book also provides interesting tidbits. For example, we are familiar with the etymological origin of the term for the Tamang people being cavalry (rta dmag), because they were thought to be descendents of Tibetan cavalrymen who settled in frontier regions of Tibet. This book, however, reprints a news report that quotes Laden La as telling a gathering that the origin is Ta mang (rta mang) or many horses because that is the response that the original settlers gave to some Nepalese when asked about their identity.

The fact that many non-Tibetans consider the communities residing in areas bordering Tibet to be cultural extensions of Tibet is clear from throughout this book. This includes reference to Laden La's Tibetan ethnicity (Nehru in his note that is reprinted in the book seems to extend this by referring to Laden La as a representative of Tibet. The note in full says, "In pleasant memory of a brief meeting at Allahabad and with all good wishes for an enduring friendship between Tibet and India."), to the reference to the wedding between a Bhutanese dignitary and a Sikkimese royalty as being "Tibetan custom."

Given the fact that one of the authors is a descendent of Laden La and was in possession of a rich collection of family materials I had expected a deeper study of this historic and historical individual. The book is structured in such a way that sometimes I had a feeling that it was more about British India and Tibet with Laden La being thrown in merely as one of the characters who existed during the period that was covered. Even here, some historical developments are not touched, like the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933. Granted that this happened after Laden La formally retired from government service, yet I am sure there must have been hectic "cable" exchanges between the Political Officer in Sikkim and Delhi, the power centre of British India, on the implication of this. I would venture a guess that given Laden La's experience he would have been invited to share his thoughts.

I would have wished the authors had given more personal information about Laden La's life and that of his family members. He was no doubt an anglophile (some of the photos included in the book testify to this, including one that shows his children wearing bow ties), but was that just an impact of his education in a school for British children or did he embrace British thinking overall? What was his daily life (at least during the brief periods he was able to spend with his family) like? Did he recite Buddhist prayers or undertake related rituals? Did he raise his children the same way he was raised, a blend of both the Tibetan and western cultures? How did his siblings and family members think of him? What is his legacy? These are some of the questions that came into my mind as I read the book.

It also seems some of the significant raw materials have not been explained or placed in context, but merely pasted to garnish the book. A case in point is the note from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru dated Nov 15, 1931 copied on the page where the book ends. The note certainly seems to have a story about a meeting between him and Laden La during which their discussions included the situation in Tibet, but there is no explanation. Similarly, we are introduced to a character, Lucy, a woman who Laden La seems to have adopted, but the only reference is to a court case she had filed against him.

These drawbacks aside, the book serves the much needed purpose of drawing attention to a special aspect of our region and to the roles of individuals like Laden La, who while playing a pivotal role in developments are seldom acknowledged when history is discussed in broad strokes. In the case of British India and Tibet, people are familiar with the names of Charles Bell or Basil Gould, but had it not been for someone like Laden La with his intimate knowledge of the Tibetan cultural milieu, British India may not have made political inroads into Tibet as it did during the period. But then that must be precisely why Sir Alfred eyed Laden La in the first place at that tender age.
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Author:Tsering, Buchung K.
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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