Waiting for the God King

“Covering the Tibetan crisis at the time of the Dalai Lama’s flight,”says DONALD S. CONNERY, ”was a dismaying experience for anyone who takes reporting seriously. Yet one does feel a small slab of admiration for the talents of those newsmen who seem sure that most of the people want to be fooled most of the time.”Mr. Connery, a graduate of Harvard, is one office Americon correspondents regularly based in India and for the past two years has been the TIME-LIFE bureau chief in New Delhi.


EDITORS abhor a vacuum, especially on their own front pages. Last March, when the Lamaist Buddhists of Tibet rose in revolt against their Red Chinese overlords, there were just enough bare facts available to make headlines around the world. Then came scanty reports that the God King, the Dalai Lama, had fled Potala Palace and disappeared into the vast frozen folds of the Himalayas. After that a great shroud of silence fell over the Roof of the World.

The only regular news to trickle out of Tibet was a sketchy radio report from the Indian consulate in Lhasa to the Indian political agent in the tiny buffer state of Sikkim. And by the time that news, which was only what the Indian consul could see from his window, was leaked to the press, the trickle had become a drip.

With their readers now primed for further details on the flight and pursuit of the youthful Living Buddha, despairing editors dispatched their correspondents to the frontiers of Tibet and sat back and waited for the news — any news. One way or another, the vacuum would have to be filled. The newsmen swarmed into India, the best place to up periscope at the edge of the Himalayan curtain. Even for correspondents already stationed on the subcontinent, it turned out to be an extremely frustrating assignment.

It was a three-act drama played on three distinct stages, all in India. Act One was in Kalimpong, an exotic hill town at the northernmost knob of West Bengal. Kalimpong, though founded by missionaries, has long been the principal trading town for goods passing between India and Tibet. Trade has gotten sluggish in recent years, but until the Lhasa uprising tall, shaggy Tibetan muleteers continued to deliver wool and yak tails for the Santa Claus beards and automobile upholstery of the world.

Act Two was in Shillong, another handsome hill town, which looks more like a summer resort than the capital of Assam. From Shillong, Indian administrators send out their agents to pacify and enlighten the tribal peoples of the wild and rugged Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA).

Act Three was in Tezpur, a sleepy little teaplanting town in Assam close to the NEFA border, the closest that journalists could get to the point where the Dalai Lama would emerge from the restricted tribal country.

When the correspondents surged into Kalimpong they were dashed like so many beetles against a blank wall. There just wasn’t much news. Undaunted, the press pounded out copy with battle-front fervor and swamped Kalimpong’s primitive little Morse-key telegraph office. Their reports of the number killed in the Tibetan uprising ranged from 2000 to 10,000 and more. But they were outdone by an agency man operating out of New Delhi. He shot ahead of the field with a report of 100,000 killed, which is about double Lhasa’s population.

Although no one knew exactly where the Dalai Lama was, or what he was doing, one story said he was seriously ill. Another said he was in the best of health and smiling bravely through the ordeal. One day he was reported to have fallen off his horse. But the Reuters man knocked this down by quoting well-informed sources that His Holiness is a good rider and “there is no possibility of his falling off a horse.”

In the Himalayan Hotel, a delightful chalet with a pair of painted fish over the front door, the correspondents crowded each night around the allwave radio. Their dispatches, when somberly broadcast in the Oxford accents of All-India Radio or the measured tones of BBC half a globe away, took on a reassuring authenticity. Meantime, the hotel telephone would ring urgently with calls from London publications too poor to have a man on the scene. A women’s magazine wanted the hotel proprietress to yell out an eyewitness account of anti-Chinese demonstrations supposedly going on at that moment in the streets of Kalimpong. The Daily Sketch wanted the Scottish headmaster of a missionary school to describe the “burning monasteries” which they knew he could see on just the other side of the mountains.

By this time Kalimpong had become internationally infamous. The Chinese insisted that it was the command center of the Tibetan revolt. While denying this at a press conference, Prime Minister Nehru took the opportunity to describe quiet little Kalimpong as “ a nest of international spies.”

FORTUNATELY, just as life for the press was becoming unbearable in Kalimpong, the Chinese announced that the Dalai Lama had crossed into India’s northeast frontier. This was news to India. By the time Nehru had checked it out and rather abashedly confirmed it, the press corps had turned up in Shillong, like a fast runner going into second base standing up.

There was no news there either, although the chief administrator of the NEFA tribals eventually got little tidbits of information from his border patrols and passed them on at a daily press conference.

I remember one of those sessions well. After the tidbits were served the reporters went through the usual exercise in brainstorming to see if there could be any joint agreement about what might be happening back in the hills. After all, it looked as if it might be two weeks before the Dalai Lama could trek out to civilization. We only knew that he had reached a large Buddhist monastery at a place called Towang. Finally, a bleak silence fell over the conference. Then one correspondent halfheartedly remarked to no one in particular, “I wonder what they’re having to eat in that monastery.” Eager to cooperate, the Indian spokesman, who had recently made an inspection tour in the area of the Dalai Lama’s march, softly guessed that the monks were serving the God King a local delicacy called a momo.

“A what?” the press shouted, suddenly awake. “A momo,” he repeated. “For God’s sake, man,” a reporter gasped, “what’s that?” Vaguely alarmed at the reaction to his small disclosure, the spokesman cleared his throat and replied, “Well, I’d say it was a steamed mincemeat patty rather like a dumpling.”

“ Like a dumpling!” repeated an overjoyed English by-liner, thinking of his millions of readers at that moment turning from baked kidneys to dumplings. There was an electrifying scraping of chairs, a mumbled chorus of thank yous, and the reporters made for the taxis. They gunned away on a frantic downhill race to the telegraph office. The international cables hummed that night.

Otherwise, events conspired to keep the journalists and hard news as far apart as possible. One day a carload of correspondents drove off to the normally soggy town of Cherrapunji, famed as the world’s wettest place, to see the rain. The CBS correspondent took along his tape recorder to catch the drumming of walnut-sized raindrops on the tin roofs. But, as they might have expected, the sun shone mockingly.

Editors were getting desperate. In Shillong’s rambling Pinewood Hotel, one correspondent of a popular British paper ran to the single telephone four or five times a day to answer calls from London demanding his latest copy. His task was compounded by the need to spell out, at the top of his voice, the almost impossible spellings of the almost imaginary Tibetans he was reporting about. After one session at the phone he staggered to the bar muttering, “Fiction is what they want. Pure fiction. Well, by God, fiction is what they’re going to get!”

He avowed that he brought to that task no little experience. His paper had once asked him, while he was sitting in a New Delhi bungalow, to knock out an immediate eyewitness account of the justreported death of a British mountaineer. Poor chap had tumbled into oblivion a thousand miles away from Delhi. What to do? “ I fortified myself with a drink and then pulled out all stops. It was a beautiful story, if I say so myself. I described the yawning chasms, the steel-blue glaciers, and the tragedy enacted under an indigo sky. I had the survivors tearfully singing Abide with Me. Oh, they loved the story back in London. Except for one small complaint. I had killed off the wrong man.”

Inspired by this recollection, the press fell to. A London Express man reported that the Dalai Lama had arrived at Towang monastery at nine P.M. “under a brilliant starlit sky” (he actually arrived the next day at high noon). A Daily Mail man revealed that he was met by “ monks in their bright yellow robes” (Lamaist monks wear red robes) and that villagers milling around the monastery were “staring starry-eyed at the young Dalai Lama” and shouting, “Hail, Dalai Lama, thrice blessed be the Holy One.” His Holiness, it was reported, was shooting his own color and black-and-white pictures with a solid-gold Leica.

Just as imaginations were flagging, someone found a book about NEFA describing in immense detail the native life in Kameng Province, where the Dalai Lama was traveling. From then on, the stories bristled with descriptions of the way the God King was greeted at every village by the blowing of trumpets and the lighting of aromatic leaves to purify the atmosphere.

Meantime, the men were being separated from the boys. Not content with cribbing from books, a group of British special correspondents, normal rivalry put aside for the moment, had arranged for the hire of a private plane to fly them over NEFA to see if they could spot the Dalai Lama. The high-powered group included the Daily Mail’s far-traveling Noel Barber, fresh from Nyasaland and the tennis courts of Kalimpong, where he had unearthed a magnificent story about thirty Tibetan guerrillas who supposedly had saved the Dalai Lama’s life by a suicide pact. The heroes had marched off in an opposite direction from Lhasa, decoying the Chinese into believing they formed the Dalai Lama’s party. “Almost to a man, I am told,” wrote Barber, “the suicide squad were wiped out in a terrific battle astride the 15,000foot Himalayan pass.”

When Barber and company arrived at the airstrip in Assam to load into the chartered plane, he revealed that he had already written the story of the flight and cabled it off. For Barber’s competitors, this was distressing news. His scoop, however imaginary, automatically made useless any observations they might have after aerial views of the Dalai Lama. But they were profoundly comforted when told by the charter pilot that they could not take off after all. The Indian government had just threatened to remove the license of any pilot who flew over NEFA.

Still, Barber had a terrific story. The Daily Mail splashed it big on the front page_ “Noel Barber Flies at the ‘End of the Line’ as Dalai Lama Prepares for Next Lap to Freedom.”

A particularly inventive tale was offered by a reputable-looking Indian businessman. He confided to two British and one American reporter that his insurance company had insured Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, for 500,000 pounds. Inasmuch as the palace was reported to have been damaged in the Lhasa shooting, the company was prepared to hand over that amount to His Holiness when he appeared in India. The newsmen rushed off to file the story.

Later on, in the Shillong Club, this same gentleman took one of the British correspondents off into the darkness of a billiards room and whispered that he knew a man who had some exclusive pictures of the Dalai Lama’s cavalcade marching out of Tibet. They had been taken from a plane at twenty-five feet and were stunning shots of the historic flight. The reporter cabled his newspaper. London gave him a go-ahead to offer as much as 20,000 pounds. The Indian insurance man sneered at the offer and said the Chinese would pay more to have the pictures destroyed. He finally agreed on the price but said the photos could only be turned over in Tezpur, not in Shillong. More international cables and a long taxi ride to Tezpur.

A rendezvous was arranged, to meet the owner of the photos. He never showed up. Instead, the insurance man appeared once again, claiming that Assam had got too hot for the man with the pictures. He had flown off to Delhi and would be flying to Singapore in the morning to avoid arrest. But, said the Indian, the man could be found at 10:15 that night sitting at a table in the Tavern restaurant of the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, wearing a brown suit with green tie, pictures in pocket. More international cables. Another reporter for the same paper was assigned to make the date at the Imperial. Next morning the anxious group in Tezpur got a clipped cable from London: no man with brown suit, green tie. By that time the mysterious Indian insurance man had disappeared. He was never seen again.

THE Dalai Lama moved out of the monastery and slogged on through NEFA. Then came rumors that the Indian government might pull a fast one and somehow airlift him out of the hills to a field near Tezpur and fly him to Delhi. Although the piny coolness of Shillong was clearly preferable to the steamy plains, the press corps dutifully streamed downhill and across the broad Brahmaputra. By this time, however, the corps was more of an army. It eventually numbered ninety-five. Reserves were flying in daily from points as distant as Hong Kong and Paris. The Daily Express, which finally had four men on the scene, ordered its aviation editor off a round-theworld BOAC junket in Calcutta and put him on the story. A Caribbean newspaperman who happened to be legging it through Asia at that time got himself assigned to the Dalai Lama by NBC. The Daily Mail shipped in Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian adventurer and author of Seven Years in Tibet. As the only man around who not only knew where Tibet was but could speak the language, Harrer soon became the press corps’s adopted oracle.

The early arrivals in Tezpur soon sewed up all the decent beds and every taxi in town. When the few pads at the so-called Paradise Hotel were exhausted, the press invaded the local clubhouses, the Catholic Mission, and the front porches of teaplanters’ homes. The kindly Minnesota couple at the Baptist Christian Mission Hospital agreed to take in a pair of stranded reporters. Within a week’s time they were bedding down a dozen journalists, including three Life photographers and myself, feeding them enormous meals three times a day, and even turning over their station wagon for emergency duty.

So many foreign reporters were on the scene that the Indian newsmen, for want of other material, began covering them. “Greatest Manhunt Ever,” headlined the Statesman of Calcutta. “ The maddest competition in journalistic history,”said the Times of India, without undue exaggeration. One newspaper reported that “ more cash was seen in the wallets of the ace journalists than in the belly bands of fictitious maharajas.” It was true enough. One U.S. correspondent had flown to India from Rome with a check for $10,000 to buy the Dalai Lama’s exclusive story and pictures. (No sale.)

As the final week wore on, Tezpur’s dinky airport became a nest for chartered planes expensively engaged to help get out photographs fast. With all Tezpur taxis engaged full time at equally fabulous rates, late-arriving journalists had to call in hired cars from as far afield as Gauhati and Shillong. One reporter priced an elephant. Although theoretically there was nothing to do but wait, no newsmen were ever so busy. There were telegrams to be sent off to Nehru requesting that he dispatch a responsible government official to bring order out of the chaos. Once this gentleman arrived and began making lists of names, there were committees to organize, buses to hire, red tape to cut, and babuism (Indian clerk mentality) to smash. Never being quite sure what the government intended to do, and what the opposition was up to, the press in caravans of taxis roared along the muddy jungle road to the NEFA border every day.

Then one day, as time drew close for the appearance of the Living Buddha, the Indian authorities sealed off the road to the NEFA border. The daily weight of the reportorial taxis, it was claimed, was weakening the delicate little bridges which the Dalai Lama would have to pass over to reach Tezpur. No unauthorized vehicles were permitted, the new regulations insisted, so an enterprisingcorrespondent drove up to the guard post one day to inquire about the precise wording of the order. What, he asked, is the definition of “ vehicles”?

“Vehicles,” he was told, meant just that: automobiles, trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, rickshas, bullock carts, roller skates — anything with wheels. Next morning the reporter appeared on a horse, waved gaily to the round-eyed guards as he galloped by, and made it to the border.

But after all the chasing in circles, the great day itself was almost an anticlimax. Fifty picked newsmen arose at 2:30 in the black of an April morning and squeezed into two rickety buses like so many camera-bearing, Olivetti-toting sardines. The buses lurched to a border post called Foothill. There we waited for the army trucks sent into the hills to bring out the Tibetans. Hours later came a rumble of engines. Soon a Willys station wagon splashed down Foothill’s main drag and disgorged a flock of Tibetan nobility. Out stepped a smooth-cheeked young man with crew cut, orangerimmed glasses, simple russet gown, beatific smile, and the sniffles. As reporters crowded closer and photographers leaped about like startled gazelles, the Living Buddha, who did indeed transmit a radiance of goodness, stepped slowly and gracefully along a pathway of thirty-five green tarpaulin ground sheets. One American radio reporter, who had spent days practicing a few key sentences in Tibetan, thrust his microphone under the God King’s nose and asked a question. The Dalai Lama gave him a good-natured smile, then moved on into the shelter of an officer’s house for tea and toast.

That was it. Though a full day lay ahead, including the issuing of the Dalai Lama’s statement denouncing the Chinese aggression and a public meeting in Tezpur, the big moment had come and gone.