Struggles in fact and fiction

6th February 2004 at 00:00
TIBETAN BUDDHIST LIFE. By Don Farber. DK Publishing pound;20. THE MAHABHARATHA: A CHILD'S VIEW. By Samhita Arni. Tara Publishing, distributed by Turnaround. Volume 1 pound;8.99, volume 2 pound;9.99. Tel: 020 8829 3000.

Tibetan Buddhist Life (above) is simply too attractive. In its profusion of exotic photographs, the poor all have gnarled but smiling faces, the children are cute and the architecture a dazzling mix of primary colours.

Where is the agony of a culture laid waste by Chinese imperialism? Added to this is the fact that the American author, a convert to the faith, is not exactly self-effacing.

But he does know his subject. He details the development of Tibetan Buddhism (to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist in the way that Sikhism is both a religion and a race); and we learn much about both monastic and lay life and Tibetan arts and sciences, even if the latter seems to consist mainly of astrology and natural medicine.

His text does, however, make clear that Buddhism in today's Tibet is only a shadow of itself. Following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, 110,000 monks and nuns were killed and thousands more "disrobed". Although there has been some relaxation in recent years, this is a way of life that now precariously survives mainly in Nepal and northern India.

That epic Hindu poem, the Mahabharata, is a tale of feuds, battles, love and lust - and is extremely long, running to nearly 100,000 verses. It has been retold countless times in verse, comic strip format, in films and (famously) in Peter Brook's nine-hour stage epic, the latter being the inspiration for this version.

But what makes Samhita Arni's retelling so extraordinary is that she began it when she was only seven and completed it within the following two years.

It is, predictably, highly selective and it is easy to see which particular tales and threads that make up the complete epic have caught the young author's imagination: she obviously enjoys a tale of villainy and evil.

There are moments when the reader can't help suspecting her mother's and her publisher's help has involved a little more than "gently pointing out a few logical and syntactical errors" but because it is so clearly a child's expression, it will be well within the grasp of other young readers. Quite whether they will be attracted by the primitive quality of the author's own pen-and-ink drawings is another matter.

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