Friday, June 28, 2013

An incomplete journey through the Mongolian grasslands

"Weather, topography, opportunity, their and their  enemy's strengths, military strategy and tactics, close fighting, night fighting, guerrilla fighting, mobile fighting. long range-raids, ambushes, lightning raids and concentrating their strength to annihilate the enemy. They made plans, they set goals and they undertook a measured campaign of total annihilation. It was a textbook battle plan."
Take a guess on which army is being described here, the mythical armies of the Greeks, the kuru clan? The armies of Caesar or Alexander or any of the great armies that have wreaked devastation wherever they went? Your choice of any such army would most probably be wrong, unless you chose the Mongolian army in which case you could be fractionally right. Because what is described above is the manner in which wolves hunt or rather invade in packs the dwellers in the grasslands of 'Inner Mangolia', which according to the author 'Jiang Rong' influence the way in which Genghis Khan conducted his invasions. 'Wolf Totem' starts of with 2 set pieces, one in which  a pack wolves launch a ferocious attack on a herd of horses. The grassland dwellers launch a counter attack no less ferocious. In a way the set pieces encapsulate a major theme of theme of the book which is the constant battle over centuries between man and wolf, a battle in which the wolf is the aggressor sometimes and in other's man is, a battle for survival for both. Both the set pieces are described in such excruciating detail that it would rival writers of historical fiction. 

Jiang gives us such a vivid picture of the behavior of the wolves that is sometimes a too good to be true, but then we have to keep in mind our ignorance with these creatures and the fact that Jiang has spent many years in the grasslands. Along with the wolves, Jiang also gives us information about the lifestyle, rituals in the grasslands such as their burial method, the devotion of 'Tengger' their great god. It is also a beautiful evocation of the natural order of the ecosystem, where everything has a role to play, a role which is interchangeable, like the wolves which are not to be exterminated because they keep the population of rabbits in check, but at the same time the same wolves have to be killed at certain times when they attack the horses/sheep's maintained by the herdsmen. Jiang hammers home the point that snapping a single link in the chain would break the entire eco-cycle, which is more relevant than ever today. This is the other major theme of the book. There are other smaller isolated set pieces like when Chen goes hunting for a wolf cub, the manner in which the mother wolf tends to her little ones which offer a fascinating peek into the world of these creatures and makes one aware of how little one knows about what is around him.

As one goes further into the book, the first discordant note sets in and it threatens to turn the entire book into a one note song. To put in a nutshell it goes as 'Han/Chinese -bad, Mongol -Good'. At first it seems like Jiang is only extolling the praises of the Mongol way of living , but soon it becomes clear it is not as much a paean for the Mongolian way of life as it is a lament for the Chinese way which according to Jiang is  sheep-like (i.e) not marital and is in all ways an inferior way of life. This book was written based on the experiences of Jiang during the 'Cultural Revolution' which puts the time period somewhere in the mid 1960's. At that point China would not have been the global superpower that it is today, going toe to toe with the US, but by then China had already engaged in a proxy war with the US in the Korean war, had bullied India and was was not some puny nation ready to be gobbled up by avaricious invaders. So what was Jiang lamenting about the decline of Han society, would he be happy at the China of today when it seems as unstoppable as the Mongols that he so revers? It is one thing to lament the destruction of a way of life, but when one constantly harps on one society being completely inferior to another, seeing everything in black and white, the narrative becomes a polemic and puts one off of the more important issues in the book like environmental degradation, cultural demise etc.

At this point Jiang transforms from a chronicler of a particular way of life and it's end to a fanatic believer who is so sure of the truth that he believes in that he is not willing to brook any contradictory opinion at all and this comes in the way of the conversations he has with his fellow students from Beijing who are also living in the grasslands. In a way he becomes a mirror of the proponents of the cultural revolution, if one wanted to obliterate traditions completely, the other stands by it brooking no change, with both sides not willing to give an inch to look for middle ground. This single minded pursuit by Jiang also hurts in the book in that there is little time spent on the actual grassland dwellers, with only Biglee getting some attention. Other than Biglee's daughter-in-law Gasmai, there is no woman of note. I would have loved to know more about Biglee and the other dwellers. Maybe it is described in the latter part of the book, but more than anything the polemic nature of the text got to me and I am stopping my journey. I will return to the grasslands later, hopefully completing it then.

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