Who Wangchu? Why Wangchu? : Revisiting Bhisham Sahni’s Hindi Short Story ‘Wangchu’
When Bhisham Sahni wrote his Hindi story ‘Wang Chu’, he created an unparalleled figure of a disarmingly simple, openhearted Chinese-Buddhist pilgrim, who, in a grey robe and shaven head arrived in India to study Buddhist texts at a time when India was struggling under British domination. With a deep-rooted reverence for the ‘Land of the Enlightened One’, he was so mesmerized and impassioned at the sight of the lofty mountains during his visit to Srinagar, Kashmir that he had exclaimed ‘That path leads to Lhasa, doesn’t it? The Buddhist scriptures must have reached Tibet through that path. For him, this mountain range was sacred, because, the same winding paths crisscrossing these mountains had taken the Buddhist monks to Tibet’ (Sahni 1993: 94). It is a historical fact that the Buddhist missionaries from India and the pilgrims from China braved the hazardous journey of the Gobi deserts and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas in search of spiritual knowledge. Thus, the figure of the Chinese pilgrim, Wang Chu with ‘one and a half toothed smile’ was, indeed, a continuation of the same tradition. As their modern day avatar, this young Buddha–devotee seemed to have stepped straight out of the pages of history!
In his lecture entitled ‘The World and the Home’, Homi Bhabha postulated ‘the paradigmatic postcolonial experience" which he encapsulated in the notion of the "unhomely" (Bhabha 1997, 445). He started by stating that today's fiction is marked by “the deep stirrings of the unhomely” and elaborated on the notion:
To be unhomed is not to be homeless, nor can the unhomely be easily accommodated in that familiar division of the social life into private and public spheres. The unhomely moment creeps up on you as stealthily as your own shadow, and suddenly you find yourself, with Henry James's Isabel Archer, taking the measure of your dwelling in a state of 'incredulous terror'. …. (Bhabha 1997: 445)
Appropriating Bhabha’s concept of ‘the unhomely moment’, the present paper attempts to address some uneasy , complex and interrelated questions such as these that sprang up from this seemingly simple story:
The indicative, seemingly neutral and very simple statement ‘home is where we belong’ really means ‘home is where we feel we belong’. But what happens when the place where we feel we belong (our “cultural” home) does not match or coincide with our “natal” or “ethnic” home?
In other words, what happens when the conventional meaning of ‘belonging’ is dismantled and reads like this: “being” in one place (mother land) and “longing” for another (‘other’ land)?
In a complex situation when one’s own country no longer feels like one’s own and the ‘other’ nation seems more like own, even temporarily, how does one negotiate one’s identity? What is the national identity of Wangchu? Was he Chinese because of his ethnic /natal roots or is he Indian because of his voluntary affiliation to it and since his heart and soul belonged there? Or, as the story reaches conclusion, is he a man of no nation?
How does one interpret a text in which the search for knowledge is fraught with dangers of nationalism, where belonging is dependent on nationality? Is the seeker (read Wangchu), then, national, anti-national, or denationalised?
Contextualising ‘Wang Chu’
The early cultural contact between India and China could be traced back to about 2000 years ago. The Buddhist monks and pilgrims who visited Indian and China did not seek fame, riches or conquest but endeavoured to promote the Buddhist message of peace and compassion, and to collect sacred scriptures for translation. Sukumar Dutt also states that the Chinese monks and pilgrims (like Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing and many others) came to India with two fold objective- to earn a spiritual merit by pilgrimage and to study Buddhism in its homeland and collects Buddhist texts. Their travels and the simultaneous circulation of religious texts and relics, Tansen Sen (2006) rightly states, not only stimulated interactions between the Indian kingdoms and various regions of China, but also influenced people living in Central and Southeast Asia. Thus, the intercultural relations between India and China via Buddhism was a definite chapter of the history of Sino-India relations, roughly covering a period of five centuries from the third to eighth century AD but overflowing into later times (Dutt 1988:294) .
There was a stream of Chinese monks to India during these five centuries and a large number of Indian monks also emigrated to and settled in China. Very few of the Chinese pilgrims settled in India. The Indian monks, on the other hand, who went out to China with a desire to promote Buddhism, made that country the land of their adoption and very few were known to have come back from China to India (1988:294). This period proved to be one of the richest and the most fruitful in terms of cultural interaction and exchange and also in terms of translations of Buddhist texts.
Over the centuries, however, both India and China were subjected to tremendous vicissitudes on account of foreign invasions or internal strife. India suffered under the Muslim invasion (1526-1858) and later, under the British domination (1858-1948) which, together, lasted for 422 years. Due to this and other factors the opportunity of dispatching Buddhist missions abroad was not available for many centuries. In the case of China, she suffered from a similar fate, namely, the Yuan dynasty replaced the Sung rulers in 1206 until 1368, and the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1909) dethroned the Ming dynasty (1368-1638) in 1644; thereby the Manchu rulers took control of the Chinese empire until 1909. Under these circumstances from the 15th century on down nothing was heard of the cultural interchange between the two countries.
The 1920’s saw a revival and strengthening of Sino-Indian cultural relations in India which had almost disappeared after 15th century onward. The Beijing Lecture Association invited Rabindranath Tagore in 1923 to deliver a series of talks. Rabindranath Tagore was in favour of initiating a cultural dialogue with China as in the past. When Tagore was setting up Visva-Bharati, he invited a good number of eminent scholars both Indian and foreign and among them was the Chinese scholar Prof Tan Yun-Shan who maintained lifelong association with the University and dedicated his life, time and energy to build up the Cheena-Bhavana there. A Sino-Indian Cultural Society was also established to promote inter cultural dialogue. There is a clear reference about them in the story where the narrator points out at the role Wangchu could play in a changed situation where the close doors between India and China were now opening and a grant could be arranged for him. He could very well become a valuable cultural link between the two countries. (Sahni 1993: 104) Wangchu also gave the names of Prof Shan and Rabindranath Tagore as his referees during his interrogation in India. It may be presumed, then, Prof Tan Shan in the story has been loosely modeled on this well known Chinese scholar Prof Tan Yun-Shan, at Visva Bharati, who made India its second home.
Wangchu arrived in India in the early 40’s with his Chinese Professor Tan Shan. For some time he stayed with him studying English and Hindi languages. Later, Professor Tan returned and Wangchu stayed back, managed to secure a stipend from a Buddhist institution and settled down in Sarnath. An emotional person with a poetic bent of mind, he remained lost in the enchanted realms of antiquity. He had not come to India in search of facts but to experience the bliss of seeing the images of the Bodhisattvasi. For the past one month he had been doing rounds of museums but he had never said which teaching of Buddhism inspired him the most. Neither did any fact excite him nor did any doubt assail him. He was more of a devotee and less of a seeker’
A man of few words, Wangchu never expressed his opinion on anything when others discussed politics, religion etc. Those were the days when India faced an upsurge of nationalist feelings and the struggle for independence was at its peak. Kashmir was in turmoil, its people had revolted against their Maharaja or the king and Pandit Nehru was due to pay a visit to the city. But, like a true follower of the principles of Buddhism, he remained oblivious or detached to the affairs of his host country, India or even his own country. Disgruntled by his indifference to what was happening around him, the narrator’s friends would call him ‘a specimen’ from a jungle. But, the narrator of the story knew very well that it was not India’s present that had drawn Wangchu here but its past… He was only interested in Buddhism. Even as he visited the museum at Lalmandi in Srinagar which had preserved the relics of the Buddhist times, he appeared divorced from the present and was wandering in some fragment of time gone by. After some time, Wangchu left Srinagar and the narrator lost contact with him except for a couple of letters they exchanged. Then years passed. A lot of political unrest took place. India was rocked by the Quit India Movement of August 1942, a devastating famine in Bengal in 1943, the naval rebellion in Bombay in 1946, and then, the worst, the Partition in 1947. All the time Wangchu continued to live in Sarnath.
In the beginning he visited his country once, but soon realized that he was a misfit there because China, too, was undergoing tremendous changes. Communist ideology was making its presence felt. People went to work, singing and holding the red banner afloat. Wangchu felt he had strayed into a new world. Here, too, he remained a spectator and a bystander. Then the fever of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (which was Mao’s attempt to modernise China’s economy in the areas of agriculture and industry) took hold of China. Gradually, tension was building up and one day he was interrogated for hours together by the Chinese authority for his alleged links with India. He felt more uprooted than ever and sadly remembered his small room in Sarnath where he would sit and read the whole day, the thick acacia tree where he rested, the kind cook of the Sarnath canteen who addressed him as Bhagwan, the vision of the bank of Ganga, the lake in Kashmir, the snow covered mountains. As the days went by he missed India all the more and felt like a fish out of water. Anti–India feelings were also simmering. So after two years he returned to India, a place he now knew as his own, the only place where he found solace and happiness.
But, by then, India, too, had changed politically. The very day he arrived in Calcutta, a clash had taken place on the Sino-Indian border in which ten Indian soldiers had been killed. This later turned into a full fledged war between the two countriesii. The police were suspicious of his return and interrogated him, scrutinized his papers and sought references which he could not supply because Prof Tan and Rabinranath Tagore, his referees, were no longer alive. Despite an atmosphere of mistrust and hatred, Wangchu’s return delighted the cook who was only too happy to receive the ‘Cheenee Babu’. ‘The lurching boat of his life found its anchor once again’. But , now, he had to remain under observation and had to report at the police hear quarter despite having no interest in the politics of either of his own country or that of the host country .Yet, he was happy to be in the land of the Buddha and continue his study of the Buddhist texts.
But, in 1962, when the war broke out between India and china, in one of his interrogations, his papers written in Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese were confiscated. Without his papers, he was half dead. When, finally his manuscripts and papers, the result of his endless research and study, were returned, he was shattered to get only one third of them. All that was left was an essay and some notes. His work of twenty years had been destroyed. This was the ‘unhomely moment’, the shock of realization that led Wangchu into a deep hopelessness and sorrow. A month after this tragic incident the narrator received the news of his death. Wangchu had requested the keeper to send his meager belongings - a tin box of the remaining manuscripts to him!
Located in the post-colonial frame of Indian history, this end-of-innocence story of Wang Chu, refused to be slotted in a particular category of migrant or displaced subject position. Wangchu was different because he was completely at home or rather more at home in his adopted homeland. His homing tendencies had found refuge in India, in ‘the Land of the Enlightened One’, and showed no after effects of cultural displacement or suffered social exclusion. His personal faith and devotion that made him come to India did not clash with his national identity, he felt he belonged. He was a wandering pilgrim with a deep love for his host country and engrossed himself in no other activity, social or political, except his studies of Buddhist texts. It’s only towards the end of the story that he encounters ‘the unhomely moment’, which becomes too traumatic for him.
The tragedy in ‘Wang Chu’ is not only the death of its central character but also the sad end of his dream. Ironically, the land of the Buddha, which was once known for its compassion and non injury to sentient beings, failed him miserably. The glorious antiquity of Buddhist thought and practice into which he had so faithfully dwelled had been finally taken over by the vicious climate of the present. The ‘unhomely moment’ put a question mark on his very identity and existence - who was he and which of the two countries was his home? He struggled and suffered through this dilemma and eventually succumbed to it. Apparently, he died a lonely man with no nation to call his own, unable to adjust to the perplexities of survival in a world marked with political turmoil and deceit. But the story’s ending may be read differently or more humanely (perhaps others would like to do so!). The final handing over of his meagre belonging (and whatever little was left of the papers that he had treasured so passionately) to the narrator with a request to get his papers published only confirms the choice he had made. Despite the mistreatment meted out to him, he could not get over the belief that India was still his own!
Calling this story ‘a political story of deep meaning’, Vijay Mohan Singh observed that it was a unique story, ‘a kind which was never attempted before or after as far as I know.
It can be easily overlooked among the many and more important and popular stories…(Singh 2009:112) ‘Wangchu’ is, indeed, a political story not only because of the explicit references to a number of geo-political upheavals in the history of India and China but also because of the politics of nationality and identity and the question of personal faith woven into the story in which simplicity is supplanted by complexity, permanence by mutability, clear cut boundaries by fluid images of self and other.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1997, ‘The World and the Home.’ Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. (Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Muft, Ella Shohat). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Chung, Tan.1999, In the Footsteps of Xuanzang: Tan Yun-Shan and India, New Delhi, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Dutt, Sukumar. 2000, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Contribution to Indian Culture, Varanasi , Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd.
Sahni, Bhisham.2003, An Anthology of Hindi Short Stories, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi.
----------------- 1996, Wang Chu, New Delhi, Rajkamal Paperbacks.
Sen, Tansen.2006, ‘The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Cross- Cultural Encounters between Ancient China and Ancient India’ in Education about Asia Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 2006.
Singh, Vijaymohan. 2009, ‘Wang Chu: Gehre Arth ki Rajnaitik Kahani.’ Naya Gyanodaya , New Delhi , Bhartiya Gyanpeeth , Jan 2009.