Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Doubts About Tenzing Norgay's Identity

Was He A Nepali, An Indian Or A Tibetan? May Be, All In One

As for the [controversy] of the Everest story-- whether Nepal or India has first claim to Tenzing Norgay-- one is reminded that celebrity-snatching has been a favorite sport of local chauvinists for probably more centuries than history records. The classic and classical victim of the game is, of course, Homer." - The New York Times, in an editorial of June 23, 1953.

By Dharma Adhikari

Ed Webster, the American mountaineer, who lost his finger tips during the 1996 disastrous Everest expedition, has just published a book in which he claims that Tenzing Norgay, the most famous Sherpa of all Sherpas, was after all not a Sherpa, or for that matter a Nepali, but a Tibetan.

Okay, this much is enough to trigger a controversy not only in Nepal but also across the globe.

While such a controversy is sure to bring Webster's new book "Snow In the Kingdom, My Storm Years On Everest" some extra limelight, there is little possibility that the claims made by one of the most famous American climbers will be given any serious heed, at least in Nepal or neighboring India, where Norgay lived following the historic Everest summit of May 28, 1953.

Edward claims in his book that Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the co-conqueror of Mt Everest with Sir with Sir Edmund Hillary, was in fact not a Sherpa, not a Nepalese but a Tibetan-born. How do the Sherpas, or the Nepalese in general react to Edward's claim? It could hardly be digested that the crowning glory of the Sherpas, the most famous Sherpa of all the Sherpas, and internationally the most famous Nepali ever, is after all a Tibetan.

Webster also claims that Tenzing spent most of his childhood in Tibet. Any one who has read one of the two autobiographies of Tenzing ("After Everest" : an autobiography by Tenzing Norgay, Sherpa, as told to Malcolm Barnes. New Delhi : Vikas Pub. House, 1977 & "Tiger of the snows"; the autobiography of Tenzing of Everest, written collaboration with James Ramsey Ullman. New York, Putnam 1955) will hardly have second thought about Tenzing's ethnicity. Never once he refers himself as a Tibetan, but is proud to be a Sherpa. The truth is that the Website of Jhamling Norgay, Tenzing's own son, explicitly mentions that "His [Tenzing's] parents lived in the village of Thame in Nepal, but at the time of his birth, his mother was on pilgrimage to a holy place called Ghang Lha in eastern Nepal."

Also, the fact is that famous people continue to be dragged into controversy even after their death. Just look at the debate regarding Lord Buddha's birthplace. India has been claiming that the Enlightened One was born in India, despite experts' declaring long ago that he was born in Tilaurakot of Nepal. Similar was the case with Tenzing's nationality. Following Tenzing's victory of the highest peak, and even before he settled in India, the "Tiger of the Snows" became a subject of controversy between the two countries. The New York Times editorial of June 23, 1953 succinctly captures the spirit behind this tug of war over Tenzing, between Nepal and India, long before the present controversy surfaced:

"As for the [controversy] of the Everest story-- whether Nepal or India has first claim to Tenzing Norgay-- one is reminded that celebrity-snatching has been a favorite sport of local chauvinists for probably more centuries than history records. The classic and classical victim of the game is, of course, Homer. Seven cities-- Smyrna, Rhodos, Cholophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, and Athenae-- separately claimed him. No wars were fought over the honor of constituting the blind poet's birthplace. But claims were loud and insistent."

The editorial further continues, "Tenzing Norgay was born in Nepal, but has spent most of his life in India. One thinks of Bethoven, "the Bonn Master," who was born at Bonn but wrote the great bulk of his music in Vienna. Who owns Bethoven? Or Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky, yet Indiana, where he grew up, and Illinois, where he came into professional and political prominence, would gladly make him theirs? As with these others, we imagine that no one owns Tenzing. If Nepal and India would draw honor from the man, all good and well. In neither case could it be very much after Tenzing is given his own just share."

It is yet to be seen whether Tibet, the exiled government or the Beijing reign, will go ahead and claim Tenzing following Webster's clues. But it definitely is hard for Nepal to disown Tenzing, even if it is proven he was born in Tibet. Of course, especially in this age of globalization, persons great or small belong not just to a particular nation or region but to the whole globe, and to the entire mankind. But belonging and being are not the same thing. Nepalis can hardly imagine Tenzing to be a native of Tibet, despite the fact that Sherpas are originally the descendents of Tibetans from the eastern Kham province, who migrated to Eastern Nepal hills in the 15th century.

Tenzing, who was declared by TIME magazine last year as one of the 100 heroes of the Century, is undoubtedly the most well known of modern-day Nepalis globally. The other lesser famous of similar magnitude include Sherpas themselves. Among the ancients, Gautam Buddha stands tall.

Interestingly, Webster has said that the truth that Tenzing was a Tibetan was considered "too sensitive to disclose for fear of embarrassing the Indian Government", but then he lets it go! Will the Indian government get embarrassed? What about the Nepali government? And the Sherpas themselves? The other famous Sherpas-- Ang, Babu, Jhamling-- should have something to say.

On surface, Webster's claim could be dismissed as just another instance of controversy mania in the book business. But it also has serious implications, both good and bad. Good because, the debate over truly great man should continue to live on, and this the American climber has helped revive to some extent, however negative it may sound to Nepalis. Now it is up to the Nepalis to define the course of the debate.

Bad because lately there have been some attempts made by the international news media, such as the infamous question posed by the BBC recently, to discredit the very Nepaliness of the Nepalis. Symbolically, the book is a major blow to the Nepali ego of 'can-do'ism in extreme conditions.

Citation: "Doubts About Tenzing Norgay's Sherpaness," newslookmag.com, December 25, 2000.