Chapter 13

An epic nonviolent yarn

“So, item one,” said Maria, looking around at the SGI faculty spread out across the small lounge. “Not a good item. You’ll remember Perry Alterson, who was here for a few weeks this fall.”

“With the hair,” said Professor Ramakrishnan.

“Oh God,” said Tony. “He was my fault. I kept trying to get him to find his voice, to speak out. To connect with his pain. That’s why he left.”

“It was not your fault,” said Mark, taking his hand. “We need students who can handle the things we need to teach them.”

“It was my fault,” said Maria. “I didn’t figure out early enough how . . . different he was. We think we’re good at handling all kinds of kids, but really we’re only good when they bend in certain directions. He bent in, and that’s not good for us. And now he’s apparently dead.”

“Dead!” said Tony. “Oh God.”

“He was involved in something in Vermont, where he was from. And it seems to have gone awry. They haven’t found a body, but the house he was staying in is a pile of warm ash, and there are FBI agents all over it.”

“Actually,” said Professor Lee, “I’m not at all sure he is dead. You know that Perry and I stayed in touch—computers are what he’s good at. Actually, very good at. Anyway, we’ve been . . . consulting a little these last few weeks. And I heard from him this morning. At least, I think from him. I’m being a little careful about responding, because I want to make sure it’s not a trap.”

“We’ve never lost a student, not yet,” said Maria. “So please keep me informed. Some of the students know about it, and some of them want a memorial service. I’ll keep them at bay for now. And thank heaven. So that scratches item two—the memorial service—off my list for now.

Item three is somewhat less dire. Sunitha, can you bring us up to date on the progress of the Dalai Lama?”

“So far as expected,” she said. Professor Ramakrishnan was short and graceful; her family had renounced its Brahmin privilege two generations before, but the commanding bearing remained intact. “The reason we didn’t think Matti’s plan was ready was precisely because it started better than it finished, and it’s clear already that that’s going to be the problem. Yes, it’s excited interest in the west, even if the DL’s not as well-known as he was ten years ago. Yes, everyone in Tibet knows about it, and yes the Chinese flag is causing a certain amount of confusion. Two days ago the senior nun of one nunnery in the hills above Shigatse was arrested for flying the Chinese flag on their pole, but the authorities apparently have no idea what to charge her with.

“The problem is, China proper. For the scheme to exert any real leverage, it somehow has to get inside the mainland. Tibetans have an effective network through villages and monasteries, but that’s because they’re—‘backward.’ It takes a week, but any message gets to Lhasa. As China proper has developed, people have lost most of their connections, and they communicate as we do: through the net. Highly efficient, of course—forget about a week, you can get a message everywhere in a millisecond. Chinese twitter, Weibo, is enormous. But easily blocked. The so-called ‘Great Firewall’ is effective when they want it to be.

“Our outside hope was that they’d panic and go on a public attack against him, but so far they’re playing it cool. They’ve sent out word to world capitols, and to the media industry: anyone who wants a presence in China is steering clear of talking about this. But inside, nothing. No pressure building. Not about Tibet, anyway. People are too busy trying to breathe, literally.”

“Suni’s right,” said Professor Lee—herself small, and with the slumped shoulders of someone who’d spent a lifetime in a front of a computer monitor. “We can watch their strategy pretty easily—they’ve bumped up the anti-Dalai propaganda, but only a notch; it’s like a booster shot. And we don’t have a way in. It’s at least eight months before he gets to the border—it could easily stretch to a couple of years, depending on how you cross India—but if you had to predict, the whole thing ends in a fizzle.”

“And if it does,” said Professor Ramakrishnam, “then the Tibetans are a lot worse off than when they started. The DL will be pitied, and the young Tibetans who want to go fight the Chinese will feel vindicated, and that will be that.”

“It’s why we spend a week in ‘History of Nonviolence’ on Albany, Georgia,” said Maria. “One of the great defeats in movement history. That police chief, Pritchett, was about the only person who ever figured out how to beat Dr. King. Wait him out. No violence to build sympathy. Patience patience patience. Didn’t give the moment anything to feed on. Maybe I need to move it up in the curriculum, because Matti was already long gone by the time we got to it.”

Tony leaned in. “The good news is the time—eight months, two years, whatever” he said. “People are at work. Art doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve made sure our world knows about it. On the day he visits Gandhi’s ashram we’ll have marches all over the place. Small, at least at first. I mean, Universal is not going to make a movie about it. Kundun was 1997, which was about the last moment China was still poor.”

“Chinese GDP per capita in 1997 was $775,” said Mark. “Compared with $8,000 now.”

“And $8,000 buys a lot more movie tickets. So no Kundun 2, no one is going to risk offending the Chinese. But we have our own movement media now, and feeling will build around the world, and if we’re lucky we’ll figure out a way to get that feeling into China. Because Matti was right—the story does work. Small and big.”

“We’ll all do what we can,” said Maria. “Final item. You may have noticed an . . . intensified presence around the campus.”

“When I went out for a run this morning, a man started shouting at me, wanting to know if I was a ‘warlock,’” said Mark. “I asked him if this was some kind of racial slur, and that shut him up for a minute. But by the time I got back to the entrance drive there were 18 young women praying that the demons possessing this place would be overcome.”

“I may have overdone it a bit with the wiccan yoga thing,” Maria said. “I mean, the first page of a Google search on SGI is now all youtube prayers to deliver us from Satan, which is good, just what I wanted. But it’s beginning to interfere with getting anything done.”