Caravan to Tibet
Deepa Agarwal’s Caravan to Tibet is set in the 19th century in the mountainous regions of India and Tibet. 14-year old Debu becomes the youngest member of a caravan of traders to undertake the dangerous journey to Tibet, for he is in search of his father who went missing almost a year ago in a blinding snowstorm. Debu has many adventures along the way, including being kidnapped by a band of robbers and participating in a horse race. He is also pitted against the obnoxious and malevolent Trilok Singh, the man who might be his future stepfather, according to the custom of levirate marriage followed by the Shauka community. The book is both a work of historical fiction as well as a coming-of-age narrative. It was nominated for the IBBY Award.
Much of the book is about the process of the boy becoming a man, a long, testing and tough process that highlights the conventional notion of manhood. Debu ceases being a ‘mere’ child and becomes a man when he develops and displays courage, self-control and daring. Being a man is not determined by one’s age, education or intellectual achievements but by physical strength, ability to fight, handle a weapon and survive a crisis. His strength and generosity of spirit are foregrounded via an obnoxious character like Trilok; his self-control and marksmanship are highlighted against the temperamental and moody robber chief; and his skill at negotiating is pitted against the imperious and haughty Garphan whose word cannot be countermanded.
Caravan is written in the style of a traditional hero story – a young boy goes out on a quest or journey generally looking for something of great value which could prove to be life-changing and encounters a number of adventures en route, and finally emerges victorious.
A problem I have with this otherwise beautifully written book is that it is unable to subvert the conditions of historical fiction. History has traditionally been about the male and within Caravan continues to be so. The narration tells us that in the harsh environs of the mountains, only the strong, brave, shrewd and enterprising individual will survive. But by locating these qualities in a male hero and not giving any space in the narrative to a female hero, Caravan implies that to survive and prosper, one must be either a male or identify oneself as male. To be female is to be at a disadvantage as with Debu’s mother who is not even named in the narrative, and is completely ignorant of her husband’s financial affairs; she fears having to marry Trilok according to the customs of her community but lacks the ability to protest against it. The book reiterates the male perspective that the world is for the man, that boys should grow up into men and that women are secondary and lack agency.