Book Review A God In Exile

Venture on a spiritual journey with author Raghu Rai and witness the evolution of the Dalai Lama over the years.
A cover of A God In Exile by Raghu Rai
A cover of A God In Exile by Raghu Rai

Initially I thought the title of the book was adulatory in a routine sense, the kind of genuflection ritually expected in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It&rsquos only after I immersed myself into its monochrome magic did I realise that, for Raghu Rai, the creation of this book could not have been anything short of a spiritual exercise. For Rai, the Dalai Lama is truly imbued with godliness, although he is lucky enough to call him a friend.

Flip through the pages carelessly and the images have a sameness about them. They all depict the Dalai Lama, after all. Flip with care and a subtle and sensitive narrative appears, even though the images, deliberately, aren&rsquot in chronological order. The introductory essay by Jane Perkins is absolutely wonderful.

Rai has been photographing the Dalai Lama since the 1970s. As a newly minted member of Magnum, the most prestigious photo agency in the world, which he was voted into by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rai frequently travelled to Dharamshala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to photograph the Dalai Lama for a wide range of Western publications. But his first meeting with the Dalai Lama was on assignment as a staffer for The Statesman (he was accompanied by a certain Tavleen Singh). Rai recounts that first encounter with astonishing clarity. 

As the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetans, not to mention a reincarnation, the Dalai Lama is indeed a god-king. To be allowed into his private world, to have access beyond the public persona, is a rare privilege that was accorded to Rai. It&rsquos these deeply personal&mdashand sometimes surprisingly prosaic&mdashmoments that form the luminous core of the book the Dalai Lama repairing an appliance, for instance, or watching Mahabharata on TV. (He does bunches of serious things too.)

The book is also an informal chronicle of a mutually nourishing friendship, peppered with anecdotes. Perhaps the most moving episode concerns a healing stone that the Dalai Lama gave to Rai, which he believes may have protected him from the heart ailment he was, unknown to him, afflicted by. Rai isn&rsquot terribly voluble, but then he has his pictures to get the point across, capturing as they do a variety of moods, from sombre to humorous, intimate to uplifting.

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