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The Reluctant Lama - review

The story of a reincarnated boy lama.

The Reluctant Lama
Radio 4

In a departure for the usually painstakingly neutral Radio 4 documentary, the presenter actually admonished the subject. Jolyon Jenkins spoke to Osel Hita Torres (28 September, 11am), now 27, who at two was removed from his family home in Granada and dispatched to a monastery in southern India – assumed via tests with a bell and a toy drum to be a reincarnated Tibetan lama. There the boy endured years of adoration and at least 18 hours’ study a day. The memories of his loneliness were painful. “Nobody wants to be with me. Bring a child with you!” he would beg his mother before she visited – like Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince, or Selfish Giant. But so enraptured was Osal’s mother with the idea of his reincarnation, she repeatedly screwed his courage to the sticking place (she sounded a bit like a showbiz agent doggedly providing super-orthodontry before a screen test).

Osel was wretched but struggled with an overweening desire to connect and please, an instinct that leaves many children in a state of torment (“We are interested in the distillation of gin,” Edna O’Brien’s little sons would heartbreakingly write on a piece of paper slipped under the door of her study in the hope of ingratiating themselves into her ever-distracted company. It is by far the saddest line in all of her recently published memoirs.) And yet, when Osel was 18, he did escape the monastery and moved to Ibiza where he still “plays drums on the beach listening to trance music”, occasionally returning to Tibet for a detox.

At this point Jenkins – who had followed Osel’s case since the 1980s – criticised him for being a fair-weather Buddhist (“that’s just the easy bits!”). There was a surprising awfulness to Osel’s rhetoric, an emptiness dressed as a kind of helpless wisdom. Someone with such a crazy (and crazily deep) childhood ought to manage something less artfully non-committal as “there was a period in my life when I thought I was very special. And then I realised we are all special.” You could picture Osal’s hands diplomatically turning in the air as he said this, his whole mad history rolling aside, less a lama now than someone majoring in communications at UCLA, doling out corn-on-the-cob and smoked butterfish at a campus BBQ.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special