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Examining the nature of exile

January 18, 2009

Rrishi Raote
New Delhi January 17, 2009
Business Standard - Mumbai
Thubten Samphel is the spokesperson of Tibet’s government-in-exile. In this coming-of-age novel he tells the story of the lives of a handful of Tibetans from their student days in Delhi, in the early 1980s, into adulthood. The main character Tashi founds a Tibetan Communist Party (offending his fellow exiles), but is eventually recognised as a reincarnated lama. RRISHI RAOTE met the author at the refugee settlement of Majnu ka Tilla.
How come this is the first Tibetan exile novel, after 50 years of exile?
I think earlier on, those Tibetans who wrote in English, their main concern was to inform the world of the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet and the suffering which this rule brought. Now, after so many years of living in India, I think the emphasis is more on examination of the nature of the exile experience.
Does the book reflect your own youthful experiences?
Much of the events described in the book are based on [my] own personal views and experiences. I’m not a political activist, but [the book is] a sort of narrative of the whole political experience and our concerns that since we have this education we must do something for Tibet, and if not end, to mitigate the suffering of the people in Tibet.
I think the novel explores three important features of our community. One is Majnu ka Tilla itself. Tibetans all over, including Tibetans from Tibet, they know what and where Majnu ka Tilla is. It’s a sort of crossroads of our journey, either going from Dharamsala to south India or coming from Tibet to Dharamsala through Delhi.
The other is the Tibetan Youth Congress, which galvanises and channels the energy of the young Tibetans, those who are politicised, and it serves as a sort of training ground for young leaders.
[Third] is the emergence of the Tibetan Review. The Review is important to [those of us] who have not been to a Tibetan school, have been to what we call mission schools where English is the medium. Though the memory of Tibet is still fresh and the loss is so big, we didn’t have the Tibetan language to communicate our feelings to the Tibetan community, so because the Review is in the English language, it serves as a platform for us to air our views and opinion.
So I think these three things define this community — and the other thing is, for common Tibetans, those who need to make a living in India, I think more than 40 per cent of the Tibetan population in India depends on selling sweaters.
Two more themes: the importance of remembering, and language. At one point Tashi says Tibetan is a “language for losers”…
As Tashi matures and his understanding of Tibetan culture is much deeper than when he started the Communist Party, I think he [undergoes] a fundamental change in his views. For us young Tibetans then, we thought that everything to do with Tibet or Tibetans was not good because we did not have any tools to effectively resist and prevent this Chinese invasion, but as our understanding of Tibetan culture grew then we came to appreciate that any country cannot be defined by its ability to resist any aggression.
If a culture is worth its salt, I think, it has deeper resources to keep the community together. So, in a way, Tashi’s opening out, to carry on the legacy of the previous reincarnations, it’s a realisation on his part that Tibetan culture is worth preserving, that that culture was able to keep the physical space of a country. So, in a way, it’s a sort of a victory, the choice he made.
You pause the narrative a few times to allow your characters to recount stories, legends.
More than people who live in towns and cities, Tibetan nomads have nothing to entertain themselves, so they tell stories. They inherited this storytelling ability, and their memory is so good, when they talk they can talk really well.
Is your family still in Lhasa?
I have two sisters in Lhasa. [I am] in touch with them once in a while. [But] not since March 2008, because there’s increased surveillance. But before that, we called each other, talked about the weather, and... [laughs quietly] We’re not a very communicative people, we’re very reserved, so they don’t express their feelings in so many words.
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