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Review: A Pale View of the Himalayas

February 24, 2010

Tsering Namgyal
Where Tibetans Write
February 17, 2010

"Songs from a Distance"
Bhuchung D. Sonam (Author)
ISBN : 819041744-4
Publisher : Tibet Writes
Price: Rs 65

During a visit to Dharamsala sometime in 2002, I
saw a flier of Bhuchung D. Sonam’s book of poems,
Dandelions in Tibet, in Gangchen Kyishong, on the
bulletin board opposite the staff mess. I was intrigued.

For someone who had also begun, rather
hesitantly, the research for a novel, any work of
imagination by a fellow Tibetan was a source of
immense interest. Later, it was Tenzin Tsundue,
the activist-poet, who told me that Sonam was
working on an anthology of Tibetan poetry.

I was thrilled. I met with Sonam, in classic
style, at a ramshackle Dharamsala teashop. So
when his Muses of Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan
Poetry came out in 2005, I was pleasantly
surprised. It was the most comprehensive
collection of Tibetan poems I have ever seen. It
included writings from the turn-of-the-century
scholar and travel writer Gendun Choephel to late
Chogyam Trungpa, all laboriously culled from old
magazines, journals and books from homes and
libraries. The book earned a mention, I remember,
in one of Pico Iyer’s essays in Time.

Even though I have not written much poetry, I was
impressed with the novelty of the idea and the
dedication with which Sonam and others seemed to
be carrying on with their work. They were
creating a new idiom, albeit Romanized and shorn
of its colonial origins, with which to re-imagine
Tibet in the age of the Internet.

I know how difficult it is to create a book out of thin air.

Bigger and established writers have dozens, if
not more, people working for them, helping them
edit, layout, critique, design, proofread, and of
course, market and distribute. However,
self-published writers – which include almost all
Tibetan writers with the exception of a few such
as Sogyal Rinpoche or Jamyang Norbu – have to do
everything by themselves. It is hard work. And it
has the great virtue of being hugely unattractive
career for most people. Few people in their right
mind would pursue writing as a career except if
they do think it is truly their calling – and
they must do it, come high or hell water.

The author has to write the book first, investing
his or her time and energy, ignoring friends and
family, risking youth and career, and yelling
invectives at people who question their sanity.
Once the book is done, he or she has to put
whatever is left of the money to publish it. Off
the presses, he or she has to physically carry
the books and go to the booksellers begging them
for shelf-space, normally reserved for names like
J.K.Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk
published by imprints like Random House and Penguin.

No wonder. After two years of your life at your
desk, back still hurting from the weight of books
that you had just carried to the doorstep, the
bookseller will ask you: “Excuse me! Who are you,
by the way?” Not even a “Shabash!”

Such adversities do not seem to deter serious writers, however.

So I was quite happy a few weeks ago, when I was
greeted by yet another of Sonam’s collection of
poetry, titled Songs from a Distance. This
collection of 26 poems addresses the common themes of exile, loss and homeland.

Despite the common themes, the poems have
acquired a rather cosmopolitan air as the author
has apparently written them while on a two-year
study sojourn of the US. In some of these poems,
the Tibetan writer, exiled in India, almost
becomes the commonplace expatriate, away from his
host country. Dharamsala and Delhi are often replaced by New York and Boston.

There are pieces written in admiration for fellow
writers inside Tibet, including Beijing-based
Woeser, famous enough to be profiled by both the
Times of London and the New York Times. Then
there are lesser-known writers such as Jamyang
Kyi and Dolma Kyab locked away in Chinese cells, punished for their sentences.

Some of his pieces reminded me of poems by late
Agha Shahid Ali who wrote about his childhood
idyll of Kashmir, with mesmerizing beauty and
tantalizing melancholia. Just as Shahid Ali,
exiled in Amherst, was troubled by the death and
destruction wrought upon on his beautiful land by
communal violence, Sonam’s pieces too mourn the
condition of Tibet under the Communist rule.

Like many Tibetan writers, he too wants to see
Tibet march to the drum of modernity but to a
very different tune. For Sonam, who is born in
Tibet – his work and, his exiled body itself –
becomes a site of contestation, between memory and history.

Indeed, quite fittingly, the final poem of this
collection is dedicated to the monk who set
himself on fire amidst unrest in Tibet in 2008.

My brother Tapey has set himself on fire.
Sorrows raining down, beating
My eyeballs are swimming.
Must you drink blood before you come.
To us thursting under the clouds of occupation.
Winds blow, leaves fly, dust rise
Waves slapping high,
Against my boat.

Freedom, your footstep
Is what I want to die for

This is quite powerful. Postcolonial theorist
Gayatri Spivak, a Bengali professor at Columbia
University, has written about the condition of
the ‘subalterns’ – or the oppressed. In a highly
influential and provocatively titled piece, “Can
the Subaltern Speak?,” she had asked if the
subalterns can represent themselves, or they can
only express themselves through death.

If Tibetans such as Tapey, whose fate is
reportedly unknown, have to immolate themselves
to be heard and noticed, then the answer,
obviously, is no. It is a sad but true reality.

And this is perhaps what pushes writers like
Sonam and Tsundue to their desk every morning to
sing the songs of freedom on behalf of their
silenced brethren behind the pale hills of the
Himalayas. Their songs are sad and touching of
course, but they are never depressing.

We might want to listen.

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