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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Mapping Tibet's trauma

March 26, 2009

Rrishi Raote,
Business-Standard (India)
March 25, 2009

New Delhi -- Fifty years ago the Tibetans lost
their country to the Chinese, and the Dalai Lama
began his exile. But the first novel in English
about the Tibetan experience of exile was
published only in 2008. Falling through the Roof
(Rupa, Rs 295) is by Thubten Samphel, the
spokesperson of Tibet’s government-in-exile.

Samphel came to India in 1962, three years after
the Dalai Lama, leaving most of his family behind
in Lhasa. At the mission schools he and other
Tibetan children were educated in English,
compounding the alienation from their past.
Still, from that torn life has come this book —
one which has scarcely drawn notice in the press
but which, I believe, is important as well as
good. Among Tibetan exiles there is little doubt about its value.

The narrative spine is the story of Tashi, an
irreligious young Tibetan in early-1980s Delhi
who founds a Tibetan Communist Party, offending
his fellow exiles, not least the narrator
Dhondup. But Tashi is later recognised as a
reincarnate lama, head of the oldest monastery in
Tibet. Thus two distant and apparently
irreconcilable poles are established, one at the
beginning and one near the end — yet by the time
the story is done, Samphel has magically erased
the miles in between: there is only one pole.

It’s a subtle trick the author repeats. The book
is peppered with contrasts that spin the
narrative along like weights revolving at the
ends of a string, yet ultimately the paired
opposites fuse without conflict and without
killing the momentum. There is the running rift
between state power and individual and collective
dissent, between the Old Tibet held in the memory
and the uncertain promise of the new (even the
exiles do not know whether they embody the
potential future), the mainstream Tibetan Youth
Congress and Tashi’s abortive Tibetan Communist
Party (same goals, even same methods), sacred and
profane, funny and serious. It’s a magnificent and effortless balancing act.

And Samphel heads away from his core narrative to
take lengthy detours through Tibetan history
(both real and brilliantly invented). The
pleasingly earthy lama who identifies Tashi as
his reincarnated master tells stories of Old
Tibet, of how Tibet gained its script and thereby
Buddhism, about diplomacy and force (the astra of
technical knowhow represented by Sun Tzu’s Art of
War), about the mediaeval violence of Old Tibet
that Buddhism helped lay to rest (but not
entirely). The ripples of the past move people in
the present, for instance when Tashi and Dhondup
head to Kashmir to locate the cave where the
sixth-century Indian teacher gave his Tibetan
disciple (who was, not coincidentally, Tashi’s
first incarnation as a rinpoche) the Tibetan script.

Other detours, branch stories that plug into the
main one, involve Tashi and Dhondup’s fellow
exiles. Samphel opens his book at the perfect
juncture: as Tashi and Dhondup finish their MA
exams. Now all choices are their own — but they
already know what to do. Being refugees gives
them an animating cause as well as down-to-earth
aspirations. They organise protests, they look
for useful work, they teach or sell sweaters.

In a Western novel in English the obvious
template would be the coming-of-age; in Indian
terms, the transition from brahmachari to
grihastha. For Tashi’s fellows, the transition
happens without fuss, without resistance. Dhondup
moves cleanly from student to activist to
employee of the government-in-exile to husband of
a thrifty businesswoman. There’s none of the sour
and futile aftertaste of the typical contemporary
novel, even when it is beautifully written and
“universal” to middle-class concerns. Nothing
kills a story so dead as moral neutrality.

Tibet’s caesura, the Chinese takeover, propelled
it into the 20th century. It was both the
destruction and the saving of Tibet, because it
helped create the idea of a Tibetan nation. But
the oppressor also suffers: Chinese writers and
artists have turned their harsh experiences of
the Cultural Revolution into a harsh art that
reveals the unbridgeable abyss Mao left behind.

In India, not even Partition was a total rupture.
Other traumas like Kashmir, Punjab, Naxalism and
various caste conflicts, not to mention the lack
of equality and our ancient subcurrent of dissent
(Buddha, Sufi-Bhakti, Mahatma, Mayawati...), have
only just begun to bear modern creative fruit. As
future Indian writers map the effects of these
experiences on their parents’ lives in their own
work, and if good translations of their work
become widely available, they will not only make,
they will educate and mitigate. Trauma must be
shared, and then it can serve a national purpose.
As Samphel shows, Tibet’s trauma is its lasting strength.
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