Under my byline

A sort of victory

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 17 January 2009

Q&A: Thubten Samphel

Thubten Samphel, Falling through the RoofFalling through the Roof
Thubten Samphel
Rupa & Co
x + 308 pp

Thubten Samphel is the spokesperson and information secretary of Tibet’s government-in-exile. In this memorable 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, not least the narrator Dhondup), but is eventually recognised as a high reincarnated lama. I met the author at the refugee settlement of Majnu ka Tilla.

What led you to write this story?

I think it’s part of the first generation — my generation of Tibetans. It’s part of our experience. We were born in Tibet, saw [and] experienced what we call traditional, the Old Tibet, and then suddenly we find ourself in somebody else’s land. So it’s an enquiry of what happened in between, why we had our country one day and the next day it’s gone. We [were] born in Tibet but our whole intellectual experience is something which we gained from the schools we went to in India. So it’s an exploration of our identity, it’s sort of a journey into history to find out what went wrong and also to attempt to find out the essence of this Tibetan identity. I believe it may be in English, though not in Tibetan language, the first novel which tries to explore and encapsulate our exile experience.

Why is it the first such book — in a half-century 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, to inform the world of the concerns and the tragic experience of the Tibetan people. Now, after so many years of living in India, I think the emphasis is more on examination of the nature of the exile experience. Maybe that could be one reason.

How much does the book reflect your own experience of Delhi, of political activism, the way you lived as a young man?

Much of the experience of the events described in the book is based on [my] own personal views and experiences… Myself 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…

The novel examines and explores I think three important features of our community, and these are all not directed by the Central Tibetan Administration but came up naturally. 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, so it has its own charm and identity.

Thubten Samphel, courtesy the Dalai Lama FoundationThe other is the Tibetan Youth Congress, [an] organisation 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 but 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 Tibetan 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 depend on selling sweaters.

Two more themes. One is memory, how the past is remembered, the importance of passing it on, as well as memory being a burden. The other is language. At one point a character says Tibetan is a “language of losers”…

As Tashi matures and his understanding of Tibetan culture is much deeper than when he started the Communist Party, I think he underwent a fundamental change in his views on the Tibetan language. For us young Tibetans then we thought at that time 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 his 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, for the hold and the deep influence of Tibetan Buddhism on the Tibetan people.

The narrator, Dhondup, works at recording oral traditions from newly arrived Tibetans in Dharamsala. Did you also do that?

Yes, I went through that experience. It’s a real project to pass on to the younger generation the oral traditions of Tibetan folklore, [from] those who are old enough, who heard stories passed down from their parents. These were recorded, transcribed and then published.

You pause the narrative in your book a few times to allow your characters to recount stories, legends. Do Tibetans do a lot of storytelling?

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.

Did you pick up these stories and skills from them?

Not from the nomads, but I remember my mother telling these stories. Many of the stories, it’s reading books on Tibet and doing research and trying to piece them together…

What sort of responses have you had to the book so far?

Those young Tibetans, they were deeply interested. [They said] some of the characters are very convincing and their mannerisms and the role of the character which they manifested are consistent throughout the novel.

The young central characters in your book are very independent, almost fiercely rejecting their past. Are young Tibetans changing their mind about this, now that people around the world recognise the value of Tibetan civilisation?

I think they are. If they are not I think they should be. Right now at present one major concern is climate change, global warming. Now, left to themselves Tibetans have this really intimate knowledge of the value of the environment. It’s not that we dominate the Earth, it’s not that we dominate nature. Nature is not there to be exploited, we live in harmony with nature. So this concept was there before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, and this was reinforced by [the] Buddhist concept of being compassionate [towards] all sentient beings. So I think in terms of keeping your environment functioning, clean, these were things which Tibetans inherited from our forefathers.

So this is in sharp contrast to the Chinese development perspective. For the Chinese, when they look at Tibet it’s a piece of real estate that has untapped natural resources lying undeneath it. They don’t think about Tibet as a people. For them Tibet is there to be exploited for the benefit of China. So if this goes on unchecked it’ll do really huge damage to China itself.

Where can one study Tibetan history?

There’s no such institutions. Say in the early ’60s there were many Western scholars who did research on their own without the benefit of any academic institution. Now these days this Tibetology discipline is emerging as, if not a major industry then not an insignificant one. There are some universities which have a chair in Tibetan studies… Oxford, Harvard. And more than Tibetan history I think it’s Tibetan Buddhist studies.

But there are also scholars in Tibet — they give the usual tribute to the Chinese Communist Party but at a deeper level they do fair research into Tibetan history. So there are Tibetan scholars, Chinese scholars studying Tibetan history in Tibet, here in India and in the West.

When and how did you come to India?

I was brought to India by my elder brother. My brother worked on a road camp in south Tibet. So he came to Lhasa — my father had died several years ago — and he wanted to bring my mother, my other siblings to south Tibet, but I was the smallest one. At that time movement was really restricted. Since I was a child I was allowed to go with my brother to south Tibet. From south Tibet it’s very easy to slip across the Himalayan mountains into Nepal. So we arrived here in India in 1962, when the border war was going on.

Do you remember that journey?

Oh yes, yes, people say these events were so traumatic you cannot really avoid forgetting them. They’re still fresh with us.

Is your family still in Lhasa? Are you in touch with them?

My mother is passed away but 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 eavesdropping and surveillance. But before that, we called each other, talk 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.

(Here’s a column I wrote on this book. Visit the publisher’s website.)

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2 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on 24 January 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Many Tibetans came to India around the same time as Mr Samphel. How did Mr Samphel, and the others, cope with the loss of family life? How did they recreate families in India?

  2. Rrishi Raote said, on 3 February 2009 at 10:28 pm

    I don’t know the answer to that question (and I didn’t think to ask), but I hope that someone who stops by here may be able to shed some light. Mr Samphel did say that his sisters have visited him in India twice. Twice since 1962 is not very much.


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