Under my byline

Holding up the roof

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 March 2009

Thubten Samphel, Falling through the RoofOVERLEAF 22

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 late 2008. Falling through the Roof (Rupa) 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 β€” 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 β€” 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 6th-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 β€” 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 great 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 experience 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.

(Here’s an interview I did with the author in January.)

(Rupa Publications has been typically careless with the production of this book: at a few points it could have used a thoughtful editor, and throughout it needed a more alert proofreader. Even the page design is not quite right. And the marketing: where is it?)

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