A Home in Tibet : A Review

(Guestpost by Thupten Kelsang Dakpa. This review is for the recently released book A Home in Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa)

“The pathos in writing about life in exile is marked by an insistence on the loss of a better world.” – TWD


Most people have some conception of Tibet on their mind. A cold barren land with only mountains for company, a rich traditional Buddhist history, the Free Tibet movement, and so forth. Tibet as a nation and its people has been explored in multiple narratives in public imagination via popular fiction and cinema. The relative geographical inaccessibility fuelled the desire to discover the Shangri-la, a Buddhist haven of mystery, pristine nature and peace. Hence, the creative (and often fictional) work produced in reference to Tibet has imprinted the classic Tibetan stereotypes in the global psyche.

At times, it is difficult to admit that as a Tibetan born in India, I am neither an Indian citizen nor someone who has ever lived in Tibet and there are many of us. We are caught between the motions of changing political circumstances, an uneven legal status in India, the nostalgia of Tibet, a specific socio-cultural context that develops in exile and a desire to find what was home. Hence, there is an intrinsic need for diverse Tibetan perspectives and narratives to surface, which alongside our socio-political identity, embrace our experiential history as a Diaspora.

As for Tibetan writing in English, it can still be described as nascent. Yet, there have been a few good examples: Jamyang Norbu’s collection of essays ‘Shadow Tibet’, Tenzin Tsundue’s poetry in ‘Kora’ and Bhuchung D. Sonam’s ‘Yak Horns’, among others. But, among these stalwarts of the Tibetan literary scene, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is perhaps the lesser known in the Tibetan community and for a reason: by not writing something explicitly ‘Tibetan’.

However, to a many of us, she was a breath of fresh air and brought the much-needed diversity to Tibetan writing in English. For people like me who cannot conform or be neatly boxed into mainstream narratives, and are involved in a conscious search of a Tibetan identity that reflects the evolution of a Tibetan community in exile and try to incorporate our everyday realities into the narrative, Tsering Wangmo’s work and its highly individualistic yet universal attributes let our voices co-exist.

‘A Home in Tibet’ is journal cum travelogue filled with anecdotes, local insight and other delightful snippets of life in Tibet. “In these shops they sell in abundance the commodities Tibetans have never produced and now consume blithely: instant noodles, petrol, innumerable brands of soft drinks, cigarettes and beer.” The narrative drifts in and out of her lucid memories with an aberrated sense of time and place. It evokes a general sense of loss but also the love for the land, the sky above, the river, the mountains and everything in between, where nostalgia and reality converge.

She confesses “An imagined country has a tenacious grip, perhaps more so than a known one, for there are no disappointments or memories to contract the ideal.”

Narratives of three generations of Tibetans in Tibet are encompassed in the voices of her aunt Tashi, cousin Karma and nephew Kunga. And, through them, we gradually delve into the experiential history of Dhompa and its people. Beginning from Xining, capital of Quinghai province to Kyegu to finally making way to her ancestral land, Dhompa, it’s a journey of self discovery and ironically, latent culture shock.

The changing landscapes: physical, socio-economic and cultural are evident. Tsering, is surprised by them, rejects them, perhaps because they do not conform to the picture painted by her late mother, which is the intimate bond strengthened by the love of their land. “I am living my mother’s past and my own present simultaneously,” echoes anxieties of those in exile. Are our memories and nostalgia for Tibet borrowed? Would we be ready to confront the changed realities in Tibet?

In passages such as this, her lucid writing evokes memory of another great writer, Hemingway. “Saffron insects fling themselves into the flames of the candle and leave the room in darkness. Almost every night the drama is enacted. What is it about fire that makes the moths so silly? I am content to be enveloped by the night.”

There is a growing apprehension towards finding answers on the question of Tibetan identity and what constitutes ‘Tibetaness’. While there is a latent tension on the legitimacy of Tibetan voice, let’s take this piece of poignant literature as a nuanced example in acknowledging the ambivalence of ‘Tibetan identity’ and embark on our own journey(s) of self-discovery.