Dharamsala Days Dharamsala Nights: A review

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Many of my readers may remember that I wrote a piece called “Non-Refugee Refugees: Tibetans’ struggles for visibility in bureaucratic India,” on Lhakar Diaries last year. The subject of the essay concentrates on marital unions between Tibetans and westerners that offered some Tibetans possibilities of documents that could help them escape their precarious existence as, what I termed, “non-refugee refugees.” Sometime after that post, I began seeing several Facebook posts by expats living in Dharamsala for the self-published book Dharamsala Days Dharamsala Nights by Pauline MacDonald (a pseudonym). I was told by friends that the book was on the subject of newcomers in Dharamsala, including male newcomers’ relationships with female Injis. I was able to get my hands on a copy, but only just found the time to read it. Upon finishing the book, I couldn’t help but write an FB commentary on the sloppiness of MacDonald’s analysis. The FB thread was soon followed by some responses. One of the responders, Ben Joffe, a friend and a fellow CU Boulder PhD student of Carole McGranahan who studies Tibet, has allowed me to publish his review of the book in my post. But before readers can get into Ben’s review, I’d like to make some of my thoughts clear.

My take:

Although MacDonald’s tone is one of good intention and conviction to tell the hardships and stigmas that newcomers from Tibet face in McLeod-Dharmsala, my main problem with her book was that she decides to choose sides: she favors newcomers over exile Tibetans, and even further makes exile Tibetans, whom she calls “settlers,” the villains. Choosing a side requires categorizing the two groups as single entities at odds with each other. This doesn’t allow room for complexities within and between the group, and also ignores complexities that create tensions between the groups in the first place.

In her account, she paints all newcomers into a single entity known as the “Sali gyals,” whom she describes as newcomer men out on the prowl for western female partners. She portrays exile Tibetans as an similarly homogenous merger of CTA/activists and India or Nepal-born Tibetans. Although she tries to create a more sympathetic and complex character of the newcomer by sharing stories of their personal struggles and pains that she was exposed to, she ultimately depicts them as hopeless characters doomed to fail whether in business, relationship, and so on. In her analysis, these failires are because of “settler” Tibetans, not because of the precarious status of Tibetans as non-refugee refugees (or of most Tibetans in India or Nepal, newcomers or not). Aside from a few people throughout the book, exile Tibetans are portrayed by MacDonald as characters without complexities although poor Tibetans face different kinds of stigmas too. Such characterization of Sali gyals–a term she uses interchangeably with “newcomer”–as hopeless characters misses experiences of newcomers who are women, students at the College of Higher Tibetan Studies Sarah, and families thriving in places such as Norbulingka, all of whom are situated also in Dharamala. While I acknowledge with MacDonald that newcomers occupy a more vulnerable status than RC and IC-holding exile Tibetans, her one dimensional characterization of newcomers misses the impact of newcomers as initiators of cultural change in Dharamsala, whether in fashion (Amdo and Khampa chupas becoming popular), music (from Tibet), or food (Amdo restaurants).

The lack of analysis of exile as an entity, identity, and status without much resources or rights does a disservice in contextualizing how this adds to the stigma that MacDonald describes. Narratives shared to MacDonald by newcomer Tibetans are important in that they bring to light certain subjectivities within the exile Dharamsala community that need to be heard and addressed. MacDonald’s discussions on the different types of tourists that converge in Dharamsala seeking certain kinds of exotic are also potential topics that could lend itself to discussions on how the capitalist tourist economy allows certain raced and classed bodies/cultures to become consumed (Tibetans) due to precarious circumstances, while other privileged bodies could become the ones consuming those bodies, cultures, and experiences (western tourists and expats). Power in this discussion is central for all characters, the tourists, Indian locals, exiles, and newly arrived Tibetans.

The book doesn’t necessarily go there, mostly because as Ben discusses below, the author’s direction of the book is itself confusing. She does, however, do a good job detailing lives of the men she becomes close with and the western characters that populate their lives, including herself. This book is most successful as a personal story rather than a sociopolitical analysis. Newcomers’ experiences outside of Dharamsala are also not a part of the story here, but should be. MacDonald offers an opening, problematic though it is, for further research and writing on newcomer issues in the Tibetan exile community.

 Finally, here’s Ben’s review:

I know McDonald well, she is a good friend of mine, so it’s difficult for me to critique this book. Still, I feel like I ought to register my reservations and reactions honestly and fairly. Dawa really hits the nail on the head with the issue of often un-nuanced polarizing of exile-born vs. sarjorpas and the politics and rhetoric of most-deserving victim at work here. One of my chief difficulties with the book is what feels like its inconsistent genre and register. The book struggles to decide on its voice as a travelogue, personal memoir and set of personal reflections on Dharamsala, contribution to exile oral history, or critique of the Tibetan exile administrations and its policies. The best parts of the book are where we get to read about the experiences McDonald is most qualified to speak about: the travails of those sarjorpa who married non-Tibetans and immigrated abroad, and the weird and wonderful mix of people that make up McLeod’s more or less transient population. Beyond this though, as Dawa mentions, McDonald’s totalizing account of sarjorpas vs the CTA/exile Tibetans strikes me as too homogenizing and de-contextualized. Everyday prejudice against sarjorpa by exile-born Tibetans gets projected onto the CTA, which comes across as a largely monolithic if not maniacal entity (in no small part through McDonald using the central villain of Samdhong Rinpoche as its metonym). At times it would seem McDonald would have us believe the CTA is set on sending sarjorpa back to Tibet out of sheer malice or disregard. This conspiratorial tone and her frequent literary recourse to shock and outrage leave little room for a fuller discussion of the relative power and resource-lessness of the exile administration to secure RCs for newcomers and to guarantee protections for any and all of its refugee de facto citizens. What negotiating power does the exile administrative really have to convince the government of India to offer sarjorpa RCs and increased protections? We hear about the discontinuation of RCs but not much about the actual negotiations around this.

Talking about sarjorpa in exile is important, necessary, long-overdue but at times the complexities of exile Tibetan policies and political activities and the range of relationships between multiple demographics gets sacrificed in favor of McDonald’s preferred, simpler tale of heartless exile-born ‘settler’ Tibetans and their disregard for newcomers, who in the final analysis, seem helpless unless and until they escape Tibetan exile communities. Ultimately, I worry that, for all of McDonald’s obviously good intentions, the tone and level that she pitches her critique will prove more harmful and distracting than eye-opening and transformative like she would like.

I enjoyed many parts of this book. Much of the history and personal accounts McDonald has collected are invaluable and unprecedented. It is in many parts an entertaining, unstinting and compassionate read as so many reviewers have said already. The right register of critique, however, is very, very difficult to achieve especially in as sensitive a context as Tibetan exile. In this regard, I am reminded of the section on critique from the ‘How (Not) To Read this Book’ moment of the introduction of your ethnography, Carole McGranahan:

“TO CRITIQUE IS NOT TO INVALIDATE. To ask about the production of history is to explore structures of power. For resistance history this means to critically examine the social politics of the refugee community, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the Dalai Lama. I critique from a point of engagement; with the veterans’ guidance, my discussion of the pains of exile, of forgetting and loss, of specific disputes within the refugee community is designed to show the very real and deeply felt commitments individuals have to their communities and to their leaders. It is not to invalidate the exile community or the Dalai Lama or the political projects of either, but to show the range of decisions people make in the name of religion, nation and history…[Ultimately, for all of this] I write mostly WITH rather than against. I write with those Tibetan veterans, scholars, and others who understand that to critique is not to invalidate history or politics, but to make them interpretable and bearable in the present.” (McGranahan 2010: 35)

I think McDonald would like to do the same, but each reader will have to decide how successfully and fully she accomplishes this, and with what consequences. For me, the book is uneven in its ‘critiquing with’ and as invalidation, as well as in its genre/project, in a way that makes it hard for me to know just how to recommend and/or critique it as a work myself. McDonald has said that she felt compelled to write the book because no one else had addressed these issues fully, and I know she worked very hard and with a strong sense of commitment and conscience on bringing important issues to light.

Still, McDonald makes it clear throughout that she knows that her brand of critique amounts to bridge-burning. Her keen awareness of the protection and privilege that her non-academic, non-Tibetan position provides her suggests that she herself knows very well that much of her writing is critique not with but against. This is her prerogative, but we as readers must decide how much of each kind of critique we feel is necessary and useful in talking about sensitive issues that affect a vulnerable highly visible population of which we are or are not a part.

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