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English Writing on Tibetan: An Overview

Thursday 27 May 2004, by Topden Tsering

Western fictionalization of the East makes for a formidable oeuvre, bearing authorships of such diverse genre and generation as Marco Polo, Rudyard Kipling, EM Forster, George Orwell, James Hilton, and now William M Bueller. In articulating the exotic, few have achieved that balance between imagination and insight, fantasy and fact, surreal and real. Fewer still have escaped imposing patronizing paradigms upon the places and peoples of their narratives, that prison in portraiture to bring down which it would take the native literary-conscience an eternity beyond past - or present, as in the Tibetan case - realities of foreign occupation and oppression.

Indeed, such works have fascinated many a reader back in Europe and America marveling at these unseen worlds - perceptible only on crisp, white pages. Stories of fairy tale on earth, a staple fit for wanderlust: naked fakirs and dancing cobras, Shangri-la and levitating monks, court eunuchs and pigtails; dust, mountains and the Great Wall. Imageries that lent themselves to stereotypes, a blurring of truth into fantasy that made of fiction a blackened suspect in the court of literary integrity.

This was, however, to change with the de-colonization of the early 20 th century. Thanks to a fertile legacy in modern institutions left behind by the obsolete empires, a new generation of educated natives began to take roots in the newly freed countries. The same people who had trembled under a foreign tongue now found in it an ideal language with which to chart the map of their being and becoming. The currency of occupation had given way to a weapon of expression.

And so Salman Rushdie wins Booker of Bookers for Midnight’s Children, VS Naipaul his Nobel Prize for Literature, unleashing a frenzy so alarming that God of Small Things’ Arundhati Roy complains about Western publishers staging a "job-market" of sort for Indian authors. And so Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress earns for its exiled writer France’s highest literary honor, not far behind the Nobel for Gou Xou’s Soul Mountain. The Filipino author’s When the Elephants Dance continues its tango on the bestsellers list while several Japanese fictions in English upholds Kurosawa’s legacy in filmmaking.

The same, sadly, cannot be said about the Tibetans. Even after their four decades into exile. Less than a handful of novels constitute their corpus in fiction, among them only Jamyang Norbu’s Mandala of Sherlock Holmes matching in standard, integrity and brilliance to the renown of other established writers. As does in non-fiction category, Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the Land of Snows. But Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is not, in a complete sense, a Tibetan novel.

Tablet of Gods

In such fiction-starved scenario as that of Tibetan exile, William M. Bueller’s Tablet of the Gods (Paljor Publications, New Delhi) is a elcome fare. A compelling evidence in story telling, the novel stands out not so much for brilliance of prose or ingenuity of imagination as for the author’s attempt to cover in one ambitious sweep Tibet’s past and present, its mundane and the magnificence. And paradoxically, here he falters. Tablet of Gods fails to achieve a convincing microcosm of Tibet’s confounding tapestry in occupation and exile, a universe all by itself that spirals as deep into past as it projects into future.

The book, like Jamyang Norbu’s Mandala, while being set in Tibet is not fundamentally a Tibetan novel. If Jamyang Norbu’s Sherlock Holmes novel is a masterful pastiche of a highly reputable genre, Tablet of Gods is a dubious attempt to compress into a linear spreadsheet the story of Tibet’s unfolding entirety. Its plot a germination of an actual event in 1943 involving the crash-landing in Tibet of an American C-87 cargo plane flying the "hump" from China to India, the novel’s narrative rides on several American characters high on Himalayan adventures. And although he makes no presumption of indulging Tibetan sensibility at its pivot, the author barely avoids reinforcing Western fantasies upon a country and a people about which his knowledge is, otherwise, substantial.

Part inspired from Jame’s Hilton’s Lost Horizon, partly from Jamyang Norbu’s Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, its influence owing mostly to Kipling adventurism; the book is also a discomfiting peek into Steven Seagal’s mercifully shelved Dixie Cup. It deviates little from the Hollywood morale: the American hero inevitably defuses the bomb at the end. Only the novel’s Roger is a Bruce Willis who sneaks clandestinely into Tibet with a band of resistant fighters and proudly walks out having assured a Hu Jintao-Dalai Lama reconciliation; all that without a whimper. And in between, he woos a Tibetan girl, untangles a knotty equation with an ex-girlfriend and achieves overnight fatherhood over two "brown" races.

Tablet of Gods , however, is not without its moments of originality, especially in the passages that deal with existentialism tug-o-wars between science and spirituality, creationism and evolution, Bible and Buddhism, Virgin Mary and Reincarnation. Tugging at the heart of this book is the weighty question of outer space intelligence. Amusing enough, almost all characters have something or the other to say on a subject of such academic proportion, so much so that even the aged monk-guardian of the remote monastery in Tibet volunteers the possibility of alien hands behind the mysterious tablet’s origin (If not Cosmic Buddha, he figures, then it has to be an outer space intelligence hovering around the distant orbits). That the writer finds connection between such extra-terrestrial puzzlement and the Buddhist belief in after-death astral time-space (Bhardo) is preposterous at best. Something like Swami Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi meets Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Universe.

Of death and third eye

Ironically, Bueller’s novel picks up on a note the history of Western literature on Tibet began eight decades ago with Walter Wenz’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead. For Tibet’s Buddhist culture, with its singular emphasis on life-after-death, it is of little surprise that its introduction in the West began with a book on the art of dying.

The 1927 publication of Walter Wenz’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead was a result of the American theosophist’s chance collaboration with a Tibetan translator over an ancient Tibetan mortuary text he had procured during his travels to the Far East. The Tibetan was the same Dawa Kazi Samdup, an English teacher at a Gangtok school in India, who had also interpreted for Elaxandra David Neel, a stint well documented in the latter’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Walter Wenz’s snip-and-cut meditation on the "treasure text"—supposedly secreted in Tibet by the mid-eighth century’s Guru Padmasambhava—found among western readers an avid follower. It became an instant bestseller spawning, besides its own repeated editions, emulation by numerous other Western authors and one Tibetan reincarnate. One of them, a drug-induced interpretation, The Psychedelic Experience, was for the generations fed on Beat writers their experiment in marrying Buddhist enlightenment with lofty heights achievable on Ecstasy.

When, in 1956, another book on Tibet, The Third Eye, topped the bestseller list, Western deification of Tibet fantasy had been irrevocably confirmed. Cyril Hoskin’s autobiographical impersonation as Lobsang Rampa—a Tibetan monk-physician who encounters fantastic adventures against the epic backdrop of Chinese aggressions and Second World War, replete with "man-kites" aviation and miraculous jailbreaks—formalized the blurring of all lines between fact and fiction. The book prompted two later sequels to a trilogy and dozen other follow-ups. Besides amassing an enormous fortune in royalty for the erstwhile surgical fitter from England’s Dovenshire, the books also placed him uncomfortably under the eye of the 20 th century’s biggest literary controversy.

After The Book of the Dead and before The Third Eye, along came a novel in 1933 that was single-handedly responsible for punching into Tibet its Shangri-La tag: James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Its main characters all non-Tibetan, the book locates in Tibet a Utopian land of eternal youthfulness and beauty; those who step outside its boundary do so at their own risks. This coloring of enthralling mysticism over the canvas of Tibet’s reality was further glossed over by subsequent authors, among them Lama Anagarika Govinda and Alexandra David Neel. If Lama Govinda, a German Tibetophile, during his Illustrated Weekly of India-sponsored Tibet expedition chances upon a remote monastery and procures from its head lama a nebulous initiation into the Kagyu order, Alexandra David Neel, disguised as a Tibetan woman, surveys flying ascetics in Tibetan deserts.

Other works of popular fiction were Mark Winchester’s In the Hands of the Lamas, Talbot Munday’s Om, Douglas Duff’s On the World’s Roof, Mildred Cooke and Francesca French’s The Red Lama, Lionel Davidson’s The Rose of Tibet, Berkeley Gray’s The Lost World of Everest, and two "sequels" to Hilton, Leslie Haliwell’s Return to Shangri- La: Raiders of the Lost Horizon and Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri’s Shangri-La: return to the World of Lost Horizon.

For Tibet’s personality to show itself in flesh and blood, the West had to wait until the appearance of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. Similar works of travel reportage by many others, notable among them Lowell Thomas Jr.’s Out of This World: Across the Himalayas to Forbidden Tibet, Ekai Kawaguchi’s Three Years in Tibet, William M McGovern’s To Lhasa in Disguise and Harrison Foreman’s Through ForbiddenTibet, focused more on the country’s human reality than its super-human appeals.

Lending themselves to irony were the subsequent, and more popular, books by Sir Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson, both of them at various times British political officers in Tibet. The historical accuracy of their personal reflections was but a flickering tribute to the independent country that Tibet once was.

Wind from the East

The relevance of Tablet of Gods, a Generation X avatar of its early predecessors, lies primarily in the realm outside its cover jackets: It lodges in the precedence the book offers to Tibetan novel in English that has yet to find its voice, but which must in the next few years be an established reality if the exile Tibetan community is to rework traditional symbols in a modern context; if it is to achieve for itself a national narrative with which to chronicle the angst-ridden convulsions of its people’s past, present and future.

On the other hand, the contemporary literary scene inside Tibet makes for an astounding observation. Its prolific outpouring of literary magazines, short stories, poetry and novels somewhat defeats the general belief that Tibetan language in Tibet is a victim of China’s linguistic onslaught. Not only are such works exceptional in their forays into hitherto unexplored themes but their language is reminiscent of early 20th century’s South American writers whose criticisms against dictatorial regimes were shrouded in brilliant hues of magic realism and allegories.

Above all others, they point to a creative abridging of widening chasm between Tibet’s colonial reality and its exile experience, between their competing versions of history and politics, of perception and faith, of hope and despair. A case in point being the tact with which most writers reconcile the two extremes of state-enforced subservience and an individual urge to rebel: their defiance of China’s destructions of symbols Tibetan, be it Buddhism or the Dalai Lama, on the one hand and an instinctive rejection of all influences Chinese on the other. Hence, the cross-cultural leaps in imagination, the overnight literary sophistication of these Chinese university-educated young men and women, exposed at best to literary works of Chekov and Tolstoy.

The late Dhondup Gyal’s novels are one such quintessential symbol. His stories abound with conflicting nuances, in characterization as well as social depiction, set against a realism that is tragic and humorous by turns. Their brilliance is best captured in passages detailing the intricate complexity of ordinary human angst. In the words of Tsering Shakya, a clever use of a double-edged sword with which to prod at the imperfections of one’s socio-economic past and cut through the hypocrisy of Communist China’s "progress" in present-day Tibet.

Secular Tibetan literature from exile, however, deviates little from the conventional trademark of self-flattery. Two years ago, a Higher Institute of Tibetan Studies alumni from Banares came out with Warm East and Cold West, a novel tracing an exile’s journey through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, straddling across such diverse landscapes as India and the US. A narrative in emotional and intellectual coming-of-age, the novel culminates in a sort of moral discourse on values of the East and the West.

Though the language is absorbing, the characterization is rendered unconvincing by clichés in mouthful; everyone from the exile bureaucrat in Dharamsala to the illiterate dishwasher in the US speaks honorific Tibetan, perfectly structured and bejeweled with one scintillating aphorism after another.

The book is an unabashed bias in juxtaposition; its simplicity of worldview does little justice to the scope of the chosen theme. And so what promises to be an honest evaluation into such antipodes as idealism v/s reality, community v/s individuality, tradition v/s modernity, conformity v/s dissent saturates into mere amplification of general presumptions: East is warm and good, West is cold and bad. A classic example of Donald S Lopez’s contention in Prisoners of Shangri-La that Tibetans are, at once and both, the jailers and inmates of the prison that is Shangri-La.

Red Poppies

The Tibetan exile scene is a chapter in glaring contradictions, a theatre in shifting priorities, a struggle between preservation and change, a reflection on half-truths of past history and gaping holes of present reality; it’s where loss of yesterday meets uncertainties of tomorrow. And here runs wild tangents of stories told and untold. Hence a group of giggly girls in Dharamsala gyrate to Britney Spears crooning "Oops, I have done it again!" before changing into chupas for their stage performance of a traditional Tibetan song; a US-born Tibetan youth makes a daily ritual of discussing Tibetan politics on internet before retiring to bed, "It like sustains my being, gives meaning to life," he says. Exile is where Tibetan identity is reworked and deconstructed both at the same time.

And if literature is the handmaiden of history—an uncharted record of widowed mother and orphaned children, of shadows across streets, of exultation in absurdities, of blossoming love—It’s also the story of the common man’s trials behind the shifting fortunes of empires and governments: an index to individual angst. As such, the miniscule fare that makes up secular literature in exile explains the narrative void, which renders difficult the task of reconciling Tibet’s celebrated aspects with its inconsistent. It explains the Tibetan inability to articulate, in clear terms, their dislocation of identity, their tight-rope walk over competing lines of self and the idea of it; their indifference to a past beyond Buddhism and their failure to repair the fractured premises of a future yet to come.

Red Poppies is not so much a literary work from exile as it is a novel by a Tibetan inside Tibet. Yet it bears all the marks of wistful observation from the periphery, an unbiased study in the hindsight. First written in Chinese by Alai, a Tibetan from Kham, the book was rejected by numerous publishers for its sensitive political contents before it finally made its way in 1998 to China’s most prestigious publishing company, the People’s Literature Publishing House. An immediate bestseller thereafter, it went on to win, two years later, China’s highest literary award, Mao Dun Prize. Four month ago, Houghton Miffin published its English translation in the US. Bound in glossy-jacketed covers, this English translation of its Chinese original written by a Tibetan about his native country, Red Poppies, today vies for readers’ attention alongside such heavyweights as Jonathan Frenzer’s The Corrections and VS Naipaul’s Half a Life.

An ambitious tale sumptuously told, Red Poppies recreates pre-1949 Chieftain rivalries amid a panoramic sweep—with the doom of Chinese invasion hovering at the horizon—of lust, greed, humor, courage and faith in an eastern Tibetan region of Kham. At the center of this fictionalized epic is a narrator modeled upon Aku Tonpa, a legendary wise buffoon, who, in the author’s words, represents "the Tibetans’ aspirations and oral traditions".

The protagonist sets the book’s tone thus: "The Chieftain’s true wife had taken ill and died. My mother was brought by a fur and medicinal-herb merchant as a gift to the chieftain, who got drunk and then got her pregnant. So I might well be happy going through life as an idiot."

The novel’s recurrent features are its dark humor, savage brutality and a delightful sexual frenzy; a combination told in a self-deprecating language high on ironic perceptiveness.

For all its retrospection on semi-feudal reality of Tibet’s past, Red Poppies is also an off-hand expose of China’s sweet-mouthed infiltration into Tibet; the idea of red poppies–seeds from which opium is extracted–providing metaphorical allusion to China’s initial enticement of high-placed Tibetans with silver coins in abundance.

As opposed to traditional self-flattery, Red Poppies is a wild ride through incorrigible irreverence. The passages shine where the narrator describes his father’s sexual appetites, the intoxicated reverie of villagers high on opium smell and poppy seeds growing from ears of decapitated heads. Remarkable is the portraiture of a geluk lama who loses both his tongue and his freedom for uttering truths too painful for the chieftain’s liking but who even in his muteness provides the only voice of sanity, a sort of only redemption amid a guilt-ridden multitude. It’s not hard to guess the symbolic significance of this marginal character.

The narrator’s father, the chieftain, encapsulates the novel’s shrewdness with this line: "You’re smart because you’re an idiot." The narrator’s pathetic buffoonery, his deriving of joy from acts of self-negation, somewhat signals the arrival of Victorian protagonist: the common man whose character is rendered wholesome by his very flaws.

The way forward

Immature though the overall Tibetan English writing, for Tibetan fiction writers the time, it seems, has finally arrived. Alai’s winning of the highest Chinese literary award for Red Poppies and the conferment last year of the Crossword Award, India’s Pulitzer equivalent, for Jamyang Norbu’s Mandala of Sherlock Holmes vindicates this seeming verbosity.

That Tibetan fiction had to make its mark in languages non-Tibetan is an inescapable irony. It’s a phenomenon that, closer to home, finds its counterpart in Indian literary scene. Perhaps it owes to the fact that like Indian writers in English, Tibetan fiction authors are mostly those perched, in many cases precariously, on the ladder of bourgeois upward-mobility. Or it might be something about their comfort level in articulating a sensibility culled from exile experiences.

Amitava Kumar, author of Passport Photos, explains thus the emergence of diasporic Indian writing: "The failures of the Indian state in the years after independence have, paradoxically enough, freed the writers from carrying the twin burdens of idealism and impotence. New promises and new contradictions now demand the writer’s attention. These are the problems of the writer’s own class rather than someone else’s. These are matters on which the writer can also exercise his will."

In the Tibetan case, it’s not so much a failure as the necessity to reconcile disjunctions between our grand-sounding institutions of the past and the shoddy reality of the present, between the way we live now and the borrowed ideas we use to look at ourselves. And this, according to The Romantics’ Pankaj Mishra, is "the truest function of a national literature: it holds up a mirror in whose unfamiliar reflections a nation slowly learns to recognize itself".

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