For generations of Tibetans born in exile, their homeland is an imagined, mythical one, with history as their father and the culture that nourishes them as their mother. But more than that borrowed memory of their history, freedom and liberation constantly fire their imagination. This is the courage that sustains them, although Tibet’s tragedy is that its people were alone in fighting for their homeland, and the rest of humanity did not rally to their cause. It is a savage world from which the tap of history drips. The Penguin Book Of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie, is a collection of 28 non-fiction essays by 22 writers that draws on this memory as well as this imagination.
This collection is a meditation on exile seen through the eyes of Tibetans across continents, scattered as they are, far from the place they call their country, their home. It is also an exploration of the meaning of home and the nature of the displacement that every author in this volume has confronted. In doing so, and in the very enquiry into the meaning of that displacement, these writings are quintessentially moving in the message they convey, of a homeland and a safe harbour that no longer exists, that can no longer welcome them.
Like Dante, exiled from his beloved “abiding city”—Florence—to which he never returned, for exiled Tibetans, exile is their only reality. For those of us who belong to a nation, it is hard to understand the plain fact that for the exile, there is nowhere to call home. Pablo Neruda’s words are recalled: “Night comes down, but your stars are missing.” We have flags to fight for and rally around, and the world recognises that, but for the Tibetans-in-exile, there are no Olympic contingents, or a flag to be flown at the United Nations.
There is another perspective to exile that is brought to light in this volume: that of Tibetans within China. For poet Tsering Woeser, in Beijing, there is nostalgia for the “very elegant, very Lhasa way that belonged to the Lhasa of time past” and where the “bulky blood-red pillars” of Chinese Communist Party-ruled Tibet stab her eyes. For Nyen, the pen name of well-known poet Jangtse Dhokho, who was a political prisoner, Tibetan culture is that irresistible and invisible force, like a seasonal wind that penetrates the iron fences of his dark prison, infusing him with that cultural courage because of which “no one has been able to strip me naked to date”.
Tenzin Dickie, the writer and translator who is also the editor of this volume, says Tibetans write in code, especially when they are inside Tibet, because they have to conceal. As she puts it, “the twin strands of occupation and exile form the DNA of modern Tibetan literature” and it is by speaking as Tibetans, and writing as Tibetans, that the Tibetan nation is recreated.
Like in Dante’s Purgatorio, Tibetans write in the bardo, the “in-between transitory period between our old life and the new, towards the future”. They are those in-between people, not-yet people, as another writer in this anthology, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa puts it in her essay ‘Nation of Two’, making up the rules as they go along because there is “no guidebook to living in exile.” They are grounded in each other, and memory is the only stability they hold on to.
These are not chronicles of the forsaken, however. Exile may be pain, sorrow and dislocation but survival is the way forward, because survival is a “resistance to being forgotten, a resistance against occupation, and a resistance against some of our faulty memories that do not match reality”, as Bhuchung Sonam, a publisher and a writer says in an essay titled Unhealed.
The diminished existence of exile is a constant, with the tragic realisation that the “broken families of Tibet will never rejoin”, as activist Tenzin Tsundue writes in Nowhere To Call Home. The profound loneliness that spells existence for many Tibetans, as for instance, the Tibetan children who were sent to Dharamshala in the eighties and the nineties, from Tibet by their parents, is tragedy, itself. That outflow has stopped today as the Chinese government has imposed strict controls on the exit of Tibetans out of Nepal and into India. Then, there are the refugee children in the thick forests of Karnataka, rehabilitated in the middle of nowhere, whose connections to their homeland are built by grandmothers who tell them stories of snow mountains and yaks. And that is how they “become Tibetan, even after being born in India and never seeing the real Tibet”.
The tragedy of exile is this: While those who live it preserve the dream of an eventual return to their homeland in their hearts, the dream gradually recedes to “such a distance that return becomes impossible” and the “wish to return and my inability to actually return have become the primary contradictions of my life”, as award-winning novelist Lhashamgyal notes in The Man Who Can Never Go Home. This, then, is the karma of all exiles, for however “far we may go, we are unable to go very far in the end”.
Dickie defines the literary form of the essay in her introduction to this collection as a “declaration of truth”, a Satyakriya in the Buddhist sense of the word, where the loss of Tibet, that open wound “which refuses to close”, is rendered evocatively in brilliant penmanship through this literature of the bardo. Each of these essays, then, becomes a cry of the heart, the subtext of which must be paid close attention to, where transitions are constantly made, as the old gives way to the new, and a people move forward into a future which is uncertain for most.
Ultimately, here are a people in exile who have learnt to guard each other’s happiness, as the mother and daughter in Nation Of Two whose love, like their mobility, “had a relationship with precarity. Unable to root ourselves wherever we were, we instead were grounded in each other—a nation of two”.
Searching for the meaning of home is not easy. The definition is often elusive, because the displacement which the exile or refugee encounters, entails a loss of gravity, where the individual is tether-less and floating in many worlds. It is here that the search for relevance and fulfilment is a constant.
Nothing illustrates this better than Tsering Woeser’s account of the performer of the traditional dance of Gar, who goes by the name of Garpon La and who travels from Tibet to Dharamshala to perform the Gar before Kundun, the Dalai Lama (Garpon La’s Offerings). It is when he dedicates Gar to Kundun, and as he taps his drum and sings “with his desolate voice” and as “the sounds of crying and weeping” fill the house, “enclosing the air of a foreign country but smelling of the incense of Lhasa” and as the Dalai Lama quietly sheds tears, that Garpon is finally “granted the wish that kept him alive during his many years of hard labour”. Thus, music is made from suffering, and a liberated Garpon returns to Tibet with advice from His Holiness to perform his art in Tibet so that it does not die out.
All literature, said Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, carries exile within it. “To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self.” These essays represent the many journeys of exile, the search for identity in a world where impermanence is a constant. Here are the many voices of Tibet, speaking with great conviction, and telling an epic story.
Nirupama Menon Rao is a former Indian foreign secretary and the author of The Fractured Himalaya: India, Tibet, China 1949-1962.