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Literary sandbox

By Bhuchung D Sonam

28 October 2016

Tibetan fiction’s two overused themes of politics and religion limits experimentation

Sherlock Holmes

Growing up in a tiny village in Tibet under Chinese rule, there were few books that crossed my path. By the time I was old enough to read, Mao was dead and his Little Red Book had taken a near-permanent place on our former altar, rather than in my father’s pocket to be read, studied and enthusiastically displayed during public meetings and political rallies. The first book that our neighbour invited me to read aloud was a Gesar story. Hor-Ling Yulgye or The War Between Ling and Mongolia was one of the epic legends of Gesar of Ling – running to over one hundred volumes, it is perhaps the longest epic in the world. During a daylong marathon recitation in our neighbour’s house, Aku Migmar and his son-in-law would gasp or slap their thighs when Gesar and his generals went into battle while his wife and daughter would occasionally stop me to ask whether Drukmo was in Hor or in Ling. In the evening they sent me home with a packet of dried chura, a chunk of yak meat and a pouch of tsampa as gifts. They said they’d invite me again when they got another volume of the epic story.

Books were not the only source of Gesar stories though. There were, and still are, Gesar bards, including one in our village, an old woman who did not know how to read or write. Often she would go into a story-telling spree singing the dialogue in various melodies, depending on the character. There are over 50 different tunes to switch to, like: ‘melody of the tigress pose’, ‘melody of the warrior’s roar’, ‘melody of the cascading water’, ‘melody of the majestic pose’. The old woman would jump, sway her body and thrash imagined enemies with her wrinkled hands. The only demand she made was for us children to collect firewood for her. In our remote village, her Gesar stories at night were one of the few entertainments we had.

Five years later at a Tibetan refugee school in India, I discovered books in Tibetan to immerse myself in during the years spent at foster homes and boys’ hostels. In the company of characters such as Aku Tonpa, Drowa Sangmo and Ling Gesar in folk tales, fables, epics and religious-themed opera stories, I found a parallel world that perhaps saved me from the worst scars of loneliness, dislocation and the ordeal of having to face each desolate day away from home.

It was at my school’s tiny library that I also found an old copy of Zhonu Damey Kyi Tam Gyue or Tale of the Incomparable Youth stacked along with back issues of magazines like Time and National Geographic and, of course, prayer books. Its back cover was missing, many pages were dog-eared by previous readers and others were yellowing from dust, humidity and neglect. Tale of the Incomparable Youth is perhaps the first modern Tibetan novel. Its author Dokhar Tsering Wangyal (1689-1763), a cabinet minister for the Seventh Dalai Lama, moves away from the heavily religious writing that had persisted for centuries and essentially penned a ‘romance novel’ adapted from Ramayan but with Buddhist characteristics and elements.

In Dokhar’s novel, a king and a queen give birth to a boy child – Zhonu Damey. The parents bring him up in secular fashion and plan to have him rule the kingdom. When he comes of age, the only suitable girl is betrothed to another prince. Damey gathers a large army to steal the girl. He succeeds and so they are wed. However, Damey’s father falls in love with a low-class girl, marries her and the new queen delivers a son. After the king’s death, the second queen becomes infatuated with Damey. When he rejects her advances he is banished. But when he returns from his exile, Damey begins to preach Buddhism to his family and the court.

This novel, written in a beautiful mix of poetry and prose, follows the prescribed stages of life such as duty, love and then renunciation from the worldly life by engaging in the practice and propagation of Buddhist values. Yet, after the publication of Tale of the Incomparable Youth, Tibet once again became immune to secular writing.

Following China’s occupation of the Tibetan Plateau, a number of officially-vetted novels were published, primarily dwelling on the ills of ‘Old Tibet’. In 1991, the title Phal pa’i khyim tshang gi skyid sdug or The Joys and Sorrows of an Ordinary Family by Tashi Palden marked an important transition both in style and content of the narrative in Tibet according to Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya. The novel, as the title says, tells the story of an everyday family in an ordinary village spanning over three decades. The story begins in the 1960s with formation of the Commune System in Tibet under the so-called ‘Democratic Reforms’ campaign and ends in the early 1980s. The narrative of this family saga revolves around the lives of Tseten Lhamo, Phuntsog and Lhakdor, who come across as real people. A reader can at once empathise with them as they negotiate their lives in the village while larger political events take place in distant cities. The language is colloquial unlike Tale of the Incomparable Youth, which is highly polished with abundant metaphors and similes. The narrative of Palden’s novel, Shakya writes, “intentionally or unintentionally, presents itself as a lived experience of the characters which discloses a singular experience of the Tibetan people”.


Since the 1970s there has also been a steady increase in the number of books in English written by Tibetans. The number of poetry books has been particularly impressive but only a handful of novels have appeared. The first one – Idols On The Path by Tsewang Yeshi Pemba – was perchance published in 1966 in England, coinciding with Mao’s Cultural Revolution. I found a jacketless hardcopy of this novel at Dharamsala’s Library of Tibetan Works & Archives and read it with the concentration of a hermit. The novel’s protagonist, Rinzin Phuntsok, is an English-educated allopathic doctor who, after witnessing the loss of Tibet’s independence and coming into exile, volunteers at a makeshift clinic to treat fleeing refugees. He becomes deeply disgusted with aristocrats, cloaking themselves in brocades and spending their time playing mahjong while the majority of refugees suffer from diseases and hunger. His frustration leads the doctor towards Buddhism and in the end he becomes the sole custodian of The Transitory Illusion, a sacred text composed by his childhood friend who happens to be one of the rare spiritual masters of Tibet. After receiving this sacred text Rinzin felt “as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders” and pledges that wherever he went “he would find unbounded peace and solace.”

This book could have been a great novel only if it was not afflicted by one of the two recurring themes that most Tibetan fiction seems to suffer from – politics. The First National Conference of Tibetan Writers held in March 1995 was organised by Dharamsala-based Amnye Machen Institute, a Tibetan Centre for Advanced Studies. The theme of the conference was ‘Literature for Freedom’. The theme of the conference was Literature for Freedom Struggle and on the first day the participants were requested “to contribute an essay, story, verse or else, of no more than a page on the subject of the Tibetan Freedom Struggle.” While it is pertinent and necessary for creative artists to discuss how they can contribute towards the struggle for freedom, there is something troubling when they are urged, nudged and solicited en-masse to move towards a certain theme. At this point in Tibetan history, shouldn’t any work by any Tibetan artist anywhere be considered an act of resistance and survival?

Idols On The Path, published over three decades before the writers’ conference in Dharamsala, seemed to have prefigured its call for action. The first half of this novel reads wonderfully with incredible descriptions of the land and fantastic happenings, often reminding one of the classics in magic realism such as Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Varga Llosa. Just as one thinks here is a fabulous novel, the politics creeps in and as a result much of the second half resembles the mini-political history of contemporary Tibet, complete with facts, figures and dates such as “on January 1, 1950, Peking announced to the outside world …” or “in 1951 China offered ‘peaceful’ negotiations and Tibet sent some delegates who were treated virtually as prisoners”, and so on.

This urge to slip hard political issues into a story based on profound human experience seems not only forced but also veers off from the flow of the narrative. As a casualty of occupation and dislocation, it is natural for the author to nurture pain and resentment, and to sprinkle them into his story. But an overt display of political allegiance warps the common ground that art is capable of creating. It also reduces one’s creative canvas into a narrow political pitch where the creative freedom submits to binary arguments and the imagination is bridled by a certain ideology.

The other recurring and overused theme of Tibetan fiction is religion.

A few years ago I met a young woman from Singapore who, having read a fair amount of contemporary Tibetan poetry, commented, “I like your poems because they have a strong Buddhist flavour”. A maroon light flickered in my head. I felt dizzy. I have never consciously written poetry to reflect Buddhist values or ethics and yet the fact that someone feels this way says a lot about the subconscious influences.

In Tibetan society, Buddhism is the all-important centrepiece around which everything revolves, and its protection and promotion is also where most resources – both material and human – are devoted. It began with Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd king of Tibet. From the eighth century till 1959, Tibetan scholars have translated over 4000 Buddhist texts from India. The total number of words translated is said to be over seventy million.

It is without doubt that Buddhism and its resulting culture have succeeded in uniting the Tibetan people under a single banner and provided them with a distinct identity. But today Buddhism alone may not be enough to define who we are. We need to have alternative identities and frameworks besides Buddhism. Must religion be the lone light bulb around which everyone dances like moths? Or when all is lost, when every unimaginable cruelty and brutality is displayed before one’s eyes, when every foundation of life is shaken or when the battle is won and the enemy vanquished, should Buddhism be the only soft mattress on which we must fall back for comfort, reassurance and peace?

In life as in literature, the answer it seems is in the affirmative.

  • The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, published in 1999, is an impeccable novel. Norbu is one of the foremost Tibetans writing in English today. In this novel, the authenticity of Norbu’s research is irrefutable and the language flawless. The story, however, ends like this: After defeating his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, in the Ice Temple of Shambhala, Sherlock Holmes is recognised as the reincarnation of a dead lama. The great detective is told that he is no longer Sherlock Holmes. “You are the renowned Gangsar Tulku, former abbot of White Garuda Monastery, one of the greatest adepts of the occult sciences. The Dark One slew you eighteen years ago but just before your life-force left your body we were able to transfer it – by the yoga of Pho-wa – to another body far away,” Lama Yonten says.

Thereby, the quintessential Victorian Englishman becomes an oath-bound spiritual master and retires to his monastery in southern Tibet. The trouble here is twofold. First it reinforces the typecast of earlier books authored by writers from the West featuring white men solving mysteries in Tibet and becoming heroes. Secondly it endorses the prevalent notion of a ‘magical Tibet’ where renunciation – to leave the ordinary world and to enter a monastic life by becoming a monk or nun – reigns over everything else. This is a palpable self-exoticisation.

The final denouements of two other novels are worryingly similar. In Falling Through The Roof by Thubten Samphel, published in 2008, Tashi, the chief protagonist – a staunch Communist and founder of the Tibetan Communist Party who once lit a cigarette and blew a mouthful of smoke into a lama’s face – is recognised as the reincarnation of the Twentieth Drubtop Rinpoche. Tashi mounts the steep steps to the throne and a monk places before him ‘a scroll of parchment paper, the Drubchen Monastery’s letter of recognition, two seals and a red upturned hat, which made its owner the true and ultimate authority of the oldest monastery in Tibet.’ After Tashi’s grand enthronement ceremony, the hands that once flipped through the pages of Das Kapital and authored Communist pamphlets now bless his devotees and followers. How does the writer not explore this contradiction and the changes this former-atheist undergoes?

More recently, in Tsering Namgyal’s novel The Tibetan Suitcase, Dawa Tashi, the protagonist who is a writer, “after crossing many oceans” and discovering that an American girl he is interested is now engaged, decides to become a monk. In the final entry in his diary, Dawa writes, “Well, indeed, this is precisely the reason I know why Tibetans realise that life is too short for all this meandering in cyclic existence, this meaningless existence called samsara…We know the clock is ticking and we know it is important to do the right thing, to be on the right path.”

Earlier this month, I was walking up the winding mountain path from the main market in Dharamsala, with one of our neighbours, a young woman who was carrying a rather large shopping bag stuffed with groceries to the point of overflowing. “We have invited four monks for our monthly puja; I have to cook for them tomorrow,” she said. I opined that it might be easier and more convenient to offer money to a monastery and have monks recite prayers and perform rituals there. “But when I hear the monks’ voices and sounds of the drums and cymbals in our house, I feel very reassured,” she said.

Religion provides ready-made answers and leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring. One must accept certain paradigms within which a believer seeks solace, comfort and ‘reassurance’. There is the anxiety of being transported to the realms of animal or hungry-ghost in the next life if we do not conduct our lives to set moral codes, and the hope of a better rebirth. Then there is the enticing promise of enlightenment – to be totally free from the ‘sufferings’ of the earthly realm.


It is normal for writers, while producing a piece of literature, to dig into their social and religious underpinning to use elements from belief systems, superstitions, customs and folklore. Nonetheless, choosing a predictable path found in the existing social or religious set up to bring identical conclusions to very different stories is intellectual sloth. “Literature,” writes the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, “is always badly served when an author’s artistic insights yields to stereotypes…” To avoid pigeonholes – and to construct limitless worlds where one can be truly free and be oneself without any constraint – is a writer’s intellectual vocation. Reflecting on Japanese literature, Kyabchen Dedrol, one of the best-known authors in Tibet today, said: “A writer’s composition is a product of how far-reaching his mind is. I think that like Haruki Murakami, we other Asian writers must think outside the confines of an individual culture in our writing.” All Tibetan creative works hence necessarily don’t have to knock at the door of a monastery.

Writers from displaced and dispossessed communities such as Tibetans often have a great tendency and an urgent need to feel nostalgia for a time and place that no longer exists, an immense longing to either go back or to recreate such a place through their writing. It is this non-existent time and place that allows them to create a space in their minds. This space is their ‘imaginary home’, a refuge where they can retreat to catch a moment of silence and respite from the unforgiving circumstances they are forced into. In the case of most Tibetans, this quiet and sacred space in the mind is still linked to the folds of Buddha’s robes by an invisible cord.

When a writer comes out of this space, he is bombarded by contradictions between the past glories and the present reality, between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs. Sandwiched between these conflicting instincts, a writer must find a common ground from where he can function best to create unconventional and unconfined narratives. Each writer must carve out his own window through which he can display his own version of the world without, as Camus says, “dictates from above”.

~ Bhuchung D Sonam studied in Dharamsala. His books include Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film and Politics and Songs of the Arrow.

3 Responses to “Literary sandbox”

  1. bhumo says:

    Bhuchung, why is late Dawa Norbu not mentioned here? His works are immensely read and applauded.

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  2. Kunsang says:

    “Tibetan scholars have translated over 4000 Buddhist texts from India. The total number of words translated is said to be over seventy million, which is roughly ten million words for each living Tibetan. This awards us the highest per capita words translation in the world.” The above statement is confusing. Clear the confusion arising from contradiction.

    Editor’s note: Thank you for pointing out this discrepancy. It has now been corrected.

  3. paldon says:

    I loved reading this piece. Thank you Buchungla.

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