A bildungsroman of Dharamshala and the wider Tibetan diaspora
By Srinath Perur | India Today
NEW DELHI, India, 26 September 2020
Tashi Dawa, the protagonist of The Tibetan Suitcase at one point asks, “What have we inherited from our parents and forefathers?” and answers his own question: “Nothing but trauma, sadness and loss, all wrapped in a beautiful language.” Given the tribulations of the past 60 years and the pressures and uncertainties of being a culture separated from its land, it is surprising that there is relatively little contemporary Tibetan literature to make sense of it all.
As if in recognition of this, the novel by Tsering Namgyal Khortsa has Dawa leaving Dharamshala for the US to join a creative writing programme early on in the narrative. There he finds not only love, but also Khenchen Sangpo, a lama, a leading Tibetan scholar and, eventually, his mentor. It’s hard to miss the difference between the two men: Sangpo, born in Tibet and immersed in and almost embodying its culture, is whole in a way that Dawa, born in exile in India, and somewhat listlessly grappling with the uncertainties of his situation, is not. At least, not until he finds his way.
The novel’s setting flits across the globe, to Sarnath, Hong Kong, the US, Oxford, southern France, Tibet. Of all, perhaps the most vividly described and the one stable centre of the novel is Dharamshala, Dawa calls it “this borrowed but beautiful homeland of mine”. In a wryly impressionistic portrait of a McLeod Ganj cafe, Dawa sees foreign tourists, armed with their Lonely Planets and ‘Free Tibet’ bags, who have come “to savour the remnants of a culture quickly being globalised”. He notices a pony-tailed Tibetan man “kissing a rather leggy European” amid talk of sponsoring a visa, and a Tibetan monk “putting together proposals for a brand new Buddhist monastery in India”.
The novel uses something of an epistolary format. The narrative unfolds through letters, articles, news reports and diary entries. This telling of a story through fragments feels particularly appropriate for the lives being written about. It is also a naturally quick-moving format, with breaks in the narrative providing momentum, and Khortsa pulls it off skillfully. His writing can, at times, feel a little stiff, unable to fully inhabit the variety of voices the book holds, but he can also be very funny at times, like with Dawa’s earnest advice to his American researcher girlfriend to avoid Tibetan men, “especially the dissident poets”, or in his description of communism as “Tibetan Tantric Buddhism gone wrong”.
The life of Tibetans in exile is torn between the need to preserve a collective past and shape individual futures. The sort of situation where it is useful to have cultural resources that allow perspective and reflection. Here, The Tibetan Suitcase steps up gently, unassumingly.