Review of Another Place by Tsering Wangyal aka Editor
By Topden Tsering
SAN FRANCISCO, US, 15 December 2020
The late Tsering Wangyal, author of the landmark Tibetan novel in English, Another Place, was less known by his name than by his nickname, Editor. The man’s identity consisted of words — but not of words given by Tibetan religious lamas, who can often fall susceptible to inconsistencies: Think of Paljors who are dirt poor, Sangmos who are downright evil, Jinpas who are incorrigible misers, and the ubiquitous Tenzins who give the ideal Buddhist a bad name.
In Editor, the man was his work. He was the words he banged away on his typewriter to knock out issues, month after month, of the Tibetan Review, of which he was the Editor from the mid-1970s until his resignation in 1996. In the Tibetan reading world, this independent English-language periodical, published in Delhi, was most anticipated for its editorials. These one- or two-page write-ups unfailingly offered ruthless, and sometimes humorous, dressing-downs of the politicians and civil servants in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), or Tibetan Government-in-Exile, in Dharamshala, India. They put up an unflattering mirror to the naïve, misguided, occasionally stupid, and sometimes corrupt ways in which the power wielders handled the Tibetan freedom struggle and Tibetan democracy. No one — except the Dalai Lama — was exempt from his sarcastic incriminations.
Editor’s editorials worked largely because his writing was simple and straightforward, the first rule of good journalism. The wit was a bonus. Editor’s debut novel (also tragically his last), Another Place, the manuscript for which was found after his untimely death at the age of 51 in Canada in 1999, works mostly because it talks about the world he knew: The default device — some call it autobiographical — for the less grounded and more imaginative literary form: Fiction. After all, for at least twenty years, he had closely held a microscope to Tibetan political life (and what is Tibetan life if not political?).
Not one wart was hidden from him. Not one fart escaped his notice.
The writing in Another Place is also simple and straightforward, as the opening of the book suggests: “Everything seemed simple and straightforward then.” The techniques that Editor employs (the tense lapse is intentional) are more conventional than experimental, relying on the dependable third-person point of view. While the plot is driven by linear progression, the book is rife with flashbacks, which exercise Editor pulls off brilliantly.
The novel is outstanding for its characters. If you had lived in Dharamshala in the 1990s, chances are you’d see yourself in one of them. As working in an office in Gyangkyi. As walking around aimlessly in McLeod Ganj. As washing your clothes in the river in Bhangsunath. As sipping on ginger lemon tea in Kailash Hotel while surveying, through the window, the goings-on in the streets below. And as drinking away at the bar in Hotel Tibet, first exchanging pleasantries and small talk; next, after the third or fourth rounds of Kingfisher Beer, discussing politics with a passion bordering on murder; and then, a few moments later, your arms wrapped around each other, singing, with equal fervor, old Bollywood songs — as though your next destination was raunchy gay sex.
The protagonist in the book is Ngawang Tsultrim aka Frank Lee, a 31-year-old, Fulbright-returned, Deputy Secretary at CTA’s Department of Information & International Relations, “the most political office of Tibetan Government-in-Exile”. Like the writer, the main character is also known more by his nickname, although his alias has less to do with any impactful calling and more to do with the typical Tibetan school molestation of English and gift for unforgiving name-calling. I will not disclose the origin of the curious nickname and instead offer a similar example.
Growing up in McLeod Ganj, my friends and I looked up to this young man, older than us by eight or nine years, whose skin was a shade darker than the average Tibetan and whose face was sharp-featured. Athletic of build, he possessed sinewy muscles, and people called him “Ali” which we had assumed was in reference to the world boxing champion. Many years later, after we became friends and during one of our joint-smoking sessions at the bend halfway to Bhagsu, he told me the origin story. He was around nine in a Tibetan school and while in the classroom the students heard a helicopter flying overhead. Excited they ran outside to catch a glimpse of the aircraft. Among them was my friend, who, pointing his finger to the air, was shouting: “Ali Kapta, Ali Kapta.” “Ali” got stuck to him like glue; of his real name, I have no clue.
Frank Lee is surrounded by an assortment of interesting characters. Among them is Thupten Chodrak, owner of “One More Chance Restaurant” in Bhagsunath, formerly in the 22 Army Establishment before he had been dishonorably discharged, and soon after which, at the main temple in “MolaGanji”, he had vowed never to touch alcohol again, leading to not just the lucrative business but also political ambitions — “If he had his way, Thupten would even join the Tibetan Women’s Association,” one of Frank’s friends quips.
There is also: Anthony Sinclair-Davis, “Tony”, an actual Injie from England, who is writing a dissertation on Tibetan democracy, who is never seen without his rucksack, and who shares a deep friendship with Frank, the two having first met after the latter had been assigned to show the former around town, arranging interviews for his thesis; now they are drinking buddies and equal voyeurs of Tibetan beauties and classical music such as Beethovan’s Moonlight Sonata. Tenzin Lhakyi is Frank’s new wife, currently in the US under the Tibetan Resettlement Project, waiting to be “re-united” with her husband, who, on their first meeting, had found her to be like “young Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Cleopatra”. Frank had met her while she was working as a nurse at Holy Family Hospital in Delhi, and on their first date, during a slow dance at a wedding party in Majnu Ka Tilla, the two kiss uninhibitedly several times.
Pema Choezom is a ravishing beauty and source of Frank’s unrequited love. After studying until Class X at Loreto School in Darjeeling, her strict father moved the family to Dharamshala, where she was admitted to Upper TCV School, which, as Editor writes, “launched her distinguished career of breaking hearts, left, right and center”. Pema eventually joins Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College to study English Honors (the same subject that Frank had taken while at St. Stephen’s College several years earlier; the same subject yours truly took, while failing to attend many classes, in the nearby Hans Raj College; and the same subject that claimed half the Tibetan college-going population in Delhi). Despite Pema’s disciplinarian father and her rejection of Frank’s overtures, in a dimly-lit Video Parlor showing a pirated and poor quality tape of a Hollywood film, Pema demonstrates adventurous sexual streaks; reminiscing about one of her lovers who had ejaculated prematurely, she writes: “Poor chap. I hope he has found a good teacher by now.”
Pema’s father is Jhangsur, former governor of Phari in Tibet, now head of the Tibetan Medical Institute, an avid reader of Sheja, a Tibetan-language newspaper, and a more avid writer of opinion letters which he’d plaster on the Notice Board outside Gyangkyi’s staff mess. While the majority of posters of such leaflets remained anonymous, Jhangsur attached his signature to all his letters, including those criticizing the Tibetan government for trading independence as the goal for Tibet for genuine autonomy. (Take that all you sissy fake Facebook account holders, using your anonymity to discredit and injure people whose opinions you do not agree with.) A self-made pompous man with lofty political ambitions, he scoffs equally at low-ranking civil servants and at those vying for his beautiful daughter’s attention.
Editor is in high literary form when he introduces an ingenious arc involving Jhangsur’s possessiveness over his young wife in the novel’s Prologue, and again toward the end where Chok Shamten, the handsome peasant Jhangsur is banished from Phari “never to return” because the governor’s beautiful wife had smiled on the innocent, hardworking man in the book’s first couple of pages.
The remaining cast is comprised of men and women working in the various offices and institutions in and around Dharamshala. There is Sexy Migsy, a thirty-something Tibetan woman named Migmar, mother of two, whose Home Department-employee husband is perennially on “Out of Station” duty, and who “is rumored to be bestowing carnal pleasures on some young man in Gangkyi”.
The book is equally about places: Dharamshala, Gangchen Kyishong and its many office buildings and staff quarters, the streets of McLeod Ganj, Hotel Tibet Bar, Office of Tibet in Delhi, etc. Most of the action takes place in the One More Chance Restaurant in Bhagsunath where Frank and his friends, office workers from Gangkyi and teachers from TCV, gather to play “Paglug,” a popular Tibetan card game variation of Indian Rummy. The fictional restaurant’s name is a clever play on an actual eatery “Last Chance Restaurant” that stood at the bend halfway to Bhagsunath, where Ali had shared with me his alias’s story.
Midway through the book, I felt that its title was lightweight, almost anti-climactic. The book is essentially about a period of time — 1995 through 1999 — which carried, within the span of a mere four years, the full weight of Tibetan history. With 1995 as the year of the story’s beginning, most of the important events related to Tibet had unfolded in the last ten years. 1987-1989: Popular uprisings in Tibet resulting in Martial Law. 1987: The Dalai Lama’s Five-Point Peace Plan. 1988: The Strasbourg Proposal. 1989: Conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize upon the Dalai Lama. 1989: Tiananmen Square Massacre. 1989: Launch of the Fulbright “Halfbright” Scholarship. 1990: US Tibetan Resettlement Project. The period saw the peaking of international support for Tibet with the passing of innumerable legislations and resolutions; the zenith was perhaps around the time the Hollywood films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet were released. So why not call the book Another Time, which is still not a great title, but is at least less self-effacing?
Then it struck me: To Tibetans, time and place are interchangeable, carrying equal significance, portending similar omens. A sharp red line was drawn across our history when the Dalai Lama, followed by hundreds of thousands of his people, left Tibet for India. Another red line, whose positive or negative outcomes will be established over time, was drawn when the migration continued Westward, the United States then, now across the whole of Europe. While there is no way for me to ascertain this since Editor is not around, I marvel at the possibility that this might have been his suggestion: that when we leave one place for another, we also leave one time in history for another.
Alternately, when we left a specific time in history, we entered a different place — India and Nepal. When we left a specific place in the world, we entered a different time — the US and the West, and with them their dizzying realities, challenges, and opportunities, complete with decidedly different time zones. After all, Frank Lee, by the end of the novel, embarks on a new life to Colorado in the US.
The book is also about the disappearance of a laptop computer, the effort to locate which forms the crux of the plot. The electronics had cost Frank most of the savings he had put together working at a Tibetan restaurant in Queens while completing his one-year program at a school in New York. Despite this scholarship to study Political Science at the American university, Frank is unremarkable in his work and ambitions.
Barring his lackluster aptitude or skills, Frank shares a lot of characteristics with Editor. Among them are the writer’s disdain for mainstream Bollywood films, his appreciation of world cinema, and his love for classical music, the Soprano and the like. The protagonist also reveals a cosmopolitan consciousness that is unique to Editor’s understanding of the time and the world he lived in. Throughout the novel, Frank sports a crew-cut, inspired by Richard Gere’s hairstyle in An Officer and the Gentleman, and later reinforced by his knowledge that Pema likened herself to Cindy Crawford. A big poster of the American actor adorns one side of his wall; then thinking that people might consider him gay, next to it he puts up a picture of Madonna. This possibility might have come to Frank only because he had been in the US; otherwise it is unlikely for men in India at that time to worry about being labelled gay for putting up the poster of a male icon.
Other such expressions of awareness include how sexually liberated his female characters are. Be it Pema Choezom, Tenzin Lhakyi, or Sexy Migsy, they do not think twice about kissing back, having sex, and kicking men in the groin if they so prove deserving.
Editor’s trademark wittiness permeates the novel. One of the people who offers to help Frank in recovering his laptop is Lobsang, the eldest card player of the Paglug gang, and a member of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, or the exile Tibetan parliament; he reckons he should at least appear to be concerned or try to solve the mystery: “Reputation built on that alone might secure his re-election to the Assembly next year.” While establishing Pema’s desirability early on, Editor writes, “the unflattering TCV uniform hardly intervened with her looks.” About the smile of Thupten’s daughter, Tenzin Bhuti, the writer says: “the exercise had the effect of transforming her eyes into two short, straight lines.”
Equal to the fun Editor has with sex scenes, both suggested and explicit, he provides himself generous literary treats by mentioning Tibetan Review a few times. Once elderly Nowrojee, Proprieter of Nowrojee and Sons, complains to Frank about not receiving the magazine issues on time. At another time, Editor has Tony interviewing the Editor of Tibetan Review about Tibetan democracy, a contrivance possible only in novels.
It has been more than 20 years since Editor passed on. But I take it both the book and this creative device were his way of extending a beer bottle, with a Dunhill cigarette between his fingers, from his “Another Place” to ours, and saying: “Cheers!”
About the author
Topden Tsering, based in the San Francisco Bay Area of the US, is a writer and former Editor of the Tibetan Bulletin.