By Tenzin Nyinjey
TORONTO, Canada, 14 March 2021
I would like to thank publisher and poet Bhuchung D Sonam for sending me the novel Another Place by the late Tsering Wangyal, the former editor of Tibetan Review. In this age of the Internet and digital technology, made worse by the pandemic lockdown, what a joy it is to receive books through the postal service from India!
Topden Tsering already wrote a brilliant review of the novel, so lest I repeat his narratives, I will try to focus on the aspects of the novel that he left untouched in his review. First of all, this is potentially an excellent novel for Tibetan urbane intellectuals alienated from the mainstream Tibetan world, for two reasons: 1) It’s a novel written in English; 2) The lead character is an Anglophone Tibetan educated in a convent school in Kalimpong.
The lead character is a ‘savvy’ young man called Frank Lee aka Ngawang Tsultrim, who comes to Dharamshala to serve the Tibetan government in exile. As someone with a decent English education, he gets posted to the Department of Information and International Relations; this is the department where supposedly the ‘best and brightest’ young civil servants aspire to serve. It has an office building designed not unlike Capitol Hill of Washington DC, and hence officials serving in this department have ample opportunities to travel abroad to campaign for and attend meetings on the Tibetan struggle.
Frank Lee’s job is to work as a coordinator with foreign Tibet support groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Campaign for Tibet. Like most young diplomats and journalists working in the department, Frank Lee aspires to and succeeds in getting a Fulbright [’half-bright’] scholarship in the United States. Like most Fulbright Tibetan scholars in the West, Frank Lee pursues a one-year diploma degree course. This basically means he doesn’t have to write papers!
The main plot of the novel is Frank Lee’s loss of his expensive computer notebook that he brought from the US [the only one that’s available in the whole of India then] and how he and his friend, Tony (an Englishman who’s in Dharamshala to write a thesis on Tibetan democracy), using investigative insights from Sherlock Holmes, make sure they recover the expensive item in such a way that the man who ‘stole’ it, a friend, doesn’t lose face!
To me, this is a metaphor for Tibetans using their creative genius to regain their lost homeland from China in such a way that genuine reconciliation between the two neighbouring nations is once again restored. But such a reconciliation — a true restoration of Tibetan and Chinese freedom — is being undermined by many factors that the Tibetan population, including the Dharamshala establishment, has to overcome. These are the massive dumbing down of Tibetan intelligence caused by cheap, sensationalist Bollywood films and TV soap operas, the tendency of Tibetans to spread rumours without really checking out the sources, the typical orthodoxy and lack of innovation and dictatorial nature of Dharamshala bureaucrats as depicted by the character playing the role of secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations — in short, lack of democratic culture and consciousness.
Another plot is the missed love story between Frank Lee and the lead heroine of the novel, Pema, a daughter of a pompous former Tibetan aristocrat named Jangsur. Pema too gets educated in a convent school, but thanks to her father she’s transferred to TCV School where she is brought up in a Tibetan environment. Apart from this, her father arranges two tutors who provide Tibetan lessons to her daughter at his home. This rare opportunity to have access to the best of English and Tibetan education, plus economic wealth thanks to Jangsur running a bunch of taxi services, is the reason why Pema grows up into a powerful, sophisticated, cosmopolitan (she is most comfortable speaking in English, Nepali, or Hindi, although she learns to speak Tibetan relatively well), and out-and-out Tibetan femi-nationalist. The way she knocks off her Afghan boyfriend in Delhi who tries to humiliate her is just breathtaking!
While Frank Lee is a savvy, interesting character who does succeed in recovering his precious computer notebook, while he does have the courage to suggest in front of all the junior staffs during a meeting that the dictatorial secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations (behind his back staffs call him Idi Amin) to cut down on his foreign trips to save office expenditure — he lacks the ‘killer instinct’ that Pema possesses.
This lack of ‘killer instinct’ causes his exile from Dharamshala to the US, for he’s easily bullied into submission by the unjust authority exerted by pompous government bureaucrats. Just before he leaves for the US, however, a proto-consciousness of sort begins to dawn in Frank Lee’s mind about the need to gain political power. He expresses for the first time his spontaneous, genuine outrage at CTA’s Middle Way video propaganda. While packing his clothes into his suitcase to leave for the US to rejoin his wife in Colorado, for the first time Frank Lee also looks at and packs up the political science texts from his school in the US — texts he had never read!
Will Frank Lee read the political texts in the US and return to Dharamshala to help lead a democratic and Rang-tsen revolution? Or like the rest of ‘half-brighters’ settled in the US and Canada, will he get lost in his own world trying to build a professional career? The novel ends without answering these questions.
PS: In the novel, we have no idea about Frank Lee’s parents, his regional background — whether he’s from Central Tibet, Kham or Amdo. He’s simply Frank Lee.
Another Place: A Novel
by Tsering Wangyal
Pages 298, Rs 200
Blackneck Books, Dharamshala, 2021