“A Home in Tibet” is a daughter’s tribute to a mother and a homeland

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s parents fled Tibet for India in 1959, following a Chinese invasion. Throughout her exiled life, Tsering’s mother waited to return home, and clung to its sights and sounds devoutly. The wait proved futile; in 1994 she died in a car accident, far from her country and family.

Tsering, who grew up in exile in India and Nepal, decided to take a handful of her mother’s ashes to Tibet. In a strange way, the journey to the country she had known only in her mother’s memories of it proved to be a homecoming for her too. “…you appropriate images from each other and inhabit one tongue until the stories that compose your two worlds become interchangeable. It was so for my mother and I,” Tsering writes in the prologue of “A Home in Tibet” (Penguin), her first full length book, written between 1995 and 2009, which is an account of successive journeys to Tibet as also a portrait of her mother.

“When I was growing up the loss of her family was very hard on my mother because they were from a very small tight knit community. I grew up memorising the names of all her family members, and every year knowing about the region. She would tell me about the shape of the rivers, she made me memorise the names of all 13 monasteries of the village, and the names of lamas of all those monasteries…So in many ways I think I grew up in two worlds; one was very clearly her world and the world of her childhood that was presented to me as my real home. When I went there I felt immediately that I was coming home…” the author said at the recent launch of the book, at Moon River Café in the Capital.

Tsering has previously published three collections of poetry and two chap books. “I always think of poetry as not personal; it’s for me a way of understanding the world. It’s not about what I know but what I don’t know. It comes from a certain curiosity. Writing about my mother felt personal, it felt indulgent in some way, so I had to struggle first with that. But on the other hand I also felt that I was brought up to perhaps write this book,” she said.

Recalling a scene from her childhood, Tsering told the audience about the time her mother was visited by a screenwriter and a lawyer, perhaps with a view to turn her story into a film. After having initially accepted, her mother declined, telling them that her daughter would write it one day. “I think she felt that there were certain things that someone else would never understand about what it means to be estranged from one’s land, what it means to really love a land,” Tsering remembered.

The launch ended with a few members of the audience voicing their anxieties about the status of Tibetan language and literature. “As more and more generations are born into exile, I feel like the old stories are going away from us. There is a lack of literature that works towards preserving these stories,” a young girl said.

Tsering agreed and hoped that more Tibetan writers will write “in more engaged and complicated ways, thinking more deeply…we need to perhaps have more dialogue with each other…”