Review of Tenzin Dickie’s The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays: The tragedy of exile

Through literature, Tibetan writers keep a lost land alive

July 28, 2023 09:01 am | Updated 09:01 am IST

A Tibetan woman at the site of Lhagyari Mansion, in Qusum county of Tibet Autonomous Region.

A Tibetan woman at the site of Lhagyari Mansion, in Qusum county of Tibet Autonomous Region. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Tibet, high on the plateau, has always seemed far away in the imagination. Today, it arguably appears farther than ever under restrictions imposed by China’s rule. That feeling of distance is one that Tibetan exiles grapple with constantly. For them, writing about Tibet becomes, as poet and writer Tenzin Dickie reflects, “a literary exercise in recovering the lost land”.

In this new collection, The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, Dickie has brought together an extraordinary group of Tibetan writers — some writing from abroad, some from within, yet all bound by a shared sense of loss and a shared search for home. “To speak as Tibetans and to write as Tibetans,” Dickie reflects, “is to continually recreate the Tibetan nation”.

‘Open wound’

Seniors have a snack on a street in the mountains.

Seniors have a snack on a street in the mountains. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Tibet for them “is our open wound which refuses to close”, which infuses modern Tibetan literature with what Dickie calls “the twin strands of occupation and exile”. While that may be true, where this collection succeeds is in going beyond the occupation-exile binary and painting a layered portrait of what it means to be in exile.

Dhondup Rekjong evocatively writes of leaving Tibet and the loss and compromise that comes with finding a place in an exiled community. Students from Amdo, one of the three regions of Tibet, all had to learn to speak Utsang, the regional dialect spoken in Lhasa. He and others “debated whether to keep my dialect or replace it”. “If I didn’t replace it, I wouldn’t understand my teacher’s lessons. But then, if I lost my Amdo dialect, I might lose my regional culture, customs and even my expressions”. These dilemmas, he argues, were “a direct consequence” of Chinese policies that had harmful effects on Tibetan culture, which led to “unity becoming the primary goal” to keep the Tibetan community alive in exile, even if it meant losing diversity.

Buddhist monks playing the horn in Tibet.

Buddhist monks playing the horn in Tibet. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The collection also has valuable voices from inside China. Beijing-based writer Tsering Woeser, who has written fearlessly about Tibet’s loss of culture and identity at the cost of being under ceaseless close surveillance in Beijing, contributes a fascinating essay on the life of Garpon La, an exponent of Gar, a Tibetan court song and dance, who joined the Dalai Lama’s troupe aged 9, and like many other Tibetan (and Chinese) artists, performers and intellectuals, would be sent to do hard labour in the Mao era. Later rehabilitated, he would find his way to Dharamshala for an extraordinary and emotional reunion — and one last performance — for the Dalai Lama himself.

Shopping at night along the Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet.

Shopping at night along the Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Lhashamgyal writes from Beijing, reminding us that exile isn’t only about geography and is a state of mind that consumes even those still in China. Lhasa is only a flight away, but still remains a home out of reach, increasingly unrecognisable. “The home that they so dream of recedes to such a distance that return becomes impossible,” he reflects, “and this is the great tragedy of the exile.”

The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays; Edited by Tenzin Dickie, Penguin Random House India, ₹699.

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