Why I don’t keep a diary: review of Tsering Yangzom Lama’s We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies

The book shines in the parts that detail the appropriation of the Tibetan cause by the West

Published - June 16, 2023 11:32 am IST

When Dolma, the daughter of Lhamo, a Tibetan refugee, moves to Canada from Nepal, she does not believe that her life has begun. “Neither has my aunt’s, nor my mother’s nor that of anyone in our camp. What surrounds us is temporary, a placeholder for what will come someday. For what must come. This is why I don’t keep a diary or collect photographs like other girls my age. I want no record of this time,” she says.

This is a recurring sentiment throughout Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies. A Tibetan family in exile moves from place to place in search of permanence, but their hearts constantly ache for home.

In the spring of 1960, the People’s Liberation Army invades Tibet, forcing Lhamo and Tenkyi to flee their village. During their arduous journey in search of shelter and food, they lose their parents. Along with their uncle Ashang, the sisters trudge across miles of inhospitable terrain until they reach Pokhara, Nepal. There, on a barren hilltop, where “milk will be thin and butter will be pale”, they pitch tents. It is in this refugee camp where, with time, they begin to feel a semblance of permanence.

Big city dreams

From there, Lhamo and Tenkyi’s journeys diverge. While Lhamo stays back, caring for older refugees, running a trinkets shop, and yearning for her lover Samphel, Tenkyi goes to Delhi with her big dreams. Moving back and forth in time, the novel explores the lives of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and Samphel over five decades. Their Tibetan ancestry and heritage influences each of the characters in vastly different ways and shapes the trajectory of their lives and relationships with one another.

The title is clearly inspired by the meaning that land holds for a people. An important statue called the Nameless Saint, which appears whenever the family needs him and is a leitmotif in the novel, is also made of earth. The Nameless Saint initially does not inspire awe in Lhamo. When she sees him for the first time, she thinks, “He doesn’t seem like a deity... His expression is not wise or calm or loving. Indeed, he seems a lot like us. Hungry, lost.” Yet, it is the Nameless Saint that she preserves carefully and that eventually becomes the family’s tangible connection with their homeland.

We Measure The Earth With our Bodies is equally about the appropriation of the Tibetan cause by the West and the ethics of the antiquities trade. It is in these parts that the book shines.

However, despite its grand themes, lyricism and well-written characters, Lama’s debut novel seems unsettled, like its protagonists. It is bogged down occasionally by its structure and poor editing. This is a nuanced and instructive story, but requires some patience.

We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies
Tsering Yangzom Lama
Bloomsbury India
₹699

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in

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