AHOME IN MEM­ORY

A daugh­ter re­turns to the Ti­bet her mother had lost in this poignant mem­oir

India Today - - LEISURE - By Omair Ah­mad

In 1959, like many Ti­betans, in­clud­ing the 14th Dalai Lama, Tser­ing Wangmo Dhompa’s mother fled Ti­bet to a life in ex­ile. As the writer de­scribes it in the open­ing pages of her book, “All her life ex­iled [ my mother] waited to re­turn home. She spoke of ex­ile as some­thing that would be ex­punged over time.” She pined for the flow­ers, the great steppes, and the beauty of her home­land. Un­for­tu­nately, death, in the form of a traf­fic ac­ci­dent in 1994, ar­rived long be­fore that time.

A decade and a half later the daugh­ter trav­elled as a ( Amer­i­can) tourist where her mother could not, to visit her rel­a­tives, see her land, and dis­cover for her­self what it means to be a Ti­betan to­day. The re­sult, A Home in Ti­bet, is a daugh­ter’s love of­fer­ing to the spirit of her mother through the celebration of the home her mother could never re­turn to. That emo­tional at­tach­ment is trans­par­ently present, and makes for a very mov­ing ac­count of the time that she spends in Nangchen, in the prov­ince once known as Kham, and specif­i­cally the dis­trict of Dhompa, which is named af­ter the au­thor’s clan. More im­por­tantly this is one of the first ac­counts we have of a Ti­betan record­ing a his­tory, al­most an an­thro­po­log­i­cal ac­count, of the tra­vails and joys of be­ing Ti­betan.

Tser­ing is a poet, and her com­mand of lan­guage in­fuses the book with a great deal of beauty, es­pe­cially in her de­scrip­tions of the beauty of the land­scape. It also adds a cer­tain amount of amused self- re­flec­tion, as when she de­scribes scold­ing chil­dren to speak Ti­betan be­cause they are Ti­betan, and then hear­ing them pass on the ad­mo­ni­tion be­cause the “for­eign lady” told them to. Or when she speaks about the opin­ions of no­mads, “My pol­i­tics is not their con­cern… They un­der­stand this life of the grass and the life of work,” or the eco­nom­ics and prac­tice of mat­ing high- pedi­gree dogs that she, as a “for­eigner”, can en­quire about when Ti­betan women can­not.

Her writ­ing also re­veals a cer­tain elite char­ac­ter. Her fa­ther and ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther were chief­tains, the de­scen­dant of gen­er­a­tions of chief­tains. When she speaks of his­tory it is the his­tory, largely, of la­mas and lead­ers, and it is a his­tory that has no place for China or the Chi­nese. This is odd, since the first great Ti­betan king, Songt­sen Gampo, not only de­feated the army of the Tang Em­pire, but also mar­ried the Chi­nese princess Wencheng in the 7th cen­tury— who prob­a­bly in­tro­duced Bud­dhism to Ti­bet. Tser­ing de­scribes her nephew, Kunga, read­ing Don Quixote in Chi­nese, and re­alises, “how in­su­lar I have be­come to feel shocked at a non- English trans­la­tion… Only in English can I make sense of it all. Only in Chi­nese can Kunga make sense of it all.”

This re­sis­tance to un­der­stand how much Ti­bet and China are in­ter­re­lated mars her work slightly. While she talks of how much the Ti­betans suf­fered in 1959 and its af­ter­math, some of them even forced to eat grass to sur­vive, this ig­nores what was hap­pen­ing in the rest of the ar­eas ruled by Mao and his co­terie of in­com­pe­tents. Over 35 mil­lion Chi­nese died of star­va­tion dur­ing those years, at a time when China was ex­port­ing grain, be­cause of Mao’s dis­as­trous Great Leap For­ward, and the syco­phancy cre­ated by the Com­mu­nist sys­tem. Many Chi­nese sur­vived only by eat­ing the flesh of the dead, in­clud­ing their rel­a­tives.

The tragedy of Ti­bet is part and par­cel of great tragedy of China un­der the Com­mu­nist Party, and can­not be un­der­stood as dis­tinct from it. Tser­ing’s jour­ney through the book al­lows us to come closer to the grim facts of the stoic re­sis­tance Ti­betans have dis­played when faced with such hor­rors, but also to the joy, beauty and hu­mour in their lives. No mother could wish for a greater gift from a daugh­ter in her mem­ory.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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