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A home in the mind – Book review

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Reviewed by Bhuchung D Sonam

Little Lhasa: Reflections on Exiled Tibet
Author-Tsering Namgyal
Indus Source Books, Mumbai

Exile is a heavy burden. Negotiating the unfamiliar and often precarious road in strange lands test the collective endurance and also enriches people’s experience.Exile is the mother of most writers,” writes Tsering Namgyal. However, this does not apply to all refugees in equal measure, specifically to Tibetans. Due to our cultural background and traditional outlook towards life, Tibetans are on the whole not judicious with their words. A hermit, after a lifetime of meditation and realisation hardly ever comes out with a book.

He would perhaps pen a prayer or write a short eulogy to his guru, and hence his years of experience of solitary meditation, hunger, cold, loneliness and eventual realization is unintentionally disposed off into the valley of forgotten knowledge. Likewise, Tibetan refugees let the salvos of harsh realities sink in their minds and melt within their hearts. They let historical mistreatment linker and fade amidst chants of mantra in the full belief that everything that comes in ones life is but a fruition of karmic results. If the events happening now are outcome of actions in previous lives, then what indeed is there anything to write about? Compassionate actions, Tibetans believe, are more meaningful than words strung together in chains. Therein lay our wisdom as well as our blunder.

The worthless romantic ideas and inept exotic views others have of us is a result of not articulating our realities in our own words. Strange comments that we receive, and unending predicament we find ourselves in, is the outcome of letting others interpret our realities through a prism of their assumptions, cultural background and preconceived ideas. Often we end up dancing to music churned by others, losing our rhythm in the process. But traditional attitude of ‘the fewer the words the better the man’ is fast changing. Over the years Tibetans have shed their garb of traditional reticence and come out with a number of books. A one more pleasant addition to this small but growing list is Tsering Namgyal’s Little Lhasa: Reflections on Exiled Tibet.

Tsering Namgyal was born in 1971 in northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and attended schools in Dalhousie and Mussoorie. He spent many years in Taiwan, initially as a student and later as a well known business writer and a journalist.
Namgyal, like most Tibetan refugee children, began his literary venture as a letter-writer for his parents when he was barely ten. As many older refugees were uneducated, the school-going kids helped them communicate with their relatives, foreign sponsors and in filing applications to various offices of the nascent Tibetan Administration in-Exile. Namgyal never lost his goal of becoming a writer someday and kept writing. Eventually his writings were published in Asia Times, Asian Wall Streets Journal, Himal and Tibetan Review.

In Little Lhasa, he deals with culture and outlook, existence and loss, grief and resignation, and hope and activism of exiled Tibet. In simple, no frills, just hard, spare and almost unfurnished prose, he tells the myriad tales of the displaced people with a journalistic touch. His details are intimate and themes inseparable from the chaos, confusion and variegated canvas of Tibetans in India spanning from fish-eating Goa to yak-herding Ladakh, tea-growing Darjeeling to camel-rearing Rajasthan, and from quiet places like Manali to bustling metropolis like Delhi.

With his reporter’s eyes he records the endless circle of activities ranging from a gathering of exile poets to seasonal sweater selling and Dharma teaching in Dharamshala. Along the way Namgyal finds his voice and judiciously tosses in his own reflections, which are, as eminent Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya writes in the foreword, “insightful and occasionally comical.” This is one of those books which can be read by anyone with a deep nod of head and intermittent smile on face.
Exiled Tibet has much to offer to the modern world–power to beam a smile against all odds, inner contentment, capacity to embrace the utter disregards to them with a shrug of their shoulders, and a philosophy of believing in and holding responsible for ones action in this and the next life–but first the world must read about us, know about us, understand us, support us and rescue us from becoming another vanishing paint in a painter’s palette.

Born in exile and steeped in influences from writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Pankaj Mishra, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Namgyal is a writer of dislocation and the cast away. Having never known a ‘home’ other than one rented room after another, he seeks refuge in a home in his mind, in which he finds strength and resources to write and to negotiate the perilous pitfalls of his refugeeness. Namgyal’s writing, he remarked, also stems from his personal loss of his mother and a gradual process of self-discovery as is evident from the accounts of his journeys.

Numerous travels in India and constant voyages in South East Asia made his experiences rich and his imagination fertile. “Writers need many different experiences,” he said when we met over a simple lunch of mutton thukpa. I couldn’t agree more and so does Garcia Marquez, who writes, “there is nothing in this or the next world that is not useful to a writer.”

Writings based on actual experiences and witnessing of events ring true particularly in the case of exiled Tibet. An armchair writer couldn’t possibly reflect our everyday struggle for survival, fight with tooth and nail, helplessness and angst, banging of our heads against the earless walls of the UN and having to live as ‘stateless people’. The realities of exiled Tibet thrive in tile-roofed mosquito-buzzing refugees camps; in the narrow streets of Dharamshala; with a newly arrival from Tibet who purchases a visa from some unscrupulous agent and sits in an aeroplane not knowing whether he is heading ‘to Space or to Spain;’ and with a lonesome monk in a train to Bodhgaya that stops in a godforsaken station in Bihar. Our reality is everywhere, reflected nowhere and responded to by no one. Exile is excruciatingly heavy.

Tsering Namgyal narrates the exiled Tibet well–each tale is an account of human journey and each essay is an outcome of conversation with most ordinary people. Read this book and perhaps your image of exiled Tibet may have to be reviewed.

Bhuchung D. Sonam’s latest book of poems, Tibet: A Conflict of Duality, was published this year, after Dandelions of Tibet in 2002 and Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry in 2004. He can be reached at

( is the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)

(with a slight grammatical editing by phayul on the original)

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