By Tsering Namgyal
Indian authors writing in English have been on a winning streak over the past decade, publishing novels to wide international acclaim. Over the past five years alone, two Man Booker Prizes have gone to writers of Indian origin. But what exactly is meant by the term ‘Indian novel’? V S Naipaul, perhaps the pre-eminent writer of Indian origin, was not born in India, and has lived most of his life in England. Pico Iyer, too: born in England, lives in Japan. These designations can certainly get tricky. Indeed, commenting on journalist Tarun Tejpal’s book The Alchemy of Desire (2005), Naipaul himself said, “At last, a brilliantly original novel from India.” If that is the case, Tibetan exile Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is also a novel ‘from India’. And now we have a new novel by a Tibetan based in India, written by the spokesperson for the Dharamsala government-in-exile, Thubten Samphel, coming out just as the Tibetan diaspora is marking its 50th year since the start of exile, in March.
While Samphel was born in Tibet, he grew up in India. Educated at the University of Delhi and Columbia University in the US, he has worked with the Dharamsala government for almost three decades. Falling Through the Roof traces the life of Tashi, a Tibetan student at Delhi University. Along with his idealistic cohorts, Tashi one day decides to form a political group to be known as the Tibetan Communist Party, which he believes will help to propel the troubled plateau into the modern world. This was during the 1970s, and communism was enjoying a substantial share of admirers, particularly amongst the college-going youth.
Tashi and his friends are of a type that study hard during the daytime, writing densely footnoted essays on history and literature. In the evening, they go to drink at Majnu-Ka-Tilla, then a budding Tibetan community just outside Delhi. There, some of their compatriots, desperate to eke out a living, sell chang, beer made from rice and barley, in shacks roofed with corrugated iron. It is here that they discuss politics and the state of the world over glass after glass of chang.
Much of the novel’s action happens here in “Changistan”, particularly once Tashi and the book’s narrator, Kunga Dhondup, meet a high-ranking Tibetan monk with a knack for telling “tall tales of Tibet”. (The character of Dhondup happens to be a budding writer and a first-class note-taker.) The monk, who shares the weakness for barley beer, enthrals his listeners with stories about their collective homeland. The story then takes a sudden turn. Through his dreams, the monk becomes convinced that Tashi is a reincarnation of a major Tibetan lama, the fictional Druptop Rinpoche. Indeed, this deceased lama was no small priest in the order of things, but the one who is said to have discovered the Tibetan written language – “the Word”, as the monk refers to it.
As it happens, the invention of the Tibetan alphabet took place in Kashmir during the seventh century. Its invention is credited to a minister named Thonmi Sambhota, and ultimately allowed Tibetan scholars to import the philosophy and knowledge of India onto the high plateau. To supply background and context to this story, author Samphel mixes fact and fiction to trace the history of the Tibetan alphabet. The mission takes the narrator to Kashmir, where, with the help of an Indian scholar named Professor Bamzai, he discovers the spot where the lama ‘invented’ the script.
The stories here are set in what can be dubbed as ‘spiritual Tibet’ – India, Nepal and Tibet – as distinct from geographical or political Tibet. There are a few characters from Ladakh, with the author implying that the Buddhists in the Indian Himalaya have much in common with their refugee brethren from Tibet. This leads readers to believe that geographical borders are nothing but demarcations in the air – or, to use the title of Amitav Ghosh’s famous novel, The Shadow Lines, a product of the artificial forces of history.
Some of Samphel’s characters are based on real-life personalities, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan and even Marco Polo. This is no history book, however, and an utterly convincing cast of characters pushes the story forward. In the first chapter, Samphel quotes a long article that the wannabe-journalist Tashi published in Tibetan Review, the real-life Delhi-based periodical. Indeed, Tibetan Review is allowed to become something of character in its own right, partly underscoring the centrality of its role for the educated-dispossessed. It is in language, after all, that one remembers and dreams. For many Tibetan youths educated in India, Tibetan Review is often credited with developing a whole new ‘vocabulary’ with which to explore the contours of their existence in exile.
Such a lexicon is fully on display in Falling Through the Roof. The author is at his best when describing scenes of Delhi – the quarrels among the college students, the zeal with which they protest on the streets, their love affairs. Samphel has a fabulous sense of humour, with which the book is peppered. (A Tibetan foreign-affairs apparatchik becomes a “Tiblomat” who conducts “Tiblomacy”. The early Buddhist philosophers of India, by formulating the idea of “emptiness”, were able to prove the “spiritual equivalence of zero”.) Likewise, the vivid, descriptive prose shines throughout.
Falling Through the Roof is an ambitious work, in terms of both scope and vision. Anyone who ever sits down to attempt to craft a novel of such scale, covering a wide range of languages, histories and peoples, deserves accolades. But Samphel pulls it off. While it is unclear as to whether those who are not familiar with the culture or history of Tibet will find the novel accessible, its place in the pantheon of exile works is surely set. Indeed, none should be surprised in the years to come to find students writing theses on this work, trying to find its exact spot in the larger scheme of postcolonial literature. At the very least, it will be regarded as the first book to capably depict, in fictional form, the realities of Tibetans in India – a significant achievement.
His highly enjoyable and gripping tale aside, Samphel also offers great insights into both the traditional world of Tibet and the hybrid world of exile. He is as at ease with Buddhist philosophical concepts as he is with the workings of Tibetan society. Lack of a homeland clearly frustrates the characters, but they never seem to abandon hope; indeed, their youthful energy is only matched by their ability to laugh at their unique condition. In the end, this is an optimistic book. If there is only one underlying message here, it is that, while the Tibetan diaspora may have lost its physical home, they have gained a much larger spiritual space in return. These days, their culture thrives, albeit in various hybridised forms. It is for this reason that this magnificent novel from India – at once elegiac and exuberant – is in itself proof of the Tibetan resilience.
The writer is a journalist and author of the book Little Lhasa (2006), a collection of essays about Tibetans in India.