Review by Bhuchung D. Sonam
Title: Falling Through the Roof
Author: Thubten Samphel
Publisher: Rupa & Co., New Delhi
On July 15 1978, before the Dalai Lama left for the Fifth Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace in Ulan Bator, capital of the Mongolian People’s Republic, Tibet’s leader said that he had “blessed a Tibetan Communist Party recently founded by some exile Tibetans.” The Dalai Lama made the statement to reporters at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. His plane then smoothly took off. Though the same cannot be said about the fate of the newly-formed communist party.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China subsided after Mao died in September 1976. But a permanent damage was done by Mao’s mad revolution – a culture was irreparably severed and the collective conscience of a billion people was fractured. The injury was particularly severe in occupied Tibet and to the minds of thousand of Tibetans who escaped into exile.
On May 1 1979, exactly two years and eight months after Mao died, the formation of the Tibetan Communist Party (TCP) was publicly announced to Tibetans in India. This came as a “rude shock” to the exile community, who immediately denounced TCP by calling it “enemy of the faith,” “pro-Chinese” and “immature Marxists in love with text-book communism with no understanding of its practical perils.”
K. Dhondup, Kelsang Tenzin and Namgyal were mentioned as founding members of TCP. Dhondup, a young graduate at the time, intellectually tried to defend the formation of the communist party in Tibetan Review by writing that TCP aimed to “build a solid bridge of understanding between the long-alienated Tibetans in and outside Tibet and formulate a working synthesis of ideological eclecticism that will generate trust and comradely co-operation between the two shoulders of future Tibet.”
While the aims of TCP were noble, the timing was terrible. Tibetans inside Tibet were suffering under the brutal occupation of the Chinese Communist Party and those in exile were reeling under the cruel pain of dislocation and total destruction in their homeland. The psychological hurt and physical pain the exile community experienced were as pounding and real as hammers they were using in road construction. There was no room for communism in exiled-Tibet.
However, the bold actions of three amateur communists opened a can of unspoken expressions and initiated hotly-contested public debates. The act led to social ostracism of the party members and their families. But it did not lead to any physical harm from the angry public as a bold Tibetan writer suffered earlier in that decade.
In August 1972, Dawa Norbu wrote in the editorial of Tibetan Review that “…Tibetan leadership in exile tends to be more interested in spiritual pursuits than in the mundane affairs of a people who is gasping for its national existence.” In a fanatic twist of meaning, a small section of the exile community took this as a blasphemous and to be against the Dalai Lama. They chased Norbu with sticks, stones and a few fuming women flapped their aprons in the air, a traditional sign of absolute disgust generally reserved for Communist China. Only the sane voice of the Dalai Lama saved Norbu’s scalp. Jamyang Norbu, an outspoken public intellectual and a prolific writer, also suffered the same public wrath for his bold creative expression.
Such were the events that Thupten Samphel-la witnessed as a student in Delhi University and later in Dharamsala. K. Dhondup, Kelsang Tenzin and Dawa Norbu were his contemporaries.
During his poverty-stricken student days in Delhi, Samphel-la might have frequented the chang dens in the Old Tibetan Camp in Majnu-ka-Tilla, where buzzing of a million flies and stinging of a thousand mosquitoes meant little once the fiery liquid took over ones system. Samphel-la also might have spent hours engaging in intellectual debates with his friends and taking part in scheduled demonstrations and spurts of protest when high-level Chinese leaders visited Delhi.
It is hence no surprise that the narrator of Samphel-la’s debut novel Falling Through the Roof is a book-wormish guy named Dhondup and his somewhat-friend Tashi is a wannabe communist plotting big things with his sidekick Samdup. Apart from a range of other imagined characters – and a judicious dose of fictive scenes – much of the story takes place in Delhi, Dharamshala and Manali with a search visit to Ladakh.
Dhondup and Tashi frequently visit Ama Penpa’s chang-shack in MT, which always greeted them with “its pungent smell of sour chang.” Ama Penpa did not have the best of the spirit but with Metok, “her pretty daughter serving,” they had no complaints. Tashi, the dedicated communist and founder of the Tibetan Communist Party, had his eyes on Metok.
It is here in Penpa’s shack, where the narrator and Tashi come across Drubchen Rinpoche, “the abbot of Drubchen Monastery, the master of the biographies of all the reincarnations of Drubtop Rinpoche.” Drubchen is the grandson of One-eyed Golok, a fierce local Khampa chief in old Tibet, who force-fed his victims with milk until their stomachs bloated like a hot-air balloons and then hurled them down the fortress ramparts. He laughed devilishly as the victims’ stomachs burst and milk splashed.
Drubchen is apparently in search of the reincarnation of the 19th Drubtop Rinpoche, who was also his half-brother. With his higher learning and focussed mental power he saw faint signs of his half-brother in Tashi. Though for the time being Drubchen remains silent. The plot thickens as Dhondup discovers that the grandson of one of One-eyed Golok’s victims lives in Delhi. The grandson wants revenge on Drubchen. “Revenge is in our blood,” he declared.
For Dhondup, who is born and raised in the dust and heat of India, Drubchen holds the key to a past to which he has neither intimate knowledge nor any physical connection. “I saw in this stranger—this mysterious figure from our past—our chief herdsman, who would point the way to our past trivia. He was our memory made reliable by a dose of exuberant faith, the memory that reflected and predicted our future,” Dhondup says.
He dutifully notes down in his Elephant Notebook the dazzling tales of Drubchen about creation of Tibetan writing by one of the early Drubtops; how One-eyed Golok’s ancestors were a marauding bunch of wild horse riders who raided the lowlands of China. These exchanges often took place in Penpa’s den, where chang flowed and the fragrance of the open gutter and rotting garbage pervaded.
Dhondup and Tashi are as much involved in political activities – as members of Delhi’s Regional Tibetan Youth Congress – as they are with Drubchen’s tales. On one occasion, while organizing a demonstration against a visiting Chinese dignitary, Tashi demands that the protest should be jointly organized by RTYC and the Tibetan Communist Party and that all the protest documents and pamphlets bear TCL’s insignia. In fiction as in real life, the members of the youth congress not only opposed the idea but denounced Tashi and Samdup as nothing but opportunists. The president of the regional chapter expels Tashi and Samdup from the organization.
However, Tashi, the ever-resourceful and media savvy, recruits Drubchen and organises a parallel protest which ends up in the next day’s newspaper, while the larger RTYC protest was not even mentioned. Badly stunned and shocked by “devious communists and pliable lamas,” Dhondup took refuge in Ama Penpa’s fly-infested burrow to find solace in jugs of second-class chang.
Meanwhile, Tashi and Metok marry after she gets pregnant. And later, to fulfil Drubchen’s dream of finding the cave in Sri Nagar in which first Drubtop Rinpoche and the great Indian scholar Birupa apparently met, Dhondup and Tashi head to Ladakh and eventually to Kashmir. By some fantastic twist of luck and fate, Tashi, after days of searching for the elusive cave, rolls over a hill slope and into a hole. What? Why? How? But it is the communist Tashi who finds the holy cave.
In the midst of their adventurous search for the cave, the bookish Dhondup finds his life partner, a full-blooded Ladakhi in Nimmu, a small town to the west of Leh. After the search mission was accomplished, Drubchen convinces Tashi that he is indeed the reincarnation of 19th Drubtop Rinpoche. Tashi – the former communist – is formally recognized as the 20th Drubtop and is enthroned under the intense gaze of thangkas of all previous 19 Drubtops hanging on the wall.
By now the Tibetan Communist Party is dead. But as poetic justice to the unmerciful reality, Tashi lives practising Buddha dharma and blessing the devotees with his hands that once flapped the pages of Das Kapital and coined the manifesto of the TCL.
Migmar Tsering, whose grandfather’s family members were murdered by One-eyed Golok, has forgotten the past grievance. He no longer seeks revenge but takes religious advice from the 20th Drubtop Rinpoche, who says, “Every beginning begins with a hope. Every end ends in prayer; thanksgiving, to the stars of hope and the moon of quiet courage that guided us thus far as we still trek back and forth across the world’s highest mountains, in search of our very own Shangri-La.”
Falling Through the Roof has patches of brilliant settings and fantastic plays of words. Sampel-la has full command over a language that he learned after coming into exile. By creating such words as Tiplomacy, Samphel-la has set the ball rolling for future Tibetan writers to further carry the process of creating Tinglish – Tibetan English.
Falling Through the Roof is a remarkable work of fiction. The reader is at once transported to a place and an action. The only hiccup may be the focus of the novel, which tried to encapsulate the entire experience of a generation and the past connection of a people within its covers. This at times leaves the reader to mentally connect the dots from the oppressive heat of Delhi to the wide expanse of Golok to seventh century adventure to love interests to search for an ancient cave to trips to Tibet to the existential problems of the refugee community.
Samphel-la’s novel, nevertheless, makes a strong entry into the world of creative art. As the Tibetan saying goes, it may not have the absolute radiance of a rose in the garden, but like a wild lily it firmly stands its ground. His ultimate achievement is the undeniable link between the new generation, born and raised in exile, to its past and Samphel-la’s generation that has acquired a generous stock of premature grey hair and drooping eyelids.
One-eyed Golok must be heaving his chest with pride in whichever realm he haunts.