A home in Tibet By Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Viking, Rs 499
“When there are just two of you, you appropriate images from each other and inhabit one tongue until the stories that compose your two worlds become interchangeable. It was so for my mother and I.” The refuge that Tsering Wangmo Dhompa shared with her mother — a nomadic chieftain’s wife who fled Tibet in 1959 — is shattered when she dies in an accident in India. Bearing her ashes, Tsering journeys to East Tibet — her mother’s ancestral home. Her time in Tibet reminds her that of all the gifts that she received from her mother, the most precious was the love for a land that she cannot always call her own.
Most reviewers have praised Tsering’s first full-length book as a tribute to a dead mother and an occupied land. But “This is not a simple story”, she confides. Indeed it isn’t. For she exposes how, for the one without a country, memory changes shape and form and is thus not always a reliable map to trace one’s way back home. For instance, the image of Tibet that she had appropriated from her mother was one of a “riotous garden”, an idyllic wilderness made of flowers and faith, nomads and animals, abundance and joy. While gazing at Xining’s towering malls and KFC outlets during her visit to the capital of Qinghai province, she realizes how an older way of life was giving way to something frighteningly new. The Tibet of her mother’s memory had not been effaced, but rearranged.
Memory is also a resilient creature. Tsering’s people have clung to ancient rituals, remembered, guarded and secretly passed from one generation to another, to resist and survive brutal episodes such as the Cultural Revolution. Shorn of its political trappings in a society crippled by brutal oppression, freedom, Tsering is made to realize, for many of Tibet’s marginalized communities is now equated with the simplest of acts: the right to graze one’s herd, to practise one’s faith or even to meet the fixed gaze of young Chinese soldiers.
Tsering admits to being tormented by her people’s idea of resistance. She realizes that her years in the West, a society that prioritizes the political over the personal, have muddled her ability to distinguish between passivity and resilience. Her other anxiety stems from her confusion regarding her roots. There are searing moments in which Tsering describes a pain brought about by her inability to understand her own people: for instance, the tepid response of the herders towards charting a concrete path towards liberation brings about a sense of disillusionment in her that cannot be dispelled even by the strength of her love for the land.
Yet it is this land, with its harshness and beauty, that helps her recover from her momentary disillusionment. Her prose mirrors her joy of discovering the bonds that distance cannot break: “Here in the boundless field, with no other person in sight, I understand how a nomad might understand the universe.” Candour isn’t Tsering’s only gift. She is also blessed with an economy of scale. Her ability to illuminate a repressed nation’s history, politics and culture by weaving together the narratives — real and imagined — of a single ethnic community is equally compelling.
The idea of loss remains central to Tsering’s work. However, like her mother and her occupied homeland, Tsering, too, remains unconquered. It is this shared legacy of loss, and of finding ways to survive it, that keeps Tsering bound to her own people in a distant land called home.