A Pale View of the Himalayas

During a visit to Dharamshala sometime in 2002, I saw a flier of Bhuchung D. Sonam’s book of poems, Dandelions in Tibet, in Gangchen Kyishong, on the bulletin board opposite the staff mess. I was intrigued.

For someone who had also begun, rather hesitantly, the research for a novel, any work of imagination by a fellow Tibetan was a source of immense interest. Later, it was Tenzin Tsundue, the activist-poet, who told me that Sonam was working on an anthology of Tibetan poetry.

I was thrilled. I met with Sonam, in classic style, at a ramshackle Dharamshala teashop. So when his Muses of Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry came out in 2005, I was pleasantly surprised. It was the most comprehensive collection of Tibetan poems I have ever seen. It included writings from the turn-of-the-century scholar and travel writer Gendun Choephel to the late Chogyam Trungpa, all laboriously culled from old magazines, journals and books from homes and libraries. The book earned a mention, I remember, in one of Pico Iyer’s essays in Time.

Even though I have not written much poetry, I was impressed with the novelty of the idea and the dedication with which Sonam and others seemed to be carrying on with their work. They were creating a new idiom, albeit Romanized and shorn of its colonial origins, with which to re-imagine Tibet in the age of the Internet.

I know how difficult it is to create a book out of thin air.

Bigger and established writers have dozens, if not more, people working for them, helping them edit, layout, critique, design, proofread, and of course, market and distribute. However, self-published writers — which include almost all Tibetan writers with the exception of a few such as Sogyal Rinpoche or Jamyang Norbu — have to do everything by themselves. It is hard work. And it has the great virtue of being hugely unattractive career for most people. Few people in their right mind would pursue writing as a career except if they do think it is truly their calling — and they must do it, come high or hell water.

The author has to write the book first, investing his or her time and energy, ignoring friends and family, risking youth and career, and yelling invectives at people who question their sanity. Once the book is done, he or she has to put whatever is left of the money to publish it. Off the presses, he or she has to physically carry the books and go to the booksellers begging them for shelf-space, normally reserved for names like J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk, published by imprints like Random House and Penguin.

No wonder. After two years of your life at your desk, back still hurting from the weight of books that you had just carried to the doorstep, the bookseller will ask you: “Excuse me! Who are you, by the way?” Not even a “Shabash!”

Such adversities do not seem to deter serious writers, however.

So I was quite happy a few weeks ago, when I was greeted by yet another of Sonam’s collection of poetry, titled Songs from a Distance. This collection of 26 poems addresses the common themes of exile, loss, and homeland.

Despite the common themes, the poems have acquired a rather cosmopolitan air as the author has apparently written them while on a two-year study sojourn of the US. In some of these poems, the Tibetan writer, exiled in India, almost becomes the commonplace expatriate, away from his host country. Dharamshala and Delhi are often replaced by New York and Boston.

There are pieces written in admiration for fellow writers inside Tibet, including Beijing-based Woeser, famous enough to be profiled by both the Times of London and the New York Times. Then there are lesser-known writers such as Jamyang Kyi and Dolma Kyab locked away in Chinese cells, punished for their sentences.

Some of his pieces reminded me of poems by late Agha Shahid Ali who wrote about his childhood idyll of Kashmir, with mesmerizing beauty and tantalizing melancholia. Just as Shahid Ali, exiled in Amherst, was troubled by the death and destruction wrought upon on his beautiful land by communal violence, Sonam’s pieces too mourn the condition of Tibet under Communist rule.

Like many Tibetan writers, he too wants to see Tibet march to the drum of modernity but to a very different tune. For Sonam, who is born in Tibet — his work and, his exiled body itself — becomes a site of contestation, between memory and history.

Indeed, quite fittingly, the final poem of this collection is dedicated to the monk who set himself on fire amidst unrest in Tibet in 2008.

My brother Tapey has set himself on fire.
Sorrows raining down, beating
My eyeballs are swimming.
Must you drink blood before you come.
To us thirsting under the clouds of occupation.
Winds blow, leaves fly, dust rise
Waves slapping high,
Against my boat.

Freedom, your footstep
Is what I want to die for

This is quite powerful. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, a Bengali professor at Columbia University, has written about the condition of the “subalterns” — or the oppressed. In a highly influential and provocatively titled piece, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, she had asked if the subalterns can represent themselves, or they can only express themselves through death.

If Tibetans such as Tapey, whose fate is reportedly unknown, have to immolate themselves to be heard and noticed, then the answer, obviously, is no. It is a sad but true reality.

And this is perhaps what pushes writers like Sonam and Tsundue to their desks every morning to sing the songs of freedom on behalf of their silenced brethren behind the pale hills of the Himalayas. Their songs are sad and touching of course, but they are never depressing.

We might want to listen.

Order Songs from a Distance from Paljor Publications


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