In July  we saw a flurry of activities in the United States to celebrate the 20th anniversary of man’s first lunar assault, you know the bit about “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was reminded of this historic and historical statement upon seeing a slim volume titled, Anything for Tibet, My Beloved Country (Paljor Publications, New Delhi, 1999. Indian Rs. 95). It is a fictional novel about life in present-day Tibet with the inevitable tale of courage and sacrifice. The writer is a young Tibetan, Thupten N Chakrishar.
Why should a fiction by a young Tibetan have the significance of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon? Some may think the comparison absurd, but there is a meaning in this absurdity. Thupten’s fiction is a first, just like Armstrong’s small step on the moon was. A first fictional novel in English by a Tibetan in exile; a first literary output of its nature by a Tibetan student in exile.
The story line of the novel is simple. It is a tale of trials and tribulation of a young Tibetan, Thinley, in Lhasa, his experience of life under the Chinese rule as well as life in exile when he is sent by his parents to study in a Tibetan refugee school, the challenge that he poses to the Chinese rulers and the final denouement (you should read the book to see what it is).
I welcome this maiden work by Thupten. Having grown up in the Tibetan refugee community, I know the background from which a product like this has come, and so despite some of its weaknesses I believe such ventures need all encouragement. One of the ways in which we can encourage young Tibetans to compete in the literary world is to point out the weaknesses.
The fact that we Tibetans have a long way to go before professionalism becomes a part of our way of life is evident from this book. It is clear that this novel is the product of the writer’s own natural talent without the benefit of expert guidance. With a little bit of training in penmanship the flow of the novel could have been improved as also the content and the plot.
The lack of professionalism is also evident in the production of the novel. Here, while I applaud Paljor Publications for providing opportunity for a young Tibetan writer to exercise his talent, enough attention has not been paid to editing and layout of the novel. There is duplication of lines (pages 14-15) and instances of deviation from facts, even within a fiction. For example, on one occasion in Lhasa the hero takes some “rupees” from his father’s pocket. And who is Li Pen (page 19)? A good editor would have rectified such deviations. Also, I am not sure whether a work of fiction needs contents or prefaces or even introductions.Paljor Publications is striving towards being a mainstream publisher and that means it needs to maintain a certain level of professionalism. While it is laudable to promote young writers like Thupten, it would make sense for Paljor Publications to do so under the auspices of a subsidiary wing, instead of under its own name. This is a standard practice of all major publishing firms and enables them to take a certain risk.
Talking about professionalism in publishing, Paljor Publications could take a leaf from the books of Ithaca-based Snow Lion Publications. Like the Boston-based Wisdom Publications, Snow Lion Publications has been coming out with quality books on and about Tibet. I have observed the progress of Snow Lion for several years and have often wondered about reasons which have prevented Tibetans from making similar progress.
The Medium is the Message
Journalism in the Tibetan refugee community has come of age. And what could better proclaim this than the formation of a ’Press Club of Tibet’ which took place in Dharamsala in May this year. Although there have been a plethora of journals published by Tibetans in exile, there has never been an effort to organise the Tibetan media until now. I have just seen the compilation of the proceedings of the inaugural convention of the Tibetan Press Club in Dharamsala. The book, titled Status of the Tibetan Media, makes exciting reading.
The Tibetan media, as the book indicates, is an angry lot, feeling left out and a little bit confused. The Convention even came out with a ten-point code of conduct, one of which is interestingly “never to forget [our] task of protecting the Tibetan race and unique religion and tradition.” May be this is an indication that the role of a Tibetan journalist is yet to be clearly defined.
I believe Tibetan journalists need to be less Dharamsala-centric. Attending and covering official and ceremonial events in Dharamsala is only a fraction of the task of a journalist. The more important role for a Tibetan journalist is to sensitise the Tibetan society and the public and educate the Tibetan people so that they are better prepared to play their role in our functioning democracy. That means informing them about developments around them. A former American politician is said to have remarked that “All politics is local.” Indeed it is.
For example, not many people know that for many years, there has been an interesting democratic experience, not in Dharamsala, but in Tibetan settlements having co-operative societies. Each society is run by a board of directors who are directly elected by the settlers, and take major decisions on issues affecting the life of the settlers, whether it is the cost of the fertilisers or the purchase price of maize at the time of harvesting season. Tibetan journalists need to observe Tibetan society, both at the level of Dharamsala as well as at the grassroots level. I hope the Press Club will encourage its members to make frequent trips to the settlements. That is where the real Tibetan refugee’s life is.