Music in Exile

cover of book Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, by Bhuchung D SonamReview of Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, by Bhuchung D Sonam
Paljor Publications
196 pages, Rs. 195

Many books are published on Tibet. In an average Asian bookshop, Tibet-related books would fill a good-sized shelf. It would typically include Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a translation of several Tibetan religious classics, a few books by the Dalai Lama, and a British journalist’s biography of the Panchen Lama, amongst others.

Then there are the magazines. Recently, a new Asian art magazine put a prominent Taiwanese patron of Tibetan Buddhism on the cover of its maiden issue, donning the latest collection by a chic Japanese fashion designer, Yohji Yamamoto. And, as if that was not enough, sprinkled the magazine with quotes from the Sogyal Rinpoche bestseller mentioned above.

True, Tibet — for all the publicity — still needs attention. Unfortunately, however, not many seem to actually know what the Tibetans themselves have had to experience over the past four decades. By the end of the decade, they would have spent their fifth decade in this strange country called “the Tibetan Exile”.

This is why the new book, Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, by Bhuchung D. Sonam, a young writer based in India, is quite groundbreaking. It is probably the first anthology of Tibetan writing to be ever published in English.

The book combines the poems of nearly thirty writers “some of which are already very famous” from all walks of life, spanning four generations. The wide variety of the collection is one of the reasons why this book is so interesting. The writers range from a legendary Buddhist teacher to a well-known filmmaker to an American banker son of the last finance minister of independent Tibet.

For me, the book’s major achievement is that it was able to offer readers “through these poems, which are otherwise not readily available” an opportunity to unlock the minds of their earlier predecessors in the wilderness of the foreign lands. They have written these poems in places like India, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and California.

First two writers included are Amdo Gendun Chophel, the acclaimed writer and traveller, and Chogyam Trungpa, one of the earliest Tibetan gurus to begin teaching in the West.

At first glance, both these men seem quite similar. They were both trained in the traditional Tibetan monastic systems, and both later disrobed and married — and earned infamy for their respective eccentricities. Both left a formidable body of scholarly work, many of which are now regarded as classics in their fields.

Gendun Chophel was a scholar of diverse interests as his writings range from history to medicine. Remembering his childhood home in one of his early poems written as early as the 1930s, he blames his “fate” for his exile just as some of the later generation Tibetans would rather fault their ill-fated karma than Mao Tse-tung’s China for the loss of their homeland.

Rebkong, I left thee and my heart behind,
My boyhood’s dusty plays, in far Tibet.
Karma, that restless stallion made of wind,
In tossing me; where will it land me yet?

Chophel’s poems, Sonam claims, are probably the first Tibetan poems ever written in English. Chophel was indeed an all-star linguist who could perform literary somersaults in the five or so languages that he had mastered by the time he had reached his early thirties.

On the other hand, Chogyam Trungpa’s down-to-earth and unpretentious take of Tibetan Buddhism made him popular amongst Western students. Like Chophel, he was also brilliant and eccentric, by almost equal measure.

American poet Allen Ginsberg, who learned meditation from Trungpa, commented that the former’s poetry represented the “dramatic situation of someone who has realized the world as pure mind, and gone beyond attachment to ego to return to the world and work with universal ignorance, confront the spiritual-materialist daydream of Western World and tell in its modernist poetry.”

Trungpa’s poetry is steeped deep in spirituality.

Buddhism neither tells me the false nor the true:
It allows me to discover myself.
Shakyamuni was so silent:
Should I complain against him?

These two were from the first generation of writers. Over the past couple of years, some younger writers have also emerged to critical acclaim such as California-based Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, who has already published two books of poetry. American poet Anne Waldman has written that her poem “elucidates and vocalizes the humanness and adversities of the Tibetan Diaspora.”

Dhompa, born in India but now working in San Francisco, uses her narrative poetry to successfully evoke the emotions, feelings, images and vignettes of Tibetan exile.

Then there is the activist and award-winning essayist Tenzin Tsundue who has used poetry “to great effect” both as a literary device to deal with his identity crisis and as a tool for his activism.

Nearly thirty writers feature in the book. Expectedly, they are all quite different in their outlook and style. But they all deal with some common themes: the idea of exile, the anguish of dislocation, nationalism, spirituality, and the longing for their homeland.

Late K. Dhondup, a well-known translator, is elegiac and exact, banker Tsoltim Shakabpa is nostalgic yet very American. Topden Tsering’s poetry, like his journalism, is full of energy, while Tsamchoe Dolma, a young writer now living in Dharamshala, is meditative and often melancholic in evocation of her memories of childhood Tibet.

Sonam should really be commended for getting his fingers dusty while digging up the works of these writers, many of whom are now almost forgotten, let alone still in print. After getting hold of this handsome imprint, one could not wait for an anthology of a poetry originally published in the Tibetan language, such as those written by the famously literary Sixth Dalai Lama, though some of them are already in print. And better still, a long-due collection of the best of Tibetan prose pieces, which could help the literature of the Tibetan Diaspora to be judged on the basis of their literary merit.

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