A Tibetan summer

It is a country often described by travellers as the land of the icy winds, massive mountain ranges, sloping valleys, billowing prayer flags and gentle monks. But Tsering Wangmo Dhompa gives you a new landscape of her homeland in her new book, A Home in Tibet, by drawing parallels between the land of her mother’s memories and the winds of change that have blown over the entire region.

And so, though you travel with the author through the pages of her book, catching glimpses of vast snowy terrain, colourful clusters of houses and flowing rivers, you realise that there is so much more to the country than the usual clichés that are chosen to describe it. You realise also that this is no ordinary travelogue, written with an impersonal pen. The entire book, laced with tender remembrances and quiet reflections, is like a pilgrimage to Tsering’s mother’s home and you are drawn into her journey and allowed to draw your own inferences, as you explore the history and culture of this beautiful region with her.

This is, however, not a soppy, sentimental book, as memoirs often turn out to be. It is with a clear and intelligent eye that the author surveys her home and describes the land without colouring the narrative with her own ideas or perceptions. The ability to touch the reader’s emotions without an outpouring of her own sorrows is a skill that Tsering has mastered, and it is with great dignity and eloquence that she takes her reader along as she travels to the foothills of her mother’s ancestral home in East Tibet.

The book begins with a jeep accident on the Grand Trunk Road leading to Chandigarh, that took her mother’s life on the New Year morning of 1994. When Tsering went to the police station later and stood with a list of the unnamed dead, she examined the descriptions of the clothes that her mother had been wearing, wondering what clues she would find of the person she loved the most. As one of the many Tibetans who fled to Nepal or India during the period of political turmoil, her mother had reconciled to her days of exile, but had always longed to go back to her homeland. Tsering knew at that moment, that her mother would never be able to fulfil the yearnings of her heart. But she would take her mother’s ashes to Tibet and discover her mother’s home in Dhompa, where her family members had been chieftains for over a hundred years.

So, Tsering flies from San Francisco to Xining and begins her journey there. She is met by her aunt Tashi who is to be her constant companion during the journey, and a font of knowledge and memories. All through the trip that begins a few days later, Tsering gives the reader many landscapes to enjoy with her and to meet a variety of people on the way.

The interesting tidbits of information along her journey give the narrative a distinct richness and texture. The narratives range from describing the names to food, from history to politics, from culture to education. She describes the names of the children by writing... “The nomads.... settle for obvious caricatures when naming their children:

Singhi, lion; Singho, lion’s head; Ma tuk, boy solider; Changho, wolf’s head....Tashi says that nomads keep to the routines and customs they learned from their parents.... they know that life is full of suffering, that suffering can be understood and lived through, that their actions and intentions will determine their future lives just as the past has allowed for this present life...” It is evident that Tsering does not sit idle in the various stops on the way as she writes... “I cook when I can. At night I stick to noodles, but try variations, thenthuk, pulled noodles, bhakthuk, miniature conch-shaped noodles, and sometimes when I am pressed for time I take the easier path and use the knife to cut the dough in thin strips... they marvel that I can make food of the old days. They remark how I am so Tibetan despite having lived outside Tibet.” She stops to speak to all kinds of people, friends and family members and recounts a great deal of history and some philosophy through the book too. She writes reflectively... “How can a country of many people inherit one karma? How is that possible? He (my uncle) says it is possible... he is nostalgic for the old world. He says the people were kind then and considerate. He pines for the language of the old world, for its ordinary intimacies and its poetic tendency of bestowing blessings on people... Now a man is admired if he’s rich and can lie convincingly.”
Finally, Tsering reaches Dhompa, her mother’s village in Nangchen, East Tibet, and it’s like coming home.

If you want to enjoy a leisurely journey with Tsering Wangmo Dhompa through Tibet, with the many stops and starts she makes along the way to enjoy the countryside, to listen to her narrative of the history of her people, this is a book that you must read to appreciate why today is richer when set against the beauties and sorrows of yesterday.

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