It was perhaps inevitable that a collection like Old Demons, New Deities would be inconsistent. In attempting to put together the first collection of contemporary Tibetan short fiction, editor Tenzin Dickie, it appears, was obligated, now and again, to sacrifice literary merit in favour of exigency. But a collection like this can be hard work—commissioning, selecting, translating and editing fiction from a wide range of Tibetan exiles living across the world—so Dickie’s efforts must be applauded, as must the fact that a collection of this kind came about in the first place.
There are a number of stories here that are truly remarkable, beautiful in their craft, thematic progression and use of language. But there are also others that are the opposite: middling short stories with neither substance nor linguistic flair.
What this collection is not is just a paean to a lost homeland or the pain of exile. In stories both accomplished and inept, there is a nuanced look at what it means to be Tibetan, not just as a nationality, a political or religious identity, but as simply human. Certainly, identity figures heavily in the stories but it is mediated through tales of young love, desire, friendship, loss and the creative spirit.
Among the best stories in the collection is Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s ‘Letter for Love’, where a young girl, abetted by her mother, writes letters on behalf of her neighbour to an American man. Karma, the girl in the story, is a beautiful character, quiet and unassuming, but also inquisitive and reflective. As Karma writes letters for Pema, her neighbour, she comes to terms with her mother Tsering’s own untold desires. Karma grows up, leaves for college and finds romance of her own, which sounds like a cliché, but Dhompa really makes the story her own, infusing distinctly Tibetan details and idiosyncrasies.
All the while, her prose is remarkable, which might be expected as Dhompa is also a poet. Speaking of her husband’s easygoing, uncomplaining nature, Tsering says: “His contentment was a burden… His happiness made her feel wronged.” Describing the monsoon in Kathmandu, Dhompa writes: “The rains came and lingered shamelessly for weeks, drowning the shape of the roads.” Her description of the men who accompanied their wives to a free medical clinic: “Most men said little, they held their bodies loosely beside their wives, just in case they were called upon to respond.”
But unlike Dhompa’s tale of love and longing, Jamyang Norbu’s ‘The Silence’ is a weather-beaten tale of Nyima, a mute piwang player, who loves a woman who won’t marry him because he is “dumb”. Nyima then goes out into the mountains in search of a voice and is buried in an avalanche, “set off by some loud sound.” It is a strained attempt at irony. There is little to delight in this story, although plenty to cringe at, including these lines: “Nyima’s heart raced—she would be there. The fairest girl in the village.” Norbu is a former ‘Khampa warrior’ and an established writer, winner of “India’s equivalent of the Booker Prize”. But there is little in this story that speaks to that kind of literary merit.
Tenzin Dorjee’s ‘The Fifth Man’ is similarly disappointing. It is a confusing story that cannot seem to decide what it is—a commentary on pseudo-religious traditions and customs or a straight-up ghost story. The ending made me laugh out loud, because of just how ridiculously clichéd it is, like a not-so-scary story you might have told when you were in middle school.
In fact, most stories are in the same vein. This collection could perhaps have been distilled down to half of the stories it currently features, and it would’ve made for a stronger overview of contemporary Tibetan storytelling. Including stories like ‘The Fifth Man’ does this collection a disservice, as it adds little to the panorama of voices and experiences; instead, detracting from its literary oeuvre.
But all is not lost. Dhompa’s story might be the crown jewel in this collection but there are other glittering gems. The venerable Pema Bhum contributes two stories, both of which are uniquely intriguing. ‘Wink’ is the first story in the collection and it provides a promising start. Set in occupied Tibet, the story follows a couple and their infant child as they leave their village in fear because they believe that their child’s actions regarding a Mao Zedong pamphlet might have angered local party representatives. Things take a comical turn when Mao dies and the child is suddenly in favour. Bhum is sharply satirical and confident in the story he is telling.
Bhum’s second story, ‘Tips’, is similar in tone but markedly different in subject matter. This story is set in New York and follows a man whose wife may either be a server in a bar or a prostitute in a brothel. The ending left me confused, but the story itself was entertaining and emblematic of the darkly comic style that seems to be Bhum’s forte.
Tenzin Dickie, the editor, has a story of her own in this collection and it too bears mentioning. ‘Winter in Patlikuhl’ is about two Tibetan kids who stay back in their hostel for the winter holidays and their almost-cruel prank on an old, destitute woman who had escaped the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The story starts out innocent and whimsical but by the end, the reader is left conflicted. The children only act the way they do because they are divorced from the harrowing experiences of their parents’ generation, and yet, one cannot help but feel for the old woman, Momo Pasang, and her frightened cries of “The Chinese are coming!”
There are a few lines in Dickie’s story that poignantly sum up the intention of this entire collection:
“Later I would realize that there were many other things I had never seen a Tibetan do. I had never seen a Tibetan bus driver, a Tibetan actor, a Tibetan scientist. Tibetans were only certain things in this exile of ours.”
This then is what Old Demons, New Deities seems to want to do, show the world that Tibetans are not just “certain things” but more than the sum of their Buddhist-spiritual-rebels-in-exile parts.
For all its inconsistencies, this is a book that is valuable because it exists. In bringing together diverse, discordant experiences of what being Tibetan means, Dickie shreds preconceived ideas of who Tibetans are, or who the English-reading, primarily Western, audience assumes Tibetans to be. Like the monk in Woeser’s ‘Nyima Tsering’s Tears’ illustrates so aptly, identity and belonging are two vastly complicated things.
Old Demons, New Deities will be launched on 27th June, 2019, at The Taragaon Museum at 5pm.
Photo by Sagar Chettri.