Cover Photo © WhereNYC
Bottom Line: Writer Tsering Wangmo Dhompa sat down with Tashi Chodron of the Rubin Museum for a discussion on her book, Coming Home to Tibet, which is both a homage to her late mother and a connection between life, death, heritage and future.
Review: Connections and identity: the two themes that kept appearing throughout the Tashi Chodron’s introduction and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s discussion of her book Coming Home to Tibet. We listened to Ms. Chodron guide us through the artifacts displayed before us in the shrine room on the fourth floor.
There were Tibetan paintings, but it was the story of two taras, white and green, that seemed to relate to Ms. Dhompa’s personal story. The green tara, the mother of all children, the protector seated in relaxed pose, intrigued me. Perhaps our mothers have a certain divinity, I wondered. But we are also connected to them, and the stories they tell give us our identity.
During her book talk, Ms. Dhompa said her mother longed to return to Tibet and often spoke to her about how amazing everything was in the homeland. Like many Tibetans who escaped the Chinese invasion or grew up as refugees in India or Nepal, it was their parents’ storytelling that helped them keep connected to their Tibetan identity. Ms. Dhompa seemed also to be inspired by it.
In her own displacement, Tsering Dhompa said it was her mother’s stories of pre-1959 Tibet that made a sort of imaginary ideal land or phayul as she called it. Her ancestral homeland, she described in her book, was a savage but unforgivingly beautiful wilderness in the Tibetan mountains.
There is an uncommonly harsh beauty to the Tibetan landscape. Its nakedness makes it seem incapable of deception, but under its calm deportment it conceals winds so brutal that yaks are known to die while their jaws are in masticating bliss.
Her mother, a newly-wed to a nomadic chief who fled to India during the invasion, often thought she’d one day return to her phayul and once more see the wildflowers bloom. That moment never came. She tragically died in a road accident on a distant highway in India in 1994. Fifteen years later, her daughter, Ms. Dhompa, made her first journey to Tibet to return her mother’s ashes and finally see the ideal phayul she had often heard about as a child.
Tibet was very different from what she had imagined. Somewhere between her mother’s stories and the reality of the country today, the idea of space and time changed. The Tibet her mother left had almost completely vanished. The Tibetans of today now have to contend with the influx of Chinese settlers and mechanized lifestyle. The industrial landscape was far different to the ideal phayul Ms. Dhompa had imagined. Tibetans now live in thick concrete towers, each apartment equipped with a microwave oven, T.V., shower and phone. In spite of these modern conveniences, the Tibetans, according to Ms. Dhompa, have understood that their way of life is rapidly disappearing as more Chinese settle in. She found that further away from the cities and in the harsh wilderness, however, the nomadic Tibetan culture was still very much alive. Although the dialect she grew up speaking with her parents is from this region, she still found it difficult to explain her life in America to her distant relatives. Many of them had never even seen a map of the world let alone Tibet and had difficulty understanding when she described her career or even Western technology. They had little concept of even simple things that we take for granted. “How could I speak of a donut?” she joked when they would only wonder about the reason for the hole in the center.
Ms. Dhompa became a writer by practice and perseverance. It started off as poems to her mother when she was a child in boarding school. “In the process of writing, I began to learn how to write,” she explained to us. “Stories bridge connections.” And it is these links that keep a community’s identity alive, according to her. Perhaps so, but for an individual, writing is not always about the greater good or collective memory. It is also at times very personal and unique. Ms. Dhompa’s writing style is so vivid, almost poetic. Ms. Dhompa may speak with a quiet, calm voice, but her writing contains powerful images.
When describing the different kinds of Tibetans in her book, she had this to say about the cowboy-like khampa people:
Ask a khampa and he will speak gladly torrential vehemence that stirs in his blood. Ask the people in Lhasa, for they too have heard stories that will ratify the quick temper and brashness of the khampas.
As she read sections of her book, with the sounds of an Indian classical instrument coming from the lobby below us, I was transported to another world, completely alien but strangely familiar and comforting. Although we’ve had different upbringings, I could see similarities between her story and my own life. Both our ancestral lands were taken from our kin. War, invasion and, in my family’s case, partition, have also become part of our identities. Even her account of her mother’s ashes she brought to Tibet reminded me of my own voyage to India , although I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of courage, devotion, and love she must have had in making the difficult journey.
I remembered dispersing my father’s ashes in the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, and partially regretting that I didn’t take them back to Sialkot in what’s now Pakistan, my dad’s phayul. Like Ms. Dhompa’s mother, my father had also fled when he was young and spent much of his life longing to return. The stories of life before Partition on the rare chance my dad talked about them, made me think of Northern Punjab as a magical place of unparalleled beauty.
Our host, Ms. Chodron, who like Ms. Dhompa, was born in exile in India listened teary-eyed to Ms. Dhompa’s description of a land that she had never seen. The sounds of sniffles from their fellow countrymen, refugees from Tibet, seated around me felt eerily like the scene in Casablanca when the French exiles passionately sing La Marseillaise in defiance to the German soldiers. I tried hard to fight back the tears, but in the end, I gave up. As the event drew to a close, the Tibetans from the audience queued to greet Ms. Dhompa, and one by one, they draped her in beautiful white, silk scarves as a traditional blessing or perhaps just to say “thanks” for writing an amazing story.