BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Suitcase

By Tsering Namgyal Khortsa. Blackneck Books, Dharamshala. softcover, 248 pp.

Reviewed by: Abhyudai Dhawan 

In the protest poem “My Tibetanness,” the Dharamshala-based contemporary poet, writer and activist Tenzin Tsundue vocalizes the resentiment inherited by his people: ‘I am Tibetan./ But I am not from Tibet./ Never been there./ Yet I dream/ of dying there.’/

Dawa Tashi, Tsering Khortsa’s protagonist, emerges, as if from bardo, a lama in the Mid-Levels, an affluent Hong Kong neighborhood: “I did not intend to be a meditation teacher…I have a story to tell.” He also has never been to Tibet. He hands over a packed suitcase to the author himself, a clever literary mod con, the contents of which need to be turned into a book. So begins The Tibetan Suitcase, Khortsa’s first novel, ostensibly a bricolage of these found letters and documents. An Indian edition of the novel, first published in 2015, has just been issued. 

What we get is a novel coming-of-age story. Journal entries, a college application, mail correspondence, visa letters, news clippings, and other assorted missives give form to our immersion into Dawa’s life as an itinerant Tibetan youth in the nineties. We see him for who he is – restive and cocksure, solipsistic but earnest, unfinished yet charmed – as apparently does the creative writing department at an American university that opens his doors to him. 

From there, we are introduced to Iris and Khenchen. Iris is a bright, racially ambiguous dakini (female bodhisattva) whom Dawa meets at college, falls in love with, and is chastened into psychical maturity through his relationship with her. One rarely writes the real story of his life, George Orwell said, probably because the real story is of its humiliations. Khortsa doesn’t mind. Professor Khenchen Sangpo is the idol genius and guiding light in Dawa’s writerly quest for the spiritual and arcane. He is painted like a thangka, a homage composed of the struggles of great Tibetans that inspire Khortsa. It is only with him that we set foot in Tibet.

As alluded to by the book’s title, the protagonists are constantly on the move. Dharamshala to Wisconsin. Hong Kong to Dehradun. Paris to Kathmandu. Oxford to Lhasa. New Delhi to New York. Encounters in places of transit such as airports seem to hum, “home but no homeland.” They shapeshift too. Pupil to lama. Scholar to prisoner. Doctoral candidate to seeker of birth parents. The liminal state of our characters is the consequence of life in exile. Such flux paces the work. 

At one point, Buddhism is compared to deconstructionism. The poststructuralists Baudrillard and Derrida are attending Khenchen’s lecture. Baudrillard touches a nerve, asserting that the condition of exile might be more real than the State of Tibet: “To be honest, I think he really does not have much to say. It is more of a word game … to keep the Western mind busy.” Derrida is presented a scarf. This reader was entertained.

Snippets loiter: “Treat everything as a dream;” “Everything you lose comes back in a different form;” “Communism is really Tibetan Tantric Buddhism gone wrong.” In the absence of a narrator, we get acquainted with the uncommon drawl and subtle wit of Tibetan English through the voices of the characters. The personas are visceral, on the verge of self-awareness and the account rendered is authentic: “My story, always rooted in the small hill station of the Indian Himalayas, is too plain and too non-violent, clearly lacking in drama, too peaceful, and conciliatory.” 

Khortsa’s ambition is rewarded by achievement. He manages to energize the advent of modern Tibetan literary imagination. In Dawa, we have a 21st Century Indo-Tibetan everyman; Iris, the American heartbreaker looking eastwards; and Khenchen, sage teacher of endangered treasures. While we don’t end up going native, we briefly glimpse ourselves through these pilgrims at the diasporic frontiers of character, country and consciousness. 

As the great karmapas leave behind instructions for when they are gone, Khortsa has artfully storied his own hopes for Tibetan fiction and its future. He seems to be saying as the poet Tsering Woeser said in 2007: ‘A sheet of paper can become a knife/ —A rather sharp one, too./’ The Tibetan Suitcase makes a place for itself on the shelf next to Kumar, Bolaño and Pariat.

Abhyudai Dhawan is a writer and former media consultant based in Delhi and Dehra Dun, India