Madhura Balasubramaniam reviews Tsering Wangyal’s ‘Another Place’

Madhura Balasubramaniam

Book: Another Place by Tsering Wangyal

Another Place, a novel authored by late Tsering Wangyal, the former editor of Tibetan Review was his first venture into fiction and was published posthumously in 2020 by BlackNeck Books. Tsering Wangyal, also known as Editor la, was the editor of Tibetan Review for 20 years and  as Jamyang Norbu writes in his introduction to the novel, was known for his sharp editorials, his journalistic skills and integrity.

Another Place revolves around Ngawang Tsultrim, better known as Frank Lee, and his missing laptop. On a parallel track, the novel introduces us to the Jhangsur, the former Governor of Phari and his daughter Pema Choezom.  Even as the plot revolves around Frank Lee’s attempts to retrieve his laptop, Tsering Wangyal intertwines these multiple narratives, making for an immersive read.

This novel has a unique place within the literature produced by Tibetans in exile in English.  While novels like Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes and T N Khortsa’s The Tibetan Suitcase experiment with form, it is the content of Another Place that sets it apart. Wangyal’s experiences of working in the Tibetan government in exile and as the editor of Tibetan Review inform the novel’s narrative as it straddles fiction and political commentary. In contrast to novels and poetry that discuss in detail the multifaceted impact of Chinese oppression and occupation on Tibet and Tibetans in exile, Wangyal foregrounds the intricacies of the exile experience specifically immigration, exile politics and bureaucracy and the materialities of place in exile.

Identity and Immigration

A large part of the plot discusses the last few months of Frank Lee’s stay in India before he makes a permanent move to the United States. While the Tibetan Suitcase primarily explores nostalgia, anxieties and challenges of navigating one’s identity after immigrating to the West and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s A Home in Tibet presents the affective complexities of homecoming, Another Place highlights the multiple entanglements of aspirations that underlie the decision to immigrate by examining the liminal period of waiting to resettle.

In discussing the concept and distinctive features of diasporas, Robin Cohen (2008: 187) argues that “the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in tolerant host countries” is often an important factor that drives immigration. While the relevance of the conceptual category of diaspora to the Tibetan exile community is hotly debated in academic, political and policy circles (Anand 2003), it is this search for a better, more enriching life that shapes Frank Lee’s desire to migrate. 

Frank Lee applies to the Fulbright program that gives him a brief reprieve from the daily drudgery of his government job and an opportunity to live his dream of migrating to the US, albeit for a short period of time. Even though he wishes to return to the US, the possibility of a new romantic relationship makes him reconsider his plans. When that peters out, he marries Tenzin Lhakyi which gives him, for the first time, a concrete path to permanently immigrate to the US under the Family Reunification Program. But he asks himself, “Had he won or lost in the deal?” Here, Frank Lee is not a figure representing an enduring yearning to immigrate above all else, but rather one who walks a tenuous tightrope in negotiating his aspirations and his desires.

At his wedding, Frank Lee prohibits his guests from bringing khatas. However, as Frank Lee departs from Dharamshala on a journey that will culminate in the US, Thubten wraps a khata around his neck. Frank Lee momentarily considers removing it when he boards the bus before deciding to let it remain. Through this juxtaposition, Wangyal indicates that immigration is not a linear process and the past and one’s roots are not excised from one’s identity by the decision to move abroad. Rather, they remain, much like the khata around Frank Lee’s neck, not as a restraint, but as a source of comfort.

Exile Politics and Bureaucracy

Through the course of the novel, Wangyal enlivens the Tibetan administrative setup and spaces of political activism by paying attention to the multiple people who populate it. He focuses on the inner worlds of his characters – their professional goals, political ambitions and aspirations, their interpersonal relationships and how they locate themselves as agents in the context of the Tibetan struggle.

Frank Lee finds himself stifled in the exile bureaucracy and counts down the days till he can leave. In one instance, through a detailed description of an uncomfortable staff meeting, Wangyal not only points to the deeply entrenched hierarchies of the exile bureaucracy, but also the men and women who hold it up.

Academic scholarship on the Tibetan exile bureaucracy has often focused on its structures and the performances through which it strengthens its legitimacy and garners international support for the Tibetan struggle. As an outcome, this scholarship tends to, sometimes inadvertently, attribute an unchanging coherence to the administration. The novel, however, breaks free of the overwrought unitary construction of the exile bureaucracy that academic writing conjures.  In doing so, the novel provides new ways for researchers to think about the exile bureaucracy, by shifting the focus away from the formal and the institutional to the material, personal and affective domains of bureaucracies.   

The novel also captures a spectrum of engagement with exile politics. Frank Lee remains steadfastly disinterested and consciously refuses to be drawn into discussions on politics, often to the exasperation of his companions. During an attempt to locate and retrieve the laptop, Frank Lee, in a lapse during heightened tension, shares his nuanced and well-considered perspective on the future of Sino-Tibetan relations before quickly returning to his comfort zone. In contrast, Thubten Chhodak, the proprietor of the One More Chance Restaurant, participates enthusiastically in political meetings, is a member of number of exile organizations and is nominated by Chushi Gangdruk as one of its candidates for the parliamentary elections. Wangyal states that while Thubten liked to think that he was politically conscious, his enthusiasm was driven by his desire to “become a national personality in the local exile community”. In a similar vein, the Jhangsur, bitter at being excluded from the circle of influential decision makers in Gangkyi, takes to publishing scathing censures of the Kashag’s decisions and is vocally critical of the shortcomings of the exile democratization process. These detailed characterisations present exile politics with nuance and remind the reader to be attentive to its complexities.

Places of exile/Exile-as-place

The novel’s biggest strength lies in Wangyal’s ability to bring alive the different places that his characters encounter. Be it Phari or Gangkyi or the bar in Hotel Tibet or even the crowded smoke-filled room in the One More Chance restaurant where weekly games of paglug are hosted, Wangyal recreates each place through detailed accounts, almost like ethnographic thick description. Significantly, his descriptions of McLeodganj and Majnu ka Tilla centre the histories of these settlement spaces. By discussing the building boom in McLeodganj, the rapid construction of Gangkyi to accommodate the growing government in exile and the positive impact of the presence of His Holiness and the Tibetan community on the local Indian economy, Wangyal captures the evolution of McLeodganj and its growth as the exile capital. Similarly, in discussing Majnu ka Tilla, Frank Lee reiterates that it was a camp that had developed on its own and not a settlement. This is an important distinguishing feature of Majnu ka Tilla, one that has shaped and continues to shape the residents’ understanding of their position viz a viz the Tibetan rehabilitation framework and their relationship with the land that they live on. In a hilarious retelling, Frank Lee describes how he and his friends would refer to the women in MT who would serve them chang as Impedimenta, Hysteria and Harmonica among other names. Through this tidbit, Wangyal reimagines MT as Armorica that is home to the indomitable Gauls. This representation of the atmosphere of MT in the 1980s/90s has echoes in Thubten Samphel’s Falling through the Roof where he describes MT as “a jungle representing the elemental struggle for survival” and in oral history narratives of a number of older residents of MT and other Tibetans who frequented MT in this period.

Through the course of the novel, Wangyal shifts away from presenting exile as an undifferentiated space of rootlessness and alienation, as juxtaposed against the homeland that is suffused with multiple specific forms of belonging. Rather, he constructs exile as an agglomeration of places that have unique histories, and with which people associate different meanings and experience different kinds and extents of belonging. In essence, he presents exile as a set of multiple “another places” where each place is an active site of identity formation and meaning-making.

The careful characterisation, attention to detail and presentation of nuanced political commentary makes Another Place an important read for all those looking to learn more about the everyday histories of exile life.

The author would like to thank Bhuchung D. Sonam for kindly sending her the novel.

References

Anand, Dibyesh. ‘A Contemporary Story of “Diaspora”: The Tibetan Version’. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 12, no. 2 (2003): 211–29.

Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Routledge, 1997.