Category Archives: Reviews

WTFness!

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I am an avid reader of Amit Varma’s blog India Uncut but he has been MIA for the last couple of months and I sorely miss his posts, especially the WTFness section. WTFness honors the ridiculousness of life and I am grateful to my blog dost Shobhaa De for introducing me to his page. I still haven’t read his debut novel My friend Sancho yet (its been on my list) but if it is anything like his posts, I am sure it will be entertaining at the very least.

It may very well be that I see patterns where there are none. In my observation, increasingly in the last decade or so Indian writers have shed their predecessors’ somewhat whimsical overindulgence in long flowery passages (a colonial hangover?)and embraced a la minimalist trend; although they haven’t reached Palahniuk heights yet. This relatively new found love for economy of words and precision have also brought with it an unapologetic brand of desi humor that is fresh and crass at times. In that sense, White Tiger (for me) was a coming of age Indian writing in English. I loved the book from its opening letter to the Chinese president to its closing line. Last summer, undettered by its plunge in the bathtub I blow-dryed the book and gifted it to a Chinese friend whom I met through Woeser La. I hope he took better care of it than I did. All this is not to say the more classical Anglo-Indian writing style faces extinction. Far from it. Parallel to the new ‘developments’ there will always be a stylized Rushdie writing his/her magnum opus every couple of years.

Going back to Amit Varma, I have been trolling his blog for a new post. All in vain. Nonetheless while browsing his archives I found this post on promoting reading, which I wanted to share http://indiauncut.com/iublog/article/kindle-your-children/ I wonder if you can download Tibetan language books on Kindle. That will be a feat! Amongst contemporary Tibetan language writers, I would love to read Dhondup Gyal’s work. Come to think of it are  there any articles on Tibetan literary movements? I am an ignoramus.

P.S. I have been doing some background reading on feminist theories. So the next post might be an analytical rant. Happy April Fool’s Day!

On Erotica & Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal

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A while ago on Christmas Eve, I read An Unhurried View of Erotica by Ralph Ginzburg. I got this book two years ago from a bookstore clearance sale because I fell in love with its antiquated hard cover and sometimes this is enough reason to buy a book. I truly enjoyed this period book and for that matter any work that provides a good insight into sex and sexuality as these are hard to come by. The language and the feel of the book is very yellow paper-ish  (read- dated and dry), and my suspicion is partly because the author may have felt the need to restore some semblance of dignity and seriousness to the content after centuries of warped notions, censorship and refuge in the underground.  For those who love to read anything simply for the sake of curiosity – this book is a great introduction on erotic literature and here’s the spoiler alert; did you know that the Vatican has the world’s biggest collection of erotic literature? Speaking of the Vatican reminds me of our very own canonical texts, which leads me to khandro Yeshe Tsogyal.

I find theological musings/ findings/ history interesting and am fascinated by the way scholars interpret cultural myths and mysticism. For that reason I am an avid reader of Dan Martin’s blog, even though I am too much of a vegetable on the subject to comment or ask questions on half of the things he writes about. But within my limited understanding of that Buddhist world and literature, what I understand is that there are only a few female names in an ocean of male glitterati. What I am invested in is to know the life stories of these exceptional women because they represent a unique Tibetan brand of feminism before the term even existed. It is fascinating to read about them, especially misogynist comments that are ascribed to them- lamenting their sexuality and the inferiority of womanhood. Besides, the stories are so entwined with epiphanies and acts of divination that there are a great breeding ground for potential plots and ideas for magical realism. Are you listening Orhan Pamuk?  My Name Is Red can take a few skulls and flying Dakini cues from us Tibetans. As I mentioned I was looking for articles on Machik Labdron on the JIATS website but instead found an article on Yeshe Tsogyal by Janet Gyatso circa 2006. Here’s the link to that article http://www.thlib.org/collections/texts/jiats/#jiats=/02/gyatsoj It explores questions on whether Yeshe Tsogyal was a fictional or a historical character and an overview of the various versions of her life story by different authors. Amongst these I earmarked the one translated by Tarthang Tulku entitled Namkhé Nyingpo, Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Ye-shes mTsho-rgyal for future reading.

 

AIDS Sutra

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Aids Sutra is a provocative title that reminds you of Karma Sutra, quite apt considering the common thread of sexuality and HIV Aids that runs throughout the book. It is a compilation of essays written by a host of well-known Indian authors such as Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Siddhartha Deb,  Shobhaa De and others  regarding the impact of HIV Aids in the Indian society; most notably within its community of oppressed sex workers.

Each essay is a personal narrative of the writer’s encounter with people whose lives have been affected by the disease; some about people within their own circle but most of them on their experiences meeting with HIV positive sex workers. The writings depict the harshness of a sex worker’s life, the trauma of rejection by one’s own family/community and how such social exclusion consequentially makes them more susceptible to systemic violence at the hands of police. Two of the most interesting and culturally unique stories within the Indian sex workers’ community are the stories of devadasis and hijras. Their historical tradition, mythology and the survival dilemmas faced by these groups in the modern day are  touching and as a reader it opens your eyes to the range of cultural mosaic and the different outlooks that exist within the umbrella term of ‘sex workers’. Yet the essays are not simply a morbid collection of writings about human tragedy. They are also about strength, resiliency and magnanimity of HIV survivors, who sees this debilitating condition as a turning point in their life to transform not just their own darkness but also help uplift others around them. A strong reminder that it is not how hard you fall it is what you do after that.

As always, reading brings reflection. My mind travels back in time to Tibet and I remember seeing them daily as I went back and forth to my  work.  Young Tibetan girls sitting outside the doors of their little red rooms, wearing painted masks of makeup, their necks eerily dark against the powdered face…competing against fairer Chinese counterparts. The girls were mostly from the rural areas and can hardly read or write Chinese, which meant they do not have access to information about  safe sex education and preventive practices. All of them have different stories on how they ended up in the business and all of them do not go back home anymore. Sometimes business means a bowl of Tibetan noodles and as a result locals jokingly refer to them as “bhoethuk”. Often in the evening I have seen them grab the flapping jackets of men that push them away without a thought. It is enough to break anyone’s heart.

In the Forest of Faded Wisdom: A Book Review

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“…When this ink-stained body’s need for food and drink is finished

When this collection of bones- its thread of hope for gain and honor snapped- is scattered,

Then may the forms of these letters, a pile of much learning amassed through hardship,

Reveal the path of vast benefit in the presence of my unseen friends.”

(Poem 43, Lines 17-20)

In the Forest of Faded Wisdom is a complete compilation of Gendun Chopel’s poetry, edited and translated in English by Donald S. Lopez Jr. The original poems in Tibetan are presented alongside their translated versions in English and there is also a section that contains Gendun Chopel’s English compositions. The book is a great resource for those who want to read his work and/or have an interest in Tibetan literature and poetry. It begins with an introduction to Gendun Chopel’s life and works including a description of the types of Tibetan poetry, followed by the presentation of his poems that are divided into six distinct sections- Teachings of a Master without Disciples, Laments of the Unknown Sage, The Ways of the World, Songs of the Tibetan Kings, Precepts on Passion and English Compositions. Often with works like these the magic of poetry remains incomplete when meanings and connotations fade during their transition from one language to another. The devil seems to lie in the nuances of language particularly in poetry where much of the beauty is bound in structure, cultural context and words with their double-entendres. But here the English versions retain a distinct Tibetan characteristic and one is touched by the sensitivity of the translation and the effortless ease with which the author manages to transport you into the complex mind of Gendun Chopel.

As a reader you feel the presence of a highly critical and evolved being whose poetry comes from a deep sense of engagement with both the magnificent and common experiences of ordinary men and women. The poems in their distinct sections (mentioned earlier) are based on a wide range of themes that stretch from religion, technology, culture, scholarship, and history to death and sexuality. Of note are his stern criticisms of monastic scholarship and politics as well as a disdain for illogical beliefs and a candid advocacy for sexual freedom.

In some ways, the book traces Gendun Chopel’s own poetical journey. He begins in the tradition of devotional poetry (the section that may be the most challenging to read for those unfamiliar with Buddhist doctrines), but increasingly incorporates other themes from his journeys and experiences. The following lines from Poem 39 describes his intentions well  -“Not acting as a real cause of heaven or liberation, not serving as a gateway for gathering gold and silver, these points that abide in the in-between, Cast aside by everyone, these I have analyzed in detail” (Poem, 39). Such revelation show his awareness of the gaps in knowledge and the poetry takes a refreshing break from the traditional themes that mostly deal with divine subjects and epiphanies, written in an elevated style. While such devout expressions have their own place, they are seldom within the grasp of one’s everyday experiences.

An interesting part of the book is the final section, which presents the collection of Gendun Choephel’s original English compositions. The style is remarkably in line with classical British poems and for someone who declared that along with Sanskrit he learned “…the useless language of the foreigners” (Poem 64), he seemed to have gotten much enjoyment out of it. For in his English compositions, there is a childish innocence that seems to be at odds with the rest of his Tibetan work. Perhaps it was the strange experience of writing in a new language. Regardless, his English compositions attest to his curiosity and love for new learning. This characteristic also seemed to have pushed him out of an insular world view to recognize other ways of being and seeing. Testimonies to that are his later poems, which expresses a cultural maturity in which he says every society tends to believe in its own superiority but in the end these views are the result of one’s conditioning.

All in all Gendun Chopel’s poetry has a strong individuality and an original voice that separates him from the rest of the poets and writers of his time. His progressive outlook and his engagement in diverse subjects make him every inch the renaissance man of Tibetan literature and arguably the foremost poet of contemporary Tibet. His poetry combines both the omniscient voice of a Buddhist monk and the equally gripping voice of a layman fearless enough to lampoon the ills in his own society. But despite all the cynicism, his poetry shows a deep connection to the land and people of Tibet. The melancholic poems on homeland composed during his years in India will resonate to this day with the voices of Tibetan writers in exile. Kept alive by tales of unconventional behavior and lifestyle, Gendun Chopel continues to fascinate and live in the annals of popular imagination. In this compilation, Donald S. Lopez Jr. brings us closer to a more appreciative understanding of the poet often shrouded behind the cult of his own personality. The freshness of perspective and the depth of his poetry are his contribution to the Tibetan literary world- to read them is to bring us closer to the past and help make sense of the present.

How far can you “see” Lhasa?

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Seeing Lhasa is an interesting title and a book. One’s ability to understand or in other words “see” a place is directly influenced by the author’s understanding of the place, how he chose to portray it especially if you are a novice. The effectiveness of his argument will also depend on a large extend to your understanding of the place, your political biases (in this case) and his/her persuasive skills. However any book that analyses “how it was back in the day” needs to be read with an understanding that it is subjective, based on the author’s own political and social standing and may often conflict with your recollection, association of a place and events. Therefore as a reader it becomes important to be critically aware of such biases and how these may influence the work.

In “Seeing Lhasa” Harris & Shakya presents a historical case to revisit the stereotypical notion of Tibetan society (particularly Lhasa) as a remote untouched Shangrila and/or a primitive form of society. Their depiction of the city is one of a thriving and complex commercial, cultural and political centre ruled by a sophisticated (often indulgent) class of nobility and a strong clergy, reminiscent of many feudal structures. Their narrative to past events, role and description of important figures, lifestyles, are presented with period pictures that makes a compelling argument to consider the Tibetan society as a complex and highly evolved socio-political system prior to the arrival of Chinese. This portrayal of a bustling Lhasa defies the common impression of it as a ‘forbidden’ and to some extent a puritanical city in the minds of many people and by doing so serves an important purpose. Firstly, it curbs the tendency to romanticize or demoralize a place by laying emphasis on its inaccessibility, foreignness, which in effect often alienates the natives’ experiences and creates a sense of emotional detachment from their world, and issues. Secondly such notions are based on a Eurocentric and colonialist definition of societal development that is measured mostly in terms of its technological advancement. This framework does not do justice to either the unique context of the region nor does it aptly represent the characteristics and strengths inherent in traditional societies. It is with regards to debunking such popular misrepresentations, and creating a sense of appreciation for a culture that was able to survive and flourish in a harsh environment that “Seeing Lhasa” makes its mark as a book.

A key highlight of the book is Tsering Shakya’s recollection of the city, as a child growing up in Lhasa. The language is intimate and at times humorous, with a hint of melancholy for a lost past- often reminiscent amongst authors living in exile. In his narrative of street humor, trends, gossip, and other idiosyncrasies of the time, he creates a rich case study-like portrayal of life that not only adds a humanistic appeal to the subject but also strips away the tendency to dehumanize historical figures, time and place, which often characterizes a history text. His reflections oddly remind you of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. Although one is a historical non-fiction and the other is a literary fiction based in Africa, there are in both works a strong underlying theme of fear and fascination for modernity in traditional cultures. In today’s world of fast paced globalization that provoke clashes between cultures and worldviews as much as it brings them closer, Seeing Lhasa continues to claim a relevance that goes beyond its geographic space.