Falling Through the Roof by Thubten Samphel Rupa and Co, 2008
Indian authors writing in English have been on a winning streak over the past decade, publishing novels to wide international acclaim. Over the past five years alone, two Man Booker Prizes have gone to writers of Indian origin. But what exactly is meant by the term ‘Indian novel’? V S Naipaul, perhaps the pre-eminent writer of Indian origin, was not born in India, and has lived most of his life in England. Pico Iyer, too: born in England, lives in Japan. These designations can certainly get tricky. Indeed, commenting on journalist Tarun Tejpal’s book The Alchemy of Desire (2005), Naipaul himself said, “At last, a brilliantly original novel from India.” If that is the case, Tibetan exile Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is also a novel ‘from India’. And now we have a new novel by a Tibetan based in India, written by the spokesperson for the Dharamsala government-in-exile, Thubten Samphel, coming out just as the Tibetan diaspora is marking its 50th year since the start of exile, in March.
While Samphel was born in Tibet, he grew up in India. Educated at the University of Delhi and Columbia University in the US, he has worked with the Dharamsala government for almost three decades. Falling Through the Roof traces the life of Tashi, a Tibetan student at Delhi University. Along with his idealistic cohorts, Tashi one day decides to form a political group to be known as the Tibetan Communist Party, which he believes will help to propel the troubled plateau into the modern world. This was during the 1970s, and communism was enjoying a substantial share of admirers, particularly amongst the college-going youth.
Tashi and his friends are of a type that study hard during the daytime, writing densely footnoted essays on history and literature. In the evening, they go to drink at Majnu-Ka-Tilla, then a budding Tibetan community just outside Delhi. There, some of their compatriots, desperate to eke out a living, sell chang, beer made from rice and barley, in shacks roofed with corrugated iron. It is here that they discuss politics and the state of the world over glass after glass of change.
Much of the novel’s action happens here in “Changistan”, particularly once Tashi and the book’s narrator, Kunga Dhondup, meet a high-ranking Tibetan monk with a knack for telling “tall tales of Tibet”. (The character of Dhondup happens to be a budding writer and a first-class note-taker.) The monk, who shares the weakness for barley beer, enthrals his listeners with stories about their collective homeland. The story then takes a sudden turn. Through his dreams, the monk becomes convinced that Tashi is a reincarnation of a major Tibetan lama, the fictional Druptop Rinpoche. Indeed, this deceased lama was no small priest in the order of things, but the one who is said to have discovered the Tibetan written language – “the Word”, as the monk refers to it.
As it happens, the invention of the Tibetan alphabet took place in Kashmir during the seventh century. Its invention is credited to a minister named Thonmi Sambhota, and ultimately allowed Tibetan scholars to import the philosophy and knowledge of India onto the high plateau. To supply background and context to this story, author Samphel mixes fact and fiction to trace the history of the Tibetan alphabet. The mission takes the narrator to Kashmir, where, with the help of an Indian scholar named Professor Bamzai, he discovers the spot where the lama ‘invented’ the script.
~ Tsering Namgyal is a journalist and author of the book Little Lhasa (2006), a collection of essays about Tibetans in India.