Review: The Tibetan Suitcase by Tsering Namgyal Khortsa
Any book that begins in praise of momos has already won me over. It is only befitting that a novel about a mysterious land should shroud its own beginnings in the labours of fate. The Tibetan Suitcase begins with Khortsa, the novelist himself, making an appearance as a business journalist, being handed a suitcase filled with letters, stories, newspaper clippings, press releases, and diaries that used to belong to a Tibetan writer. It is his story that the author’s persona is exhorted to birth.
From there on, the reader is thrown head first into a group of eclectic characters such as the businessman who turns his haunted house into a meditation centre, a beer-drinking lama and the writer-turned-meditation guru who ended up running the centre. As Khortsa channels the voice of Dawa Tashi what is a point of singular interest is Tashi’s endearing pragmatism. With complete nonchalance, he admits in his application letter to Appleton University that his options, should he stay in Dharamshala, are to either sit in a monastery reading archaic but pretty Tibetan texts or to sell sweaters in the streets of Mumbai. That India has failed an entire people hits the reader like the quiet aftermath of an explosion. The reader can relate to the restlessness and disillusionment that Dawa experiences as a foreign student. While his peers view education as a stepping stone, he is crushed by the expectations of representing his people, of championing their voice. In many ways, The Tibetan Suitcase is a call against caricaturing an entire culture. At one point, a tired Dawa grows frustrated with telling people that not all Tibetans are monks or lamas. They do have crushes; they drive cars and drink in bars. This is internalized in Dawa’s conflict between his Buddhist teachings of detachment and his love for Iris.
The Tibetan Suitcase is a fascinating exposition of relationships between culture and identity; of the mysterious forces that draw us homeward as the sun begins to set; and the vexed question of where to go when that home is taken away from us. When Dawa hears Professor Sangpo speak, he feels a sense of pride in his Tibetan identity and roots, “...a swell of aggression rising up from within me, a force that I could only call it by its real name of nationalism, a byproduct of nostalgia.” In his letter to his friend, Dawa confesses to dreaming about his mother with unusual frequency. Khortsa, through Dawa, examines the impact of being nationless, of being unable to return home upon the belief in the Buddhist philosophical teaching of Madhyamika or moderation. On returning to India, Dawa finds his culture being globalized and commodified. Tourists roam about his town carrying biographies of lamas, Lonely Planet travel guides, and Free Tibet bags. The authenticity of his people appears to be a façade as he overhears a ponytailed Tibetan asking a European to sponsor his visa to France as he kisses her. The vast range of The Tibetan Suitcase includes the finer nuances of Tibetan and Buddhist texts, and critiques of writing, meditation, and poetry. Through student-professor interactions, Khortsa presents a contemporary application of ancient thought. Professor Sangpo’s character shows how a Tibetan must navigate the dichotomies of spirituality and politics. This is a peek into the mind of an academic standing at the front line of a political movement.
Khortsa’s characters are wry and self aware and the book is full of zingers such as, “A PhD is the final meeting point of all ex-monks.” The absurd frequently impinges on life. Professor Sangpo’s talk in India is interrupted by two Indians fighting on the side; he is unable to proceed until a louder microphone is brought in. After Iris finishes her PhD in Buddhist texts, she goes on to teach at the Stanford School of Business in an attempt to make the programme more “compassionate” and to get the students to drink less and meditate more. The irony is not lost on her.
Khortsa masterfully employs the epistolary format. The various entries allow the author to span generations and locations; effortlessly traversing the personal, the political, and the philosophical. The format also lends itself to an exploration of longing. In the letters and diaries, the reader senses the characters’ ache of longing; their eagerness to return to each other, to return home, or to a point in the past. A rare book that talks of the mysteries of lost knowledge and the stories of its keepers, The Tibetan Suitcase exists at the intersection of politics and the other world; of philosophies and traditions. But love is at its heart. Somehow, the author is able to prove that the best love story isn’t a novel; it is a letter.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha