Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 18 News List

A cool head observes 'this sad reality' of Tibet

Former 'Taipei Times' reporter Tsering Namgyal has written a guide to Tibet and its diaspora

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Searching for Buddha's Tooth
By Tsering N. Khortsa
159 pages
INKSTONE

"Writings on Tibet could fill a modest library," writes the author of this short but excellent book. "Not much is, however, written on the Tibetan exile by the Tibetans themselves." (And this despite the fact that some 3,000 new Tibetans are estimated to arrive in India every year).

Tsering N Khortsa was for several years a writer on the Taipei Times. Under the name Tsering Namgyal he penned features, articles on business and book reviews. These days he's working as a freelance writer and translator, dividing his time between Taiwan and India. He's also all-but completed a novel. Searching for Buddha's Tooth, however, is his first published book.

It makes fascinating reading. It's essentially a collection of essays on life, as an educated Tibetan born in India sees it, but the author's eye is particularly acute. He's very conscious, for instance, of the paradoxes that cluster round exiled Tibetan life -- that there were only five contestants in the Miss Tibet beauty contest last year (the Dalai Lama's government in exile had campaigned against the event), and that two Tibetan emigrants at Delhi airport had no idea which country they had visas for, thinking it was perhaps "Space."

In reality it was Spain.

A quiet sense of the absurd informs this subtle book. It begins with the arrival of purported relics of the Buddha in Taiwan -- twice -- in 1999. The first one was apparently fraudulent, the second accredited. But even in these bizarre circumstances Tsering writes that if people gained some spiritual solace from viewing the first relic it would also have served a purpose. This is typical of his benign, easy-going, essentially charitable approach.

There's tougher stuff too, however. Modern literature on India -- V.S.Naipaul, Rohinton Mistry, Nirad Chaudhuri -- gets a knowledgeable survey during a treatment of the maverick Tibetan poet Tenzin Tsundue, the man who in 2002 climbed scaffolding up to the window of then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji's (朱鎔基) hotel room in Mumbai to call for freedom for his homeland. (Tsundue also secretly entered Tibet from Ladakh when a student, was arrested, and was lucky to eventually be repatriated to India).

Tensin Tsundue's parents had worked as a construction laborers, and having to take menial jobs was a common experience for exiled Tibetans and their offspring.

Tsering Namgyal, however, was luckier. Born in India where his father had fled from Tibet, he first came to Taiwan on a government scholarship in 1989. Since then he hasn't looked back, and nowadays contributes articles to The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Asia Pacific

Review and the Taipei Review. Even so, the first book he ever read about the Himalayan land of his forefathers was Tintin in Tibet, as he relates with charac-teristic modesty and quiet humor.

When he first set foot in Taiwan, he recounts, the whole place seemed awash with BMWs and Mercedes, and the consumption of cognac was high. It was a world of "gung-ho capitalism" where, being Tibetan, he was treated at school as "akin to an endangered species on the brink of extinction." It was only later that he understood that 1989 was the peak of Taiwan's economic boom, and things could only become less intense thereafter.

There's plenty more about Taiwan in this book. Two points are particularly interesting -- the parallels between the Tibetans and the Taiwanese, and the change that took place in Taiwan's official attitude to the Dalai Lama.

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