Modern Tibetan literature is just under forty years old: its birth dates to 1980, when the first Tibetan language journal was published in Lhasa. Since then, short stories have become one of the primary modern Tibetan art forms. Through these sometimes absurd, sometimes strange, and always moving stories, the English-reading audience gets an authentic look at the lives of ordinary, secular, modern Tibetans navigating the space between tradition and modernity, occupation and exile, the personal and the national. The setting may be the Himalayas, an Indian railway, or a New York City brothel, but the insights into an ancient culture and the lives and concerns of a modern people are real, and powerful.
For this anthology, editor and translator Tenzin Dickie has collected 21 short stories by 16 of the most respected and well known Tibetan writers working today, including Pema Bhum, Pema Tseden, Tsering Dondrup, Woeser, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Kyabchen Dedrol, and Jamyang Norbu.
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From "The Connection" by Bhuchung D. Sonam
"You have a background," said the police inspector.
It was the first thing he said after ordering me to sit down in the chair in front of his desk. He knew me from my many previous visits to the police station.
"I…I…" I intentionally fumbled. Having read enough detective stories and crime thrillers, I knew what "background" meant, especially when used by a senior police officer.
"Young man, go on, what do you say to that?" he said.
"Sir, I don't understand what you mean," I answered respectfully. I had found that things often worked in my favor when I used polite language and lots of "sirs" with government officials and policemen. These saabs liked to use authoritative language to reinforce their positions of superiority. On the white wall behind the inspector's head was a map of India on a rusty nail and a two-year-old calendar.
Perhaps the calendar was kept there for its image; an intimidating painting of the four-armed wrathful goddess Kali extending her tongue to her chin and adorned with a necklace of human skulls.
"Kabir, pani lao," the inspector commanded his peon. A little later a man appeared with two glasses of water. He placed them on the table, bowed a little, and left the room.
"Think . . . think about where you travelled and who you met over the last year," said the inspector, pushing one of the glasses towards me. I was taken aback when he said "year." I thought about how I should respond.
"Sir, I just came here to ask about my Identity Certificate. The police inquiry has not come through yet. It's been two years since I applied," I said. In fact, it had been more than two years. An IC is the yellow booklet issued to Tibetan refugees as a travel document, in lieu of a passport. It was a complex and laborious procedure to get one. When I called and got through to someone at the Regional Passport Office about the status of my IC, the lady who answered directed me to go to the local police station, since the necessary background clearance must come from there. The police had to issue a No Objection letter and send my file back to the passport office. If the slow-motioned bureaucratic juggling went well, the travel document would be issued within a few years. But any forward movement in the process would not happen without a letter from the local police station. And this was how I landed at the police station.
"I know. We have your file in there," the inspector said. He pointed to a cupboard packed with rows of spineless yellow cardboard folders each containing forms and handwritten observations clamped together by a neatly knotted white string.
He took a long sip from his glass and made a phone call most likely to someone of equal rank as himself. He mentioned Case Number Twenty-Five a few times and said that he had had no new leads. I stared at the files and at the computer. The keyboard had turned yellowish from age and overuse and the Logitech mouse looked tired. There was a distinct mark of index fingers on the right click button. A 3D text screen With You, For You Always revolved slowly on the monitor. The CPU swished as the system fan blew out hot air from the hard disk. I felt anxiety building inside me. The phone call ended with a Hindi maxim that could be loosely be translated as "the fish will land in the net."
"So, tell me." he said. The inspector rose from his chair, cracked his fingers and threw a few punches with his right fist into the open palm of his left hand. I knew about police beatings. But the inspector did not look like the type who would use his belt. His oil-soaked hair was carefully parted from the left to the right side of his head and his thick black mustache was disciplined downward into two horn-tipped ends, touching the edges of his mouth symmetrically. He wore gold-colored spectacles and had two pens sticking out of his shirt pocket. He looked like a seasoned teacher, except for his khaki uniform. Nevertheless, I was scared.
"Sir, I don't know what to tell you," I said. "I am a college student and I applied for an Identity Certificate. I hope to get a scholarship to study abroad."
"Good. That is good." He paced around the office. It was a hot day. The ceiling fan creaked as it circulated stale air. All the windows were closed. The room was suffocating.
"Tell me about your friends."
"Your friends, tell me about your friends," he repeated.
"I have many friends, sir." Now I began to see what this was about. I hesitated, "Sir, you want me to name them?"
Table of ContentsTable of Contents (by title and author)
Under the Shadow
Bhuchung D. Sonam
The Agate and the Singer
The New Road Controversy
Nyima Tsering's Tears
The Flight of the Wind Horse
Pema Tsewang Shastri
Letter for Love
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Bhuchung D. Sonam
The Season of Retreats
Tsering Namgyal Khortsa
The Dream of a Wandering Minstrel
The Fifth Man
Winter in Patlikuhl
Dhondup Tashi Rekjong
The Valley of the Black Foxes
The first English-language anthology of contemporary Tibetan fiction available in the West, Old Demons, New Deities brings together the best Tibetan writers from both Tibet and the diaspora, who write in Tibetan, English and Chinese.