Norbu’s wariness of "university-wallahs" goes back a long way: he ran away from his first months in college to join the Tibetan guerrilla fighters who were then operating in Mustang in northern Nepal. And although he took "two mule-loads" of books up with him into the mountains—and later taught himself enough Latin, Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese, Hindi and French to pursue the subjects he loved—his suspicion of literature and litterateurs persists. "I have a funny streak in me," he says. "I’m suspicious of literature with a capital L. Of course, I am a great admirer of Tolstoy and Günter Grass. But I’m not sure about others... a bit pompous. Most Indians I know are so over-educated, PhDs from Oxford, Harvard and what not, and so overwhelmingly articulate, that I guess they are entitled to feel slightly superior to the common herd."
Which is why, he says, he deliberately chose the low-brow form of crime fiction to tell his story about China’s invasion of Tibet and its disastrous aftermath. In The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, Norbu resurrects Conan Doyle’s famous detective and plunges him into an adventure that takes him all the way from Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel to Simla and onwards to Lhasa in the company of a Bengali babu, Hurree Chunder Mookerji, stolen from Kipling’s Kim. "It’s written for overgrown schoolboys," he laughs. "They make the best readers—they love my book and write to me."
But a ‘low-brow’ genre is a lot of work, as Norbu discovered. "The lighter the genre, the more the effort. It would have been easier were I writing an autobiography or an essay. But if you rely on suspension of disbelief, you have to work really hard to get the details right or it won’t be convincing." For Norbu, whose familiarity with the ‘Sacred Writings’ (the 60 adventures of Sherlock Holmes) was impressive enough to admit him into the ranks of the cognoscenti—the Baker Street Irregulars—resurrecting the Master was no problem. Nor was it difficult to sprinkle his novel liberally with esoterica from fields as diverse as archaeology, botany, zoology, chemistry, ethnography and geography. "I’m that sort of person," he says. "I read and absorb all sorts of useless trivia, anything I can get hold of, including my wife’s copy of the New England Journal of Medicine."
What was really difficult was to get the language right—British cavalry officers used a certain kind of language that did not last longer than a decade, so Norbu had to read every book of popular Victorian fiction he could lay his hands on just to get the details right. Hurree Babu’s language was even trickier as the Mandala claims to be a manuscript written by him that is discovered by a stroke of good fortune in a rusty tin box. "Of course, the babu language’s been much used before, but always in a denigratory way," says Norbu. "I find it charming, reflecting the Indian fascination with English, ornamented in a purely Indian style. It’s a fine line to toe; I hope I’ve succeeded."
Just how well he succeeded was demonstrated some 15 months ago when John Murray, Conan Doyle’s original publishers, approached his Indian publishers. Says Norbu: "They had never accepted the Holmes pastiches they had been offered throughout the years. They had only made an exception in my case and put in a bid for the rights to Mandala because they thought that it was to date the work that was truest to the spirit of the original. It was hugely flattering."
More honour lay in wait when he visited the old-world publishing house in London. "They held a reception for me in the Byron Room with all these etchings of their authors, including Byron and Wordsworth, and presented an old manuscript to me as part of the ceremonies, followed by champagne and kind words. John Murray, the grandson, I think, of the original, led me to the window overlooking Piccadilly Street and recounted how a London mob had hurled stones up at their windows when they published Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It was really great."
Better still, the book made him enough money in the UK and the US to give up the odd jobs he’d been doing to stay afloat. But faced with both money and recognition, Norbu is curiously reluctant to take on writing, especially novel-writing, as a full-time profession. "Mandala was a one-chalk book. I want to move on," he says firmly. There have been requests, including from amazon.com, to write a sequel which he refused. "I find most novels nowadays a bit tedious—a bit of stream-of-consciousness, or magic realism or Dadaism. I prefer straightforward, unselfconscious writing born out of conviction, like Gandhi’s autobiography or Orwell, who taught me that it is possible to write about a serious subject without sermonising." Norbu’s passion and inspiration is Tibet and its independence: "If I can promote my cause through writing, I will. Even though writing is so much coolie work."
Like many Tibetan exilés of this generation, Norbu was born in India, in Darjeeling. His mother, of aristocratic lineage from Lhasa, had come to India on a pilgrimage and met her husband, a businessman with a large estate in Gangtok. Norbu’s only visit to Lhasa was when he was a few months old, when his mother took him home to her family. But the family was forced to flee to Darjeeling when Norbu was a year old. "As places go, it wasn’t a bad place to be born. It was a kind of Casablanca, a hotbed of spies, international activity and commerce because of the tea trade and cosmopolitan. In school in St Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, we had boys from all over—Jews, Americans, Britishers—and learnt to take each other’s presence for granted. After growing up in Darjeeling, you don’t feel out of place anywhere in the world." While Norbu feels comfortable in India, where people accept him as of "Tibti jaati", home will always be a place he doesn’t know, except from the memories of his people. He considers his next book, Echoes from Forgotten Mountains, his most ambitious work so far—a "non-fiction" novel constructed from the true recollections of real people about a real nation, Tibet, that’s fast fading from the world’s memory. Like his Mandala, Lhasa is the beginning he wants to return to "and know it for the first time".