We first tried contacting Jamyang Norbu some time towards the end of March. when the Crossword shortlist was announced. His whereabouts weren't very certain but eventually HarperCollins, his publishers were able to confirm that he was in the USA and provided us with an e-mail address too. So we sent him an e-mail seeking an interview but never heard back. Meanwhile, the award date was approaching and he remained as elusive as ever. Is he going to be attending the ceremony? Yes. Maybe. Er, no. Where is he? Still in the USA? No. Perhaps in Dharamsala. Or even possibly in Delhi. Maybe still in the US.
So we gave up all hope, though I did send him another e-mail reminding him of our earlier mail. No response. Till suddenly late 24th. night/25th. morning, when he suddenly popped up in my e-mail box. Since it was too late to request Devangshu Dutta who had reviewed the book for the magazine to take over, as he was supposed to, what follows is a result of the exchange of e-mails we have had since then.
Since we were right on the eve of the award-ceremony, I asked him one of the most usual and banal questions towards the end of my last mail on 26th. early morning: What would it mean to not get the award? He would be a wee bit disappointed not to get the award, he said. But isn't it always a long shot for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche to win a literary prize? "Just getting on the list is honour enough, for the moment. Probably won't make it to the Award function. Have to be in Venice for a conference on Tibetan opera."
Later in the day, I shared our mail-exchange with a colleague who had read the book, loved it and thought it deserved the award thoroughly as it was clearly the best of the lot, but was resigned -- given the presence of the usual suspects -- that it would not win. "It's a pity," he wrote.
Not that I thought differently. For, given to received wisdom, hadn't I written the night before to Amitav Ghosh, rather presumptuously, requesting him to answer an enclosed set of questions, thinking I'd be ahead of the deluge he was certainly to be confronted with after the awards were announced? Before what is called the ceremony, everyone else seemed to echo the same feeling. Tell me who do you think will win? I asked Shashi Deshpande and Susan Visvanathan, the other shortlisted authors who were present, and many others. How does it matter? Still and all, tell me, tell me your gut feeling on this, I insisted. "Amit," they said. All of them. What about, say, Romantics? There were irreproducible noises (I think I should stop here and save the juicy gossip for later. Maybe under a pseudonym or something).
So it was quite a pleasant surprise when after Meenakshi Mukherjee (Remember Vikram Chandra's Title Lady? "You know, professor at JNU she used to be.") had gone on about all the five books deserving awards and such like, Geeta Doctor took the mike and announced, "As Sherlock Holmes himself might say, "It's a capital adventure my friends! Not elementary. Just brilliant." "
There were audible gasps before the applause. For the ultimate dark horse. Immediate reactions from other shortlisted authors present (Shashi Deshpande, Susan Visvanathan) was very welcoming too: "It's nice, it's something different." We could not get Madhvan Kutty's reactions, as he seemed to have disappeared with P.V. Narasimha Rao (yeah, he was there, too, pout and all, but more on that later, as I said).
And then Renuka Chatterjee of HarperCollins, the editor responsible for the book, took over to recount the story behind the trials, tribulations and the delays in publishing it. Apparently, way back in the 80's when she was with Penguin, they had toyed with the idea of publishing it as a children's book under the Puffin label, and had suggested longish cuts. Jamyang had refused and even contemplated publishing it himself. Finally, it was Tenzin Sonam who reminded Renuka about it, and the rest as they might say is elementary.
By the time, R. Sriram, CEO of Crossword, took over the mike to read out Jamyang's acceptance speech, received on e-mail, I was lost in thought about my yet-to-be-edited interview, and so missed most of it (but it is now available as a link to this story), and all I recall is the resounding "Jai Hind! Jai Tibet!" it ended with.
That brought the house down.
Before that, a very deserving and visibly moved Bama received the award for the Best Work in Indian Language Fiction Translation. (Fortuitously, the interview with her, too, was completed at the very last minute and happened to be our lead all of yesterday, before the awards were announced).
On the way back, I was thinking about my last mail to Jamyang:
Who knows, I might be writing to you around this time tomorrow to announce the good news to you. If I do, will you promise to, say, strum your guitar a bit for us here at Outlook?
So I came back and forwarded it to him again. Remember this? I asked. How does it feel? (Well, try it, tell me of a question which is not clichéd, in such circumstances)
I am thrilled, he wrote back. "Will certainly pick a tune for you on my guitar when we meet." He also was kind enough to fill in some of the gaps in the interview that follows (Watch out for some exclusive extracts from the book, shortly).
[As for my colleague? He's strutting around loudly telling people about his impeccable literary taste!]
It's been almost a Sherlockian feet tracking you down. Your publishers
thought that you were in Dharamsala or in Delhi or perhaps still in the USA. So
what brings you to the USA? Where are you based nowadays?
My wife (a Tibetan and a graduate of Maulana Azad Medical School, Delhi) is a doctor in Tennessee, and for a number of years now I have been dividing my time between my work in India and my family in the USA.
Pardon my intrusiveness, but may I ask how long you’ve been married? Where did
you meet your wife?
I have been married to Tenzing for seven years now and have a four year old daughter, Namkha (which means "sky"... "aakaash" in Tibetan). I had just gone through a divorce at the time I met her (my former memsahib being English) and no, the marriage wasn't arranged. Just got to know her at the Hotel Tibet Bar in McLeod Ganj over some drinks. I discovered she liked to sing Elton John and Carpenter songs (these Convent educated girls!), and since I am a fairly competent guitar player, nature just took its course.
Ah, sounds right out of a film - pop music and
romance! But talking of Tibetan makes me wonder -- do
you converse with each other in Tibetan? Tenzin Sonam talks very poignantly in
the latest Civil Lines about the loss of the language -- even more in China
occupied Tibet than among the exiles. Are you teaching Tibetan to your daughter?
About pop music. It’s just fun, I guess. Personally I love the blues and Bob Dylan. My wife and I generally converse in both Tibetan and English, and we are doing our best to have our little girl speak Tibetan. Since she goes to a pre-school were she is the only non-white kid, English is her main language (which she speaks with a real southern hillbilly twang) but she manages with Tibetan.
So when and how did you come to know about being shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards?
Just about a month ago, my publishers, HarperCollins, told me about my being shortlisted for the Award. I really felt honoured.
What do you think about the system of literary awards in general?
I am all for such awards. Writers need all the encouragement they get. We are an insecure lot.
Have you since then tried to find out about the other shortlisted books? Do
they intrigue you at all?
Of course I am intrigued by the works of other shortlisted writers. I have just placed an order on Amazon.com for some of them.
Have you read any one of them?
I don't read that many novels these days, but have read Amitav Ghose's Circle of Reason with much pleasure. I have also read the Calcutta Chromosome, but it was his dual travelogue of Cambodia and Burma, that impressed me the most. Particularly striking was his deriving the story of the dancer from the Royal Cambodian dance troupe (which created a sensation in late nineteenth century France) from the background of a Khmer Rouge Cambodia.
Yeah, an amazingly gifted writer, isn't he?. What is your take on his withdrawing from the Commonwealth Award?
Even hypothetically speaking, would you have, in a similar situation?
I can understand Amitav Ghosh withdrawing from the Commonwealth Awards. The whole notion of a "Commonwealth Literature" is pretty condescending; the underlying assumption being that there is the real "English Literature" as produced by sahibs and then there is Commonwealth Literature generated by former colonial subjects.
How do you react to Rushdie being present in last year's Commonwealth Award
function, when his book was on the shortlist? We are not even talking about his
peevishness at not getting the award, but the fact that he had been on record since
way back in 1983, lambasting the categorisation itself.
I read Rushdies' condemnation of Commonwealth Literature some time ago, and I think it would have been more consistent with his stand to refuse to attend the Award ceremony. But I am sure he had good reasons for making some concessions to the powers that be. The Brit establishment gave him a really rough time during the whole fatwa business.
Any other favourites among the Indian writers that you may have read?
I have many favourite Indian writers, foremost being Nirad Choudhuri. Since I haven't had a university education, Nirad babu's self-inculcated erudition has been a tremendous inspiration to me.
This is surprising indeed. Your novel is most erudite. So tell us a bit
about your childhood and younger days. Did you drop out of college? Why?
I received my schooling at St. Joseph's College, Darjeeling, but after a couple of months of college, ran away from home to join the Tibetan guerilla fighters who were then operating at Mustang in Northern Nepal. I really took that Hemingway bs, "grace under pressure" etc. etc., seriously then. I have always loved books. I took two mule-loads of the stuff with me to the mountains.
Wow. Do you remember what books those were? You certainly seem to
have lived an eventful life. So what was it like, being with the Tibetan
guerilla fighters? What was your involvement like? Killed anyone? How long were
you with them?
No, I never really saw much action. A couple of years after I joined, the whole resistance collapsed, what with the withdrawal of CIA support and the Dalai Lama's orders for us to surrender our weapons to the Nepalese authorities.
Yeah, so we were talking about your favourite Indian writers…
RK Narayan gave me much pleasure as a young man, especially his "Maneaters of Malgudi"[gentle readers, please be gentle with us if there is no such Narayan book. We haven't yet had time to check book-titles]. Naipaul also helped shape my own writing. I am an enthusiastic Tagore fan and have committed quite a few of his verses (the English translations) to memory. I have just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and I envy her calm and understated style.
Besides these more contemporary Indian writers I enjoy Nehru's writings, and even Gandhi's autobiography and various articles. I find the Mahatma's straightforward unaffected style tremendously refreshing, even the very common-place expressions he is inclined to use: "as you sow, so you reap" and so forth, so very expressive of the man. I am not much of an "art for arts sake" person and like my writers to be engagee as the French put it. Hence my great affection for Gandhi, and by extension George Orwell, Zola and Camus and Havel. Though I still haven't read A God of Small Things, I admire Arundhati Roy's commitment to her cause.
There is nothing more I enjoy than a good essay. Rushdie's collection Imaginary Homelands was delightful.
Yes, and since he does talk about exile, of a different sort though, I guess
you would find some parallels in his writings. Have you kept up with his non-fiction writing? His
essays on Gandhi, Kashmir, India etc? His seeming peevishness at being
denied the Commonwealth Award last year ...?
I read an article by him in the New Yorker about his return to India and how important it was for him to get his old home in Simla back. It was rather touching. But coming back to essays, Satyajit Ray's Our Films, Their Films (not sure about the title) is a small gem. He was also India's foremost Sherlockian.
Let me show-off my ignorance - this is news to me.
Ray mentions his love of the Sherlock Holmes stories in at least a couple of his writings. And of course his own master sleuth Feluda, who though smoking Charminars rather than a cherrywood, is a youthful Bengali version of the master.
Oh, yes, Feluda! Yes, now that you mention it, it is something barely
remembered. But talking of Ray, are you also a movie-fan by any chance? What sort of movies do you enjoy? The
Ray type? Full of grim reality or the more, shall I say, magic-realistic
Bollywood or Hollywood films?
I love Ray's films and I don't find them in the least grim. Instead, they affirm my belief in the humanist view of life. The Apu Triology being, of course his greatest work. Kanchenjunga is another brilliant film, Chekovian in its economy of expression, time and space. I actually saw Ray shooting the film at the Chowrasta in Darjeeling early one morning on my way to school.
When he had to, Ray could come out with very direct and powerful statements that hit home. I have never really seen as searing an indictment of social injustice as Sadgati. I am a noir fan and do also love good Hollywood action films like the Matrix, but get depressed with car chases. I avoid Bollywood stuff but have a weakness for the film songs of the sixties and seventies stuff from Tisri Manzil, Chaudavin ka Chand, etc.
Do you keep up with any of the "regional" literature? In
I would love to read more regional Indian writing but don't really have the time. I read a lot of the fiction coming out of China. Quite a few are interesting but none can really come up to the standards of the twenties, thirties and forties, before Communism lobotomized China. Even the work of the Gao Xingjian, who received the Nobel Prize this year, doesn't really begin to compare with the works of Lu Xun, Lao She and others from that golden age of modern Chinese literature. Indians may not do that well in the Olympics, but in this instance we have the Chinese beat, hands down.
Ha, never looked at it like this. Not that I have read any fiction out of
All this cult of the athlete is so fascistic. Shades of Leni Reifenstahl. Just look at the Olympic salute! As long as members of the Indian Olympic contingent do the sensible thing and just go shopping or sight-seeing, and ignore every appeal to their nationalistic spirit, India will be safe for democracy and humanism.
[Now why didn't I ever look at it like this before? I think we should certainly try to spread the word around -- not that we need to do it among our Olympians, I guess -- and a whole lot of this ritual of national shame that we seem to be convulsed by every four years will be redundant. I wonder how our honourable sports minister will react to this, though. But decide to let it drop here, caught up as I was with other things]
Suddenly we find a whole lot of very talented Tibetan writers out of India,
writing in English -- there's you, Tenzin Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue (he incidentally
won the Outlook-Picador award for his essay My kind of
Exile). What was your
experience like? Was it any different in your time?
Tibetans writing in English are more conspicuous now with the contributions of Tenzin Tsundue and Tenzing Sonam, but I had tried since the early eighties. All I managed to get published were a few short stories in The Hindustan Times, and the Illustrated Weekly. I even had one story translated and published in a Hindi journal, The Nav Bharat Times, I think it was. But that was some time ago.
This sounds fascinating. Tell us a bit about what it was called. Nav
Times is a newspaper as far as I can tell, but maybe the name of the journal
is unimportant. So who translated it? Did you do it for money? To get
The story for The Hindustan Times was called Hunter's Moon and was about an old Khampa fighter being hunted by the Chinese. The Illustrated Weekly story Flight was the story of two little boys and their donkey fleeing to India in the wake of the '59 uprising. The story for the Hindi magazine was called Chupi. The English title was The Silence. About the destruvtive power of mountains and undiscriminating love.
Why do you think it is happening so late? Pardon my ignorance, but I don't
think we've had very many Tibetans writing in English out of India before this.
Do you think it has something to do with coming of age, so to speak, here?
Perhaps after the first years, it is the generation brought up here that is more
comfortable in the English language and of course the whole awesome sense of
exile and loss?
Tibetans are now learning to interact better in Indian society now, we didn't have the antenna before, and Indians are beginning to see Tibetans as people like themselves rather than as political curiosities.