OLD Demons, New Deities was born out of writer-editor Tenzin Dickie’s deep-felt personal need for a collection of modern Tibetan fiction, “the kind that I would have loved to read when I was growing up, the kind of book that may have made me want to become a writer sooner”. In her introduction, Tenzin Dickie, a second-generation exile, articulates the melancholy and the insularity of growing up in “an artistic vacuum”, as it were, imbibing only “the ... national fascination with Buddhism—and the attendant demonisation of desire”.
Asian-American writer Grace Lin once memorably said that it was what young readers read that paved the path for both self-worth and empathy. While Tibetan literature may boast a millennia-long storied history, beginning with the epic of King Gesar, it was reduced down the centuries to the status of a “sub-branch” taught in monasteries, and even this would invariably comprise Buddhist tracts on ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the like. The peculiar politics of Tibetan publishing, which chose to abjure the printing press for the longest time, only served to complicate and further delay the evolution of its fiction. All this meant that an entire generation of Tibetans grew up without any cultural reflections of their selves, without a literature to hold an authentic mirror up to their own lives, hopes and dreams.
Tenzin Dickie goes on to describe how Tenzin Tsundue’s poem, “When it rains in Dharamsala”, first alerted her to the possibility of a reader becoming a writer as well. That moment of recognition, in which she saw the reflection of a Dharamsala she had grown up in, her Dharamsala, also opened her up to the warm embrace of her own identity.
The “old” and “new” of the title anticipate the dichotomy in the lives that the stories themselves describe, the twin pulls of tradition and modernity, the tightrope walk between the religious and the secular and the conflation of the national with the personal. The anthology features a cross section of writers from the Tibetan diaspora, including in China, the United States, India, Nepal and Canada.
Takbum Gyal’s “The New Road Controversy” eulogises Tibet as “the land where our umbilical cord is cut”, whereas Woeser’s “Nyima Tsering’s Tears” dwells on the reality of Tibetans having been cut from the umbilical cord of their motherland for generations. The burgundy robes of the Tibetan lama Nyima Tsering feel “like a brightly blazing flame” when he encounters the incensed faces of exiled Tibetans protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Norway. That is also when he comes to understand “what it means to be an ant on a hot pan”. In one of the defining moments of this story, the penitent lama, torn by self-realisation, laments: “How can I not return [to Tibet]? Our home is there. If we all leave, to whom will Tibet be left?”
Each one of the 21 stories in Old Demons, New Deities is a luminous sleight of hand that delights and disturbs in equal measure. Even as the stories shimmer with dream-like, almost prelapsarian images—a sarus crane soaring heavenwards from the marshes in the dead of night, a great shaggy snow lion “that only the kindest and purest of heart can see”, a nine-eyed agate stone, the blood-red blossoms of rhododendrons, a festoon of many-coloured prayer flags, a bright yellow balloon (or “wind horse”) inscribed with a little girl’s name that floats across the mountains for days—they are just as deeply steeped in the inescapable pathos of all literature of exile, the nostalgia for what may never have been and the reality check that “home will always be elsewhere”.
Tenzin Dickie employs a fascinating metaphor when introducing the anthology: “I like to think of this book as the ‘coming-out’ of the Tibetan short story.” The book is not only a coming-out but also a richly deserved coming into its own of contemporary Tibetan fiction. Carefully curated and expertly translated, Old Demons, New Deities is both a mirror and a wondrous window into the fabled rooftop of the world.