Tibetan Tales: The Life & Work Of Tsewang Yishey Pemba

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Dr Pemba receiving the Hallet Prize at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1966. Image Courtesy: Shelly Bhoil
Tsewang Yishey Pemba, the Tibetan doctor, and author led a quiet resistance through his medical life and literary work

On an unusually sunny afternoon of Darjeeling during my research trip in September 2015, I was handed a pile of papers by Lhamo Pemba. Serendipity it was, for it turned out to be the treasure trove of her late father — a physics question paper of 1950 from the University of London, a letter from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh felicitating him for achieving the prestigious Hallett Prize in surgery in 1966, a series of letters sent from Tibet to London by his father between 1949 and 1954, personal diaries and notes dating from 1950, and two unpublished manuscripts comprising the Diary of a Doctor to Tibetan Mystics and Masters and the novel White Crane, Lend me Your Wings! This pretty much sums up the intellectual and passionate life of a doctor and writer, who happens to be a Tibetan.

Born on 5 June 1932 at Gyantse in Tibet, Tsewang Yishey Pemba’s life had a trajectory that earned him the title ‘a man of many firsts’ in his obituary. He was the first Tibetan to become a doctor and surgeon, besides writing an autobiography and novel in English, both published in London by Jonathan Cape in 1957 and 1966 respectively. His brilliant intellectual journey had a humble beginning from a local school in Lhasa where he learnt the alphabet by assembling pebbles. When he turned nine, his father Pemba Tsering, a Tibetan cadre officer in the British government, brought him to India for formal education and enrolled him in the Victoria Boys School at Kurseong near Darjeeling.

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Dr Pemba (left) with his father Rai Bahadur Tsering Pemba (Tibetan Cadre with the British Indian Government): Image Courtesy: Shelly Bhoil

Pemba was among the early Tibetan immigrants in India whose life and works bear testimony to the flow of Tibetan history before the Chinese takeover. Tibet’s location on the world’s highest plateau has given it an image of an inaccessible Shangri-La since the publication of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon in 1933. In reality, Tibetan traders and intelligentsia had crossed Tibet’s geographical barriers centuries ago.

The Tibetans travelled to India as early as the seventh century to study Buddhism, and yet again in the early twentieth century for British-Indian education. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, initiating social and political reforms to bring Tibet at par with the outside world, had even opened its first English schools. When these schools were shut down by dogmatic ecclesiastics in power, over a hundred discerning Tibetans took it upon themselves to modernize Tibet and sent their children to British-Indian schools.

In these schools, as Pemba recalls in his autobiography, the Tibetans became adept at Western manners and turned into ‘almond-eyed Englishmen’ while also becoming conscious of their Tibetan identity among the majority of English students. The annual three-month vacation in Tibet where Pemba lived the ‘Tibetan life’ provided to him a stark contrast to his English education. He inherited from his grandmother, in particular, a deep sense of Tibetan-ness. Even if he disagreed with her beliefs in celestial dragons or the transmigration of souls, he marvelled at her conviction in the sacredness of life and the serenity it brought to her.

During Pemba’s medical education in the University of London from 1949 onwards, his father’s letters and Tibet Mirror, the Tibetan language newspaper published from Kalimpong that he had subscribed to, were his main sources of connection with his homeland. While he was being informed about his country’s occupation and transformation under Mao’s communism, on the one hand, he was also becoming increasingly aware of the Londoners’ romantic perception of Tibet on the other.

He confronted the same occidental biases about Tibet in the Western world, as had the first Tibetan students in England sent by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1913 or Rinchen Lhamo, who is known to be the first Tibetan woman to live in Europe in the 1920s after marrying a British colonial cadre officer. The experience of immigration is a historically proven catalyst that yields raised ‘native’ consciousness. Much as Gandhi’s overseas experience accentuated his Indian identity or in the case of Leopold Senghor, the black African consciousness, the Tibetans’ tryst with the Western world whetted their desire to assert their ‘native’ self.

While Lhamo wrote We Tibetans (1926) to counter check the occidental biases of Tibet, Pemba wrote an autobiography titled Young Days in Tibet (1957) with the same purpose. The issues of culture and representation articulated by Lhamo and Pemba in their respective accounts of Tibet were to emerge decades later through the vocabulary of Postcolonial Studies. The Tibetan-English writers share the discourse of the postcolonial writers in their poetics of resistance to their double colonization—the Western romance that inevitably undermines the Tibetan political identity and the Chinese territorial occupation of Tibet.

After finishing his education in London in 1955, Pemba had no home to return to, for his parents had perished in the devastating Yarlung Tsangpo floods at Gyantse in 1954 and Tibet was no longer a de facto independent country. There was already a small flow of Tibetans into India escaping the communists. Pemba found little motivation to go back to Tibet and instead went to Bhutan upon receiving a timely invitation by Jigme Dorji, the future prime minister of Bhutan, to establish that country’s first hospital.

In 1959 he moved to Darjeeling along with his Bhutanese wife, Tsering Sangmo, to work at the Dooars and Darjeeling Medical Association hospital. In the same year, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet followed by thousands of refugees pouring into India. Pemba offered free medical services to the wounded and sick refugees, who told him gruesome stories about Chinese bombardments, guerilla resistance, and their hazardous escape. He writes in his diary about his experience of diagnosing the legendary Tibetan guerrilla fighter Adutsang Gombu Tashi:

As I bent down to palpate his abdomen, I noticed hanging from a wall a thanka, pistol, sword and a rosary; how eloquently these articles summed up Tibet’s guerrilla struggle against Chinese Communism! In fact, a crossed rosary and pistol could have been the insignia of the Tibetan forces.

Pemba’s deep reflection on the fragility of independent Tibet and its catastrophic fall prompted him to write Idols on the Path (1966), the first Tibetan-English novel.

Pemba waned from the literary scene to become a stalwart student of medical science during his FRCS degree from England, but he remained betrothed to his ancestral heritage and nurtured a deep desire to write more works on Tibet. He had first-hand accounts of Tibet’s history from Lt Col. F.M. Bailey (a veteran of the 1904 British Expedition to Tibet), Robert Ford (the first British person to be on the Tibetan payroll as a radio operator), and Major Sherriff (the trainer of the Tibetan army) among other historical eyewitnesses of Tibet’s independence.

He motored across Britain with David Snellgrove, a foremost exponent of Buddhism, visiting cathedrals and discussing religion. In Darjeeling, he discussed spirituality with his friend Thomas Merton aka the famous Father Louis. Religion, which was becoming a discursive national identity of the Tibetan exiles, inevitably grew on Pemba too. In his diary, he recalls himself ‘sitting white-coated, statue-like, staring at a formalinised brain, and musing on the localization of the “soul” in man’. He reflected on religious philosophy at the same time as he practised the medical profession. Based on his close interactions with several refugee monks and reincarnate lamas, he drafted a manuscript, Diary of a Doctor to Tibetan Monks and Mystics, after his retirement from the Thimpu General Hospital in Bhutan where he worked till 1992 (after having worked in Darjeeling from 1967 to 1985).

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Dr Pemba’s hand typed unpublished manuscript. Image Courtesy: Shelly Bhoil
On his seventy-fifth birthday in 2007, Pemba had his lifetime dream fulfilled—he travelled to his birthplace in Tibet after overcoming difficulties in obtaining a visa. While he was overwhelmed by the material prosperity and transformation in Tibet since 1949 when he had last been there, he also felt a certain loss and nostalgia in the streets of Lhasa where once stood Dikyi Linga, the abode of his happy childhood.

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Dr Pemba, (2nd from the left) with his siblings. Image Courtesy: Shelly Bhoil

His son Riga remembers his father enter into a deep trance while boarding the train back from Lhasa to Beijing. Dr Pemba became unusually quiet for months together after his return from Tibet. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to writing White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings, an account of a failed Christian mission in Kham and a riveting story of how Tibetans were cocooned out of their remote mountains by the Chinese communists.

Pemba died of liver cancer on 26 November 2011. The publication of this novel, which he wrote relentlessly despite being in physical pain, was his last wish.

Pemba’s oeuvre is marked by a literary finesse as well as historical significance. As a Tibetan-English novelist, he had no predecessor. The traditional corpus of Tibetan literature, dominantly religious, mainly comprises scriptural canon, treasure texts, devotional verses, and biographies of monks besides the epic Gesar Ling and poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Tsering Wangyal’s The Tale of the Incomparable Prince (1727), the only novel from pre-1959 Tibet, is known to have been published because of its adherence to the traditional Buddhist worldview and adaptation from the Ramayana.

Also, although the monk-scholar Gendum Choephel had earlier attempted literary works in English, it is Pemba who successfully blended Tibetan ethos and cultural nuances with the English language in a way that Tibetanized English and legitimized it as the potential language for the Tibetan diaspora. As the first Tibetan-English novelist, he laid a tested and linguistically fertile ground for future novel writing in English by Tibetans.

The ‘nativization’ of English is generally accredited to postcolonial writers who have had a double heritage—the British and the ‘native’—due to their historical accident with British imperialism. Pemba was the prized Tibetan intellectual, who by virtue of his early emigration and English education developed a panoptic understanding of his country vis-à-vis the world at large, and combining it with his nuanced linguistic sensitivity he carried the same experiment in his writings as had Raja Rao or Chinua Achebe, in India and Nigeria respectively.

Tsewang Yishey Pemba and the successive Tibetan-English novelists in exile present a case of writing their de-territorialized nation in the borrowed tongue and rented space of the postcolonial others.

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