Jamyang Norbu’s life story sounds like the plot for an over-the-top thriller – guerrilla fighter, spy, writer, cultural impresario and international activist for the cause of an independent Tibet. He is the author of ‘The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes’, a novel that won the Crossword Book Award (India’s version of the Man Booker Prize) in 2000 as well as numerous non-fiction books, essays and scholarly articles about Tibet. His blogs, Shadow Tibet, and Rangzen.net, are read by Tibetans, Chinese and a broad global audience. He lives in Monteagle, Tennessee, a small town on the Cumberland Plateau, with his wife, Tenzing Chounzom, and their two daughters.
I was born in 1949 in Darjeeling, India. I arrived in Tibet three or four months after I was born, with my nanny, my mother and my father all on horseback. We returned to Darjeeling when I was three years old, after the Chinese invasion.
My first memories of Tibet were of problems in Darjeeling because of the friction and conflict in Tibet, after the Chinese invasion. My memories have been fortified by stories my mother told me. A lot of my memories are not reliable.
I was educated at a Jesuit school in Darjeeling, St Joseph’s, the usual kind of English-language school in India at the time. I was there with the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother and other Tibetans. Our most exalted alumni was Lawrence Durrell.
I became involved with the Tibetan resistance because of my father. He was the editor of the main newspaper for the Dalai Lama’s older brother, the national paper, which existed because of CIA support. All the resistance people who were in Darjeeling at the time were involved with my father, so I got to know quite a few of them. I ran away from home because my father didn’t want me to join the resistance. I tried three times to join. I was kicked out two times. The third time I was accepted by our chief of operations, Lhamo Tsering – my wife’s late father, incidentally. I became involved in espionage because when the Americans pulled out their support, the Tibetans didn’t have much money to keep up their networks in the Himalayas and Tibet. This was near the end of the Cultural Revolution and it was really important that we kept those networks open.
Going from India to Japan changed me tremendously. When I was working for the Tibetan government I was making nothing and suddenly I was making real money, saving quite a lot, and still living quite well, even keeping a house out in the country. In Japan the stationery alone was amazing – huge stores with so many colours, so many things people managed to think up. You saw a completely different world.
I knew an American crowd. We all were into betting on sumo. My teaching schedule was very light and I made a lot of money. At the same time I had a lot of Japanese friends, people who I’d helped. The Japanese have good memories. If you help, they feel obliged. They wrote about me. I don’t have a degree worth speaking of but these guys wrote that this great Tibetan philosopher and writer was coming.
I lived in Scotland when I was married to an English girl. I’d lived in England a bit and there was always that “hail fellow” attitude. When I got to Scotland, what I liked about the place was that it was much more dour. But when you get to know Scots your relationship can be much more substantial. I used to go to Burns Nights and one thing that really appealed to me was the fact that Scotland’s national hero was a poor poet. It really was very Japanese in one sense – the humbleness of it. Sometimes I would read “Ode to a Haggis.” You know, Tibetans eat haggis too.
I came to Monteagle because my wife wanted to practice medicine in the US. Doctors get a visa to stay in this country if they agree to serve in what they call “under-served areas”. Grundy County needed a doctor at that time, so after she finished her residency in New York we came here. My wife often goes to work early to do her rounds, so first thing in the morning I brew a large mug of tea and write for an hour or so. Then I get my girls ready for school. I do some household chores and write until about one or two o’clock in the afternoon, and go to the gym. In the evenings, I try not to work too much but read or watch a movie.
I’m really grateful that I’m here in Monteagle and not in New York, where there would be a whole lot of Tibet stuff going on. I need solitude to write. Writing comes doesn’t come easily to me, so I would do anything but write.
I always loved southern writers, starting with Mark Twain. I always wanted to eat catfish after I read about Huckleberry Finn on that island with Jim. They got some catfish on a stick and grilled it on an open fire. That has always stayed in my mind: what a wonderfully delicious thing to do, to eat catfish and have some cornbread.
There are those words you never bother to look up; for instance, the word “chiffarobe”. I read it in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Suddenly it struck me when I was buying furniture to ask the lady who was selling me furniture what in the world a “chiffarobe” was. It’s basically a cupboard.
All my good karma is settling here. When I take my kids to school there’s an old policeman who guides them across the road and kids jump up and smack him on the hand. You don’t lock your car door or your house. It’s a strange world – the old oak trees and all. I have this sense that I have been here before, that there was some connection I was longing for, and it’s here.
Expat tips: Broad horizons
We’re privileged here – the school system is really wonderful and we have none of the problems of big cities. Our older daughter is in St Andrews-Sewanee, an Episcopal school, and her younger sister goes to the Sewanee elementary school. They’re both doing very well. We try not to buy anything made in China. The children have accepted this and the fact that nearly most toys these days are made in China. But they get to buy all the books all they want.
Don’t talk politics the first time around with people you meet. We are at the intersection of a lot of different political thinking in this country and I think it is better to let other people talk about their ideas first. But don’t confine yourself to one group of people, especially in a place like Monteagle. Get out of your little group. To understand this place, you have to move around a little more.