Kaushik Barua’s first novel Windhorse is a fictional account of the Tibetan armed struggle against China. Through the lives of two Tibetans – one born in Tibet and witness to Chinese atrocities, and another, born in exile – he tells a modern tale of identity crisis that many young exile Tibetans face today, and of their frustrations about their inability to do something for the country they feel connected only by their common history. We met up with him at Moonpeak to talk about the book over a cup of coffee. Here are the excerpts from the discussion.
Kaushik Barua: I first came to Mcleodganj as a tourist. I had heard that it was a nice place and it had a great variety of food on offer. I came here without any preconceived notions. It was later, hanging around different cafes in town, that I became sensitised to the idea of Tibet. As I got to know more about Tibet, I felt how very unfair the situation was. Then in 2007, I walked into a bookshop owned by Lhasang Tsering. I was curious about Tibet at that point and wanted to read more on the issue. He recommended that I read In Exile from the Land of Snows by John F Avedon. I took it back with me to Delhi and read it in my free time. I was really moved by the stories told in the book but the sections about the armed resistance fascinated me especially.
I started reading more on Tibet after that and saw that it was the issue the whole world kind of ignored and brushed under the carpet because of what I imagine are geopolitical reasons. Tibet was just not important enough for any country. The suffering had got to me when I read about the cultural genocide. I grew up in Assam and have a strong sense of being Assamese but by now I have become ’modern’, if I may say so. Modern in the sense that I left Assam and went to Delhi and now live in Rome. I think of myself as global. I speak in English to all my friends, read and write only in English and haven’t read an Assamese newspaper in years. But that sense of being Assamese is still at the core of my identity. In a very cruel way, I do not even have any use for Assamese, I can survive in the world and prosper with only English or Hindi now. But if someone was to tell me that I couldn’t speak Assamese or that it was an inferior language, I would get really angry. I still have a strong emotional connect with Assamese, and use it a lot with family and friends from Assam (but of course I don’t need it in a professional sense). I own just a couple of books in Assamese, which I haven’t read in ages. But if someone were to clamp down on Assamese, then I would fill a bookshelf with Assamese books!
And I started thinking if that was how I felt as someone who doesn’t even use the language much, how desperate and angry Tibetans must feel as their culture and language continues to be destroyed.
Around that time, I came in contact with SFT (Students for a Free Tibet) and started learning more about the activism in exile. I also went to Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi and visited the Chushi Gangdruk (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) office and got some material on the Tibetan armed resistance. I also contacted Tenzing Sonam, the Tibetan filmmaker, who was very helpful.
At the beginning of 2008, I thought of writing a book.
I had written one chapter, just one chapter as a writing exercise, which is now the last chapter of the book. From that scene in Mustang I started to imagine the lives of the characters backwards, what they must have gone through to reach that stage in their lives. I thought of Lhasang and Norbu constantly and kept on with my reading on Tibet. I tried to get the details right for the characters. I read broadly, on Buddhism, on culture and of course on politics.
At first I was really intimidated by the task, but the idea of writing a novel seemed fascinating. Friends advised that I should first write a witty, coming-of-age novel about my three years at St Stephens College. I thought it was a good idea and I might work on it at some point in my life but somehow I felt the need to write on Tibet. The idea had gripped me completely and if I hadn’t come to know about Tibet, I would have written about Stephens. I did not think about getting it published at that time. I wanted to write it for myself and it was only after finishing it in 2011 that I thought of approaching a publisher.
I was thrilled when HarperCollins agreed to publish the book. It’s an amazing experience for a first-time novelist.
I grew up in a close-knit community where the social ties were very strong and that gave me a very strong sense of belonging, of being rooted in a place. I used some of those experiences and the emotional feel of that sense of belonging even when I was writing about a different community.
I write two to three times a week for a couple of hours at a time. Half of that time, I spend thinking. There is an interesting experience I want to relate. When I was working on a draft of Windhorse in Rome, we were living on the fourth floor of a building near the Colosseum and across the street lived a man whose window was at the same level as ours. Every time I sat down to write, I saw him writing on his laptop too. I never found out what he was writing and after I finished my draft, I never saw him again. I like to imagine that he was working on his first novel too.
*Visit https://moonpeak.org/2013/12/26/better-gun-than-god/ for Bhuchung D. Sonam’s review of the book.