Windhorse (published by HarperCollins in December 2013) is set in the Tibetan resistance movement and spans from the 1940s to the 1970s. It is the first major work of fiction set in the Tibetan resistance and the turbulent period following the Chinese occupation. The author KAUSHIK BARUA worked on Windhorse for five years. The narrative is based on an actual resistance force and the background research was conducted with the community, interviewing ex-resistance fighters, examining and studying memoirs, video footage and online content, meeting relatives of the rebels and finally putting it all together to re-create the political and historical context. He speaks to The Thumb Print on his book and future plans.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I had cobbled together a few short stories in my mid-20s, which never saw the light of day. I didn’t think they were good enough to be published, but I still have them with me, and often turn to them to understand my early mistakes.
By about 2007, I was eager to work on a novel, but had no idea what I wanted to write about. I didn’t think my own life would be of any particular interest to anyone else, so I stayed away from the much-tried “first novel as semi-disguised autobiography” strategy that writers rely on. Around the same time, I was a frequent visitor to Dharamshala, mostly because I really enjoyed the food there.
On one such trip, I stumbled upon a bookstore where the owner recommended a modern history of Tibet. I devoured the book (“In Exile from the Land of Snows”) in a few days and was moved in ways I couldn’t explain or understand. A brief portion of the book discussed the evolution of the Tibetan armed resistance movement from the 1950s to the 1970s. In particular, I found the idea of this resistance movement unbearably fascinating. This group was fighting against practically impossible odds, and they were in a state of constant internal conflict while waging this war. This was, of course, as far removed from my own staid life as possible. Perhaps that’;s why the story seduced me beyond recovery.
When I went back to Dharamshala, I mentioned this to the bookseller. He asked me to wait for a while and then shut his store and ordered chai for both of us. And then, to my utter shock, he confessed that he was a member of the armed guerrilla movement and told me the story of his life. His name is Lhasang Tsering, ex-rebel, poet, and a leading voice of the community.
I found a few more books on the movement, including “Buddha’s Warriors”. I traced other narratives and even video footage of the group and the period from the film-makers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin (who have made some amazing movies on the community). Initially it was just an irrational unhealthy obsession to understand this movement. And then I realised that my obsession with this strange slice of history had to be written down. And so Windhorse was born.
2. How did you relate yourself to the central theme of the book?
The setting and the period were not familiar themes. But when I started writing, I realised I had been grappling with similar issues my whole life. Anyone who joins a struggle is looking to belong, and to understand his or her own place in the world. I had grown up in Assam, but had moved to different places. So these themes of home, belonging and exile spoke to me (in my case, the exile was voluntary; in the case of the Tibetans, it was anything but voluntary). The more I wrote of Lhasang and Norbu (the main characters), I realised that they too were looking meaning in a world that tried to tell them who they were (i.e. historical forces, aided by mammoth armies, were telling them they were Chinese or refugees, while they knew they were Tibetans and belonged in Tibet). And this urge to find one’s own sense of meaning is the perpetually unfinished quest of any writer.
Finally while I had never been a direct participant in a conflict, I knew enough from my own experiences about how conflict shapes and reorders people’s lives.
3. Did the conflict in northeast India influence you in any way to write about the Tibetan struggle?
Yes, it did. I suppose I was mistaken when I said the story was removed from my own life. Growing up in Assam in the 1980s and 1990s, we were all used to political conflict and, as kids, struggled to make sense of it all. Yet, we lived remarkably rich and complex lives in the midst of what seemed like a raging conflict from the outside. I tried to capture both these conflicting realities through the characters in Windhorse: their dislocation (devastating in their case – stretching across countries and continents, as you’ll see in the novel) and their desire to live normal lives, muddled with love and longing and even bitching about each other.
4.You had won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award (the Young Writer Award from the National Academy of Letters) for this book. How would you assess your achievement?
I am honoured and delighted to have won the award.
Writing should be its own reward, and it often is. But writers are also so troubled by self-doubt and insecurities (doesn’t sound pretty but it’s true, some of the same frailties drive us to the pen or laptop) that some external validation always helps. And I know that the Sahitya Akademi is one of the most respected cultural institutions in the country. So I consider myself pretty lucky to have won this award for my debut novel.
I want to continue writing for the sake of the writing. To always be rewarded by the joy of writing something that I know is good, even if no one else does (in the best case scenario, I would know when the writing is good, and many others would agree!).
5. Why did you choose Majnu Ka Tila to launch your book in Delhi?
I did the first book launch in my hometown Guwahati (writers are sentimental people after all, what other creatures spend years slaving away on a creation that brings so little tangible benefit). And then I wanted to present the book to the community whose stories I had told (I was aware of my status as an outsider talking about another community- but I tried to be honest and sincere in my efforts and in the narrative). So the obvious choice in Delhi was Majnu ka Tila where the Tibetan community is based. I was delighted to have many of my Tibetan friends attend. And to have representatives from the real-life organisation that formed the backbone of the story. After Majnu ka Tila, I went to Dharamshala, where I launched the book along with Lhasang Tsering, and in the company of many Tibetan writers who had so generously supported my efforts. I thought it was only fair, at the least, to launch the book as part of a conversation with the community whose struggle and sacrifice had made Windhorse possible.
6. Do you see a positive end to the Tibetan struggle?
I can’t really comment with great insight, since the politics and the interests and motivations of the global players involved are so complicated. I definitely hope there is a positive ending. My hope has been buoyed by the resilience and determination I have seen in the Tibetan community, not just among the older generation, but among younger activists too, including young women and men who were born in exile but are still devoting tremendous amounts of their time and efforts to the Tibetan cause.
Also, while politics in the world is increasingly determined by commercial impulses, I think people could still come together to appreciate and support a truly just cause. And a community’s struggle for freedom and self-determination is always a worthy cause.
7. What is next on line?
I have finished the draft for a dark comedy set in Rome. The tentative title is “Walking in Rome: A dark comedy” (and another option we’re considering is “No Direction Rome”). The style and tone are very different from Windhorse: it will be a postmodern stream-of-consciousness novel. The novel features a Holden Caulfield like character, but now in his 30s and in a post-Facebook world (so he struggles to come to terms with this social-media fuelled world). My publishers Harper Collins have called it a work where ‘Kerouac meets James Joyce meets Harold and Kumar meet Jonathan Lethem’.
The novel should be out around May 2015 (if we all stick to our deadlines, which is not the case in the real world, and even less so in a writer’s or editor’s world).
Besides Walking in Rome, I have been planning some non-fiction research-based writing on poverty and development in India (I have been working in the development sector for the last decade). But that work is in a very preliminary stage, so I can’t say much (or can’t say anything intelligent at least).