Chhimi Tenduf-La's debut novel, 'The Amazing Racist', was released worldwide in January by Hatchette India. The book follows the trials and tribulations of Eddie Trusted, an English school teacher in Colombo, who wants to spend his life with Menaka Rupasinghe, a vibrant Sri Lankan beauty, but as with all matters of the heart, there's an obstacle. If Eddie wants to wed Menaka, it is Thilak Rupasinghe, her orthodox terror of a father who wants his daughter to marry someone of the same race, religion and caste, and if possible from the same locality.
I was intrigued to read about this new mixed race Tibetan-English writer dealing with universal themes such as race and prejudice. Many exile Tibetans (who write in English) are self-published and more often than not deal with issues within the context of Tibet or being Tibetan. Those that don't present a Shangri-la version of Tibetan society, such as feminist Kunsang Dolma, are demonised and isolated.
In addition, it was interesting to read a novel abut how racism can be, and often is, perpetrated by people of colour. In one scene, the prospective father-in-law berates Eddie for his white colonial heritage and for making Sri Lanka poor, which his daughter, Menaka challenges pleading with her father to stop because 'you're scaring Eddie into thinking you're some kind of an amazing racist'.
The arranged marriage institution and hostility to 'outsiders' is still very much alive in 'traditional' communities and heartbreak, due to overbearing family and social pressure, is commonplace. As Tenduf-la, himself has stated:
'As much as we accuse other countries of racism, it's openly accepted here that parents disapprove of their children marrying the love of their life if they are from another race, colour or religion. That's racist.'
Yet, with wry humour, Tenduf-la tenderly lets us into the minds of 'old-school' conservatives, what motivates them and to see their well-meaning, albeit misplaced, intentions. There are no black and white, good or bad guys in this book; as Nietzsche said: 'Human, all too Human.'
I asked Tenduf-la about his multi-cultural background and views on racism:
Tell me about your Tibetan father.
My father was born in Darjeeling. He died in 2000, but had never been to Tibet, which didn't sit easy with him. In fact, the reason we first moved to Sri Lanka was because he wanted to live in a Buddhist country.
Growing up, our house was always decorated with Tibetan Thangkas and old panoramic photographs of Potala Palace. I believe my grandfather was from a warrior family, so we also had antique swords on the walls of all rooms in the house. Once or twice a week, we would feast on gathuk, momo and paksha.
He was commissioned, by Doubleday, to write a book about his life in the West and how it correlated with Tibet's struggles but he never finished it and would never let us read it. I found it after he died and would love to use it for his biography one day.
You went to Eton, how was that for someone who is mixed race?
I feel it's an enormous advantage being mixed-race. I enjoyed having a different story to tell than anyone else at Eton. I enjoyed that no one else looked like me (except, of course, when we were spotted in pubs and it was impossible for me to say the teacher must have mistaken someone else for me). I honestly think being mixed-race just makes people more interesting, more understanding, more flexible. All my cousins on my Tibetan side are mixed race and a couple of them, because of their exotic looks, were successful models.
I can't think of when I have ever experienced racism that has bothered me at all; definitely not at Eton because, I think, the more educated people are, the more they want to find out about different races. It's what you make of it. If a Brit comes here and just hangs around with Brits, they may notice racism. If you immerse yourself in the host culture, I think, more often than not you experience positive discrimination.
What are your views on the Tibet struggle?
I find it desperately sad, not as a Tibetan, but just as a person. At Eton, one of my teachers used to make an effort to educate me on the struggle. He would show me videos of oppression that I will never forget. China has been involved in Sri Lanka in a fairly large way too, lending money for various projects. I know of some high-profile friends who had to miss an audience with the Dalai Lama because the Chinese had contacted Sri Lanka's Government to warn them against it.
Since The Amazing Racist was released, because of the media coverage I have been getting, I have received approaches from a number of Tibetans. I researched one of them and was blown away by his bravery in standing up for Tibet. In the face of someone like him, I am a coward. At the very least, I need to learn more.
I think nationalism is a little ugly; defending beliefs because they are made by someone who was born in the same place as you. Yet, I feel a responsibility to people in general, and if I were ever in a position where I could lend a voice to Tibet, I would take it if my nationality meant that Tibetans could identify with me.
Since my book was released, I received a message from a Tibetan refugee and aspiring writer. That, to me, was fantastic. I would love to help if ever I wrote a book good enough to inspire other Tibetans.
Your book covers hostility to outsiders within a family and a culture. What are your own personal views on this?
I think it is outdated and absurd. It is not something I would ever care about, and it is not something I have experienced directly. My wife's family are liberal, and in some respects, I think they like me more for being foreign. I will be much more concerned with whether my daughter's prospective husband is kind, gentle and, ideally, good at sports rather than worrying about the colour of his skin.
Yet, it does exist in a big way in this part of the world. I have mixed-race friends who say they are virtually ignored by their in-laws. I have friends who have been cut off from their families for marrying someone from the wrong background. I have friends who lost the love of their life because of religious bigotry.
The Amazing Racist is available in leading bookshops in India and Sri Lanka and on all digital platforms worldwide.