Demystifying Tibetan culture: Uncle Tompa’s profane adventures

tibet-bookBOOK REVIEW

(Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet; Author: Rinjing Dorje;
Publisher: Station Hill Arts)

Bookstores in Kathmandu are filled with books about Tibet. Most of them are predictably clichéd exaltations of Tibetan Buddhism, or the importance of meditation in our lives. So when I came across Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet by Rinjing Dorje, I was a bit intrigued. At first I thought it was a collection of tales for children filled with lessons on morality, but it turned out to be anything but that.

First published in 1975, this book is a collection of stories about Uncle Tompa: a trickster, sexual deviant, rogue, wit and legend. Stories of Agu Tompa’s exploits –- Agu means uncle in Tibetan -—have been an intricate part of the Tibetan oral tradition for centuries; some even believe that he actually existed around the 13th century.

In these 20 stories Rinjing Dorji narrates how Uncle Tompa gets the better of others through his trickery. The ‘others’ here are usually the rich, the foolish, the virtuous, and the stubborn. While tales of Uncle Tompa are very similar to those of other tricksters like the Persian Mullah Nusruddhin, or the American Cayote, Uncle Tompa’s stories differ because of the centrality of sex in his adventures. Many of the stories are about rape, and other illicit sexual adventure. In one story Uncle Tompa tricks the King and Queen, and rapes the princess, while in another he joins a nunnery to ‘screw’ virgin nuns.

Rinjing Dorje manages to bring to light a part of Tibetan culture that gets lost in the jungle of religious and political commentary. The book humanises the esoteric Tibetan culture by disturbing the clichéd imagery of their other- worldliness. We witness life in Tibet beyond religion. We see the under-belly, we see what makes them laugh, and we too find it funny.

Uncle Tompa’s irreverence towards authority, and morality, has made the common folk smile for centuries; a sense of catharsis for a hard life. But with this amiability comes a bawdiness that is not easily digestible to the politically correct mind of the reader.  As Uncle Tompa makes his clever escape after tricking an innocent virgin into sex, or after raping a woman, we squirm awkwardly. We feel pity for the girls, but are guilty of enjoying the escape. His trickery comes at a price.

Indologist Wendy Doniger — who writes the foreword — is well aware of this brashness. She even warns feminists about it. Dorji, too, is conscious about the sensitivity attached to stories about rape, and apologises for conjuring up the sexual exploits of Uncle Tompa; and for Tibetan finding humour in the situation.

The three folk tales at the end of the book, unrelated to Uncle Tompa, are an added plus. Here Dorje introduces us to another character, Kyakug, literally “Dumbshit” in Tibetan. Kaykug is the classic village fool: embarrassing, and a source of cheap humour. The illustrations provided by Addison Smith are simple, but match the graphic content of the tales.

As an immigrant Dorje is aware of the importance of storytelling. A son of a Tibetan shaman and a nomad lady, he worked as a herder when a young boy. It is here, sitting by the camp fire around other herders, that he heard stories about Uncle Tompa. At the age of eleven he took the vows to be a monk, but moved to Kathmandu, at the age of thirteen, after his father passed away. There he attended Western-style schools, and later went abroad to be a writer. He now lives in Edmonds, United States.

In the introduction to the book, poet and author Marilyn Stablein points out the importance of the book in documenting the humour of Tibet, especially as the Tibetan population is pushed out of their homeland, and disperse as diaspora. As outsiders, this book gives us a unique glimpse into the world of Tibetan storytelling. For Tibetans, it adds to their cultural heritage. Uncle Tompa’s greed, corruption, risqué sexual encounters, fear merge to make this a unique read, and a subversion of traditional notions of the good and the evil.




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