Ladakh started featuring in English literature from the late 19th Century through colonial records, travelogues and historical accounts by western scholars. This led to a particular conceptualisation of Ladakh in the English literary domain. However, Ladakhi works of fiction and story-telling rarely appeared on this literary landscape. Fiction is an important medium that can rejuvenate the soul of Ladakh and articulate its sense of place. This void has finally been filled by the book Betty’s Butter Tea: Stories from Ladakh by Lhundup Gyalpo. I managed to speak with Lhundup Gyalpo at the book launch in 2019.
Tsetan Dolkar (TD): Why did you choose to write fiction? And in short story form?
Lhundup Gyalpo (LG): My journey as a writer probably started about two decades back when I became conscious of the chaos in my head. It talks to me about various ideas and thoughts, with emotions crisscrossing my mind at the same time. I could either have left this unattended or channelled it to create something. I tried various ways to address this whirlpool. Reading was useful but not enough. Finally, it seems I had no option but to write.
As a child, I was a curious person and interested in different things, especially philosophy. As I grew older, I realised the vastness of philosophy. I was submerged in the field and even considered pursuing it for the rest of my life. Over the years, ideas and thoughts kept collecting in my head. By the time I completed my studies, the chaos in my head was intense but was starting to organise itself into meaningful narratives. That’s when I realised that I needed an outlet to express them. I decided to explore fiction as it is the largest canvas to articulate oneself. It’s also my way of giving something back to society.
I chose short stories for my first book as I wanted to start slowly. If you are building a dam, you first need to build a bridge. Writing is very similar. I choose to write short stories to explore its scope. I am glad I embarked on this journey and now I am starting to imagine the possibility of writing a book.
TD: In your stories, you juxtapose different worlds. Every story has a foreign visitor and other characters in a Ladakhi context. This is also reflected in the title of the book. Why did you follow this theme in the book?
LG: The concept of identity is very important to me. It is also very relevant for Ladakhi youth today. We go out of Ladakh as children or teenagers for our education, employment or to pursue other opportunities. In this self-imposed exile, we visit many places, experience many cultures, and meet different people. By the time we return home after 15-20 years, the Ladakh of our childhood is gone. That cultural shock is peculiar. In Betty’s Butter Tea, I interpreted the experience of that shock. By placing foreigners in Ladakh, I have tried to reach out to young readers and help them realise that our homeland has always been a cosmopolitan place. I hope this will help them understand and appreciate the changes that Ladakh has experienced. I believe Ladakh needs to be interpreted and reinterpreted by each generation. The book was my way of facilitating this process.
Furthermore, Ladakh is a tourist destination and thousands of people visit the region each year. What they take from Ladakh is important to me. In addition to their experiences, they must also understand Ladakh, which is not possible in just a week or two. My stories are a gift to such visitors and meant to entertain and educate them at the same time.
TD: The story ‘The Book of Horror’ has an unusual approach. What was your inspiration for this story?
LG: I do a lot of thought experiments. For instance, I put contradictory situations together and see where my train of thoughts lead. ‘The Book of Horror’ is an experiment with narratives. Writers often amuse themselves and their readers with different kinds of narratives. You could, for instance, have unreliable narrators such as drunkards, schizophrenics, or convicts. This keeps the reader on edge as they are unable to determine if the narrative is true or not. The Book of Horror has multiple narrators. Readers have to be mindful of the narrator to understand the climax.
TD: The story ‘The World Record’ has many twists based on the experiences of the protagonist, Surinder. How did you develop this character?
LG: Writing fiction has many facets and ‘The World Record’ explores character development. The protagonist goes through a lot as he faces daunting emotional, psychological and physical challenges. The story explores how he changes as life happens to him.
TD: The story ‘Betty’s Butter Tea’ is set in Chilling, and the main character is an American girl married in a Ladakhi household of coppersmiths. In Ladakh, metal work is regarded as a lowly profession despite its social importance. Yet, in the story they are respected by the villagers, which shocked me initially. Was this contrast a conscious choice?
LG: We live in assumptions. One such assumption in Ladakh is people who do metallurgy work are of low caste. I did visit Chilling once. It’s a peculiar village settled by Ladakh’s royalty in the 17th Century. I noticed that every family practiced metal work though they too had social stratification. The story is meant to shake readers, especially Ladakhis, about relating social status with occupation. We don’t need to go far to see exceptions to these norms. The story was meant to appreciate traditional Ladakhi occupations such as carpentry, music, metallurgy etc, which remain the flag bearers of our society.
TD: In the same story, you describe art as “…pursuit of art is beyond the concerns of mundane.” What are your thoughts on art?
LG: While working on the book, I realised that if I judge it in terms of recognition, rewards or monetary gain, it would hamper my engagement with the art-form. Doubt remained my biggest hurdle during the process of writing though it did help me grow spiritually.
TD: You have also written, “Literature is a godly indulgence, sometimes even at your own expense”. What do you mean by this?
LG: Art exists for society but not the other way round. Compared to other professions, art requires a lot of sacrifice. If I am to trade myself for the larger good of society, I have to let go of myself at a very personal level. It is a sacrifice claimed by the god of art. I don’t know. This idea stems from this spirit (smiles).
TD: Many sub-plots in this collection are rooted in values such as empathy, compassion, friendship and understanding. How important are these values to your work?
LG: Empathy reigns supreme in the world of fiction. If a writer is putting himself/herself in the shoes of the character, the very act of writing stems from empathy. Each narrative has protagonists, villains, and numerous characters and the author is always practising empathy. Even the villain has some elements of the author’s personality, which needs to be understood by the writer. Fiction is a great medium to propagate these values in our society. In our formal, industry-oriented education system, we never learn and appreciate these subjects, which have a very significant influence on our lives.
TD: In your book, you have touched on all important aspects of Ladakhi society but somehow you have not explored political satire. Do you plan to write political satire in the near future? You have many sources of inspiration these days!
LG: (Laughs) Of course! I do intend to write political satire in the future. That’s the dam, my big project. It remains risky from a literary perspective. I first need to prove to myself that I can write before I start experimenting with satire.
Audience member: Who are your favourite writers?
LG: I have mostly read non-fiction and philosophy. Before I decided to write, I had no idea I would be writing fiction. Early on, a friend introduced me to Russian authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky who tried to resolve philosophical, social, and psychological problems through fiction. He remains one of my favourites. He led me to authors like Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, and Anton Chekov. These authors employ a lot of compassion, which is where I connect with them.
Audience member: Why have you used so many Ladakhi names for characters and places?
LG: Throughout my life, I rarely saw Ladakhi names in books. I believe that literature is the mirror of souls, including individuals, society and culture. I found that Ladakhi society was missing in literature. I was hell-bent on using our names to ensure that they are recognised.
Audience member: Why did you choose to write in English? Do plan to write in Ladakhi too?
LG: This is a matter of great concern for us. I had no option but to write in English. I would love to see our future generations writing in Ladakhi. Our inability to write in our mother tongue is the dichotomy of development, our education system and contemporary society. That said, Ladakhi language is like bullion as my ideas are based on books I have read in Ladakhi, while English is the currency of exchange. While I can read Ladakhi well, I currently lack the skills to write in it.
Audience member: What challenges did you face in publishing this book?
LG: Nobody wants your writing! You must write for yourself. You can overcome any hurdle once you realise that fact. I spent six months trying to get a publisher and reached out to national and international publications. It’s very hard, especially when you come from a ‘small’ place like Ladakh. Also, there is limited precedence of Ladakhi writers writing fiction with established publications. While they see the literary quality of the work, they also consider its market potential. Nonetheless, I am sure that our writers will soon overcome this barrier too.
Photograph and text by Tsetan Dolkar
Tsetan Dolkar is Assistant Professor in Geography at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh