“Ama was an oracle. The realization came to my mother late in life, when her monthly bleedings stopped and something else opened inside. Some in our village called it an affliction. They said there was a crack in her mind that left her open to spirits who would consume her. But Ama insisted it was a blessing to lend her body to the gods and allow them to speak through her. In time, everyone would listen, and the words of an otherwise ordinary woman would lead us through the coming troubles.”

Thus begins Tsering Yangzom Lama’s hauntingly beautiful debut novel, We Measure the Earth with our Bodies. The story starts as the first-person account of Lhamo, a young Tibetan girl, witnessing the hostile takeover of her land, her people, and her culture, by the People’s Liberation Army in the late 1950s.

The Chinese occupation and its excesses forced Lhamo’s family and many others like them into exile, pushing them into an arduous journey through difficult terrain, in extreme weather conditions, and with minimal resources. Having lost their parents in this impossible quest for safety, Lhamo and her sister Tenkyi, with their uncle Ashang, finally find some measure of settlement at a refugee camp in Pokhara, Nepal.

The novel then traces the lives of Lhamo and Tenkyi, following their individual paths that converge and diverge, taking one from Pokhara to Delhi and finally to Canada, while the other finds herself beset with responsibilities of caregiving for family and community. Covering a half century, the story closes in 2012 with the dream of going back to Tibet and finding home again. There is more than a touch of magic in the book – as indicated in the opening passage, in the story of Lhamo’s mother, the oracle – but there is also magic in its luminescent prose, its powerful storytelling, and in the spell in which it holds the reader, weaving cultural history into personal narratives, telling a tale of resilience and hope.

Leaving, loving

The author has referred to her ten years of working on this novel as a process of “cultural recovery”, something that is apparent in the privileging of the oral tradition of storytelling, its reliance on memory-accounts and its re-creation of Tibetan religious and cultural rituals. The primary leitmotif in the narrative is the Nameless Saint, a statue of a Mahasiddha, an ascetic who appears and disappears at will, coming to those who need him, in the times when they need him most. When he first appears at a makeshift camp, he seems unimpressive to Lhamo. “He doesn’t seem like a deity,” she says. “He is not beautiful or inspiring. His expression is not wise or calm or loving. Instead, he seems a lot like us. Hungry, lost.”

Made not of precious metals but of earth alone, the Nameless Saint becomes a tangible connection to their land for the exiled. He travels with them to their refugee settlement in Pokhara, protecting his people, till the day he disappears again, only to come back to Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, in Toronto, at a particularly vulnerable time in her life. The statue seems to have been constructed in the tradition of Tibetan termas – texts or artefacts that contain or represent knowledge and are hidden away, to be revealed at opportune times. It is both hope in hard times and a reclamation of the spiritual practices of those in exile.

We Measure the Earth is also a book about mothers and daughters, about sisters and lovers, about women and the crucial social-cultural-political roles they play, in the communities they painstakingly bind together. Lhamo’s mother, blessed with the power of speaking with the gods, comes from a long line of women oracles in the Tibetan tradition and fulfils her destiny as guide to her people.

The text steers clear of any pandering to a Western gaze, claiming, confidently, its own space, history, and cultural specificity. Ama has the gift of divination and the narrative brings great sensitivity to its detailing of the loss, or perhaps, the sacrifice of her abilities, as well as a rupture in the tradition of passing them on to her daughters, as a consequence of her separation from her land. Fractures and disruptions define most relationships between women in the text.

Lhamo and Tenkyi have similar aspirations but very different trajectories. Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, always seeking a closer relationship with her mother, finds glimpses of her in her aunt. There are moments of perfect mirroring between mothers and daughters, between sisters, but the narrative does not allow for any easy solutions or any settling into uncomplicated affection. Lama’s women, even those who take up very little space on her pages, embody strength, and, almost always, intergenerational connect.

Home and belonging

If I had to pick one idea / theme / image that holds together this vast novel spanning five decades, peopled by a large cast of characters, it would have to be “home” – an abstraction, but also a solidity; a memory, as also a dream. The refugees at camps in Nepal hold on to their traditions, their language, their rituals, in an attempt at re-creating home. Their places of refuge often deny them citizenship and take away essentials like the right to higher education.

In Canada, that imagined space of inclusion and acceptance, Tenkyi is never quite granted assimilation, never allowed to dip into the privileges accessible to those with a different racial / linguistic identity. The same happens to Dolma, who, however, refuses to compromise, and insists on taking up the space that is her due. There is sharp social critique in Lama’s portrayal of white academics and do-gooders who are deeply invested in Tibetan history and culture and artefacts but do not ascribe the same value to people and the trauma of the refugee.

The text often explores the meanings of home and belonging, stating firmly, politically, that passports and documents do not make home. The title of the book itself draws on the ritual of navigating distances in prostrations, one that has parallels in other South Asian cultures and religions. Dolma equates this measuring of the earth with learning her country via contact with her skin. The intimacy of land, body, and soul is impossible to miss in this intensely evocative pronouncement.

At almost three hundred and fifty pages, We Measure the Earth with our Bodies is a book with a wide canvas and a range of intersecting concerns. With incredible lightness of hand, Lama weaves in folklore and mythology into an only too realistic narrative. She tells stories within stories, stories that connect with the past and challenge hegemonic notions of truth and existence.

There is, for instance, a golden horse that rises from a ravaged earth and takes flight, a creature of fiction that becomes witnessed truth for onlookers. The book also holds within it a beautiful love story, of star-crossed lovers who meet young and spend their lives longing for a love that never gets spoken.

Language, particularly the politics of language, is crucial to the text. The erasure of ethnic and cultural identities often begins with the erasure of language and dialects and accents. The book makes a powerful connection between the security that home offers and the familiarity of languages spoken within it. It focuses attention on the lives of refugees and the multiple levels of displacement many are forced to bear, but it also draws attention to the elemental goal of survival.

Those in exile need to make sure they survive so that they or their future generations can go back home. This big, incredible book is the story of the persecution of a people, the attempted destruction of their history and culture, of their exile, and in the face of unimaginable trauma, their indomitable will, and their determined protest as much as it is a story of hope and desire and of dreaming impossible dreams.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, Tsering Yangzom Lama, Bloomsbury India.