issue 16 summer 01
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Baker Street to Shangri-La

Sherlock Holmes was England's finest detective, epitome of Victorian rationalism and the cleverest man in the British Empire (with the exception of Mycroft, his shadowy and much brainier brother). The reading public was devastated when it read the account by Holmes' faithful companion, Dr Watson, of the great detective's death - plunging over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, locked in mortal combat with Moriarty, his deadly enemy and the Napoleon of Crime.

Watson and his readers were astounded when Holmes reappeared two years later. Cynics may ascribe the great man's resurrection to author Conan Doyle's capitulation to public pressure for the return of their hero; but Holmes' own account is more mysterious. 'I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.' Beyond these two bare sentences we hear nothing about what took place.

Now enters a Tibetan author named Jamyang Norbu, who was educated in a boarding school in northern India, where he took solace, like generations of schoolboys before him, in adventure stories of the British Empire. Norbu has spent most of his adult life working for the Tibetan exile community, and he has become well known as an outspoken writer on political issues, even daring to criticise the Dalai Lama and the religious establishment. Norbu divides his time between Dharamsala and Tennessee and has now published Sherlock Holmes: the missing years, a novel that purports to fill Holmes' Tibetan lacuna.

The book brings together two fantasy worlds: the British Empire literature of Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard; and the nationalist dreams of the Tibetans themselves, in a tale of magic, mystery and derring-do. Holmes battles with a force of evil greater than anything he had dreamt of at Baskerville Hall.

But doesn't that fantasy Tibet falsify the reality? Isn't this the very 'orientalism' of those western writers who have been accused of patronising Asians? Speaking from Tennessee, Norbu said that idealised images of Tibet as Shangri-La are as popular among Tibetan exiles as they are among wide-eyed western seekers. 'In Tibetan schools in India the children's drawings are always of yaks and mountains, which they have probably never seen. All Tibetans have a dream of their own country and the dream is important: national identities start with stories, myths and often with poetry. Without a fantasy world we become vulnerable to dictatorships, but you also need to distinguish between fantasy and reality. You have to live both inside and outside the dream. I have no time for westerners who think Tibet will save western culture. There is a good and a bad side to everything, and I see many faults in Tibetan society. Tibetans, too, need to be more realistic.'

This is where Sherlock Holmes comes in. 'Holmes epitomises rationality in popular literature, but he also has a mystical quality. Both are necessary for a life that truly fulfils you. So Holmes squares the circle for me.' In fact, alluding to a revelation in the novel, which I cannot divulge, Norbu suggests that 'Holmes is the only westerner deserving to be seen as a Tibetan lama. He had tremendous powers of concentration, he didn't mess around with women, and he was always helping people. After all, if Stephen Seagal [star of Hollywood action movies who was identified as a reborn Tibetan sage] can be a lama, then anything is possible.'

Sherlock Holmes: the missing years is a clever pastiche. And it echoes the use of Buddhist settings by Rider Haggard and Kipling (whose hero in Kim travels around India with a Tibetan lama). It might seem a surprising work for a Tibetan novelist, but Norbu refuses to be pigeon-holed. 'I want to be a writer in English, accepted as many Indian writers have been, not just a "Tibetan".'

Norbu insists that the novel has an implicit social purpose among Tibetans, and he described his visit to his first UK publisher, John Murray. 'They are the last of the old-style publishers, who made their name publishing Byron. They pointed out the spot where a mob had gathered to protest against Byron's work. I was moved by that. Surprising as it may seem, my own demands for the Tibetans to wake up have themselves stirred up mobs.'

Sherlock Holmes: the missing years by Jamyang Norbu is published by Bloomsbury