Travis B. Thurber
30 May 2007

A Review of The Secret of Tesur House


The Secret of Tesur House is a book of historical fiction written in 1993 by W. Tailing, a teacher and a native of Tibet. The narrative follows the adventures of Drugye, a Tibetan commoner, as he struggles through a life of business, murder, and bureaucracy. Sprinkled throughout the story are bits of insight into Tibetan anecdotes, customs, and colloquialisms which give the tale its historical merit. In this review, I focus mainly on these elements of Tibetan culture, leaving the mystery unspoiled for future readers.

The Secret of Tesur House, written in 1993 by W. Tailing, is a charming mystery story set in Tibet that follows the adventures of a group of people who become known as the Tesur House, a family “which emerges into existence through murders and escapes and ends again in murders and escapes” (1). Like the narrator of his story, Tailing was born in Gyantse in 1934 to a small noble family. He was educated in both Tibetan and Indian schools, and later worked as a teacher in Tibet. He translated the book into English himself, so the novel is rich with Tibetan colloquialisms and anecdotes (often explained in the footnotes). As such, the tale still has a wealth of historical and cultural merit even though it is fiction. The story begins in Gyantse, a small town southwest of Lhasa, in 1926.

Drugye, a mischievous young Tibetan lad known as the “Donkey Stable Devil” because of his family’s residence in a converted stable, is the son of a poor retainer family working for the Terab estate, the noble family in charge of the area. Drugye’s mother describes his behavior as “the eldest of kids shitting the wettest of crab” (7). He and his buddy the “Southern Devil” enjoy shirking their work—collecting dung—in favor of having tea parties in the forest, “borrowing” the ingredients from their parents. For fear of being caught, they move their tea parties to nighttime, where their cooking fires scare the villagers and give rise to witch hunts. The Terab child, known as the “Elder Master,” joins in on their escapades, but the little devils are eventually caught and pressed into field work as punishment. The Terab family moves to Lhasa to keep their child from negative influences.

Aside from the funny misadventures of the children, this opening chapter also offers insight into the lives of serfs, which are referred to as “retainers” in this book. Drugye’s family is heavily indebted since they cannot produce enough grain to cover the tariff and their own needs as well. Debt was kept track of in bushels of grain, and all the families of the area were held jointly accountable for the total debt of the village in order to provide security for the creditors and to encourage the families to keep each other accountable. This was known as a “chained contract.” The average debt seems to have been around a hundred bushels. In the household, the father would work the fields during the day and sew clothes and mend shoes at night. The mother cooked, weaved, churned butter, and milked the cow. Children were expected to collect dung for fuel or watch over the younger children.

Nine years later, Drugye is summoned from field work to become a muleteer for the Terab House, an admired position (reminiscent of a cowboy) that involved transferring supplies between locations with a team of mules. The best characteristics for mules to have, Drugye explains, are black fur with a white nose and eyes; these mules are called “blackies” and are given names like Auspicious, Flower, and Meteor. The first load of supplies consisted of flour, meat, butter, and oil, but would later include wool, jewelry, clothing, cigarettes, and other useful household items. Once prepared, Drugye bids farewell to his family and friends and sets off on the seven day journey to Lhasa (check out the attached map to see the route). Along the way, he is plunged into a web of murder and intrigue which I shall not reveal too much of, focusing instead on the traditions, customs, and anecdotes of the Tibetan people which are divulged during the course of the mystery.

One such custom, revealed when Drugye is accepting his promotion to muleteer: the act of sticking out the tongue and patting the head as a gesture of courtesy and respect. This mannerism dates back to the 9th century when Tibet was ruled by Lang Darma, a king who attempted to oust the Buddhist faith from its prominence. A legend that later developed around this king stated that he had a black tongue and horns; after he was assassinated, a hunt was carried out for others with similar characteristics. To prove their innocence, the people would stick out their tongues to show they were not black and scratch their heads to show they had no horns. The act is now practiced by common people as an expression of courtesy to their superiors (22).

Drugye, as a member of the lower class, is often confronted by those of higher classes, and he is able to differentiate them by their manner of dress. The upper classes wore vertical earrings, ankle-high cloaks, and bamboo pens in their ears. Middle class men wore round earrings and knee high cloaks (63). Nobles wore a wider variety of garments, frequently of Western influence, made of fur or leather and often employing rainbow coloring. Peasants wore whatever they could make and mend themselves, and usually had only a single outfit.

At one point in the narrative, the Elder Master puts into practice an old folk tale which saves life. The story went something like this: One day a thief was boasting about his skill at robbing to a rich man. The rich man scoffed at the thief and made a bet that the thief could not successfully rob him. The clever thief went that night to the rich man’s house and in preparation tied a calf in place of the dog and put a stick in place of the gun. When he began robbing the house, the rich man tried to release his dog to attack the thief but released a calf instead and tried to grab his gun to shoot the thief but grabbed a stick instead. Thus by rearranging the rich man’s possessions, the thief won the bet (92).

At another point, Drugye is sent to prison before he is even judged guilty or innocent. Prior to being thrown into his cell, he is given the customary “arrival whipping” of one hundred lashes. The lashes are administered in pairs to the bottom of the victim, and all the town inhabitants gather to watch. After the first few lashes, an official shouts an “age-old expression: ‘Strike harder! Strike, till the flesh flies into the air and bones stick onto the ground’” (69). Luckily for Drugye, a friend of his had bribed the whippers, so at this order they merely struck the ground beside him harshly, causing a cloud of dust that tricked the onlookers into thinking it was painful. After the whipping, Drugye smeared eggs over his bottom as “a customary treatment to avoid bruises” (70). He later gets out of prison by aid of bribery—apparently a very important technique in any political task.

Many weddings take place in the novel, revealing some of the traditions surrounding this practice. The Terabs attempt to arrange a marriage for the Elder Master, but he runs away; still, when he tells the story he describes many of the pre-marriage ceremonies that he went through. First, great quantities of beer were prepared, and the house was completely repaired and redecorated. Then a “sipaho” was prepared; this was an astrological diagram that compared the signs and zodiacs of the couple to test their compatibility and protect against evil spirits. The bridegroom was given a bow and arrows as a “heroic ornament” and a special decorated arrow called the “dadar” to give to the bride to symbolize her entrance into a new family (122). The bridal party performed three “welcoming stages” ending with offerings to the bride. The bride rode on a pregnant mare to symbolize fertility and childbirth. She was expected to weep at being taken from her home lest she seem overeager to be with a man. When the Elder Master ran away from the wedding, he was replaced by his younger brother so as not to bring dishonor on either household (Drugye and the Elder Master have several good laughs about his). Later, Drugye gets married, and his wedding involves many days of drinking, dancing, and festivity, as well as a customary giving of alms.

Eventually, after much adventure, Drugye and the Elder Master settle down, open a shop in Lhasa, and take in an orphan girl named Pema (“Lotus”). They send Pema to a local school, but when the other students discover her humble origins, their parents withdraw them from the school for fear that they would be “infected by her impurity” (p189). They even went so far as to go through cleansing religious ceremonies. The school master asks Pema to withdraw because he is losing customers; class is obviously a major issue in Tibet. The Elder Master therefore enrolls her at a Catholic school in India, where she learns all about being a proper English lady, or “Semokusho” in Tibetan. Over school holidays, she visits a friend’s well-to-do English family in Calcutta and draws many parallels between Christian and Tibetan culture. For instance: saying the Lord’s Prayer at meals is similar to Tibetan “tea prayers;” Christmas merry-go-round dances remind her of a Tibetan folk dance; and Santa Claus’s outfit looks very much like a older Tibetan’s style of dress (231).

Pema also learns about Western business practices during her stay in India. Upon her return to Lhasa, she encourages Drugye and the Elder Master to begin trading wool directly with Calcutta rather than going through intermediaries in Kalimpong, so as to make more profit. Her suggestion causes their business to bloom tremendously. They realize, however, that the export of raw materials was ultimately a loss for Tibet’s economy, since they could theoretically be manufactured within Tibet rather than abroad. Accordingly they attempt to get permission from the Kashag (the Tibetan equivalent to a National Assembly) to build factories in Tibet, but the request is vehemently denied on the grounds that industrialization was a sign of “the degenerate age” and was in opposition to Buddhist traditions and Tibetan culture. This response prompts Pema to wonder: “If they are not interested in what is really beneficial for the people and the land, what then do they do in the offices as I see them going everyday in their glossy robes?” (299). The rest of the chapter is likewise filled with critique and confusion and Tibet’s backwardness and refusal to modernize, with the implicit argument being that modernization would immensely benefit the people.

There are many more little curiosities revealed in the novel, in addition to the riveting mystery story, but I do not want to give too much away. I highly suggest picking up a copy, as it is a great read! The Secret Tale of Tesur House is a good introduction to the customs and traditions of the Tibetan people, as well as a lighthearted examination of their predicament of being caught between indigenous culture and modernization.