Culture & Society

Musings In Exile: Tibetan Poets’ Eternal Yearning For Homeland

For poets like Tenzin Tsundue and Bhuchung D. Sonam, the long-drawn struggle for Tibet’s self-determination has meant that their quest for homeland remains a dream perpetually deferred. They are forced to carry their exile with them.x

Poets-in-exile: Bhunchung D Sonam (left) and Tenzin Tsundue

Award-winning Tibetan poet-in-exile Tenzin Tsundue, 47, lives in a constant struggle with himself and his world. The irrepressible longing for his homeland is a flame that flickers in his heart forever. His works, both poetry and non-fiction, are fiercely thought-provoking; they introduce readers to the untold agony of being a refugee. In his poem, “My Kind of Exile,” Tsundue writes: “Ask me where I’m from? I won’t have an answer. I feel I never really belonged anywhere. Never really had a home.”

And, then, in “Tibet: A Room For Hope,” he successfully establishes his link to the Indian soil: “I am born and brought up in India at Manali. I speak four languages, love Bollywood, have more Indian friends than those of my tribe, who am I,” Tsundue writes.

Arrested and jailed 16 times by Indian authorities for his activism, Tsundue decided to travel to Tibet in his early twenties, got detained and arrested by the Chinese, only to be sent back to India. He describes his plight in one of his poems: “Indians call me Ching Chong. Chinese arrested me when I walked into Tibet, beat me up in jail and threw me out, and said, ‘Get out of here, you bloody Indian.’ Who am I?”

“I was born and brought up in India and speak four languages, love Bollywood, and have more Indian friends than those from my tribe. My I-card is called ‘Registration Certificate’. It says you are a foreigner and your identity is Tibetan. But, for India, there is no Tibet. It is only China, although we have Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Legally, no one is a refugee in India. There is no refugee law prevalent here, but India is home to the largest number of refugees, from French to Burmese, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Tibetans,” he wrote in a piece for a newspaper in 2011. Tsundue, who has travelled to almost every part of India for poetry recitations and literary events, says he lives in Manali, but his parents are based in Karnataka.

“I completed my schooling in two different schools in Himachal Pradesh. For further studies, I travelled to Madras, Ladakh, and Mumbai. My sisters are in Varanasi, but my brothers are in Dharamshala. I’m a foreigner residing in India. But Tibet as a nation does not feature anywhere on the world political map. I like to speak in Tibetan, but prefer to write in English. I like to sing in Hindi but my tune and accent are all wrong. Every once in a while, someone walks up and demands to know where I come from. My defiant answer — ‘Tibetan’ — raises more than just their eyebrows. I have nowhere to call home, and in the world at large, all I’ll ever be is a political refugee,” he writes in another piece.

Tsundue says he carries his exile within himself. Pitching a tent on alien maps, and hitting the road before he grows roots, homeland is a dream perpetually deferred: ‘I am more of an Indian. Except for my chinky Tibetan face,’ he writes.

In 2001, Tsundue won the first-ever Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction for his work My Kind of Exile. Till now, he has published four books, all translated into several languages. He published his first book of poems, Crossing the Border, when he was studying for a Master’s Degree at Mumbai University in 1999. His second book, Kora, came out in 2002 and has been translated into French and Malayalam. Later, it also became a play, So Many Socks, which was nominated for an award. Semshook, a compilation of essays on the Tibetan freedom movement, was published in March 2007. His works have also been published in the Tibetan and Indian media and in international publications. That’s not all. He was also named among India’s 50 most stylish people, along with Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner The Dalai Lama in the Indian edition of the international fashion magazine Elle in 2002.

Here is one of his popular poems:


When I was born
My mother said
you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.

On your forehead
between your eyebrows
there is an R embossed 
my teacher said.

I scratched and scrubbed,
on my forehead I found
a brash of red pain.

I am born refugee.

I have three tongues.
The one that sings
is my mother tongue.

The R on my forehead 
between my English and Hindi
the Tibetan tongue reads:


(Rangzen means 'Freedom)  


According to Tsundue, there are several exiled Tibetan writers who have been contributing to the Tibetan cause through their literary works. One of them is Bhuchung D. Sonam, a Dharamshala-based publisher and translator, who studied in the US and obtained a postgraduate degree in journalism. His writings, which highlight the plight of the exiled Tibetans, have been published in eminent journals and newspapers.

“I write because there is a larger Tibetan narrative to be taken care of,” he says, admitting that he mostly writes poetry based on his feelings, what he has gone through or heard from fellow Tibetans about the pain of homeland and being in exile. “I wish I could write happy things, but I could hardly do that,” he shared in an interview sometime back.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa and Tenzin Dickie are two other women poets whose works have inspired many Tibetans and Indians. Bhuchung D. Soman, the author of four books, has done a lot of translations and edited Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry. Here is one of his poems:


Away from home

I live in my thirty-sixth rented room

With a trapped bee

and a three-legged spider

Spider crawls on the wall

and I on the floor

Bee bangs at the window

and I on the table

Often we stare at each other

Sharing our pool of loneliness

They paint the wall

with droppings and webs

I give them isolated

words net, maze, tangle

wings, buzz, flutter

Away from home

My minutes are hours

Spider travels from the window to the ceiling

Bee flies from the window to the bin

I stare out of the window

Neither speaks each other’s tongue


I wish

You would go deaf

Before my silence