Boarding a crowded Delhi Metro train, I was crammed up with four college boys who seemed quite amused by my Tibetan face. As if the grins exchanged among them were not enough, one boy let out a catcall ‘Ching chong ping pong’. I face this every day and usually don’t have the time or energy to react to such racist verbal attacks.
Since there were a couple of stations ahead, I inched closer to the teenager, shook hands with him. While still holding his hand I said, “Yenna da, yenna wennu?” (Hey man, what do you want?). They knew it was one of the four South Indian languages but could not even guess which. Then I taunted him in Hindi, “Aap ko Tamil nahin ati hai kya?” (So, you don't speak Tamil?). By then, the entire crowd on the train was staring at us, listening to every bit of the exchange.
To this new-found audience, projecting my voice, I gave an impassioned lecture on Indian nationalism, quoting the right-wing Indian Prime Minister about the beauty of India’s unity and diversity among its 1.25-billion population. By now, the entire coach vowed silently never to take on a ‘chinky’ in public.
Until the mobile revolution, when wires connected the world, we encased ourselves in STD/ISD booths to make phone calls. International trunk calls were expensive, but a certain call package made phone calls to Tibet affordable. Since half of Dharamshala Tibetans came from Tibet in recent years, they all called Tibet regularly. This was the only direct link between exile and home.
Once, on Losar —the Tibetan New Year— I watched a long line of young men and women outside a phone booth in Mcleodganj. One by one, the refugees entered the cubicle, spoke to their loved ones in Tibet, cried and came out emotionally wrecked, paid, and left. I called the booth the ‘Cry Box’. I realised that the maximum number of Tibetans in Dharamshala cry during Losar.
That evening, as I walked down the hillside taking the shortcut through the pine woods and oaks, I reflected that they were fortunate to have someone to cry to, a house to call home. Being exile-born myself, and having been deposited in a boarding school as a semi-orphan from early childhood, I find it painful to even to write here that I grew up distanced from my family. That night I wrote:
‘Losar is when we the juveniles and bastards
call home across the Himalayas
and cry into the wire.’
Through the profound loneliness of being far away from parents and our imagined homeland, I often thought that we were children of our circumstances, and that history was our father and the culture that nourished us was our mother. As refugees, we have been physically uprooted from our homeland, but as transplants, we are unable to settle down in the foreign land. Over and above that, even the future looks bleak today. As born-refugees, we have nowhere to call home. My parents’ generation looks to the past with nostalgia for the memories of the homeland they left behind, but as exile-borns, for us, more than the borrowed memory, our history, the dream of liberating our country fires our imagination. We look to the future with hope. Freedom is my first inspiration in life.
The red bandana
My parents were teenagers when they followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, escaping the persecution by Mao's army. Initially, most Tibetan refugees worked as road construction labourers in the early rehabilitation period. My mother tells me I was born in a tent in a roadside coolie camp in Lahaul Valley in the early 1970s.
I must have been a restless toddler. Mother says she used to tie a rope around my waist and peg it on the roadside while they broke stones and laid the road. After my father’s death in our camp in Manali, North India, we moved to Kollegal in the South Indian state of Karnataka and pioneered the Tibetan settlement most distant from the Himalayas. I was two-and-a-half-years old.
I first heard about Tibet from my grandmother. She was a storehouse of stories. Her tales about Tibet built up an image of a country we had never seen. Our refugee camp was being set up on the outskirts of Sathyamangalam jungle — the thickest jungle in all of South India where the notorious outlaw Veerappan used to hunt elephants and logged sandalwood trees. We had been rehabilitated truly in the middle of nowhere.
There, in the heat and dense jungles of Karnataka, my grandmother told us stories of snow mountains and yaks; of apples, peaches and apricots. Momo la had songs for everything —songs for games, skipping, farm work in our maize fields, and the long walks to the local vegetable market. She told us stories of Aku Tompa’s wit and wisdom. And this is how we became Tibetan, even after being born in India and never seeing the real Tibet.
Every once-in-a-while, the afternoon somnolence in our village was broken by a shrill sound from the Indian woman who came into our camp to sell the popular South Indian rice-cake snack — idlis. Bored with our bland and over-cooked Tibetan food, we kids rushed towards her. We loved the soft idlis dipped in spicy masala soup called sambar with a dash of coconut chutney, all served on a banana leaf. Sometimes the ice-cream man came by on his bicycle with a bullhorn blaring its pom pom greeting.
On other occasions, it was the bucket exchange man shouting in Tibetan in a long wavering tone 'Ha…yang…dung…pey…’. Having never gone outside our refugee colony, I had often wondered, and even asked my mother, where these Indians came from, not realising we were the ones who came from outside, all the way from the high Himalayas.
But it was not until in school that I first understood that we did not belong to the country we were born into and that we had lost the independence of our country and were now living outside Tibet at India’s sympathy. This shattered my little boy’s pride. This initial hurt transformed into anxiety as I imagined our people being blind-folded, knelt down with hands tied behind them, then shot in the back of their heads. This, their children were made to watch. As the body slumped into the pit, the kids cried.
And then the guilt that we lived in freedom, while our brethren suffered tyranny which was replaced by the great resolve to struggle for the freedom and dignity of our people even though it required a herculean effort. This resolve inspired me to take a lifelong pledge. I was 11-years old.
Today, I honour this pledge with a symbolic red bandana that I wear on my forehead and have vowed never to take off until Tibet is free, and to work for Tibetan freedom every single day.
Tibetans: Citizens of the world
After schooling, my first foray outside the Tibetan community was Madras (Chennai), the capital of the Tamilian world in South India. I was shocked, not only by the people, place and language but also by the palate. My tummy, raised on Tibetan gastronomy, was being tested by fiery masala foods. My childhood snack, idlis, resurfaced, but this time as the staple main course. In the first week, the tangy masala meals were fun. However, by the third week, my Tibetan digestive system started to give up. The light rice meals not only soon made us hungry again; the masala burned our guts.
Often, in the middle of the night, I sat up on my bed, pressing a wet pillow to my belly while trying to study. My guts burned and I regurgitated a sour juice up my gullet. Combined with the anxiety of tackling Shakespeare, Tagore, and Subramania Bharati, I stayed late on my bed in the half-lit room and cried deep into the night. Now, South Indian cuisine is one of my favourites and even after 25 years, I can still show off a smattering of Tamil. Where adaptation meets a dead end, creativity takes the lead forward; perhaps exile is the most fertile ground for growth.
Two years ago, I went on a speaking tour of the United Kingdom (UK). Tibetans living in the towns and cities that I visited hosted us. After much speaking, travelling and interviews, when we gathered for dinner with long-lost friends, the food was inevitably rice, dal, and curry, typically Indian. I realised Tibetans have gone to the West, but culturally they have never left India.
Today, almost 70,000 Tibetans have emigrated to the West and they have not only become citizens of the world, but preserved their identity. However, the third-generation youths are a concern; like most emigrant children, they have inherited the blood and the stories, but mostly not the language.
When my classmate buddy, (Tenzil) Choegyal, dropped out of regular college, friends thought he was straying because of his fad — music. He used to listen to Hindustani music when none of us had developed a taste for it. He used to go ‘aaaa aaaa’, drawing clouds in the air with his hands as he tried to sing intricate ragas. Many years later, I saw him leading singing tours in Australia, packed in an old sputtering brown mini-van. He travelled for months singing and telling stories of Tibet in various villages and towns. He sings long arias of traditional Tibetan pastoral tunes which are immediately arresting and soulful. There is a deep sense of longing and loneliness in his melodies. Recently, he has been nominated for a Grammy, his first global recognition.
Tibet: A police state
During a phone conversation a few years ago, a Tibetan from Tibet told my friend in Sweden —with a great sense of pride— that Chinese in Tibet still did not dare to walk alone in Tibetan neighbourhoods as they fear being knifed or mugged. My friend asked him how that was possible, as the Chinese were now the majority in Tibet. The native observed that the Chinese had not yet overcome their archetypal fear of Tibetans and Mongolians as barbarians and that the Chinese exoticisation of Tibetan culture has further reinforced this civilisational stereotype.
As a poet and former political prisoner, my friend Phuntsok Wangchuk had always been the first to speak up against Chinese propaganda in Tibet and for which he had been tortured and jailed for six years. But, the anti-Japanese propaganda films he had enjoyed in Tibet seemed to have worked on him. As a result, when he first arrived in Dharamshala, he could not believe his eyes watching the almost exaggerated politeness and the courtesy regime of the Japanese youngsters who bowed thrice before serving the Tibetan political prisoners with food and clothing.
Tsewang Dhondup arrived in Dharamshala with his wounded arm slung around his neck. He said, “I hid in the mountains for months and escaped Tibet to bear witness to the atrocities I have seen with my own eyes and suffered myself.”
Tsewang was shot twice in the Uprising-protest that spread across the Tibetan Plateau in the months leading up to Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
This Uprising gave birth to two movements —the Lhakar Movement celebrates and instils cultural resistance while a series of unabated self-immolations demanded “freedom for Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet”. So far, there have been 157 known cases of Tibetans burning themselves inside Tibet alone, making their ultimate sacrifice of life for freedom.
A while back, a friend’s stay with her family in Tibet was cut short and she was told never to return. She told me that the entire country of Tibet has been under lockdown. Even the few passports issued have been revoked. Every individual has been registered as a number and pinned down to each small unit of dwelling and their movement is mandatorily kept under surveillance. Tibet is now a police state.
To mine lithium, copper, gold, and rare earths, China’s mining in Tibet is pushing Tibetan nomads and farmers off their ancestral land, coercing them to rehabilitate to alien and artificial villages, much like how White American colonists transplanted Native Americans into fenced plots called ‘Reservations’.
I am a wandering poet
Once, on a long train journey through central India, I sat down on the carriage’s entrance footboard with a stranger. Like me, my co-passenger, Ramchand, didn't have a reserved seat. Over a cup of chai, he looked at my face and enquired if I was Chinese.
Hiding my immediate irritation, I put my best foot forward and declared: 'Hum Dalai Lama aadmi hain' (I am a Dalai Lama follower). That didn’t ring a bell with him. Now, I found myself in a crisis as his assumption still hadn't changed. Banking on my ultimate resort, I said, “I belong to the Mount Kailash country.” He blinked. For his ignorance, I wanted to take revenge. So, I asked Ram.
Me: Lord Shiva lives on Mount Kailash?
Me: Mount Kailash is in Tibet?
Ram: Yes. Yes.
Me: Mount Kailash has been Shiva's abode for thousands of years?
Ram: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Me: That makes Lord Shiva a Tibetan?
I later related this story to a much-entertained audience at Awadh Conclave, the literary festival in Lucknow. And since, in the story Ram has lost Shiva to Tibet, I wanted to compensate for the audience. So, I said since His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been living in India for 60 years as a refugee, and also because he has globally championed India’s ancient wisdom and calls himself a son of India, I declared that the Dalai Lama is Indian.
Inspired by Indian freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose, many years ago I went to Tibet to fight China. Alone. After graduating from Loyola College, Madras, I went to Ladakh, the nearest approach to Tibet to track a path to sneak into Tibet. I taught English in a Tibetan refugee school near Leh and later made my route across the Tibet border, on foot. I was 22.
My plans worked only in crossing the Indian border. Once inside, I got lost in the cold desert for days and I nearly died. I was later arrested by Chinese military police. They interrogated me, beat me up, denied me food and sleep, and threw me in jail. During those long interrogation sessions, they threatened me with execution by a bullet in the back of the head. The legendary stories of Chinese public executions the elder generation of Tibetans had told us kept flashing through my head. I marked my days on the prison wall with a nail until I lost count. This was the best training I have received in my life.
Today, when I get arrested for protesting against a visiting Chinese president, and when the Indian police try to intimidate me, I tell them to calm down and say that I am steeled by Chinese interrogation and that we might skip the time-pass and focus on working together.
We call ourselves refugees to keep alive our dream to return to our homeland while India calls us foreigners —perhaps a potential leverage against China— though the Constitution of India recognises us as citizens.
In 70 years, Mao Zedong's China became an economic superpower but, in the process, killed its own Buddha. Tibet has lost one-sixth of its population and almost all its monasteries, but the People’s Republic couldn't change us in 70 years. Today, Tibet's Buddhism may be quietly changing China itself.
The struggle for Tibet’s independence is not just a national movement for me, but also a very personal struggle. I have created for myself a personal record; my protest actions sent me to jail 16 times while speaking tours took me to visit 20 foreign countries. I have always felt rejuvenated and spiritually liberated after each jail episode. I found freedom in jail; I have learned to live with strangers charged with murder, rape, and robbery by sharing food, room, and toilet. I have learned to live with a handkerchief as my towel, finger for toothbrush, shoes as pillow, and the shirt to cover myself when I sleep on the floor.
I live an old-world lifestyle; that of a wandering poet. I travel for months touring towns and cities, telling stories and reading poetry. I sell my books, and that pays for my food and travel. Although my income is small, my expenses are even smaller. I live a simple and minimalised, need-based life. I live in two sets of clothes. My friends think I have only one, but in fact I have two. I wear them in turns.
Home is not a house but the purpose that takes us places, and sometimes away from our own home. Reasons to live can make strangers a family, and no country foreign. When we come out of our comfort zone, we learn to make ourselves feel at home anywhere. Stuck at home, with old habits and malice, a house can sometimes turn into a prison. Once, a prince from the land of the Ganges left his family and kingdom in search of higher truths and never returned. He found a key to happiness which, even to this day, is practised as the path to freedom. To many this is home.
(Tenzin Tsundue is Tibetan writer and activist based in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. He was first winner of the Outlook-Picador Non Fiction Contest 2001. Views expressed are personal.)