My kind of exile
July 13, 2007
By: Tenzin Tsundue
Except for my chinky Tibetan face’
Ask me where I’m from and I won’t have an answer. I feel I never really belonged anywhere, never really had a home. I was born in Manali, but my parents live in Karnataka. Finishing my schooling in two different schools in Himachal Pradesh, my further studies took me to Madras, Ladakh and Mumbai. My sisters are in Varanasi but my brothers are in Dharamshala. My Registration Certificate (my permit to stay in India) states that I’m a foreigner residing in India and my citizenship is Tibetan. 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’m bombarded with questions and statements and doubts and sympathy. But none of them can ever empathise with the plain simple fact that I have nowhere to call home and in the world at large all I’ll ever be is a ‘political refugee’.
When we were children in a Tibetan school in Himachal Pradesh, our teachers used to regale us with tales of Tibetans suffering in Tibet. We were often told that we were refugees and that we all bore a big ‘R’ on our foreheads. It didn’t make much sense to us, we only wished the teacher would hurry up and finish his talk and not keep us standing in the hot sun, with our oiled hair. For a very long time I sincerely believed that we were a special kind of people with an ‘R’ on our foreheads. We did look different from the local Indian families who lived around our school campus; the butcher family who killed twenty-one sheep and goats every morning (when the goats bleated with half-cut throat from behind the slaughterhouse, we used to throw stones at the tin roof). There were five other families who lived nearby; they owned apple orchards and seemed to eat only apples in different forms! In school we never saw many people other than ourselves and a few Injis (westerners), who visited from time to time. Perhaps the first thing I learned at school was that we were refugees and we didn’t belong to this country.
I am still to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. When she spoke about her book in a magazine, she said that her exile grew with her and that seems to be happening with me too. From the whole gamut of recent Hindi films, I was eagerly waiting for one particular film, Refugee, produced and directed by J P Dutta. There is a scene in the movie that so eloquently puts forth our plight – a father had brought his family from across the border into the neighbouring country and is living far from comfortably but is a survivor. Events follow one after another and there comes a scene where the authorities hold him captive and question his identity. He breaks down: “Wahan hamara jeena mushkil ho gaya tha, isiliye hum yahan aye, ab yahan bhi… Kya Refugee hona gunah hain?” (It had become difficult for us to live there. So we had to come here. Now here too… Is it a crime to be refugee?) The army officer is dumbfounded.
A few months ago a group of Tibetans in New York, mostly youngsters, found themselves in a difficult situation. A Tibetan youth had died and nobody in the group knew the cremation rites. All of them stared at each other. Suddenly they found themselves too far away from home.
our unburied dead eat with us
followed behind through bedroom doors.’
Tibetan refugees, like other immigrants from Asia to the West, work hard to earn a living in that highly mechanised and competitive environment. An old man was thus very happy when he got a job that would pay him enough so he wouldn’t be a burden on his family’s scarce resources. He was put in charge of pressing a button whenever there was a beep. He found it amusing doing that trivial thing throughout the day. He sat there all day with a rosary in his hand, softly murmuring his prayers. Of course, he pressed the button religiously whenever there was the beep (forgive him, oh lord, for he knew not what he was doing). A few days later, out of curiosity, he asked his co-worker what the button was for. He was told that every time he pressed the button, he cut the neck of a chicken. He immediately left the job.
In October 2000 the world was tuned in to the Sydney Olympics. In the hostel, on D-day we were all glued to the TV set eager for the opening ceremony to begin. Halfway into the event I realised that I couldn’t see clearly any more and my face felt wet. I was crying. No, it wasn’t the fact that I dearly wished I was in Sydney, or the splendour of the atmosphere, or the spirit of the games. I tried hard to explain to those around me. But they couldn’t understand, couldn’t even begin to understand… how could they? They belong to a nation. They have never had to conceive of its loss, they have never had to cry for their country. They belonged and had a space of their own, not only on the world map but also in the Olympic Games. Their countrymen could march proudly, confident of their nationality, in their national dress and with their national flag flying high. I was so happy for them.
Neruda spoke for me when I was silent, drowned in tears. Quietly watching the rest of the show I was heavy and breathless. They talked about borderlessness and building brotherhood through the spirit of sports. From the comfort of home they talked about coming together for one humanity and defying borders. What can I, a refugee, talk about except the wish to go back home?
Home for me is real. It is there, but I am very far from it. It is the home my grandparents and parents left behind in Tibet. It is the valley in which my Popo-la and Momo-la had their farm and lots of yaks, where my parents played when they were children. My parents now live in a refugee camp in Karnataka. They are given a house and land to till. They grow maize, their annual yield. I visit them once every couple of years for a short vacation. During my stay, I often ask them about our home in Tibet. They tell me of that fateful day, when they were playing in the lush green pastures of the Changthang, while grazing their yaks and sheep, how they had to pack up and flee the village. Everyone was leaving the village and there was hushed talk that the Chinese were killing everybody on their way in. Monasteries were being bombed, robbery rampant, everything was in chaos. Smoke could be seen from distant villages and there were screams in the mountains. When they actually left their village they had to trek through the Himalayas and then to India, and they were only children. It was exciting but it was fearful too.
In India, they worked as mountain road construction labourers in Masumari, Bir, Kullu, and Manali. The world’s highest stretch of metalled road, running hundreds of kilometres from Manali to Ladakh, was built by the Tibetans. My parents tell me that hundreds of Tibetans who came across into India died in those first few months. They could not bear the heat of summer, and the monsoon caught them in poor health. But the camp lived on and had many shifts along the road. Somewhere along that journey, at a roadside, I was born in a makeshift tent. “Who had time to record a child’s birth when everyone was tired and hungry?” my mother says when I ask for my birthday. It was only when I was admitted into a school that I was given a date of birth. At three different offices three different records were made, now I have three dates of birth. I have never celebrated my birthday.
The monsoon is welcome to our farm, but not to our house. The forty-year-old tiled roof drips, and in the house we get to work planting vessels and buckets, spoons and glasses, collecting the bounty of the rain gods, while Pa-la climbs onto the roof trying to fill the gaps and replace the broken tiles. Pa-la never thinks about revamping the whole roof using some good asbestos sheets. He says, “Soon we will go back to Tibet. There we have our own home.” Our cowshed has seen some repairs; the thatch is re-laid annually and old worm-infested wooden poles and frames are replaced.
When the Tibetans first settled in Karnataka, they decided to grow only papayas and some vegetables. They said that with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it wouldn’t take more than ten years to return to Tibet. But now even the guava trees are old and withered. The mango seeds they dumped in the back yard are bearing fruits. Coconut trees are brushing shoulders with our exile house. Old folks bask in the sun drinking chang or butter tea, chatting about the good old days in Tibet with their prayer wheels in their hands, while the youngsters are scattered all over the world, studying, working. This waiting seems to be redefining eternity.
our house seems to have grown roots,
the fences have grown into a jungle,
now how can I tell my children
where we came from?’
I recently met a friend of mine, Dawa, in Dharamshala. He had escaped to India a couple of years ago after being freed from a Chinese prison. He spoke to me about his prison experiences. His brother, a monk, was arrested for putting up ‘Free Tibet’ posters and, when tortured in prison, it was he who spilled the beans on Dawa. Dawa was imprisoned without trial for four hundred and twenty two days. He was then only twenty-six. Dawa had been working under Chinese bureaucracy for quite some time. He was taken to Beijing from Tibet for formal education early in life and still he laughs at China’s feeble efforts to indoctrinate their ideas and beliefs of Communism and its way of life on Tibetans. Thankfully, in his case the Chinese efforts didn’t bear fruit.
Two years ago, a close school-friend received a letter that put him in the most difficult situation of his life. The letter, from his uncle, said that his parents, who were in Tibet, had got permission for a pilgrimage to Nepal for two months. Tashi, after collecting his brother from Dharamshala, went to Nepal to meet their parents whom they had not seen since their escape to India twenty years ago. Before leaving, Tashi wrote to me, ‘Tsundue, I don’t know whether I should rejoice that I am finally going to meet my parents or cry because I can’t remember how my parents looked… I was only a child when I was sent to India with my uncle, and it’s twenty years now.’ Recently, he received another letter from his uncle in Nepal. It said that his mother had passed away in Tibet a month ago.
I saw the Germans shed tears of joy when broken families from the East and the West finally met and hugged each other over the broken wall. The Koreans are brimming with tears of joy as the border that divided their country into North and South is finally melting. I fear the broken families of Tibet will never rejoin. My grandparents’ brothers and sisters were left behind in Tibet. My Popo-la passed away a few years ago; will my Momo-la ever get to see her brothers and sisters again? Will we be together there so that she can show me our home and our farm?
Note: This essay won the Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Competition 2001. The judges said they picked it for “the touching simplicity with which the writer explains the tragedy of being a Tibetan in this world, and, in a way, the pain of all refugees across the world.”
The essay first appeared in Outlook magazine.
Later was published in International PEN, MID-DAY (Mumbai), Today (Singapore) .
About the author: Tenzin Tsundue is a restless young Tibetan, who after graduating from Madras, South India, braved snowstorms and treacherous mountains, broke all rules and restrictions, crossed the Himalayas on foot and went into forbidden Tibet! The purpose? To see the situation under Chinese occupation for himself and find out if he could lend a hand or two in the freedom struggle. He was arrested by the Chinese border police, and after cooling his feet in prison in Lhasa for three months, was finally pushed back to India.
HimVani thanks Friends of Tibet for sharing the essay with us.