Friday, September 29, 2023
HomePolitics‘Did the Chinese beat you?’ A Tibetan writer has an answer to...

‘Did the Chinese beat you?’ A Tibetan writer has an answer to this old question in Dharamshala

There is a Tibetan saying that goes: it is better to keep an appropriate distance from fire and loved ones. The word ‘appropriate’ is crucial. If the distance is too far, the warmth does not reach you and the fire remains just an image as in a photograph.

It has been over three decades since I saw my mother. She lives in her world, her thoughts and ideas shaped by circumstances that are beyond my imagination. I live in exile, my thoughts and value shaped and influenced by a different set of circumstances. Books and friends have played important roles in my life. During mydays in college, I found solace in literature. The fate of Robinson Crusoe on his godforsaken island in Robinson Crusoe, Edmond Dantes in the dreaded Château d’If prison in The Count of Monte Cristo and the terrible hardships endured by Hasari Pal, the rickshaw-puller in the City of Joy, somehow assuaged my hunger and loneliness. These fictional characters gave me the strength to face each scorching Indian day with renewed resilience.

My mother does not automatically pop into my mind these days. Unrequited love and affection go stale. I have to force myself to think and refresh my memory to be able to hear her voice—‘Keep chewing on it and you won’t get tired.’ A photograph I received along with a letter from Tibet about seven years ago shows an old woman, her face wrinkled like a drying radish, her hands folded in front of her, nails black with dirt and her mouth slightly skewed towards the left as if to scorn decades of socialist indoctrination.

Memory plays tricks. Worst still, it crashes when reality bursts through the door. My friend Tenzin used to soak his handkerchief with tears when talking on the phone with his mother. Two years ago, his mother escaped from her village in southern Tibet. Along with a small group, she crossed the Himalayan mountains in the winter, braving snowstorms and avoiding the Chinese military check-posts. Their joyous reunion after sixteen years was over within months of her arrival in India. Today, Tenzin lives with his wife and kids, while his mother is alone in another rented room, ten kilometres apart. ‘We look at life so differently and we never agree on anything,’ he says.

And so, we adjust to our lives like a fish that changes its colour to survive. Exile is a reverse logic feeding on confusion and disappointment and hardening our memory-burdened hearts. Exile is love lost, found and rearranged. Above all, exile is a compromise.

Every once in a while, when I phone my mother, we swim in tears at both ends of the line. Our occasional calls are made worse by our inability to understand each other properly. My mother speaks in a dialect particular to the area around my birthplace, I have long exchanged it for the dialect spoken by the majority of Tibetans in exile. The loss of my native dialect was as inevitable as getting used to fits of monsoon rain beating down on my rented room. In the process, however, I gained two other languages—English and Hindi.

English—which the foremost twentieth-century Tibetan scholar, Gendun Choephel, during his self-imposed exile termed as ‘this not-so-useful foreign language’—has become an integral part of who I am and how I define myself. Though I talk in Tibetan most of the time, I read and write primarily in English. I sometimes even think in this acquired tongue, giving a new colour to my spectrum of identity. I have not mastered this language.

Perhaps I never will. But the fact that my identity as a writer comes mainly through writing in this alien tongue is a powerful indication that acquired things can replace indigenous characteristics. Those of us who are ejected into strange environments by occupation and
social upheavals do not have the luxury to choose what we desire or fend off undesirable factors. Survival trumps everything else.

My life in exile revolves around one central untruth; that I was born in India and not in a tiny village in Tibet. All legal papers have to be obtained with this lie in mind and every form with a ‘Place of Birth’ section has to be filled with falsehood. If I fail to write ‘Dharamsala, India’ in this small white space, and if I fail to obtain any legal paper through illegal means, my life will fall apart.

This is how telling lies becomes a part of us. If a policeman refuses to thump his official stamp on the application form to renew our Registration Certificate (RC), or an immigration officer asks too many questions, we back up our lies with more fabrications. We sit on a layer of precariously piled lies. When this pack of lies eventually crumbles, neither argument nor tears work. The only other option is an under-the-table operation. We cannot afford to differentiate between rights and wrongs under such circumstances. Truth hardly ever triumphs.

In our heavily accented Hindi, some of us try to prove that we have rights and try to put our scattered facts together, often making matters worse. The irate officer then waves us aside or sends us to the end of the queue. Our assumptions about having rights are often wrong. The man behind the desk knows this. We are a bunch of ‘stateless’ people surviving in host countries on humanitarian grounds. At best, we are ‘honourable guests’. When
dinner is over, we have to leave.

And so, we continue with our lies. Another friend Kelsang is a young university-educated Tibetan, born and raised in India. When he sought political asylum in the US, he became ‘Dakpa’, an illiterate nomad from a small town in Western Tibet. On the day of the interview, he discarded his Levi’s jeans and Nike shoes and instead donned dirty corduroy pants bulging at the knees and sported a pair of worn-out leather shoes. To complete the image makeover, he wore a dzi sandwiched between two corals around his neck. His asylum application was okayed. Later his Green Card came out too with a new name. We now call him ‘Drokpa Dakpa’ or the Nomad Dakpa.

‘I would certainly not have survived in our terrible time without lying,’ wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Against Hope, her searing account of Russia under Stalin. ‘I have lied all my life: to my students, colleagues, and even good friends I didn’t quite trust. This was a normal lying of the times, something in the nature of a polite convention. I am not ashamed of this kind of lying …’

Unlike Mandelstam, most of us live in exile in relative freedom. We do not have dictators breathing down our necks or bayonets poking at our bellies. Nevertheless, when survival bangs at the door, everything goes asunder, making it hard for us to live with dignity and truth. It trumps everything else. We must survive at any cost because our survival is a resistance to being forgotten, a resistance against occupation and a resistance against some of our own faulty memories that do not match reality.

What shines across our lives in exile—wrapped in confusion, lies and endless daily struggles—is the individual resilience and collective fortitude that manifest in victories such as the
establishment of our cultural institutions, schools, and monasteries and above all, a legitimate democratic government in exile.

Our new generation, mostly born and raised outside Tibet, has modern education and yet is deeply rooted in our history, culture and language, firmly dedicated to our struggle for freedom and at the same time pursuing individual goals. This is not to state that exile is a blessing in disguise. It never is. Exile is pain and dislocation and sorrow. But these have moulded us into a hard-edged breed, capable of challenging new realities with hard facts, much less dependent on faith alone. This new generation is, as the contemporary Tibetan artist Tshering Sherpa writes, ‘the promise of the future amongst the black clouds’ of separation, loss and fading memories.

‘Did the Chinese beat you?’ the little girl asked. I said, ‘Yes.’ It sounded right.

It still sounds right.

This excerpt from The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie, has been published with permission from Penguin India.

Source: The Print

- Advertisment -

Most Popular

Recent Comments