Book Extract: Nowhere to call home
In a personal essay on life in exile, Tenzin Tsundue reflects on the burden of carrying around an idea of home in one’s head
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 Dharamsala 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 McLeod Ganj. One by one, the refugees entered the cubicle, spoke to their loved ones in Tibet, cried, and came out emotionally wrecked, then paid and left. I called the booth the Cry Box. I realised that the maximum number of Tibetans in Dharamsala 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 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.’
(from the poem ‘How I Lost My Losar’)
Through the profound loneliness of being far away from my parents and our imagined homeland, I have often thought that we are children of our circumstances and that history is our father and the culture that nourishes us 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.
My parents were teenagers when they followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile, escaping the persecution by Mao’s army in 1959. 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, …we moved to Kollegal in… 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 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 log sandalwood trees—we had truly been rehabilitated in the middle of nowhere.
There, in the hot, dense jungles of Karnataka, my grandmother told us stories of snow mountains and yaks; of apples, peaches and apricots. Momola 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 the folklore figure 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 the shrill call of the Indian woman who came into our camp to sell the popular South Indian rice-cake snack, idli. Bored with our bland and overcooked Tibetan food, we kids would rush towards her. We loved the soft idlis, which were served on a banana leaf and dipped in spicy masala soup called sambar, with a dash of coconut chutney.
Sometimes, the ice cream vendor came by on his bicycle, 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 left 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. 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 blindfolded, made to kneel with hands tied behind them, and 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.
There came the guilt of living 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 eleven years old. Today, I honour this pledge with a red bandana that I wear on my forehead. I have promised never to take it off until Tibet is free and to work for Tibetan freedom every single day.
Two years ago, I went on a speaking tour of the United Kingdom. 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. Tibetans may have gone to the West, but they have never left India.
Today, almost 70,000 Tibetans have immigrated to the West, and they have not only become citizens of the world but preserved their identity. However, the third-generation youth is a concern; like most immigrant children, they have inherited the blood and the stories, but, in large part, not the language.
When my classmate and buddy Choegyal dropped out of regular college, friends thought he was straying because of his craze—music. He listened to Hindustani music when none of us had developed a taste for it. He would 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 minivan. He travelled for months singing and telling stories of Tibet in different villages and towns. He sings long arias in the traditional Tibetan pastoral tunes, which are immediately arresting and soulful. A deep sense of longing and loneliness pervades his melodies. Recently, he has been nominated for a Grammy, his first global recognition.
We call ourselves refugees to keep alive our dream to return to our homeland and India calls us foreigners—perhaps a leverage against China—though the constitution of India recognises us as citizens.