Going through racks and racks of Tibetan political journals is not an easy task, and something you can never prepare yourself for. As I walked through the streets of Dharamsala, greeting smiling Tibetan faces and talking casually about the weather and the problems of over-construction in McLeod Ganj, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of uneasiness with the realization of what their pasts held. But they seemed unfazed, well-integrated and living quiet, satisfactory lives, building and working for a community they call home.
For someone who hasn’t had to go through a brutal or unwanted separation from her/his family, friends, society, it is a hard reality to grasp.
Let me attempt to give a sense of what the most fortunate of the refugees who have escaped from Tibet have undergone, so that I can, perhaps, gesture to the valor in the process of recreating their life and engaging with the mundane.
There are two main ways to escape out of Tibet – one is to Nepal and the other is to Bhutan. Two of my friends, who are now studying abroad, were sent by their parents with a guide across the border to India. They were eight and twelve years old. Their parents had hoped that they would get a better education and a better life in India, through the facilities provided by the exile community. They took the south-western route, through the Himalayas, into Nepal. This route can take anywhere from 20 days to 6 months to traverse, depending upon your experiences. Crossing over the Himalayas is no light matter. I remember one of my Tibetan teachers telling me if he spat, his spit would freeze on his shoe. Tibetans suffer from frostbite; forced deportations and torture in Chinese prisons if discovered in Nepal; random shootings at the border; exploitation through bribery by corrupt officials and, often enough, death from any of the previously mentioned reasons. If this is not enough, several of them have been political prisoners, have faced police brutality and the humiliation of having their beliefs insulted, their livelihoods taken away from them, their families endangered. My friends were fortunate to have left behind their torturous escape without any permanent physical scars.
When they reach India, the younger ones are taken to the Tibetan Transit School, but the older ones have to do menial jobs, albeit with the support of the community. The new refugees occasionaly experience discrimination on being culturally different from the Tibetans who have been living/or have been born in Dharamsala, India.
Going through first-hand accounts of torture in Drapchi prison (Lhasa’s biggest prison and particularly infamous for housing the Gu Chu Sum (དགུ།་བཅུ་གསུམ) protestors, which was a period of uprisings in the late 80s and early 90s), accounts of the 2008 uprisings, a series of self-immolation narratives starting from 2009, reports on environmental degradation, of cultural erasure, begins to have a very strong emotional impact, which I had to learn to accept and allow during my time there. Denying it would erase the empathy I was feeling – a fuel for my work, but at the same time I had struggle to prevent it from debilitating me.
That being said, I was also astutely aware of the stories that were missing. Stories of regeneration, assimilation and reformulation of lives. There were those people who had integrated and adjusted themselves to the shift in the political landscape. There were also those who were profiting and participating by the new regime, and those who believed that the change was good. However, given that images of Lhasa remind me of the images of Kashmir, with the panoptic presence of the State – guns pointing from roof tops, a proliferation of uniformed bodies, emotionally masked faces going about their everyday activities – I cannot think that the ones who have embraced the everyday, normalized their lives and profited from the new rule are a majority.
Dharamsala is a lesson in regeneration and revival, and in that sense seems to hint at the indomitability of the human spirit. The first time I went to my teacher’s house for a meal, this summer, his wife made Rajma (a special and time-consuming dish of red kidney beans) for me because she remembered that I had enjoyed it thoroughly, during one of her lunch invites, more than a year ago. We talked about the everyday – my flight delay, life in America, life in Dharamsala, the new poor who are coming from poorer states to Himachal Pradesh, the Tuberculosis problem in Dharamsala, etc. My teacher and I spoke about the history of Tibet. I asked him about the Lotus Sutra and the next time we met, he got me the text to show me a special introduction. His wife is beautiful and endearing. She and I are friends. We talk about her sisters and the politics in Arunachal Pradesh, where she is from. They do not talk much about politics in their house. They have three children who study in schools and colleges outside Himachal Pradesh. There is always someone other than their immediate family visiting them, a relative or a friend, who, as quickly as s/he arrives, gets integrated into the everyday activity of the house – cooking, cleaning, whatever is required. I wonder if they consider living the everyday to be a privilege?
Embracing the mundane, is not an act of forgetting. For how can one forget when the absence of a homeland marks the refugee community in Dharamsala. The marking is in the sounds – the exiled chants of the monastic community and the slow ringing of the prayer wheel as it turns – and in the sight – monasteries bearing the names of their Tibetan counterparts; bodies adorned in their native wear; older faces lined with history. Embracing the mundane is what allows them to preserve, love, remember, and yet embrace the different/ the new. It is what ties them to the new world they inhabit and the old world that they remember. For me, it constitutes an act of rebellion, under the threat of historical erasure.