If someone had ‘visitor to 20 countries’ on their CV it would be a mark of accomplishment but if that were accompanied by ‘imprisoned over 12 times in jails both in India and China.’, an entire image makeover were to follow. Martyr or miscreant? A rightful question indeed.
When Tenzin Tsundue stepped into the crammed room that we were allotted for his talk with us, this unassuming man of short stature, clad in casual clothing and a bandanna looked nothing like an individual who would fit the above description. With a smile, he broke the ice, saying “If you expect me to do some kung-fu or karate moves, I am not that kind at all.” eliciting laughter from an expectant audience of young minds.
“I am not going to talk about Tibet but about writing, about identity.” With that assertion, Mr Tsundue led the crowd through a well planned talk interspersed with carefully chosen excerpts from his simplistic but moving poetry as well as punchlines in Tamil and Hindi.
Mr Tsundue shared that early on in his childhood, his teachers at the boarding school in Himachal Pradesh taught him that they, the Tibetans were born with a metaphorical ‘R’ etched on their forehead. This ‘R’ somewhat like the humiliating Star of David stood for refugee. An imaginative young child who would grow into a strong and courageous teen, Tsundue sought to rename the ‘R’ as ‘Rangzin’ or ‘freedom’ as it meant in his native tongue. As a refugee growing up in India, Mr Tsundue like many others of his generation nurtured in their minds the imagination of a nation that did not however exist on the political map. This nation existed in their songs, games, proverbs and sense of dress. Being no stranger to identity crisis, Mr Tsundue describes his early years with a smile on his face. For someone whose parents lived in Karnataka, he spent his growing years in a boarding school in Himachal Pradesh. When people would asked where he came from, he would be in a tight corner. “With this kind of a face” he said, letting his fingers trace the shape and essence of his Tibetan countenance, “How was I to tell them that I was from Karnataka? People did not know Tibet, back then.”. He raised his fist in a threatening position and pushed it roughly through the air to demonstrate the aggression with with people demanded to know his identity. “You know, Manasarovar-Kailash?” he’d reply to their question, adding “You know, the abode of Lord Shiva? Yes, that’s where I am from!” With his trademark smile, he said to us, “Lord Shiva by virtue of living in Tibet becomes Tibetan, The Dalai Lama by virtue of living in India becomes and Indian! A fair exchange indeed”. More laughter followed.
So how does one write about identity? The first misconception to be cleared is that putting the pen to the paper is the primordial part of this process. According to Mr Tsundue, one needs to recognize the uniqueness of one’s identity, experience and feelings thereby allowing them to become forces of inspiration. When the forces of inspiration are at work, one is driven to seek an element of depth and detail. Once that has been solidified will the quill be dipped in ink and allowed to transcribe the crystallized perspective of the author/poet. If this process has to be initiated, it is important to consider the importance of each experience instead of blindly dismissing them as paltry.
This is evident in the works of this winner of the Picador-Outlook Prize for Non-Fiction (2001). His writings speak of loneliness and homelessness. His much feted essay ‘My Kind Of Exile’ draws the reader into the complex web of belonging to one’s landscape and forceful eviction from it. Mr Tsundue shares how poverty had been his companion right from birth. During a span of eleven years at the Himachal Pradesh boarding school, he was able to visit his parents only thrice. The feeling of a warm, human embrace was lost to him. This however did not stop his fellow students from comforting younger boys at the school every time they would cry for their mothers. It was that warmth of a hug that could comfort the younger boys yet torment Mr Tsundue and his contemporaries. This pathway dotted with tears would make its way to his adulthood. He would note how the telephone booths would become what he calls ‘Cry boxes’ as those in exile communicating with their relatives in Tibet would break down as they’d emerge from the booth. For him, he confesses that he had nobody to talk to in Tibet and hence could not cry in that cry-box. But the tears would come when they had to. Mr Tsundue’s poem ‘When in rains in Dharamshala’. He spoke of how the rains would pummel his roof and seep through the walls to inundate his room. To survive that kind of a rain, he pointed out rather laughingly that the ‘cheap Chinese umbrellas’ wouldn’t do. His quick wit which is evident in the concluding verses of the poem, help subtly heighten the underlying pathos in the poem.
“There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry,
my room is wet enough.”
This feeling of sadness would linger through his lifetime. Mr Tsundue admitted to making getaways to Marina Beach while travelling ticketless on the MTC buses he took from Loyola College, Chennai. When asked what the inspiration behind his poems were he stated that the verses written on the tombstones at the cemetery were what inspired him the most. The enshrining of such intense love in beautiful words would find a place in his own writing. One can find a deep love for a country that exists in the map of his mind and a sadness that the physical space doesn’t exist on the Political Map.
There was still hope in the form of three precious treasure that lay in his worn out backpack. As he displayed them to us, I wondered at the sheer brilliance of this human being. How was he able to find so much joy despite the sadness surrounding him? The answer is a mystery to me. Through his soulful narration of how poverty drove each member of the refugee families to one part of India, being unable to reconcile at Dharamshala for Losar or the Tibetan New Year, he had our sympathy. His quick juxtaposition of a rather joyful anecdote was a reminder that sympathy was not what he wanted from us. With a smile on his face, he confessed how he’s politely remind people “This is your country, we are just temporary occupants” when people visiting Dharamshala would remark that they felt they landed in a part of Tibet that was maintained rather beautifully by them.
With the idea of staying in India being a temporary option, what were his feelings towards his current host nation? “I feel a great sense of freedom in India that I don’t feel anywhere else.” he said. These words were potent to take our breath away. What more could we wish that the profound sadness of this illustrious author cum activist come to an end.