‘Night comes down, but your stars are missing’
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 kilometers 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.
‘money plants crept in through the window,
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 Dharamsala. 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 Dharamsala, 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.”
· First published in Outlook magazine