To be a Poet, is to Protest: An Encounter with Tibet in India
“Without exile, who am I?”
(from Bhuchung Sonam’s essay, Exile is a lonely pen)
Tibet is a country that has had a long history of pain and suffering. With more than 1,50,000 Tibetans having fled from the suppression of the Chinese occupation, scattered all over the world as refugees, Tibet is a nation that exists in exile.
George Steiner once said, “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it.”
The Tibet residing in the mountainous region of Dharamsala in India has produced many mighty soldiers of the pen who are writing precisely to save the Tibetan understanding of the world. While many have taken the protest to the streets, others are trying to preserve the Tibetan language and through it, the centuries old culture and heritage using the medium of education. There is an entire generation of Tibetan refugees in exile who have resorted to let their words speak for themselves. One of the most impassioned voices among them is Tenzin Tsundue whose poetry is subtle and forms of protest are piercingly honest to the idea of freedom.
The Tibetan history in interaction with Buddhist philosophy, dynamics of living in exile and the fractured identity is what informs today’s Tibetan literature. The literature consists of tales of bravery, honest accounts and memoirs of suffering under the Chinese occupation since 1949, the collective pain and poetry emerges as a form of protest. It takes us down the road and show how Tibetans living in India and in other countries are constantly struggling with the idea of deeply belonging to a space.
As Bhuchung Sonam’s essay says, Exile is a lonely pen. It never gets easier to live with the pain of exile and yet, it is a journey that one must take alone. It is in the realm of poetry that these journeys of homelessness, pain and loss of identity come together and form a single voice. For the writers, there is no other direction except to constantly trace the steps of the nation backwards in time. To go back home, if not in life, then in poetry.
The Tibetan youth, many born and bred in India still carry the identification of a refugee. There is an absence of belongingness- the painful history and the constant struggle for the freedom of their nation and the people keeps igniting the question of their real identity. They were born in India but do they feel that they belong to this country? What kind of connection have they established with their Tibetan roots? Such questions about their existence as ‘Insider-Outsider’ can be traced in the poetic verses of Tsundue’s poem, A Personal Reconnaissance:
Tibet is just a gaze away.
from that black knoll
at Dumtse it’s Tibet.
For the first time, I saw
my country Tibet.
In a hurried hidden trip
I was there at the mound.
I sniffed the soil,
scratched the ground,
listened to the dry wind
and the wild old cranes.
I didn’t see the border,
I swear there wasn’t anything
I didn’t know
if I was there or here.
I didn’t know
if I was here or there.
They say the kyang
come here every winter.
They say the kyang
go there every summer.
As the crusader of the Tibetan Freedom movement in India, Tenzin Tsundue needs no introduction. His actions speak louder than words and that is the reason why his poetry is subtle in imprinting the pain of life in exile, while his slogans have a sharp momentum. He wears a red band over his forehead as a symbol of his dedication to the Tibetan Freedom Struggle and as a revolutionary poet; he is the voice of the young generations of Tibetans born in exile.
What is interesting about these writings in exile is their idea of ‘home’. For someone in exile, home is always a place that you leave behind, it is ‘home’ when it is somewhere in the past, from where you can acquire only fragments of it but not the whole.
While Tsundue’s poetry yearns for the home that resides in Tibet, for Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, the idea of home is a sort of place that is imminent. She is the first Tibetan woman to have been published in English. The ideas of Buddhist philosophy of impermanence exist in her writings. Her book A Home in Tibet provides detailed accounts of Tibetans living inside Tibet brought to life through her journeys back to country. Her writings derive from Tibetan roots, Indian-Nepalese upbringing and an American education reflected in this excerpt from her poem, In between:
“Some of us went to the ghats and watched the dead burn. Woman
in white wailed, her hair a dumb struck line against her rocking
spine. We look for other distractions in a place of death.
In the afternoon meanings are extolled.
We are asked to name our loves. I will not, he said, use common
language to talk of love. I will not jump into the substance
without reinforcement. He took his body to the breeze and
swayed till we begged him to stop. The rain subsided but we were
Thousands have died in a nod.”
The back cover of Bhuchung D Sonam’s book Yak Horns says that his permanent address was stolen. His work consists of two volumes of poetry, an Anthology of Tibetan poetry edited by him and a collection of essays called Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics. One needs to read these essays to understand the volatile nature of today’s Tibet and the reflections of an insider/outsider on how an entire nation processes the issues of exile and its politics through poetry, music and film and strives to keep the culture alive as they go along.
The three writers will be in conversation at ILF Samanvay on 27th November, 2015 at 11:00 am in the session designed by young volunteers of the ILF team, which reflects the festival’s efforts to encourage youth engagement with the burning issues of these times. It will explore connections between India and Tibet, Tibetans as insiders/outsiders and how Tibetan writings reflect these.
Photo Credits: Niyati Bhat