By Rudrani das Gupta
25 June 2010, McLeodganj, India. The bus ride up the craggy mountains had been very tiring. By the time my friends and I reached McLeodganj, it was early morning. The little hilly town was already bustling by then and from my first look around, I realized why it was called Little Lhasa. There were prayer flags, prayer wheels and Tibetan faces all around. This was the first time I was travelling alone with my friends and that lent a certain colour to my excitement.
This remote town is the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. No wonder there is an all pervasive spiritual presence in the town. You can feel it in the numerous cafes, the hilly lanes and the quaint little houses. That feeling stayed with me and made me return to the place over and over again. Since that fateful first visit, I have returned twice. Each time I went there a different person and emerged with something having changed within.
The first time I went there was as a fresh faced student looking to see the world. Dharamsala (McLeodganj) showed me a world where beauty existed hand in hand with suffering. The Tibetan issue for me had been like all the other problems that plague the world. Vague, distant and very unreal. I read the occasional article and saw the stray picture on Amnesty International. People were dying in a place thousands of miles away and I had nothing to do with it.
My second hand media spoon-feeding came to an end when I met a Tibetan nun at an English conversation class on my second visit to Dharamsala. I was volunteering at a spoken English conversation class to help Tibetan refugees and political prisoners. She had travelled on foot for thirty days over the Himalayan Mountains, like thousands of other Tibetans. She had done this to escape the grip of an oppressive Chinese regime which threatened her very existence. She told me how she had seen two of her fellow nuns being kicked to death by Chinese soldiers who had stormed the monastery. What had been the reason? She and her fellow nuns had participated in a nonviolent freedom protest in Lhasa a few days back.
I noticed a black mark below her eye and couldn’t refrain from asking what had caused it. Soldiers had tortured her and left their mark.
“We could only trek at night to escape the gaze of the patrol guards. In the morning we huddled together to keep warm. At times, we ate grass to survive. Many of my companions died on the way.” The simple truth in broken English was hard to bear. Suddenly I was confronted with a terrifying truth. Death and struggle did not seem that distant anymore. There are a million stories waiting to be told. We met a young woman with a child. While he solemnly offered me half eaten cheese balls, she broke down and told us how she had escaped to India as a child herself. A few minutes later, she was all smiles again.
For an urban college kid, facing such a scenario is destabilizing, to say the least. I live in a sheltered, urban utopia. All my basic rights are granted, and my needs met. The closest I have ever come to a freedom struggle is a story about how my grandmother crossed over the border from Bangladesh to India during the Partition of India in 1947. Seeing it through the eyes of people who have experienced it first hand, gave it a different clarity altogether. For the first time, my shared history with the rest of the country hit home. We fought for our freedom for almost a hundred years before we got it. Today, a nation of people is standing on that very same brink. A few Tibetan men told us that Tibetan refugees in India face a very complex situation. They live in a condition of “statelessness” and are bereft of vital refugee rights. It is difficult for them to travel abroad or even own property. It is sad that a country with a similar history is compelled to turn half a blind eye to what is going on. Such conversations would be carried out over wine.
What amazed me was the way they had happily resigned themselves to the situation. There was hardly any resentment. Being uprooted from a country which violated their basic human rights had not turned them cynical. To a person who would complain every time there was a power cut in her house, this lack of cynicism left me speechless.
In spite of this, Dharamsala has a dark side that cannot be ignored. It is very easy to romanticize a place surrounded by snow covered mountains and teeming with smiling people. We had gone for a movie screening of Scorsese’s Kundun and fell into conversation with some of the Tibetans working there. Dharamsala has a thriving international tourist trade, much like the famous beaches of Goa down south. They said that Chinese spies often infiltrate the town posing as tourists. They often pick up names and details of refugees who have escaped China. These identities are then reported back to the Chinese government who then apply pressure on their families who have stayed back. Refugees are often threatened and compelled to return to save the lives of their families in China. One young man we met was already mired in such problems.
I came away from Dharamsala with disturbing questions. I have learned to take my existence for granted. How would I live with the knowledge of the fact that it is my very identity that is the source of all danger?
The post globalized world has seen questions of identity and nationality being raised. People have written about it and it is a well debated issue nowadays. It is easy to sit in a foreign land and churn out best selling stories about being rootless and not having a “national” identity. How much more difficult it is to have to battle such a crisis every day of your life?
In Dharamsala, everyone has a story to tell and they will happily tell you theirs. We are used to reading heroic tales in books and watching them on television. The waiter serving you at one of the many cafes, or the girl selling steaming soup on the streets is probably a hero. I stumbled upon heroes in the unlikeliest of places. That is probably the best way to discover that something unbeatable still remains in man.
Rudrani das Gupta is a freelance journalist based in West Bengal, India.