Dharamshala. Impressions of an exile. India 3.

Dharamshala existed in my dreams. For the longest time. Ever since I first encountered Tibetans. Way back in Bombay, during a non-existent winter (as Bombay winters are), laying out their winter wares on the pavements near Kala Ghoda. Imagine selling warm clothes to a Bombayite! Curious, I got talking to them and they told me about their journey from Dharamshala to my city. Sing-song Hindi, smiley, crinkly eyes. Then another said she had come from South India. Whatever little knowledge I had of Tibetan refugees, that bit, about a settlement in Karnataka, was news to me. After all, for the average Indian, in the days of Doordarshan, newspapers and the neonatal period of cable television, Tibetan refugees=Dalai Lama=hospitable, warm, fuzzy India + neighbourly concern. I was hooked; an invisible bond attaching me to these people from the Himalayas I know not why.  But journeys happen and how.

One day, out of the blue, or so it seemed to meine familie, I declared I wanted to work at the Tibetan hospital in Dharamshala. They thought I was mad. How could I leave Bombay and my home and medical practice to go to a ‘hill station’ ?!  I’d written them a letter see. In the pre-webbed India, where getting any information was like looking for a needle in a haystack, I had blindly written, on the blue inland letter of Indian Post, to ‘The Tibetan Hospital, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh’ asking if I could work at the hospital. I got a reply. Yes you may but only as a volunteer. They kindly included instructions on how to get there from Bombay and also a telephone number.  Could I get past the wrath of the family though?

Then I visited Sikkim. It was a trip offered to me by an uncle. He said Singapore I said Sikkim. So I was on a flight to Siliguri via Calcutta and then a bus to Gangtok, promising to call my mother everyday. Me and the backpack, one more nail in my ‘she-is-mad’ coffin. I can still feel it. Walking the streets of Gangtok, visiting Enchey Monastery, a yak ride on Chhangu Lake, going up to Nathu La looking over Tibet, the twisting Teesta river, Pelling, the shrouded Kanchenjunga…I bought my first mekhla, the traditional dress from North-East India, in a tiny village near Pelling. That was my second calling. When the Himalayas beckon you cannot ignore.

This year I was meant to go to Leh. The tickets and accomodation booked. Then the cloudburst happened.

One can say that the Tibetan refugees are doing well in Dharamshala (McLeodganj technically because that is where most of them live and that is where I stayed.) They are allowed to practice their religion, arts, culture, do business and go about their lives.  Peace prevails. Co-existence and tolerance exemplary of Indian hospitality.

The poverty is shocking. New Zealand has an annual intake of refugees from across the globe with a settlement process and follow up which is still not enough to ensure integration, where identity is always in crisis, mental health always an issue and the many manifestations of suffering unknown. What could be the state of a people living in limbo for the last fifty years? These people who followed their spiritual leader with the firm belief that they will return home one day but exist on an annual special permit?  Now a second generation is born in exile and the refugees keep coming, running away from torture and annihilation. Of course the tourists come too and they bring the money. So what? How many street stalls can you have selling the same prayer wheels and beads?

The chaos that is India is evident in McLeodganj. So is the ‘progress’-pieces of hill being cut to build malls and fancy hotels with saunas. Then there are the monasteries hidden in the by-lanes, full of monks who cannot speak a word of Hindi/English and who subsist by teaching Tibetan/Buddhism to white women in tight tee shirts and no bras. (Of course you get that in Varanasi too-with the marijuana-so spiritual tourism is not just about the Tibetans.)  It is the lack of status that broke my heart.  Old people with diapers and no teeth, ordinary people who want to go home, women beaten up by unemployed husbands, single mothers…newly born infants, just gorgeous and cuddly, who will probably never know home. Except in museums, fossilised.  All living where they don’t really belong or want to belong.

Yatha bhuta, anicca. Perhaps. But does that justify suffering? Would it be unfair to ask why India has not done more towards mediating talks between China and the Tibetans? Because offering space and place is enough? Because there are no ‘Indian’ refugees and hence we do not understand the psyche of displacement? (Post-partition Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the Kashmiris, tribals pushed out of their land, debt-ridden villagers migrating to cities…refugees.) Because it is geopolitically not prudent to engage with China on this? How about being a world leader in developing and maintaining human values? (But then we would have to have our own house in order no?)

I would like to believe that the Tibetans get their strength from Buddhism. The non-violence, the peace, continued grit and determination. To treat them like ‘temporary refugees’ and not being pro-active in helping them realise their homeland not only undermines them but also reflects on our own core values and spirituality. Superpowers are not merely economic.


In 1962 China invaded India from two sides. On the north-west through Ladakh and the north-east through Arunachal Pradesh. It was a horrific war between two countries that were pretending to be friends. India lost the war, her sons and some territory. As a consequence of this loss the Chinese in Calcutta were interned/incarcerated by the then Government of India. A very shameful act. The Chinese have been in India, mainly Calcutta, since the 1700s. I have never been to Calcutta but the Chinese there are famous for their food, beauty parlours, shoes and furniture and expert dentists.

( Check these links for really interesting stories especially the letter from an Indian-Chinese. Or Chinese-Indian? Or Chindian? 🙂 http://southasia.oneworld.net/article/view/90590/1/ ; http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/rssarticleshow/msid-2830153,prtpage-1.cms)

When I was little my mother would take my sister and I to Eve’s Beauty Parlour in Sukhsagor to cut our hair. It was run by a Chinese lady and her Chinese staff. Then one day the parlour shut down. Now I think back maybe they followed their Calcutta relatives, who might have been incarcerated, to America/Canada/Australia? I recall getting my hair cut at the Hong Kong Beauty Parlour in Colaba by another Chinese lady. She spoke impeccable Bombay Hindi. Wonder if the place is still open? Then there is Dr Chang, the dentist in Chira Bazaar who has been there for as long I remember and whose son apparently runs the clinic. Last time I went through Chira Bazaar, in March 2008, the clinic looked shiny and prosperous with Dr Chang’s board very much in place.


In 1959 the Dalai Lama crossed over from Tibet into India through Arunachal Pradesh (if I got the route right). Jawaharlal Nehru offered him and his people a home. The Tibetans settled in Dharamshala and then in Karnataka. Every winter they came (come?) to Bombay to sell warm clothes to hot, harried Bombayites whose winter is experienced at 25 degrees. 🙂 They were a curiosity, these Tibetans. With their smiling faces, wiry bodies and sad eyes. Not all monks but still surrounded by an aura of peace. Even cynical Bombayites could not resist the woollens. It was like we knew what they were suffering and helping them meant serving Gautam Buddha himself. For years after encountering them I wanted to visit and live in Dharamshala. Far away from Bombay, in the Himalayas. I was actively discouraged by the family. Which good Indian girl just wanders off to the Himalayas to live like a ‘monk’?

I visited Sikkim in 2000. Just me and my backpack. The good Indian girl. 🙂 I was ‘allowed’ to go only after promising my mother that I would call her every day. Sikkim brought me closer to Tibet than Dharamshala. A trip towards Nathu-La, above Chhangu Lake, nauseous with mountain sickness, eating sheera in the army camp and listening to stories about how the soldiers defend the country I imagined Tibet. A hop, skip and jump across the border, far above the clouds, literally the roof of the world. The Sikkimese are not fond of the Chinese. They revere the Dalai Lama. Sikkim, in independent Himalayan kingdom, was annexed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 but was once claimed by China too.



The weekend before last young Chinese students were protesting against the bias of the Western media towards the China-Tibet issue at Aotea Square in Queen Street, Auckland. While there is no doubt that media is biased-anywhere and in any country (I mean Rupert Murdoch rules right? Or whoever has more might and money?) the students seemed to believe what the Chinese government was telling them. Would they know about Tiananmen Square?

I have a lot of Chinese friends in New Zealand, many generations removed from China or fresh from the mainland. We have always worked together for better representation of Asians but never discussed democracy, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Falun Gong, human rights, Sudan, Burma…or Kashmir, the Red corridor, Nagaland…or just relations between India and China. I wonder why. Because it is uncomfortable? Because these things don’t matter when the white man and colonialism are the ‘common enemy’? Because we rely on government agencies to bring us together and tell us what we should do? Will there be space to talk ever?


It has taken me some time to figure out an ‘unbiased’ view. Reams have been written by experts and those not. Frankly, I sympathise with the Tibetans. Not so much because I am a bleeding heart or because I understand the teachings of Gautam Buddha (but I am not a Buddhist-for those who would want to label me straight away). No. It is because I have seen the Tibetans as refugees in my motherland. (I have also seen the Kashmiri Pandits as refugees in their own country, in India.) I have felt the warmth of the Dalai Lama permeate a section of Eden Park. Yet I also reminisce about the Chinese women who cut my hair. And stories my grandmother told me about Chinese tradesmen selling their bundles of silk. If I feel sick about the way the Indian Government treated the Chinese of Calcutta after losing the war, if I feel that as an Asian and an Indian in New Zealand I should take charge of my own representation and negotiate my culture and complex identity in this space, then it is natural for me to empathise with the cultural genocide of the Tibetans.

The Beijing Olympics, like any massive sporting event are an exercise in nationalistic jingoism and so called sportsmanship, a money-making occasion, a tourism opportunity. Just like the Commonwealth Games will be in 2010 in Delhi. That is no excuse to crush ‘undesirables’. The Dalai Lama has always asked for dialogue with the Chinese Government. It is the latter who keeps putting in condition after condition.

I am a sucker for sweet endings. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that the Chinese Government will talk to the Dalai Lama or the Tibetans. China is not a democracy. Those protesting Chinese students were using a tool of democracy to talk against Western media but were probably unaware of other tools and requirements that are attached to democracy. I can sit here and type this because I come from a country that has chugged along on a democratic path. Never perfect, never quite understanding how to deal with many issues yet having the space for discourse and argument. I live in a country that is a democracy. Imagine not being able to ask for your rights and representation, not being able to tell a bureaucrat who actually pays her salary! 😀 Chetan Anand made HAQEEQAT, a film on the Indo-China war of 1962 and how India lost the war. I am not aware of any literature that has openly come out of China that speaks about Tiananmen Square or Tibet.

A democratic China would be make an immense difference to Asia and the world. I think then India and China would be real friends rather than be cautious of each other like two sparring partners. It would also keep meddling Western powers at bay. Otherwise, imagine if Western/vested interests infiltrated the region and turn it into another Israel-Palestine or Iraq. It would be easy to arm Tibetans after the Dalai Lama dies. Then the Tibetans might not want to be non-violent. But if there was dialogue and if India lead the way and if we should recognise our cultures within rather than just fighting against Westerners, then it would be hard to beat Asian ‘power’.

Or is it just a stupid, unattainable dream?