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.