An essay on the poetry of exiled Tibetans, with special reference to the work of Tsundue, here is an excerpt from an interesting book on Tibetan writing, music, film and politics.
By Bhuchung D Sonam
Title: Yak Horns
Author: Bhuchung D Sonam
• Rs. 200 • 242 pp
Pa Topgyal is 79 years old. While speaking to his elder daughter on the phone he wails like a three-year-old boy. She is in the US, an illegal Tibetan without papers. He is a refugee living in India for over 50 years. She is 38. They haven’t met for 17 years. If numbers alone represent sorrows, it’s a hundred and eighty four years of pain and dislocation, longing and desire, grief and resignation, promises and disappointment, hope and surrender. Despite five decades of selling sweaters in the plains of India, Pa’s Hindi is rudimentary and the number of words he knows in English is less than the fingers on his hands. He is an old man, his mind full but voice restricted. Tsundue gives voice to Pa’s desperation:
I am tired/ I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,/ 40 years of sitting in dust and spit.
Tenzin Yarphel is a twenty-year-old college-going guy. His mother is 40. She was born somewhere between Manali and Spiti. His fater is 47 and was born in the year Tibet lost her independence. If numbers alone can be confusion, it’s a hundred and seven years of chaos and turmoil, romantic illusion and harsh reality, an idea of home and a sense of not belonging, and an everyday struggle to assert identity. Yarphel is educated, upright, and humble – perhaps a little too humble. At times, his humility is bombarded by a salvo of questions about who he is and where he’s from. He is lost between a strong desire to answer and not knowing quite how.
Tsundue sums up this confusion:
I am more of an Indian./ Except for my chinky Tibetan face./ I am a Tibetan. But I am not from Tibet.
There are hundreds of young Tibetan refugees studying in various colleges in India. Every now and then they are asked if they are Manipuri, Nepali, Thai, Japanese, Chinese or Korean. They trudge on, shouting ‘I am a Tibetan!’ Once one of them wore a Free Tibet T-shirt and was asked, ‘From where can I get it free?’ If only he wasn’t suffering from student poverty he would have freely given the T-shirt. Most Tibetan students live on a shoestring budget: Tsundue was one of them. Penniless and with nowhere to stretch his tired legs for a night in Mumbai, Tsundue found a reliable companion in words which comforted him in his homeless hours:
Your walls open inot cupboards/ Is there an empty space for me/ I’ll sleep under your bed/ And watch TV in the mirrorHe seldom complains about his predicament. Instead, as he once said, he tries to face them with composure and narrate them with comical twists:
On your forehead/ There is an R embossed/ My teacher said./ I scratched and scrubbed,/ To find a brash of red pain
Exiled Tibet has a young generation of aspiring poets and writers. They are unknown, often unclaimed, individuals producing verses between the need to earn their daily bread and a strong quest for freedom. Some of them moonlight in Indian metropolises like Delhi and Bangalore; some are in offices of the exile establishment; and a few sell bread and laphing in the streets of McLeod Ganj. Fewer still try their luck with not-so-young foreign women. They are bread-and-freedom poets in testing circumstances. The writings of these young poets are testimony to a displaced people trying to find their roots.
The most visible face among them is a thin, bespectacled, backpack-carrying man always on the go. Wearing a red bandanna like one of those ready-to-shriek-and-kick character sin Kung-fu films, Tsundue hardly kicks, though he certainly shrieks – ‘Freedom!’
Kora is Tsundue’s second book after Crossing the Border. It has 14 poems, four essays, a short story and an interview. It has run into six reprints and sold over 10,000 copies. At a time when poetry is left for the eccentric few, and shunned by mainstream publishers, that’s doing pretty well. It has been translated into many languages, including French and Malayalam, and its poems are included in many anthologies and printed in numerous magazines and newspapers. He claims he is a poet first and activist second. You have the full liberty to argue against this and you may even win.
‘Creative work is forever a dream unfulfilled,’ wrote Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad. He might as well have written this for Tsundue, who has turned the ‘brash of red pain’ on his forehead into a red bandanna. His activism and the need to rush from one place to another, and from one protest to another, steals time away from his pen and paper. There’s no telling which is more important; both are equally necessary and crucial. Though Tsundue’s creative work has taken a backseat, it benefits from his activism. Poetry, after all, is to be found in the thick of life’s activities. If one does not squeeze the bitter juice of bad times there wouldn’t be good books.
Every now and then Tsundue is asked to undertake more writing and less activism. Some even tell him to give up his activism to engage in full–time creative writing, which will be, they reason, more useful for the cause than mere protests and shouting of slogans. Tsundue is in the public domain. Everyone has a say about him.
But for now he wears many hats and determining which one suits him the most is a luxury available only to those who are in possession of a ‘home’. Exile does not give choices: it thrusts caps onto you. Those who refuse to wear them are often left behind, trailing in clouds of self-doubt and eventually dumped into the forgotten dustbins of history.
In his, as Ajit Baral writes in Daily Star, “very simple, almost child-like” English, Tsundue conveys the agonizing reality of a displaced nation. His birth in a tent pitched on a roadside above Kullu valley, stopovers in different schools, and the eventual dispersal of his family members across India, makes him one of the living tissues of woes of exile and representative of the identity crisis faced by those born and raised in the borrowed space of others.
Kora, the title of his book, means circumambulation in Buddhist parlance: a full circle around a stupa, a monastery, a sacred hill, a heap of mani stones or a holy tree. Our final kora will be complete when we return to a ‘free’ homeland after years of roaming in foreign jungles. But to fulfill this ultimate journey we need writers, activists, statesmen, thinkers and, most of all, bread-and-freedom poets to paint our reality as it is. When the kora is complete we can plan our future in our own space, in our own silence and in our own wisdom.