Review: Tibet With My Eyes Closed by Madhu Gurung
There is a new interest in Tibet and Tibetan culture amongst the Indian public. This is because of the Dalai Lama’s tireless efforts to reach out to the Indian public to alert them to the relevance of ancient India’s wisdom in our vexing times. There is also whispered foreboding of what would happen to the Tibetan community in India and elsewhere and the fate of Tibet itself when he is no longer what us.
Tibet With My Eyes Closed is a fresh look at the experience of the Tibetan refugees in India and the pain of separation of families and being uprooted from their homeland. It is also of a story of how the community as a whole faced and still faces the challenges of adaption and survival.
In her exploration and discovery of the Tibetan refugee community in India, Madhu Gurung quotes an old Tibetan proverb. “If I tell you my dream, you might forget it. If I act on my dream, perhaps you will remember it, but if I involve you -- it becomes your dream too.” Madhu Gurung’s dream of the Tibetan community in exile is a gentle paring of the community’s many layers of strength, weakness, human quirks and the need to survive as an individual and community.
The author kicks off her Tibetan story by narrating in broad contours the birth of the resistance movement in Tibet in the 1950s. This resistance relocated to Mustang in Nepal and then fought in the Bangladesh’s war for independence. Some scholars call the Tibetan soldiers who fought in the war “Phantoms of Chittagong.” Sangay, the main protagonist in Gurung’s first story Zinda, was a little boy when members of his family whispered the formation of the resistance in central Tibet. He expressed his wish to join the resistance. He was told to wait till he became thirteen. Then, “You … will be of some use to them.”
Tibetan resistance grew not only because of repression and forced land distribution but also because of implementation of the Great Leap Forward with its excessive stress on industrialization to the neglect of agriculture and production of food. This created the biggest famine in Chinese history and Tibet was caught up in this man-made disaster.
Sangay and his father, leaving with excruciating pain other family members, including his mother, behind in Tibet, were able to escape this political disaster and the great famine. In India “everything was strange – the language, the food and the people.” At school he got a greater shock, a huge dent to his Tibetan pride and sense of self and identity. He discovered that the Tibetans were the ‘nowhere’ people. His schoolmates did not know where Tibet was.
However, during the period of ‘liberalization’ which the post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping initiated in China and Tibet, Sangay was able to return to Tibet and bring his mother to their new home in Dehradun auspiciously named Zinda. Shakti Gurung informs the readers that Sangay’s home village in Tibet called Zinda which the author says in Hindi means “Alive.”
Read more: The Last Days of Tibet
That Sangay survived all these ordeals is a tribute to his character and his generation of Tibetan refugees. Back in the late 1950s while on their way to Lhasa, someone in his group shouted “Lhasa is burning.” These days rather than burning Lhasa is drowning in concrete, amazing infrastructure development and the sheer weight of the growing demographic strength of the migrant Chinese workers. Tibet With My Eyes Closed is a cautionary tale for the countries and people strung along the Himalayan belt. You might be next may be an exaggeration but exaggeration is not enough to describe the true intentions and scale of the People’s Republic of China’s ambitions. The book is also a cautionary tale for the coming generation of Tibetan exiles. They inherit a cohesive and productive community scattered across the globe, a legacy of the first generation of Tibetan refugees. Keeping its cohesion and productivity will be a huge challenge in coming years of adversity.
Thubten Samphel is an independent researcher and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute