Voice in Exile: The Story of a Tibetan's Fight for Freedom
'Freedom means Rangzen'
NEW DELHI: Fighting for the Tibetan Freedom Movement is what drives Tenzin Tsundue to live on. Although he says writing became a reality quite late in his life, today his poetry and other written works are the strongest expressions of his experiences, his dissent.
Born to a Tibetan refugee family in India, Tsundue grew up in the mountains and did his schooling in Dharamshala. Like other Tibetans in exile, the realisation of longing and freedom for his homeland began early in his childhood.
“From a very young age we are exposed, to a great sense of human living, and we are aware of the immediate difficulties of not being able to live with our parents and they themselves having to live in another country. This scattered nature of life was nothing compared to the tragic sense of having lost the freedom of our country.
“When we were growing up, we all felt this was the most normal experience that all children grow up in. There was nothing unique about it but we all felt there was something great.”
An activist and a writer, Tsundue published his first book Crossing the Border in 1999, with money borrowed from his friends while he was living in Bombay.
“From childhood I always wanted to write but I didn’t have the language. I wanted to write in English and was studying in a Tibetan school – though it was an English-medium school, the standard wasn’t good enough to be able to write.
“A writer was born much later with the language, but also with ideas and thoughts. That happened only when I was doing my M.A. in Bombay University. But the dream of becoming a writer was always there since school.”
Tenzin Tsundue in front of Oberoi Towers / Friends of Tibet
Tsundue receiving the Outlook Picador Award for Non-Fiction in 2001
Since then Tsundue has published more books and poetry collections like Kora, Semshook and Tsen-GA-I. He won the Outlook Picador Award for Non-Fiction in 2001 for his essay 'My Kind of Exile'.
His narratives are easy to read and are his memoirs of living in exile, with several articles on his fight for a free Tibet and its struggles. As he explains his distinct way of storytelling, “What I essentially see in my kind of writing is - there is a great sense of humour. Whether it is a tragic one or funny, adventure, whatever, a touch of humour brings the story alive and for me that is essential.”
Tsundue has many a times shown his passion for the cause through courageous acts, while crossing the Himalayas to reach Tibet and see the condition of his homeland, or climbing up the Oberoi Hotel in Bombay to unfurl a FREE TIBET banner during a visit by PRC Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002.
He has been in the news several times for his one-man protests. “When I’m writing a poem or doing a public speech or a street protest, I somehow have to have a story woven in. You have heard of this, the building climbing protests in Bombay, Bangalore - there is always a story in this you know.
“It is not just an angry expression or an expression of protest or anything like that. That is a story, a story of a Tibetan who has lost the freedom to live in his own country and he is protesting.”
Protesting across from PRC Premier Wen Jiabao's hotel room in Bangalore 2005 / Wikipedia
Tsundue believes the media captures only scattered notions of protest. The main motive behind his act was to take away media attention from the Chinese dignitaries and bring it to bear on the Tibet issue, which is less known to the public.
“The issue of Tibet is not getting as much attention as it deserves. I’m saying deserves because this is a non-violent freedom movement. Everybody is talking about non-violence, everybody wants peace and non-violence in the world.
“Yet people are attracted more by violence, wherever there is a bomb blast, an assassination or harassment, wherever there is violence there is immediate media attention. Lots of money is spent in propagating that kind of violence.”
Tsundue adds, “It doesn’t make our freedom movement any less important, that this could discourage us. For us the end goal of freedom movement is not to popularise this. Even if we do not get attention, it is all right.
“Our commitment to non-violence and our determination to lead this movement in the way we are doing today, there is no change in this. That is the confidence of this freedom movement.”
On the Indian and Chinese governments’ current position on the Tibet issue, Tsundue says “I think, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama often describes it, India’s approach towards Tibet vis-a-vis India’s relationship with China is over cautious.”
But he is optimistic. “We believe that China was a neighbour and China will have to be our neighbour. And this is how we are going to rebuild the relationship between China and Tibet as friendly neighbours.”
He believes in the “power of love and compassion” as the driving force to end the “tyranny and brutality and bring back world peace as well as freedom for our country”.
Tenzin Tsundue wears a red band on his forehead and it is a symbol of his commitment. “For me red is the colour of courage. I made a pledge from childhood, that I am going to work for the freedom of Tibet every single day until Tibet is free. I started to wear that promise on my forehead in 2002 and will take it off only when Tibet becomes independent and I become a citizen of free Tibet.”
Tsundue has participated in several poetry and literature festivals, and his work has been published in newspapers and magazines. He has also represented Tibet at the Sahitya Akademi Conference in 2010.
Currently he is working on a book of real-life Tibetan refugee stories, which include aspects like survival, adventure, romance, tragedy, creativity, human relationships and adaptation.
“These are stories of Tibetan refugees who escaped from Tibet and lived in India or went to foreign countries, or stories of monks, freedom fighters, farmers, Tibetan sweater sellers, etc. So, I’m putting together these stories in a form of a book and it should still take maybe almost about a year now to complete.”
Much of his earlier work similarly brings out the nostalgia and the longing:
When I was born
My mother said
you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.
On your forehead
between your eyebrows
there is an R embossed my teacher said.
I scratched and scrubbed,
on my forehead I found
a brash of red pain.
I am born refugee.
I have three tongues.
The one that sings
is my mother tongue.
The R on my forehead
between my English and Hindi
the Tibetan tongue reads:
Freedom means Rangzen.
Tenzin Tsundue joined the organisation Friends of Tibet in 1999 and has been its General Secretary since then. He has been campaigning to win support from Indians for Tibet.
Is Tibet becoming a lost cause? “No issue is lost until the people themselves give up. As long as people pursue it continuously, no issue is lost. It’s just a matter of circumstances and situations that it may look a little invisible,” he replies.
Tsundue compares the Tibetan independence movement to that of India, and the kind of journey it took Indians to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
He is hopeful that this freedom struggle will soon come to an end, but for that people need to unite and act towards it. “People who are witnessing this history or are aware of this freedom movement, here is the most wonderful opportunity to work for genuine world peace and non-violence, which is the aspiration of every religion, every country and every culture.
“Here is the most important moment of opportunity to join His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a non-violent freedom struggle and to make sure that we do not lose our spirits from inside.”
You can read a PDF of Kora, stories and poems on TibetWrites.in