My Zeden Lhamo — imagination and real Tibet

Seven years back, around this time of the year, I was locked up in a cold prison cell in Lhasa. It is one of those rare stories of a Tibetan born and brought up in India, who had never seen Tibet, went to Tibet crossing the imaginary border in reality on foot, illegally, and came back with burnt fingers.

Years back in school, I had always imagined Tibet as created to me by my Parents in their stories — a huge expanse of green pastures surrounded by snow-peaked mountains, nomad tents in the middle with lots of sheep and yaks, a monastery far away on the cliff.

I wanted to see Tibet myself and live there, and get involved in the ongoing resistance movements against the Chinese. That was perhaps a romantic idea of a schoolboy. I was perhaps 13 or 14. As I grew up, studied history, and saw those shocking photographs of Chinese soldiers killing Tibetans during a demonstration in Tibet, my imagination of Tibet completely changed. I touched the clothes of the Tibetan demonstrators smuggled out of Tibet by foreigners and were put up on exhibition in our school. The clothes were soaked in blood and had gunshot holes in them. I swore that as long as I lived I would not keep silent about the Chinese occupation of my country.

I did try going to Tibet after my schooling, but failed. My second attempt after college was successful. I not only was in Tibet, but also received three-month prison experiences in Lhasa, and finally, the Chinese calling me “a foreigner” — an Indian — threw me out of Tibet. I was outraged and felt humiliated.

What I saw in Tibet shocked me beyond belief; in the towns like Gertse, Lhatse, Shigatse and Lhasa, from signposts to shop keepers they were mostly Chinese. They were more China towns than any Tibetan dwelling. I couldn’t even buy a photo of the Potala without talking in sign languages. Some amalas came to us (the uncle-looking intelligence people and myself) offering shoe-shining service for few coins. I felt so sad seeing women of my mother’s image doing this, wearing tight nylon pants. While in the villages in Jangthang, China has not been able to do much damage.

Much of our Tibet is our imagination; we have built our Tibet from our stereotypes, foreign tourists’ accounts and hearsay. Our love of Tibet asks us to study and know the real Tibet that has changed over the years. An easy indulgence is that whatever comes from Tibet we immediately sanctify it whether it’s news, a piece of chura, or that ubiquitous Chinese thermos flask. We need to walk that tightrope; not falling into our lazy assumptions or falling prey to Chinese propaganda schemes.

Dharamsala, in the recent times, is rife with debates on the pros and cons of watching the many Chinese TV channels that are being brought straight into the households by the local cable TV network. Between an outright rejection to whatever is Chinese as propaganda and watching the TV programmes with a careful eye of a China watcher, supported by a natural love of everything that comes from Tibet, there is an apparent case for conflict.

But our love for Tibet and the pretext of a careful sifting of information gained the upper hand in the debate. It’s been almost six months now since the entry of the Chinese TV channels into Dharamsala after winning over Kathmandu. Since then, vocabulary of greetings like waye for hello on the phone and kun-kham-sang for a casual greeting have come into Dharamsala language for style, novelty and fun.

My friend, who came from Tibet few years back, loves listening to Radio Tibet. I join him sometimes, but the Chinese accented Lhasa dialect is nauseating and irritating; that nasal drawl at the end of every word is simply suffocating. Even in the songs, some of the new and the trendy Tibetan pop stars in Tibet sing in that old Chinese operatic nasal cry. Their English radio broadcast aimed at “overseas Tibetans” is a laughingstock. Their Chinese-American English is not only unintelligible but also funny.

However artificially arranged and presented, these small images of our unreachable native land seen on “Xizang TV” give some satisfaction. The pop song culture in Tibet has achieved style and individuality, unlike much of those in exile lacking in originality singing tunes borrowed from foreign singers.

Yadong and Chungshae Dolma from Tibet are two icons much loved by the exile Tibetans. Yadong has had a small stint of being harassed by Chinese authorities for singing patriotic songs. His song “Nga sacha gangne yongpe” has become a great hit here in Dharamsala. Chungshae Dolma, that vivacious little angel sings both in Tibetan and Chinese. Her song “nambu thaka pep sho” (come to spin the wool) is a runaway hit with exile Tibetan youth. I have seen her video CDs being duplicated from some corners of Delhi and being sold at big prices in Delhi, Dharamsala and Kathmandu. While she sings in the love of the land and its culture — calling Yarlung Tsangpo her mother, she is careful not to fall into the easy traps of exile Tibetan’s China-bashing bouts.

Tibet TV’s jester and social commentator duo Migmar la and Thupten la are dear to the exile TV audience. In exchange, our famous and popular stand-up comedian Pa Tsering’s songs and jokes packed in audiotapes are being smuggled into Tibet and privately shared among the fans. This love affair between exile and our brethren in Tibet continues even though we live on the two sides of the World’s mightiest mountain range. Our love has made holes in the Himalayas and it is transparent now.

A general censure of the ongoing practice of traditional music in exile is that it is tang tari; this is the result when art is repetitive without innovations. The challenge is the need of a fine understanding of the tradition, upon which the artists create new compositions. A natural gift of art and hard work can deliver the need, such synthesis is a rare phenomenon in exile music field. I have seen this in few: Ngawang Khechok, Yangchen Dolma and Techung.

It is our love of Tibet, and the need to belong to an identity that we crave to see Tibet, and live there. Tibetan youngsters, however they dress or drink or dance, they are more patriotic, for their future is Tibet. That’s why Jamyang Choedhen sings:

In the hope that I would get
a glimpse of the Norbulingka,
I climbed the Dharamsala Mountain.
It is my misfortune
that I do not see the Norbulingka.

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