A classroom is where the doors are shut and windows open.
Behind one such closed door, in front of the stunned and staring eyes of my classmates, our teacher demanded from me a recitation of the poem we were told to learn by heart the previous day. My poor memory could retain only the first few lines, and then I went blank.
This happened to me many years ago when I was in school. In most Tibetan schools learning meant mugging-up without understanding the real meaning of the matter. The system of testing a child for three hours to judge what the student has learnt in one year, however ridiculous, is sadly still continuing even today in most Tibetan schools.
Whenever we came to a poetry lesson in the textbook, whether Tibetan, Hindi or English, there were some of us who would say, “another round of flogging.” I hated poetry in school until I discovered graveyards. The old inji graveyard on the hillside of Dharamsala was a quiet getaway. I would often slip into the pines and go to the old church. The beautiful lines the living wrote to their dead loved ones engraved in ornate calligraphy on headstones revealed to me what poetic magic words could create.
The fast-forward journey we took into the modern world from 1959 — when we first emerged from behind the Himalayas — has brought us on a collision course with modernity. What we have learned from the new world, without losing our own traditional and cultural values, is for me a matter of great celebration. Our culture and tradition has been greeted by people all over the world with great respect and admiration.
In the beginning, our traditional education and value systems struggled to negotiate with the new exile education environment. It was in those years that Men-tsee-khang, the Tibetan institute in Varanasi, Kolam Doegar and the handicraft centres were seen as places for school dropouts. Now, over the years, the Tibetan studies being offered at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, and the Medical studies at Men-tsee-khang have acquired great respectability. The Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarah grew up phenomenally into a highly-respected college in a short span of time. However, thangka painting and other arts have still not gained genuine respectability. Our traditional monastic type education system started having a parallel — the modern type school systems — in the new exile education scenario.
One significant change the 45 years of exile saw was in our language.
I have three tongues
the one that sings
is my mother tongue
Yes, though I am most comfortable speaking in Tibetan, I write in English. Because much of our school education happened in English, the literary language is naturally the English learned from Indian teachers.
In school, spoken English was in name only. The students pulled each others’ legs whenever somebody dared to speak in English, calling the person “Mr. John”. That has resulted in dumb Tibetans in college. When the Indian students spoke the foreign language with ease and flair, we stuttered and stammered. It was so embarrassing talking to Indian classmates in broken English. This affects the students’ behaviour, adversely lowering confidence and morale so one becomes a lonesome Tibetan among a sea of Indians.
Most of us in exile are bi-lingual, some even tri-lingual. But among the youngsters I have noticed that their spoken Tibetan isn’t very good. It’s blunt, poor, interspersed with inji or Hindi words, and some even speak a constipated Tibetan; directly translating foreign expressions, much to the consternation of sanjorwas.
As a remedy of sorts, it was a joy watching Samten la and Dhargye la, the two young artists from TIPA, do their stand-up comedy routine. I saw the duo doing the comedy in Dharamsala along the lines of Lhasa’s Thupten la and Migmar la. The beautifully-crafted social commentaries; rich in language, spiced with apt proverbs, wit and humour, not only entertained the audience, but also made the public laugh at their own vices. They make us realize how rich our oral expression is. The performances are a celebration of Tibetan language and are in their own rights tributes to the rich Tibetan culture.
Our English language education from the times of Dawa Norbu, Jamyang Norbu, and Thubten Samphel la, has been a serious process that has brought in a lot of changes in our outlook and attitudes. For many, it is not just the other language, it is a mother tongue.
Our romance with this language has produced quite a body of literature too. Buchung D. Sonam has compiled 40 years of Tibetan poetry in English — from Gedun Choephel and Gyalpo Tsering to today’s young budding poets like Tenzin Palzom and Tenzin Gelek. The soon-to-be-released anthology titled “Muses in Exile” has 141 poems by 30 Tibetan poets. This contribution to the English literature announces the birth of Tibetan English.
While we romance with English due to our exile situation, our counterparts in Tibet have been taking Chinese language to greater heights. Tibetans are recording history and writing poetry and stories on love, religion and culture in Chinese. They are singing in Mandarin. The Chinese cannot but regret they gave the Tibetans their tongue, now the Tibetans’ Chinese tongues are setting the red flag on fire.
Recently I read an article on a Tibetan woman writer, Woeser , by Wang Li-Xiong, an independent Chinese scholar. Talking about Woeser and another Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa, Wang says: “Not having a good command of Tibetan is indeed a major handicap of Woeser’s generation. But it is the result of history, for which the authors themselves cannot be responsible.” I saw Wang pointing a finger at me. But then he consoles: “On the other hand, because of their nationalism and faith in religion, I still have high hopes in these writers’ potential to shoulder the burden of articulating the Tibetan nation’s aspirations.” Woeser’s book “Notes on Tibet” has been banned in China for charge of “serious political mistakes.”
Yes, nationalism, love for one’s nation and culture due to one’s deep appreciation of the beauty and richness of the culture, make a great cause for human lives. There can be no bigger cause to live for than working for the freedom and dignity of a nation fighting foreign invasion and injustice.
And this is what we were taught when we were growing up in school. I am grateful to all the staff members in school who gave us such a wonderful dream to live for. But now, in recent years, this political education in school seems to be dwindling. A new orientation seems to be in order in some schools; a quasi-Western pretend — saying children shouldn’t be told of “death and destruction in Tibet … also the images of self-immolation.” A highly-placed school authority said to me: “Children’s minds are fragile like flowers. They cannot take shock, we keep them away from ‘politics’.”
I know many of my schoolmates who have now grown up and are serving the Tibetan community in different capacities. If they wanted they could have gone out on their own for comfortable, independent lives. We stuck on because we were so inspired by the courageous acts of defiance and the dignity the Tibetans in Tibet showed in the 1987-88 demonstrations in Lhasa. We grew up on the video images of the demonstrations brought to our school by two American doctors.
Every year the Exile community produces scores of graduates for too few jobs available in the community. The 200-year-old Indian education system — a legacy of the British Raj — which we follow, mechanically manufactures graduates of the same shapes and sizes. After 15-17 years of education, if they cannot think, be innovative and enterprising, the education isn’t worth it.
Most graduates inevitably flock to Dharamsala. Obviously there is no vacancy. I admire the few Tibetans who are variously skilled, and dared to find their spaces in Indian community and abroad. Their skills would be honed professionally, and all of them put together will be our future Tibet.
I read the second draft of the New Education Policy being designed and promoted by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. It promises a lot of things that are exciting and sound great. All over the world thinking people have been putting together bold and new alternative education systems. Ours is one such. The challenge is in the execution of the plans in a world swept by globalization, where the object of education is only to produce workers and not thinkers.