‘Letter from Kathmandu’
by Ajit Baral
(Kathmandu Times | December 13, 2003)
Tibetan poet, writer and activist Tenzin Tsundue is the anguished
voice of those Tibetan exiles who exist in a paradox: in
'reality', a country named Tibet does not exist, at least in the
official diplomatic world. Tibet is an "autonomous region" and an
"integral part" of the People's Republic of China since 1949, when
its army seized the Tibetans' homeland and put in place a brutal
occupation policy. Tenzin has said that "Every year I have to renew
my documents on which I am described as a 'refugee from Tibet'. The
Indian government gives me these documents but it does not recognize
the existence of a country called Tibet. Isn't it strange?"
A Homeless Poet: Born in Manali, India and educated first at
Dharmashala in Himachal Pradesh and later in Madras, Ladakh and
Mumbai, Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue has never felt
he belonged anywhere. Any surprise then that he carries his exile
within himself. This sense of being in exile is what makes Tenzin,
and others like him, dream of dying in his homeland, Tibet. But
homeland for him is a dream perpetually put on hold. Yet he cannot
not dream of being in a free Tibet. This dream is the source of
many of his poems, and of his untiring activism in the cause of
a free Tibet. In 1999 Tenzin published his first collection of
poems, Crossing the Border. His essay 'My Kind of Exile' won the
Outlook/Picador Best Non-fiction Award. He is the general secretary
of Friends of Tibet organization. I talked to him about activism,
writing and the absence of solace. The following is an excerpt from
. . . . . . . . . .
Ajit Baral (AB):
Dharmasala (where you grew up) shaped you into a fiery activist
that you are now. What was the life like there?
Tenzin Tsundue (TT):
Dharmasala is a small hill town situated on the nape of a hill in
the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas in North India. This exile
residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also the centre of the
Tibetans and their exile government. But my growth as an activist
(and a writer) is because of the situation I was born into as a
You have said somewhere that your activism turned you into a
writer. How did that happen? We usually see a writer turning into
an activist (Arundhati Roy, for example); not an activist turning
into a writer.
It is such a tragedy that the first thing you learned as a child was
that you do not belong here and that you cannot own anything here.
My parents escaped into India in 1960 after the Chinese occupation of
Tibet. We were constantly told that we would return one day and that
the life in exile was temporary. My school years in 1980s and 1990s
were spent in anxiety to grow up fast to do something in the freedom
struggle. Today I am an activist. My writings are my expressions. As
a kid I killed many Chinese soldiers in our Chinese-Tibetan war
games. I used to go door-to-door in our refugee camp to call people
for our villagemeetings. I was already an activist. I was born a
refugee. I was born to fight for such a noble cause.
You keep complaining that Tibetans have no idea of a nation. Why
don't they have the notion of a nation?
Before the (Chinese) invasion, Tibet was that peaceful country
where spiritual pursuits were the dominant activities in peoples'
lives. They were nomads and farmers who lived far from the politics
of the capital Lhasa. Occasionally, they would see a government babu
collecting taxes. Otherwise, there was no relationship between the
centre and the periphery.
These Tibetans were suddenly struck by the tragedy of foreign
invasion — that too inexplicably from their neighbour and friend,
China. Even today, after 45 years of grooming the exiled Tibetans
into a democratic, participative community, the nation-building often
fails to touch their individualistic lifestyles. And the notion of
'nation' itself is a new concept to the world. India, Bangladesh
and Burma are now new nations. They were only regions like Tibet was.
Peripatetic writer Pico Iyer once said that his Indianness is
asserting itself within himself as he gets older. Has it been the
case with your Tibetanness?
I see my birth as being thrown off the cliff. Somehow I got hold of
a root to hang on to. I can neither climb up, nor am I willing to let
go and fall down. This is the struggle I fight everyday. Tibetans in
exile are stateless. We would be labelled as 'splittists' in Tibet;
and in exile, except for the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, no one is
granted official asylum. We are not even refugees by law. Tibetan
youngsters born in exile are so passionate about Tibet, but they
have never seen Tibet in their life. We are living in limbo.
I understand Pico Iyer's feel for his roots. The more I am aware
of these realities, the more I am conscious of it. I feel the
anxiety. I want to belong somewhere. All that is available are the
tiny cultural roots the Tibetan elders are offering us.
You climbed the scaffolding to the 14th floor of the Oberoi Hotel,
Mumbai, to unfurl a Free Tibet banner during Chinese Premier Zhu
Rongi's visit in a solitary act of defiance. Does a solitary act
of defiance like yours amounts to anything?
The protest that I was able to do — and the attention it was
able to draw to the Tibetan cause — was because along with that
climbing were the 600 strong-willed Tibetans who were sitting on
hunger strike, who were running in the streets of Mumbai to protest
against the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet. We all had our
roles to play. Of course my role was never discussed. I didn't know
it would be successful.
The man who stopped the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 became
a symbol of courage and defiance of the oppressive and corrupt
communist Chinese regime. He was not alone. He was a part of the
whole democracy movement of China.
I am not sure if you are following the issue of more than a hundred
thousand Bhutanese refugees languishing in Nepal. Nevertheless,
I want to point you to the role India played in evicting the
refugees by providing them passage to Nepal. Now when it comes
to resolving the issue India is shying away from it, saying the
issue is bilateral. You seem to be exhorting the same country to
help free Tibet by showing belligerence towards China. Aren't you
expecting too much from India?
It is my personal belief that no nation would intervene in political
matters unless their interests are at stake or a benefit can reaped
from in-between. Tibet shared such a deep cultural and political
relationship with India over thousands of years. Today, India
recognizes Tibet as a part of China. This is India's official
stand. However, the mass Indian public is singing a different
song. They stand with us. As an activist I have travelled extensively
in India for our freedom campaign. The Indian public bears witness
to our history. We appeal to these wise people of India who stand
for truth, who believed and worked with Mahatma Gandhi in their own
freedom struggle. Besides, there is India's security and defence
at stake in Tibet. Tibet is as much a problem for India as it is
for Tibet itself. It will have to take it up for self-interest —
if not for Tibet's sake.
In the globalised world of overlapping economic interests, a third
country cannot put diplomatic pressure on China to free Tibet. The
economic interests, let's say, of the United States of America
in China's is so huge that it wouldn't want to displease China by
demanding Tibet's freedom. How do you then think can Tibet be free?
Our 50 years of freedom struggle is a sad story of hope that someone
would help us, someone would champion our cause. The sadder story
is that we don't seem to have learnt from history. Buddhism and the
colourful Tibetan culture may be selling in the west. There is no
taker for the real issue: Tibet's freedom.
Unless we are self-reliant, independent of thought and strong
from inside, Free Tibet will remain only a dream. For countries
like the United States the Tibet issue is only a chess piece to
checkmate China when it seems to become difficult. Yes, we still
have a long way to go. The resolution to the Tibetan cause will
come out of changes in China. The Chinese Democracy activists in
exile are looking for a Free China. I support them. We are working
together. It is the colonial mind of China that is controlling
Tibet. So are the people in Southern Mongolia, East Turkestan. Free
China will bring in Free Tibet.
Are you working on any new book?
Running up and down the hill here in Dharamsala, into the numerous
Tibetan refugee camps that are scattered all over India, in an
attempt to educate and motivate our people in the freedom struggle
leaves no time to write any book. Sometimes, walking down the hill,
in buses, talking to people, small lines of poetry are written. They
may later come together in another book.
You have acknowledged debt to your circle of Mumbai poets in shaping
you into a writer. Any other influences?
It was Khalil Gibran's 'Spirit Rebellious' that created a poetic
storm in me when I was a schoolboy. But, I was unable to write
any 'poetry' during my school and college days. It was during my
university days in Mumbai, my classmates and friends appreciated
and encouraged me to write. I met Nissim Ezekiel there and
received his critiques of my small poems. Adil Jussawalla and Dom
Moraes encouraged me so much. Poetry forums — 'Poetry Circle' and
'Loquations' — helped me in my growth. I read Frost, Arun Kolatkar,
Camus, Neruda, Arundhati Roy and Taslima Nasreen.
Your writing is very simple. Almost child-like. Is simplicity
of language something that comes naturally to you or through a
I do not know any language other than this language. This is the
same language I use in my letter writings. My love poems come out
What if the writer in you is overshadowed by the activist in you?
When I am writing, I am a poet. But when I publish them I am an
activist. Presently, I see the activist as more useful to the freedom
struggle. The activist finds the writer useful. Poetry often comes
out in human activities, like the climbing of the hotel façade in
Mumbai as an expression for a Free Tibet. Five years ago I walked
across the Himalayas to Tibet, from the northern plain of Ladakh,
alone and without permission, to live in Tibet. I was arrested,
beaten up, put in prison and later got thrown out of there by the
Chinese. I write because I have to, because my hands are small and
my voice goes hoarse most of the times. Writing to me is not luxury;
it is a necessity. The Writer and the Activist live together in me,
hand in hand.
(Ajit Baral is a frequent contributor to Nepalese newspapers. He lives in Kathmandu.)