April 20, 2005

His kind of exile

In 2001, I was shortlisted for the Outlook/Picador nonfiction prize. I was greatly disappointed not to win, of course. But then I read the winning essay, and I wasn't disappointed any more. There was no shame in losing to those paragraphs of passion and eloquent power. Tenzin Tsundue's My Kind of Exile is a stirring, wrenching statement about the sadness of exile, the meaning of being uprooted, unrooted. In a paragraph about watching the Sydney Olympics on TV, I felt Tenzin's Tibetan loss, though nowhere near as acutely as he does:

    I couldn't see clearly anymore and my face felt wet. I was crying ... I tried hard to explain to those around me. But they couldn't understand, couldn't even begin to understand...how could they? They belong to a nation. They have never had to conceive of its loss, they have never had to cry for their country.

Besides his writing, Tenzin has over the years repeatedly shown whoever cares to look just one thing: that there will always be people to focus attention on the perfidy of China's government, on the way it has treated Tibet.

In 2002, Tenzin did just that, in spectacular style. During the then Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji's, visit to Bombay, Tenzin climbed the scaffolding on the outside of the Oberoi Hotel -- where Zhu and his entourage were guests -- all the way to the 14th floor. There, he unfurled a banner and a flag. "Free Tibet" was the message, close enough for the Chinese men to see and large enough to be visible in front page photographs the next day. (I wrote about this here).

Last week, he did it once more. During Chinese prime minister Wen Jiaobao's visit to the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Tenzin appeared high on an institute building, with his flag again. The news reports tell us he likely went in there three days earlier to elude the tight security arrangements for Wen.

What a man. I hope he is safe and well.

In between, Tenzin keeps writing. In this recent commentary for the Times of India, he criticizes the Dalai Lama -- not easily done, for a Tibetan -- for settling for "genuine autonomy" for Tibet within China. This is a disheartening comedown from the aspirations exiled Tibetans have nurtured for half a century: nothing less than independence from China. The Dalai Lama, writes Tenzin,

    does not go unopposed within the Tibetan community, especially among the youngsters who do not cow down ... I can never think of being party to the corrupted Communist China, which has brutally massacred her own children on Tiananmen Square when they demanded freedom and democracy.

For Indians who believe in the cause of a free Tibet, it is particularly galling to watch Indian courtship of the Zhus and Wens. They should be shunned for their treatment of an entire people, and there was a time when we would have done just that. Our embrace of Tibetans in exile spoke of our sympathy with their plight, our determination to see them get their home back, our disgust with China.

Today, a nauseating thing they call "realpolitik" dictates that we fall over ourselves to welcome and schmooze these men. Apparently, the equation is simple. China recognizes our annexure of Sikkim. In return we will be silent on Tibet. (What's the difference, I'd like to know, between them going into Tibet and us going into Sikkim?)

And sure enough, that's just what has happened. With a certain glee, our press reports that Wen brought with him a map acknowledging our claim on Sikkim. And in return for that measly crumb, we are craven enough to shut up on Tibet.

Fortunately, there are Tenzins out there who are neither as craven nor as willing to shut up. Power to your flag, Tenzin. Know this much: you inspire.


wise donkey said...

Though I knew about him and his winnin the outlook prize, i could read the entry only today, thanks to your link.

Its insane that, only when people take arms, they are given respect and called to negotiating table, but winning war on terror, means not just friskin every Asian/Muslim at airports, its in reviewing what we pay attention and what we support and why.

Prayin for more Power to you Tenzin.

Sourin Rao said...

What is so intolerably about the Chinese invasion of Tibet? Look at Nepal, Burma and Bhutan. I'm sure Tibet would come out much better than these independant countries under the Chinese. HongKong was dreading the chinese takeover in 1998, or rather many outside were dreading. It just turned out to be a lot of noise, and Hong Kong seems to be doing just fine. I wonder how many Kashmiris are hankering for an independant state, if a poll was to be conducted right now.

Dilip D'Souza said...


What was so intolerable about the British colonization of India, then?

Thing is, many people want to be able to run their own affairs, they want the chance to make their own mistakes. They don't want to be told, "you're better off than you would be if you were independent." They want the chance to find out for themselves.

That's what struggles for freedom are about.

Dilip D'Souza said...


WE shunned contact with SA for years. I see nothing wrong with doing that again, with China. And/or, we could just keep giving Tibet and the exiled Tibetans prominence, expressing support for their cause at every forum. (Now, it seems we want to hide them away). If we really want to do business with the Wens allow Tenzin and his friends to freely and visibly protest, and in fact encourage it. Hold Free Tibet conferences and give them wide publicity.

There's all kinds of measures like that. The consequences don't much bother me. The consequences of keeping shut about Tibet -- all that means and implies -- do bother me.