The women speak softly, really droning, their voices barely carrying to us in the audience. (Though we don't need to hear them, because the young man sitting beside them translates their Tibetan into English). As each speaks, her two companions sit with their heads down, their heads hanging ever-lower as the evening goes on and they get to the particularly horrific experiences. Slender, pale, wraith-like women in gowns, in a pleasant old stone building on a leafy Bombay lane, softly recounting details of lives that just happen to include torture and terror.
In 1994 and 1995, as late-teenaged trainee nuns in a Lhasa nunnery, they took part in (separate) demonstrations in Lhasa. Shouting "Free Tibet" and slogans about human rights in public was provocation enough; 15 minutes, and the Chinese policemen swarmed in to arrest them and take them to "reform centres". (What countries run "reform centres" and what does it say about those countries that they run them?)
What Nyima tells us about what happened at her reform centre stands out in the droning like a scream. She and her fellow candidates for reform were ordered to take off their clothes. In parallel, the cops took off their belts and used them to beat the women. They burned the women with cigarette butts. They threw boiling water at the women's chests.
In this quiet little room, a gasp.
Later, they were tried. The proceedings in Chinese, unintelligible to them. They did understand the result, though: for the crime of "separatism", they were given 5- and 6-year sentences.
They were also given uniforms and a small book from which they had to "learn" to reform their minds and denounce the Dalai Lama; every 7 days, they had to take an exam based on this book. They were steadily ordered to admit they had "done wrong", which they did not do. Naturally, this refusal brought punishment: they had to stand on ice for several hours at a stretch.
In 1998, some important Chinese officials visited the prison. The prison authorities wanted the prisoners to sing songs of praise to the Communist party, as well as the Chinese national anthem, during the visit. Several women, including these three, refused. They even held a demonstration in protest, when "Free Tibet" was heard again. The prison authorities were not pleased. They arrested Nyima Drolkar and six other women. "The Communist Party is very kind", an interrogator told Nyima, "so why are you protesting?"
Then he hit her with his metal baton and broke some of her teeth. Her mouth full of blood, she fell to the floor. He grabbed her hair and banged it on the floor. She became unconscious and stayed that way for 7 days. When she came round, the six others were dead.
In this quiet little room, Damchoe Drolma and Nyima, the other two nuns, have their heads hanging really low.
For their parts in the prison demonstration, all three nuns spent many months in solitary confinement. Nyima had the longest term: 20 months in a cell without seeing one person, one shaft of light.
In this quiet little room, I try to comprehend 20 months without seeing the light. And a very kind Communist Party of China.