By Sonam Dolkar
The act of introspection over uncommon circumstances and manipulation of personal feelings and sensations into words has constantly been my passion since my early school years. This intuition has further escalated over the years of my higher educational pursuits. Through the corridor of continuous engagement with literary studies, I have slowly established a concept inside me that the truest version of history of a community or a nation is the collective memories of the individuals belonging to it. I have strongly felt and believed that in the Tibetan movement for freedom and development, the act of writing and speaking of individual Tibetan tales of various dimensions of challenges and growths is the unquestionable organic witness of our history and the most influential tool to gain momentum in the struggle.
It has been a great pleasure for me to have come across this topic “Life in Exile is a Blessing in Disguise”, coined by Tibetan College Students’ Conference Committee. In fact, in this topic, I see a mirror, reflecting a complete journey of my life so far; covering a set of milestones with different versions of experiences and exposures at different points of time. I see an energy in it, especially in the two terms ‘exile’ and ‘blessing in disguise’, to bring at the forefront; the causes and consequences of the state of ‘exile’ which defines the common fate of all of my comrades from the land of snow. An in-depth retrospection over the two episodes of life that I have lived is inevitable to talk about whether my life in exile is truly a blessing in disguise or not. Over the fourteen years of my life in exile, at many junctures, I have been enquiring myself why I came to India and whether my coming to exile has actually been meaningful.
I was born posthumously in a simple peasant family in the central part of Tibet. In the absence of a father’s role in the family, my mother has single-handedly and bravely ventured through every challenge to feed six of my siblings with a stomach full of food and a heart full of love. Our village was so small with only nine families, even without basic facilities such as electricity. Education was something that nobody heard of or expected for. Children from every family go to graze their cattle on the mountains or to work with their parents in the fields. However, my life drastically changed at the age of eight when my paternal aunt from the capital city of Tibet, Lhasa, brought me in the city with a promise to send me to school. I was the first in my village to have seen the fancy and luxurious views and gestures of city life with the opportunity to carry a school bag and wear a school uniform. Although this period of two years in the city at my aunt’s house has ushered me into the world of education which was almost an impossible dream for other children in my village, it has also created the saddest portion in my life so far. As young as eight, I had suffered continuous vocal abuses and humiliations from the people of my own paternal aunt simply because I hail from a poor country-side family. I still shed copious tears while remembering how I was haunted with fear each time when I had to ask money from my aunt to give to school as tuition fees and other stuffs. The saddest of all these, that I would never be able to forget is at a time when my mother in the village sent a package of Khabse (Tibetan snacks made from flour) as a gift for my aunt, she asked me to have them all alone and said, “Villagers cook without washing hands, eat it all yourself .”
These acts of unexpected and undesirable attitudes shackled the purity and joy of my innocent childhood. This has also left a deep impression within my psychic landscape ever since which I feel insecure and scared to deal with people of urban backgrounds. However, looking back, I now feel that this difficult phase had also been a blessing a disguise because that’s when I decided to not stay in Lhasa anymore with my aunt thus, my uncle send me to India with my cousin brother in the winter of 1999. In order to send two of us, my uncle who is an ordained monk in Lhasa sold his golden stupa replica, one of the most precious belongings he had. During those years of life in Tibet, I had never heard of anyone around me speaking about anything related to Tibet being a colonized territory of China. The elders chose not to talk about those sensitive issues with a fear that their children may catch up in political activities and get jailed. However, I still remember there was a big portrait of His Holiness The Dalai Lama with his two personal tutors in my uncle’s quarter in his monastery in Lhasa. But, I recognized the persons in that portrait only after reaching in India and seeing His Holiness in person. Just before we left from Lhasa, my uncle made the two of us to memorize His Holiness’ long life prayer and Tara’s prayer, saying that we won’t be getting admission in any school in India if we don’t know these two prayers. As a child with no knowledge about the outside world, I didn’t have the slightest clue that the voyage would separate me from my home and Tibet, forever.
I remember my mom putting some traditional scarves around my neck and telling me that I have to study for as many years as I can in order to make my life meaningful. My mind overflowed with hope and aspiration for the next step which was yet to be discovered.
That was the second turning point in my life, where I was completely cut off from home and slowly enlightened with many things unknown and unheard in the past. Upon reaching in India, the first and constant thing I heard was about ‘Tibetan freedom movement” or “Chinese annexation of Tibet” either on the newspapers distributed to us or the documentary movies screened for us in the reception center in Dharamshala. In few days, we were sent to various TCV schools and institutions based upon our age and personal aspirations. That’s how I was ushered in the state of asylum with totally different social environment with a larger number of people with common experiences of traumas, hopes and dreams. Education was the highest and the most difficult form of facility that every parent in Tibet dreamt to provide for their children. This facility was gifted to me as the primary resource with parental care with my arrival in India. It was in TCV School; I was offered with a new lease of life and was labeled with a new term ‘future seed of Tibet’ which implies a profound strength and responsibility towards the larger community. During my early school years in TCV, at many point of time, especially during those months of winter holidays, while staying back at school throughout the year, I was constantly overwhelmed by homesickness and yearned to see my relatives. Those burning desires and dreams, however, have remained unfulfilled throughout my educational voyage so far. Nevertheless, these melancholic chapters I had lived also brought me a set of different versions of precious friendships and kinships from the people who I met in the same environment. Moreover, these deprivations trained my spirit to tackle larger challenges and to move continuously without losing hope. Over the years, I have confronted various challenges, obstacles and emotional traumas merely because I am a Tibetan student who came from Tibet with nothing such as a home in exile. During my undergraduate years when I was accommodated in my college residence hall, I was the only hosteller who was always present in hostel no matter what occasion or festival came across in a year.
It was the time when I saw my Indian friends and roommates receiving wake-up calls each morning. Except studies, they didn’t have to care about anything much from their travel arrangements to other basic needs. On the other hand, I didn’t even procure a number of my home in my cell phone, not even a single photograph from home and I could be seen travelling alone everywhere. Parents and home was completely foreign in my exile life, yet nostalgia and hope to meet them again never extinguished in my heart. Whilst tormented by such emotional burdens, sometimes, in my college years, at certain very low junctures, I wished if I have not come to India. I see my hope of success in exile was diminishing slowly. However, each time I was feeling dejected and deprived, I was always accompanied by a thought and a realization of the reasons behind all challenges I go through. My passion and ability to study well was met with the best possible opportunity after coming in India. It was because I came with nothing of my own, I got a space to develop myself to transform from the state of nothing to something. It was also because I was homeless that I have come across and gelled into valuable friendships with wonderful people whose brilliancy and modesty in form- little yet significant actions, touched my heart. It was also because I went through difficult times in my new academic sails; I was given birth with a strong spirit to give my hand to the ones who are in need of support and guidance. Gradually, I recognized a precious passion and strength within me to invest the knowledge that I have earned for the betterment of others through interactions and teachings. In this way, I promised myself to return to my school whenever there is a possibility to hear the challenges that my younger Tibetan fellows go through and render as much help as I possibly could. Those periods of time, either as short as one hour or as long as few months, that I spent with children in TCV during my university holidays have been the most precious and most empowering times of my life in exile. The pleasure of seeing myself able to give something and the expression of gratitude from the students’ faces would always enliven my spirit, reminding me constantly where I have come from and where I have reached and where I am moving to.
The greatest blessing of all that I have accumulated in exile is my fortune to see, meet and listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in person. In Tibet and in my uncle’s monastery in Lhasa, people used to communicate with His Holiness by looking and praying secretly before his photos. During my school years, I had developed an idea that His Holiness is the living God after listening to lectures from teachers and reading poetries on His Holiness where his figure is projected as a holy and precious being with superhuman powers. His Holiness’ speeches on various occasions were being read on the morning assembly by the students. I remember a teacher from grade six once told us that a student who receives prize from His Holiness for his/her academic performance, such a student is bound to be successful and happy in life. Perhaps, that triggered in me a greater thirst for learning which, subsequently, rewarded me as the second rank in eighth grade’s TCV common examination, the first inter- school academic competition I engaged in. I had received face to face audience with His Holiness during TCV anniversary the same year. His Holiness asked me about my family, patted on my head and told me to continue studying well and to become a good human. I was once again fortunate enough to receive another prize from His Holiness after graduating from school. The photos of these events are my most precious belongings to this day. I put those photos on my study table as a reminder and it never fail to inspire me during my low moments.
Nevertheless, my understanding of His Holiness deepened and became clearer during my college years, when I was distanced from my own community and instead minged with people from various social, cultural and educational backgrounds. Few years ago, when I was debating on Buddhism and its relevancy with two of my friends from Christianity, I literally cried and warned them to never dare to speak to me anything that would shake my faith in His Holiness. I was quite immature and not ready to accept anything that was against to my personal belief. Until then, His Holiness was the most holy being and conceiving negative thought upon him is the biggest sin in my life. But, over the years, I had changed my mind set to hear what others have say on His Holiness and more than that, I had read many of his books written on secular ethics. These perpetual engagements have transformed my attitude, concept and appearance of His Holiness to me. His Holiness has never spoken something which ordinary human being cannot understand or implement. Over the years, the first step that I look for whenever I feel hopeless was to read books by His Holiness and to look at his face. By knowing all those heavy burdens he has taken on his shoulder for the sake of Tibetan people and the services he has been giving for the welfare of this world, the pain and heaviness in my mind is healed with new energy of inspiration and zest. There is always a different and much stronger current of emotional flow each time when I see His Holiness in non-Tibetan public events. Few years ago, I got an opportunity to attend a close discussion with His Holiness on “Dialogue on Life” in Delhi University. That was the first time I raised a question to His Holiness. I must have been one of the youngest participants of that discussion with the least complicated question. I asked, “His Holiness, I have heard from a workshop I have attended recently on interfaith dialogue, that the biggest terrorist on the earth is the biggest politician of our time. What do you think is the origin of terrorism in today’s world?” As soon as I finished asking the question, I heard the conference room judder with laughter. I thought my question was silly and His Holiness would not answer me. But, after a while, I saw His Holiness in a calm and composed way started his detailed and simple answer which lasted over five minutes. He talked about the two types of terrorism: one on the physical level and another on the mental level. As soon as the discussion was over, I was waiting at the hall gate along with other participants to see off His Holiness. He came closer to me and asked “you are Tibetan, right?” and I replied “la wo-yes, I am”. He again patted on my head and said, “Study well and don’t forget to be a good Tibetan, wherever you go”.
It was another precious moment when His Holiness was invited to deliver this year’s Nehru Memorial lecture at my university JNU. At both these junctures where I have personally and closely seen His Holiness among people of various backgrounds and various positions in the society, the most heart touching moment is the humbleness in his nature while greeting his public. When he was passing by the welcoming public, he deliberately gave his hands more to those with wrinkled faces and physical challenges. Tears of inexpressible joy streamed down spontaneously on my cheek while seeing such a humble, compassionate person in front me who carries an identity of Tibetan. Over all, the greatness of His Holiness doesn’t lie in doing any unique things, but in his profound simplicity, humility and practicality in every word spoken and every gesture shown to anyone he comes across. His greatness lies in his life long struggle and contribution for the well-being of the people of Tibet with a long sighted vision; an impeccable vision of his land and people even after he passes away. These values imbedded in His Holiness taught me to never succumb to pride and be humble with whatever we have gained. By now, I don’t see His Holiness as any God to be worshipped blindly, but a very common human being and a great master of our times with practical cum exceptional values to be taught and handed down to each human being irrespective of our religion, nationality and class.
Today, when I look back in all these ebbs and flows in the various voyages I have crossed, I strongly feel a large scale of differences between the life I had back in Tibet and that of in exile. The education that I was gifted, the different human relationships I have cemented and the feelings of bliss for being with His Holiness on this foreign land have been the priceless ingredients for preparing a meaningful life for me with a greater value and aim to be fulfilled. These transformations would not have occurred to me without going through those challenges and battles I have encountered in exile and I wouldn’t have become what I am today if I haven’t come to India, fourteen years ago.
Therefore, by far and wide, I am grateful for that sad chapter of my life in Tibet, especially for my uncle who had sent me to India for a brighter future to serve my community by educating myself. This is the briefest tale tracing the journey of my life which is somehow the common tale of many Tibetans coming from Tibet. These reflections constantly remind me that I have come from a long way and I still have long miles to go. I now realize that my passage to India was the best choice I have made in my life and because of that choice, I have received all these blessings in exile to transform myself into a good human being and potential citizen of Tibet which my parents, my teachers and my root guru His Holiness aspired to see in me. Therefore, life in exile is truly a blessing in disguise and by realizing these blessings, I am sure that I and my fellow Tibetans in exile can lead a life of purpose by living in the dreams of our dear ones.