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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Between homeland and exile

An exile's return to his homeland is about the encounter between exile and homeland; it affords an opportunity to look at exile.

For the first time since the Chinese occupation, Tibet opened to the world in the early'80s. in the first year, probably more Westerner set foot in Tibet than had ever in all its history. For the first time after 30 years, relatives inside and outside Tibet were meeting. Like the Berlin Wall coming down, it was a very dramatic and exciting time.

I was a student in America then. I remember the small group of Tibetans gathering at he Office of Tibet to listen with great emotion to those who returned from visiting Tibet recounts their experience. Tibet was hardly ever in the media then, in the United States or anywhere else.

For me, awareness of who I was a Tibetan and an exile came relatively late, when I was in college in America. I had spent most of my childhood, most of 10 years, ensconced in a Presbyterian boarding school in Kalimpong near Darjeeling Dr. Graham's Homes had been founder for orphans of Anglo-Indians, so I grew up mainly with Anglo-Indians, but also Bhutanese, Sikkimese, other Tibetans, Nepalis, Nagas, Lushai, Khansi.

In college in America I read vociferously books about Tibet, and studied some Buddhist philosophy with Robert Thurman. It was with such bookish knowledge that I discovered and began to articulate my identity as a Tibetan. Sheer passion marked my knowledge for Tibet, albeit from a distance. And passion and distance often defines the exile.

In 1985, a few years after I returned to Kathmandu, my chance came to go to Tibet. Ironically, it was as a tour guide, an appointment that seemed to mock the gravitas of my exile identity.

At the outset of my trip an incident occurred that was to foreshadow my later journey to my hometown. I met my first Tibetans at a temple in Chengdu where we were sighseeing before flying into Tibet. There were crowds of Chinese tourists. Since religion had been banned for three or four decades, the Buddhist temple was an exotica. Out of the milling crowds emerged a Tibetan family. They were wearing Tibetan clothing, the woment's braided hair sported turquoise and amber. They were obviously exotic to the Chinese, who were following them. Someone from my group said, "Wow! Who are they?"

Excited, I approached them. To my utter surprise, they spoke to me in Chinese. I tried again they spoke back in Chinese. Finally, the man acknowledged in Tibetan that they were Tibetan, and then reverted to Chinese. I walked away disappointed, disturbed.

In 1987 I finally visited my hometown, Gyelthang. It is farflung in the southeastern tip of the Tibetan plateau, 1,600 km from Lhasa. Like most of Kham, it is now part of a Chinese province, Yunnan. It is close to Chinese lands, near the homes of numerous ethnic groups called "minority nationalities" by the Chinese. I didn't know much about Gyelthang for I had grown up in exile. The little I knew of it was from my mother- my father having died somewhat young- and my fellow Gyelthang people, who made up my community in exile.

I was going in with a certain notion of Tibet based on an image in exiles' minds. This identity largely subscribed to a hegemonic central Tibetan concept of the Tibetan nation. Thus, even we eastern Tibetans were likely to look to Lhasa, its mountains, monasteries, its lakes and rivers, central Tibetan songs and language, as constituting the components of Tibetan hood.

While the idea of a distinct Tibetan civilisation is powerful and alive, that of Tibet as a perfectly homogenised pan- Tibetan entity took root in exile, primarily a political condition. The identity I had come to assume was, in a sense, generic, shaped by a new kind of nationalism forged in exile.

This was fine and perhaps inevitable, except those outlying, marginal places like Gyelthang had peculiarities that didn't fit into this picture. Thus, aspects of our regional idiosyncrasies and our "local" history were given short shrift.

What the exile Tibetan encounters and reacts to most strongly when he or she sets foot in Tibet is the phenomena of sinicisation, which is all- pervasive- precisely because it shakes up some of our assumptions and idealisations. These features of sinicisation are encountered as part of the daily fabric of life by the Tibetans who took my mediocre Tibetan to be the Lhasa dialect. In the prefectural capital where people held secular jobs, they tended to speak more Chinese than they did Tibetan.

It was evident why that was so. The vehicle of sinicisation was potent, all pervasive, embodied in the institutions of State and society, of the affairs of the public domain, the work culture, schools, post offices, bus stations and bus timings. Because the vocabulary of everyday reality was in Chinese, even those who were fluent in Gyelthang language, more fluent than I was reverted or resorted to Chinese. As for the Gyelthang language, it had been relegated to the hearth, tucked within domestic confines, a reflection of a culture on the retreat.

During my three-month stay, I witnessed the 30th anniversary of the founding of the autonomous prefecture of Dechen, of which my hometown was capital. There was pageantry, a parade of troops in their full regalia; there were horse races, fireworks, openings of new buildings- some in exaggeratedly Tibetan style. Crowds came to the parade, to hear the speeches, to see the fireworks and the balloons, to see the props in technicolour. Exhibits were displayed to mark the progress and the targets to achieve by the year 2000.

I was unnerved by the seeming willingness of the Gyelthang and Dechen folk of partake. Could this be real? Tibetans celebrating the Chinese consolidation of their presence in Tibet? Could they not see through the bluff, I wondered. On the other hand, they seemed-light-hearted. Was it just a mela, a tamasha, as it might be called in India, a happening of no significance?

On my last night, at a family dinner, one of my cousins handed me a brightly wrapped package. It was from the head of the People's Association. It was a new picture book of Gyelthang released the day before, and pamphlets in Chinese about the region's progress. My cousin hesitated a moment. Then he said, "Don't mix with the wrong people in India."

I felt the blood to my face. When would they get it? I would return the package, make my point in front of them all. My gentle cousin, only the messenger, seemed to have no inkling of how I felt. It dawned on me that we belonged no to different systems but to different enclosures, entirely different realities. The chasm between us was immense. I was from the outside- wherever Tibetan exiles lived. China was the adversary, a cosmic one, a central point of reference in our self-definition, built on the premise of exile. The sad truth was that the occupation of Tibet, the determining reality for us, lay outside the angle of vision of my cousin and many Gyelthang folk. It was not that they were pro-china or anti-Tibet; rather, the political discourse that defined us did not have the same significance or simply registered minisculely for them.

Not surprisingly, where I felt most at home was where the real bastion of Tibetan culture lay, at the monastery. It was the clergy that had fallen drastically from grace, it was monks who had suffered the greatest violation of their worldview. The sinicisation I encountered made me decry the loss and the betrayal of things Tibetan. I had become the tradition-holder or defender of it, notwithstanding the shaky grounds of this position. On my first visit there, an uneasy quiet reigned. A few pilgrims went about hesitantly, as if unsure of the rituals of daily worship. The monks seemed furtive, like victims, or like fugitives on the run.

Like many in Tibet, Gyelthang's monastery had been razed to rubble during the state-endorsed hooliganism called the "Cultural Revolution". Lamas and monks had been tortured, killed; there had been wholesale destruction and looting of religious paraphernalia. Then in the '80s, following the touted religious freedom that came with Deng Xiaoping's reforms, the hill-site had come to life with the reconstruction of the monastery; there were now several hundred monks.

I met a monk whose passionate hatred of the Chinese authorities had nothing in common with the pasture of reasonableness the office-going Tibetans inhabited. "Our Gyelthang youth are blind. Because they read and write a little Chinese, they think they know it all. They think us fools".

I had met Thupten and his relatives en route to Buddhist sites in India. From his foray south of the Himalaya, Thupten had glimpsed in exile a radiant vision of Tibet. A vision of Tibet that seemed able to rebut the Chinese chauvinistic view of it. In exile, he had found Tibetan Buddhist tradition alive and flourishing and, most of all, spread worldwide. There were religious initiations, grand monasteries, a self-confident clergy, dharma books, foreigners clad in monks' robes, and foreign statesmen saluting the Dalai Lama. Millions followed the dharma, and there were lamas and dharma centres all around the world. The spirit of Buddhism outside Tibet was more powerful than anything he had ever seen. Thupten had carried these impressions back to the small world at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, to continue his uphill battle with the "enemies of the faith".

The enclosure of Gyelthang jolted me into seeing who the seeker was. It was there, when everything seemed upside down, that I saw how much "I " was made up of my own yearnings and sense of loss. I believed I could be alive only as a Tibetan exile, right to my bones, blood, senses. To be Tibetan, to be against the Chinese, the cosmic nemesis; to be Tibetan Buddhist, not American or European; I could partake of other worlds, yet remain separate; it was an advantageous, wonderfully elastic, identity, allowing more than one way of being.

I realised that much of my indignation and anger came because my experience in Gyelthang shattered the idealised notions of Tibet I had held. Doubly so because I myself did not meet this high idealisation. Only when I allowed it, did I see that their sinicisation and loss of tradition were aspects of their daily life, not ideological, part of the normalcy of their own enclosure. Theirs was not a pro-China position, as mine was not a disavowal of Tibetan culture. In both enclosures, inside Tibet and outside, profound changes had occurred, the claim of different nuclei, modernisation, the world itself. Forty years is a short time historically, a long time in anyone's life.

Kesang Tsetan has authored a book on his travel to Tibet. He has also written the script for Tsering Rhitar's Nepalese feature film, Mukundo

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