When You Have Nowhere to Call Home An evening of stories and poems with Tenzin Tsundue, the charismatic Tibetan activist.

Thank you! Thank you!’ My friends from our book club — Pandu Aunty, Bhama and Usha — wouldn’t stop thanking me as we made our way to the car on the evening of February 29. We were returning from a rousing session of poetry and other readings from the Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue in Chennai. I had only shared information regarding the event, but they were ever so grateful. You can imagine, then, how profound the experience must have been.

All of Tsundue’s writings engage with the idea of home, loss of home, longing for home, hope of home. And every single poem of his contains a story, not just an idea, although the ideas they trigger are mindboggling. Take this example: ‘Losar is when we the juveniles and bastards / call home across the Himalayas / and cry into the wire.’ What’s the story here? In his own words, from a little book called Nang (Home) in Tibetan and Nowhere to Call Home in English, the story goes: ‘Once, on the Tibetan new year, Losar, I watched a long line of young men and women outside a phone booth in McLeod Ganj. One by one the refugees enter the cubicle, speak to their loved ones in Tibet, cry, and come out emotionally wrecked, then pay and leave. I called the booth the Cry Box. I realized that the maximum number of Tibetans in Dharamshala cry during Losar.’

It doesn’t end here: ‘That evening, as I walked down the hillside taking the shortcut through the pine woods and oaks, I reflected that they were fortunate to have someone to cry to, a house to call home. Being exile born myself, and having been deposited in a boarding school as a semi-orphan from early childhood, I find it painful even to write here that I grew up distanced from my family.’ In these few words, Tsundue sketches a whole life.

A reading session with Tibetan poet Tenzin Tsundue in Chennai.

When the massive region of Tibet was, bit by bit, over time, annexed by the People’s Republic of China, the spiritual head of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, fled the country in 1959 and was given refuge in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, thanks mainly to the good offices of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. So, today, for all practical purposes, there is a Tibet, outside of Tibet, in Dharamshala. There are Tibetan colonies elsewhere too in India. Tsundue’s parents were teenagers when they followed the Dalai Lama to India; eventually they settled in Karnataka. Tsundue was born in Manali. After attending boarding school in Himachal, he went to Loyola College in Madras, and did his post-graduation in English Literature, followed by Philosophy, in Bombay University. Poet Nissim Ezekiel was one of his teachers. ‘Punctuation!’ thunders Tsundue, as he raises his voice above the noise of the café in which we have all gathered. It’s part of the Museum of Possibilities, a state government initiative located near the Marina Beach, to showcase devices, technologies and accessible living quarters for the differently-abled. ‘For Nissim, punctuation was the most important thing.’ For Tsundue, stories of the Tibetan people’s homelessness and especially young people’s rootlessness are the bedrock of his creative spirit.

‘I am an activist, so I can raise my voice above any noise,’ he says, as he reads aloud a selection of his poetry which is powerful, ironic and moving. Even as you laugh, you feel a tug of pain. The longing that underlines ‘Exile House’ instantly connects with all of us gathered around a jigsaw of tables.

Our tiled roof dripped
and the four walls threatened to fall
but we were to go home soon

We grew papayas
in front of our house
chillies in our garden
and changmas for our fences,
then pumpkins rolled down the
cowshed thatch
calves trotted out of the manger.

Grass on the roof
beans sprouted and
climbed the vines,
money plants crept in through the
our house seems to have grown

The fences have grown into a jungle,
now how can I tell my children
where we came from?

Among the listeners that evening were many renowned poets of Chennai, including K Srilata whose latest collection, Three Women in a Single-Room House, was published by Sahitya Akademi. A refugee can find shelter, says Tsundue, and he points to a lady in pink, ‘Asha Aunty’ who had opened her heart and home to so many Tibetan students in Madras. But a refugee cannot let down roots, cannot settle down, he adds. We understand: refugees must find their way back home. This is a sentiment brilliantly conveyed in the poem, ‘Horizon’:

From home you have reached
the Horizon here.
From here to another
here you go.

From there to the next
next to the next
horizon to horizon
every step is a horizon.

Count the steps
and keep the number.

Pick the white pebbles
and the funny strange leaves.
Mark the curves
and cliffs around
for you may need
to come home again.

I remember reading about Tsundue way back in April 2005 when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. As the visitor interacted with scientists at ground level, Tsundue who had managed to climb to the roof of the building the night before, unfurled a huge red banner that declared in white letters, ‘Free Tibet,’ as he shouted protest slogans. A small black-clad figure, bespectacled, wearing a bright red headband — the newspaper photograph is etched in my memory.

He was about 11 when he decided that he would fight for the rights of Tibetans to their homeland. Today, he is 49, and remains committed to that promise. But how does he live? ‘My poetry feeds me,’ he points out. He describes how, in his student days in Mumbai, he heard the poetry of greats such as Ezekiel, Arun Kolhatkar, Ranjit Hoskote and Eunice DeSouza. He listened, he absorbed, until finally, he was ready to share his own writings. Winnings from the Outlook-Picador competition for nonfiction in 2001 helped fund the publication of a collection of his writings by Blackneck Books, an imprint of TibetWrites which promotes and publishes the work of Tibetans. He called his essay, ‘My Kind of Exile’. And so, he writes, publishes, sells… and helps to keep the dream alive. The dream that one day, Tibetans in exile all over the world will follow the pebbles back home.

A book published recently is perhaps the first collection of writings in English by Tibetans. Called The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, it is edited by Tenzin Dickie, and features writers working in Tibetan, English and Chinese. Says the blurb: ‘There are essays on lost friends, stolen inheritances, prison notes and secret journeys from — and to — Tibet. There are also essays on food, the Dalai Lama’s Gar dancer, love letters, lotteries and the prince of Tibet.’ As also ‘My Kind of Exile’. The collection is ‘a commentary not just on the Tibetan nation and Tibetan exile but also on the romance, comedy and tragedy of modern Tibetan life.’

That evening, nothing better illustrated the yearning for home as the presence among us of a Tibetan grandmother from Darjeeling. She was in Chennai at her granddaughter’s insistence for medical treatment. She knew no English, but was there simply to see Tenzin Tsundue. That’s how much he matters. That’s how much home matters.


The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist

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