Cry, the beloved Tibet

A version of this piece appeared in The Asian Age on July 11 here

IF NATIONS are narratives, Tibet’s narrative is a narrative of pain: the pain caused in the wake of invasion, infiltration, usurpation and exploitation, and the disruption of its customs and traditions. At an exhibition of photographs, “Tibet: Then and Now”, currently on at the India International Centre in New Delhi, Tibet’s plaintive cry as a nation wrestling through the painful transformation of its history and culture ricochets through the basement gallery. The photographs, taken between 1914 and 2010, are vignettes of the Tibetan way of life that has all but disappeared or is fast disappearing.

As you walk into the gallery, a handout given to you at the reception declares: “It is not an anti-Chinese or a pro-Tibetan exhibition. This is the reality of the situation of Tibet and its people.” If you look closely, you observe that the reality of Tibet and its people is seeped in sorrow. The photographs were taken in Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang provinces of Tibet by French explorer Alexander David-Neel, former Tibetan government official Dudul N. Tsarong and Lobsang S. Taklha, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama.

In Section A (Tibet: Then), that compiles photographs taken between 1914-1957, Tibet’s past manifests itself in black and white portraits of its people: Farmers celebrate the first day of sowing crops by taking their “dzo” female yaks, decorated with colourful ornaments, to the fields; a Lhasa noble woman, donning a beautiful hat, stands with her attendants looking towards Kumbum Monastery in Amdo. Another haunting image of this period is that of the People’s Liberation Army holding a military parade, raising Chinese flags, in view of the Potala Palace, the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled, along with about 80,000 refugees, to Dharamsala after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Ask any Tibetan of that generation, a diminishing breed, and they will tell you sordid stories of people’s flight from villages, of monks and nuns being forced to do manual labour. Occupation comes with its own set of nightmares, anywhere in the world. And so it was in Tibet: Her sons and daughters were abused, imprisoned, tortured.

David-Neel was the first Western woman to enter Lhasa, the forbidden city. Being a Buddhist and spiritualist herself, she demonstrates deep empathy with her subjects that is evident in her compositions. From an opera troupe performing in the courtyard of a mansion in Lhasa, drogpa (nomads) in the Kokonor region of Amdo, a prayer ceremony in the courtyard of a monastery in Amdo, men and women threshing grain in a village courtyard in Amdo, a nomad lady in Kham wearing ‘nambu,’ an indigenous woolen cloth of Tibet to a Khampa couple outside their home in Dartsedo, she gives us a feel of the everyday life in Tibet. These snapshots provide a peek into Tibet’s glorious past when it was free, when the greed and tyranny of its ambitious neighbour had not sullied it, changing the daily chore of almost every Tibetan. Monks and nuns were made commoners, toiling hard in fields for livelihoods. Monasteries w ere considered frivolous and shut. Everything came under the jaws of the dragon. Nomads were forced to relocate to new settlements such as the one built at Darcha in Western Tibet. There were restrictions on large gatherings, so the Tibetan Buddhists took shelter in remote areas to carry on with their innocuous mass meditation.
An enitre civilisation was being wiped out. And the world merely watched. More than fifty years on, it is still watching. Merely.
Section B (1979-80) is all about the Beijing visit of a five-member Tibetan delegation from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Frame after agonising frame chronicles the fading away of Tibet’s traditional life and the destruction of its monasteries — Ganden, Tashi Lhunpo and Sakya, among many others — that were shelled during the “cultural revolution”.
Section C (2000-2010), which gives you glimpses of Tibet now, captures the ravages of the “modernisation” in Lhasa. They also tell several tales of exploitation of Tibet’s resources: Hillsides have been cleared in order to export timber to China and also to mine gold, uranium and zinc; a hydro-electric power at the sacred Yamdroke lake robs it of its pristine beauty even as China enjoys control of water supply; the otherwise useful rail link between  Beijing and Lhasa is coupled with the threat of Tibet’s mineral resources being diverted.
Tibet today, it is evident, is not the Tibet it was. For the way it has changed, or made to change, Tibet has shed tears copiously, at seminars and conferences, at scattered demonstrations and feeble protests. If only the world was listening. Today, as Tibet is wilting under the occupation, it is also yearning for liberation. Perhaps, some day, it can breathe free. Perhaps.  
The exhibition, which gets over on July 11, has been organised by the Bureau of the Dalai Lama, in association with the India International Centre and assembled by writer and activist Namgyal Taklha (widow of Lobsang S. Taklha) and her friend Jane Moore.


The prose needs to have some elements of poetry: Tishani Doshi


Tishani Doshi’s deliciously lyrical debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, draws on the story of her parents, her Welsh mother and Indian father, whom the book makes a dedication to. But to think that it’s their story will not be wholly true as Doshi takes fictional liberties and twists the truths to explore what it was for a foreigner to come to India in the late ’60s when India was so different. “We were not so globalised, so well-connected and mobile. The culture would have been very different and you would have felt a sense of isolation. I thought it was fascinating that anybody would do that just because he fell in love with somebody,” says the author about one of her protagonists, Sian Jones, who falls in love with Babo, an Indian who is working in London, gets married to him and starts living in India, leaving her world in Wales.
Doshi’s website describes her as “poet, dancer, writer and wanderer”. You wonder if she had the order on mind when she wrote it.“I never thought of the order, but poetry is the first influence in my life,” she says.

Her first collection of poetry, Countries of the Body (2006), which fetched her the Forward Poetry Prize, delved into the idea of body as a metaphor for love and betrayal. In The Pleasure Seekers, you notice the same strand — of body as some sort of a “universe”.

A large part of Countries of the Body was inspired from my association with my dance guru, Chandralekha. Those were poems that I wrote from having worked as a dancer for five years. We all know our bodies to some degree, but when you dance and are into extreme positions, you figure out things about your body in different ways. When I was 26, I started serious engagement with dance.
I had been doing yoga before, but suddenly it was as if the body became a metaphor for so many things and then I read a lot about it: the Sanskrit idea that body is a universe and within the body are contained so many energies. We were exploring similar things in dance and Chandra’s whole life’s work was also about this exploration. So it was inevitable that it would come into my writing somehow. And I am still interested in body as an area of great renewal and energy and hope and beauty and love. And also as an area of betrayal through loss, illness or infidelity.

I can write fiction, but poetry is something I will keep coming back to, again and again.
Done with this novel, I am now deeply immersed working on the second collection of poems.
I like to straddle different fields and genres because sometimes you feel a bit of stagnation or hit a wall and it’s nice to get the energy from something else — writing a novel or dance.

It was larger than a mere association. It changed my life. In every way. At every level. I met Chandra when I was at a crossroads. But I had never met anybody who was embodying so many mediums — writer, performer, dancer, painter. And suddenly, I started spending everyday with her. She was a woman with strong convictions and I respected that. When I met her, I had no idea of her status in the dance world, but it was just wonderfully open and I was going with the flow. I learnt so much about what sacrifices it means to be as an artist because so often you are fighting against the things in the world and you try to counter them with your art — dance, painting or a book.
You try and counter some kind of brutality or violence or whatever that is bothering you because you are sensitive and you are expressing it. And you try to be funny and gracious and elegant and beautiful in whatever ways you are trying to do. It was just lovely to have that living embodiment, that living presence of someone who you could just have a free relationship with.

It was not a guru-shishya kind of thing, of lying at the feet of the master. It was very equal in the sense that we could laugh about things, talk about love and travel, talk about a little bit of this, a little bit of that. She was a good 50 years older than me. I felt it was lovely and wonderful and I never had such a relationship with anyone else in my life. So, it was the most pivotal relationship that I had in my life.


I was not interested in writing a memoir. It would have been too hard as no one in my family is very talkative. So, to find out the real story would have been very difficult and I would have been paranoid that I am not saying the truth. But with fiction writing, you can lie happily and take reality and use whatever you want from it. A lot of the kernels of the book are taken from the real life — a lot of the characters and incidents are little bits of reality but what was so wonderful about exploring the world of fiction for me was that those things started to grow and develop in very different ways, sometimes in ways that you don’t imagine or foresee.

I am not the kind of writer who sits down and knows exactly what I want to do. I have an image or an idea, sometimes a character, who forms and that character knows what she or he is going to do. It is quite an interesting process how that happens as it happens over a long time. Because it’s very organic. I wanted to explore this idea of what it means to be a foreigner. I wanted to spin it a bit because we know a lot about an Indian who goes abroad. We have so many stories. I wanted to explore — may be because of my own childhood, my own life — what it was for a foreigner to come to India in the late 60s when India was so different.

I looked at my own mother and never thought about it until much later when I made my own journey. I realised how huge it is to leave behind a home. So, that idea of home is very important to me. I have now returned home. But I am always going and coming, going and coming. It’s a constant obsession and the thing that I am always trying to find out balance in. But in the book, I wanted to have this other view of the reverse story of a foreigner coming to India and I am trying to say that it’s actually the same experience as that of an Indian going abroad. It’s the experience of loneliness and alienation, but it’s also eventually about making your way and making your own life with your children or job.

It is as much about homecoming, belonging, and going back to your roots. The movement that is happening is huge and radical. And people are leaving behind their villages and going to cities. They are leaving cities and going to other cities. Each time you move, you have to readjust, to requestion what is your identity, where do you come from, There is a nostalgia aspect too. We are going to have to ask this question of where we come from more and more. Because we move that much more. It’s fascinating for me as I personally feel that I have also struggled with this thing of wanting to be at a place, but then getting restless and wanting newness and curiosity. I often think it will be great to just be satisfied and live in the same village or town from when you are born to when you die. What a different outlook to life it must have. The universe would make so much sense then, (laughs) but once you step out, then you are out.

I think poets are more concerned with language. I am very interested in titles (each chapter of the novel has a title) that also comes from poetry. I like to title things. A lot of these titles are taken from songs, poetry or little bits of philosophy. The prose needs to have some element of poetry in it. It needs to have a beat. I read the whole thing when I am writing. I read the sentences aloud, again and again, because when it doesn’t work you can hear it. Basically, language is about sound.