Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Her Home in Tibet

When I started reading Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s A Home in Tibet, the name of Kyegu, her ancestral place in Eastern Tibet, seemed familiar. After a few pages, I realized that it was the old Jyekundo of Alexandra David Neel, the French explorer who visited the area in the 1920s and wrote: Grand Tibet: Au pays des brigands-gentilshommes (Greater Tibet: In the Land of the Gentleman-Brigands). Published in 1933, the book contributed to the legend of the intrepid lady and the mystic of the land.
As a rehearsal for her famous Journey of a Parisian to Lhasa, the dare-devil spiritual seeker crisscrossed the former province of Kham and Amdo and landed in Kyegu.
Alexandra loved Tibet; she loved the proud ‘brigands’, the landscape, the holy mystics and magicians, and more than anything else, the nomadic life.
On returning to France, she wrote: “Truthfully, I am ‘homesick’ for a land that is not mine. I am haunted by the steppes, the solitude, the everlasting snow and the great blue sky ‘up there’! The difficult hours, the hunger, the cold, the wind slashing my face, leaving me with enormous, bloody, swollen lips. The camp sites in the snow, sleeping in the frozen mud, none of that counted, those miseries were soon gone and we remained perpetually submerged in a silence, with only the song of the wind in the solitude, almost bare even of plant life, the fabulous chaos of rock, vertiginous peaks and horizons of blinding light. A land that seems to belong to another world.”
For Tsering Wangmo, it is not ‘another world’, it is her own ‘home’, the home of her ancestors, a place that she has never known, because she has lived her entire life in exile, first in India and then in the United States.
Like tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees, her mother escaped from her native Kham province in Tibet to take refuge in India in 1959. She was the daughter of a Khampa chieftain from the small Nangchen principality; her father was probably one of the ‘gentleman-brigands’.
In exile, the strong willed-Khampa lady decided to jump into politics and was soon elected a Member of the Assembly of Tibetan Deputies as the Kham province representative. The Tibetans have always kept a lot of reverence for the descendants of former chieftains.
Tsering Wangmo was born in 1969, on a train from Delhi to Chandigarh! For a few years, Tsering Wangmo grew up in Nepal, with a mother immersed in refugees’ issues; later she joined a boarding school in Mussorie, where she had her first contact with the English language. She graduated from Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi and finally left for the United States to study for a Master of Fine Arts in San Francisco. By that time, she had acquired this mastery of English so enjoyable in A Home in Tibet.
But then tragedy struck; Tsering was 24 old-year old when she lost her mother in a car-accident, travelling from Delhi to Dharamsala to attend the Assembly’s session. Her mother was till then the center of her world. There are turning points in the life of an individual or a nation; for Tsering, her mother’s death was one of such crossroads. She could have replaced her mother and stood for a seat in the Tibetan Assembly, as many of her fellow-Khampas asked her to do, but her love for this ‘home’ that she did not know was too strong. Tsering had heard so much about this far-way home.
She decided that she would take a handful of her mother’s ashes to her nomadic ‘home’ in Tibet and reconnect with her past.
After a short stay in the Chinese city of Xining, she proceeded ‘home’.
Kyegu is today the capital of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province. Tsering realized that her mother had bequeathed to her, her love for this homeland, for the snow-clad mountains, the high-perched monasteries, the tents, the smell of the butter milk and more than anything the vastness of the landscape. Her mother remains present in each page of Tsering Wangmo’s beautiful prose.
The book has several fascinating ways to introduce Tibet to the readers.
Reading Tsering’s book, one is touched by the quality of the prose. Tsering is first and foremost a poet; she has 3 books of poems on her CV, including Rules of the House (Apogee Press, Berkeley 2002).
Then, the author discovers (and the reader along with her) her Tibetaness, or more correctly her Khampaness. The fierce warriors of Eastern Tibet have apparently not lost their proud, hot-blooded and rebellious characters; Tsering gives many examples of it.
One soon discovers that the area changed much since Alexandra visited it. No doubt, cities like Kyegu are now modern Chinese towns, but the immensity of the meadows and the nomadic life still remains the same. For how long?
Scores of fascinating stories are told by some of Tsering’s relatives or acquaintances whom she encounters; one Tibetan recounts the story of a group of Tibetans fleeing the Chinese soldiers. Though it happened decades ago, the man still remembers how much they suffered of hunger, cold, fear; but he tells Tsering, “suffering alone does not kill”.
This reminded me of Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, the Dalai Lama’s Physician who spent 22 years in a Chinese concentration camp and was often tortured. Despite the incredible cruelty inflicted upon him, Choedrak was one of the most shining and compassionate beings that I ever met. Bitterness and anger were unknown to him.
This is the case of many of those who experienced the Chinese occupation of Tibet, not only that ‘suffering does not kill’, but in some cases, it can transform a human being.
That is what Buddhism is about and it was one of the discoveries of Tsering Wangmo made during her stay at home. One does not feel much bitterness reading her journey.
There is a historical relevance of the book. It may not be obvious to a reader unaware of the present situation in the Roof of the World. The way of life so beautifully described by the poetess may soon disappear forever; it is particularly true of the places today incorporated in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces of the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese like to speak of the Five Guarantees (food, clothing, healthcare, housing and funeral expenses) ‘offered’ to the Tibetans, unfortunately, there is another side to the coin.
A few months back, Human Rights Watch (HRW) compiled a report entitled, 'They Say We Should Be Grateful - Mass Rehousing and Relocation Programs in Tibetan Areas of China'.
The HRW report explains: “Since 2006, the Chinese government has implemented large-scale programs to “rehouse”—through renovation of existing houses or construction of new ones, under a policy called ‘Comfortable Housing’.
As a result, Beijing “has accelerated the relocation and sedentarization of nomadic herders in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, mostly in Qinghai province, and laid the ground for similar policies in other parts of the plateau.” This is called 'Build a New Socialist Countryside'.
'Housing', one of five guarantees is forced on the Tibetans, in particular on the nomadic populations, who do not have the choice to refuse the 'welfare' measures from Beijing.
Another tragedy occurred after Tsering’s visit home; on April 14, 2010, Kyegu was the victim of a deadly earthquake. Her town was destroyed. According to Xinhua, some 2,698 people lost their lives and 270 were missing.
News has recently circulated that a new ‘Chinese’ town has already been rebuilt. Will it still be Tsering Wangmo’s true home? One more tragedy in the making!

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