By Kriti Budhiraja and Maya Hemant
At the start of the trip, we were an unsuspecting bunch of women walking through the by-lanes of Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tilla with little idea about where we were headed. The rickety bus journey that followed didn’t give away much either. All that we were armed with was sweet anticipation about an interesting enough document titled ‘Schedule for Little Lhasa Trip’ and of course, the common company of Shibayan. A few exchanges were initiated, a dinner shared – but this was still inadequate fodder to forecast the unforgettable times ahead. Indeed, none of us could fathom the experience that was to follow…
Soon after we reached the next morning, we walked to our guest house and were introduced to the only male participant on this trip. This was followed by the only not-so-quick breakfast. Needless to add, in the seven breakfasts that were to follow, we always had one eye on the clock!
Once we reached the SFT office for our first introductory session, we could begin to get a sense of the week ahead. We could tell that the group was going to be larger and more porous; that the sessions were going to be diverse and engaging; and that besides the sessions, food was going to be an important component of the programme.
The first day began with a visit to the Namgyal Monastery – a place which we were to visit several times over, either for the Kora around it or for the delicious Pizzas at its café. This was followed by a screening of ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds’ – a film that lucidly laid out the contours of the political contestations over Tibet. The session concluded with a long and stimulating conversation with Tenzin Tsundue. In this, he questioned the ‘development’ agenda of the Chinese government and drew striking analogies with the adivasi movements in India.
With this, the ‘official’ sessions of the day came to an end and the unofficial ones began. And of course, as we walked back after a karaoke evening at Khana Nirvana, we knew that evenings would soon turn into late evenings and then late nights…
Day 2 was perhaps the most thought-provoking of all. After a breakfast of doughnuts and tea under umbrellas dripping with the rush of mountain drizzle, we reached the reception centre. Here, we learnt about the difficulties faced by refugees and the ways in which the Reception Centre addresses them. Then we climbed up the stairs for a meeting with the extraordinary Ama Adhe. Arrested in 1958 on grounds of shouting pro-Tibet slogans, Ama Adhe served in Chinese labour camps for 27 years. As she recollected painful memories from these long, torturous years, she laid bare the crude power of the nation-state. And even as she was moved to tears, she left us feeling inspired by her strength.
After lunch, we were introduced to the Ghu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet. The gory images of violence exhibited there further brought home the enormity of the issue at hand. This was followed by the screening of ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ – a heroic film consisting of clippings of Tibetans voicing their opinions on the Dalai Lama, China and the 2008 Olympics.
Not surprisingly, soon after the footage was smuggled out of Tibet, the filmmakers were detained, and remain under arrest. After this film, we met the phenomenal Lhamo Tso, wife of the film-maker Dhondup Wangchen who is currently serving in prison. Like the earlier session with Ama Adhe, her story too was extremely inspiring. It made us realize how a nation-state’s desire for power has the ability to permeate into and cripple the lives of the most unsuspecting individuals. With this the sessions for day 2 came to an end and were followed by the usual dose of extended conversations about Tibet, the next meal and other such pressing concerns.
Day 3 began with a session with the Tibetan Women’s Association wherein its director spoke spiritedly about the Tibetan cause and the role of women in these struggles. After this, we visited the Tibetan Children’s Village. The need for a residential school for a refugee community is self-evident. But what was most heart-warming was the care and detail that goes into the functioning of this school. As one of us aptly commented, this visit to TCV left us feeling like we’d missed out on something very special by not studying in this school!
After hiking back to McLeodGanj, we headed to Common Grounds for lunch – a place that was to be re-visited for a memorable dinner some days later. This was followed by a session on SFT and Youth Activism – in this, the vivid detail with which Choeying spoke about the 2008 uprising echoed in the confident declaration pasted on the walls of the SFT office – ‘Tibet will be free.’
The next day began and ended with a visit to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. While the morning visit was an introductory tour of the place, the evening visit was a magnificent performance that coincidentally happened while we were around. Needless to add, both gave us innumerable photo-opportunities!
In between, we had an interesting session with the Tibetan Youth Congress – a rather innocent-looking organisation which has funnily, though predictably, been black-listed by the Chinese government as a terrorist outfit. We also met with Choedup la from the International Tibet Support Network, who talked to us about the need for networking within the Tibet movement and the role played by this organisation in the same.
Day 5 began with a brief but informative session with the Deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. In this, she spoke at length about why India should continue rallying its support for Tibet and the role played by Indian governments over the years. Then we walked to the office of the radio station ‘Voice of Tibet’. This session drew our attention to the extent of the denial of freedom of speech and expression under Chinese occupied territory. But even as this demonstrated the power of the nation-state, it exposed its constant fear of counter-hegemonic voices.
We were also shown a presentation by the Environment and Development Desk, wherein the centrality of the ecological question in the Tibetan issue was reinforced. The imagery of the ‘third pole’ brought home the environmentally strategic location of Tibet and further established the need of the rest of South and South East Asia to support the movement.
After this, we made a brief visit to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, admired the collection in its museum and headed to Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. Here again, we learnt a great deal more about human rights violations by China and were given copies of several detailed reports about the same.
With the scheduled sessions concluding for the day, we trekked back to Mcleodganj and made it in time for a memorable dinner hosted by Geshe Thupten Phelge, a Member of the Parliament-in-Exile.In the warm ambiance of Common Grounds, the evening began with an interactive session with the host. The smell of delicious food, conversations and laughter filled the room. The Tibetan poet, Bhuchung D Sonam, then held a poetry reading session which was followed by a jam session. With guitar in hand, Choeying tried to kick-start the musical evening before he realized that none of us knew entire songs. His trusted aide Bhuchung tried to salvage the situation and others pitched in with their efforts and turned it into a multi-lingual concert – Tibetan, Hindi, English and even Arabic melodies ringing through the room. Incomplete songs, out-of-tune voices… and nobody was complaining! The only thing that halted the night was a reminder of the next day starting off earlier than usual. While some of us trooped back to get a good night’s sleep, the rest headed to Mcllo’s to continue the revelry in the company of stars.
But despite its early start, the sixth and last ‘official’ day was perhaps the most relaxed of all. In a private audience with His Holiness the Karmapa, he engaged with our philosophical musings and christened some of us with Tibetan names. After this, we headed to Norbulingka. Needless to add, the breathtaking beauty of this place drained the battery out of all our cameras!
In the evening and the only ‘free’ day for many of us, we tried our best to pack each moment with as much happiness as it can possibly contain. While this meant an extra drink and more laughter for some of us, it translated into long walks for others. Some embarked on quick shopping-sprees, while a few attempted last-minute sight-seeing. Most of us did a little bit of all of the above.
Finally that evening, when we boarded the rickety bus back to the city, we were armed with countless memories etched onto the landscape of Dharamshala, new friendships spanning countries and continents and a powerful people’s movement to support. We knew we were going to return.