A Letter to Lhasa by Tsering Norbu
In exile you are bound in time with endless knots of history and fate to live in the distant memories of your land and people. Borrowed memories of vast expanses of green pastures where yaks and sheep grazed under the clear turquoise sky where cranes flew with the wind and traversed the eternal white peaks of the Himalayas to return to Tibet in the spring when the mighty rivers roared down with milky brown snowmelt water that gave life to the fields, frozen from the harsh winter, and thawed them for planting buckwheat and potatoes, radishes and turnips in the summer of the festivals and the horse races where all the beautiful girls come, dressed in their best chupas and hats, with their families at dawn to make offerings of chang and tsampa to the deities on the hill and to pray for the happiness of all the sentient beings in this world and for good rain before they head down to the festivities to put up their tents and have a lunch of meat, blood sausages, momos and lots of chang with the dancing and singing that filled the green valley with songs that sang of their devotion to their lamas and parents, their love for the melancholic mountain valleys of gushing rivers in deep gorges and of the bittersweet stories of the short lived summer love, of lovers sending secret messages with fishes that never forget, unaware of the talkative birds that hide among the trees near the river whose cold clear water shimmered white and yellow in the late summer sun casting soft long shadows in the evenings that came before the clear autumn nights of countless stars in the deep dark blue of the night sky where the stories of constellations and stars, demons and ogres, were told by the grandparents to the children in the warmth of the kitchen by the hearth with glowing embers until the children fell asleep with no worries of tomorrow or regrets of yesterday.
Worries come with age. You worry about being forgotten as just another one that came and went. You worry about your grandchildren not knowing the tales of the mountains, rivers, the pastures and the forests and the animals in them. Distant memories of a people fading and vanishing with the death of our grandparents and with the birth of each new baby in exile.
I came to know of Tibet in the stories of my grandparents. I know of those mighty Himalayas and the difficult passes that they had to cross to come to India. The village, the houses and the people they left behind but still carried in their memories down to their last days waiting to return.
When my grandma talked of her life in Tibet, she held a distant gaze, searching for something beyond the cement plastered walls of her low-ceilinged room, something beyond the low hills and the red soil of this Tibetan refugee settlement in South India. Her eyes twinkled when she told us of those distant mountains and pastures of Chamdo in eastern Tibet. It was as if she could see everything right in front of her eyes. Those memories were all that was left of Tibet with her. She revisited her past with childlike enthusiasm as she forgot about the present. The present did not seem important then. Every time we met, she would tell the same stories as if she was telling them for the first time. She wanted to tell us everything about her life. What is this passing down of memories? Is it not in memories that we become immortal? It is a constant fight against the fear of being forgotten; not only as an individual but to be forever consigned to the dusty shelves of history as a people.
I remember drawing – we always drew – pictures of Tibet in primary school. We drew from what we knew of Tibet. Our memories of Tibet were just the bare essentials. Blue skies dotted with cotton white clouds. Snow capped mountains with prayer flags between their peaks, little square pieces blue as the sky, white as the clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Then, below those mountains a vast expanse of green pasture where a blue river runs bending down the sheet of paper as it widens. Black yaks and white sheep grazing in the pastures near a tent of a nomad family. And the mother is churning bhoejha, salted butter tea, in her dongmo. A big Tibetan mastiff tied to the pole with an iron chain. These are good guard dogs and they could kill a man. You can hear a flute of a shepherd playing in the distant pasture resonating between the big purple-brown mountains. Peaceful and content. That was our idea of Tibet and you had to make do with what you had. Just the bare essentials.
This desire not to be forgotten in this intricate and great web of human history is what drove me towards writing. Towards telling the history of my people and my land. A land I have never seen. I am afraid that the land and the people, tortured for years, might betray those borrowed memories that I have now made mine. Tibet has changed. I know that. I also know that there are more Chinese in Tibet than there are Tibetans; that we are in danger of becoming a token minority in our own land. Forced to smile Communist Party approved smiles and herded in front of the international media in gaudy costumes (that could hardly be called Tibetan) to applaud the “glorious” leadership of men who led around 50 million of their own people to death in misguided policies like the Great Leap Forward. It is as if the entire nation of Spain vanished in a matter of 20 years.
A million Tibetans died in that period and there were only six million of us. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army destroyed thousands of our sacred monasteries and the ones spared are allowed nothing more than being mere tourist attractions. The once great monasteries that boasted of thousands of monks, teeming with life and the energy of intellectual pursuit have been reduced to big walkable museums where a few hundred people are forced to play to the wanderlust of western and Chinese tourists for Shangri-la and ‘inner peace’. Nothing more.
Because to be anything more is to be Tibetan and to really be Tibetan and engage in activities to ensure the continuation of Tibetan culture and language is to subvert the popular Chinese Communist Party narrative of the happy liberation, assimilation and integration of the Tibetan minority into the Han dominated ‘motherland’. Because to really allow the study Buddhism in the monasteries is to allow people to question the nature of reality; something that eats at the very core of a regime built upon blunt lies, secrecy, despotic control and oppression.
So far we have managed to survive and preserve our culture and language in exile. So far we have survived the Chinese onslaught on our culture and language in Tibet. In India we have managed to reestablish and recreate a little bit of Tibet in the refugee settlements under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There are monasteries, Tibetan schools and a Tibetan Government in Exile. Although the snow mountains have become mere hills now, the hills will have to suffice. But for how long? It has been more than half a century since the Tibetan plateau was occupied by the Chinese. It has been half a century of life in exile for Tibetans. I was born an exile. An exile from fate. An exile from identity.
If I ever go back to Tibet, will I go back just to see drying lakes and rivers where the water once flowed? Will the pristine pastures and mountains of my grandma’s stories still be there, waiting for me? Will the nomads that I drew in the pictures be there? Will the ancestral songs that sang of the Tibetan’s love for their land and their religion still resonate in the melancholic valleys? I am not sure. An exile lives the life of eternal uncertainty. Your heart is in two places. The place you know and the place you long for. I am afraid that I might not be worthy or Tibetan enough to call Tibet mine. I don’t know whether the land owns the people or the people own the land. The Tibet of my borrowed memories might not be there. But at least it will be Tibet.