Living in exile: Exploring the Inner world of Tibetan Refugees

I look at myself in a full length mirror, not once but twice and I see a void… Nothing, not a thing. Am I really invisible? Exiledom is a process of being made less a person than a non-person.

-Gullerino Crabera Infante (a Tibetan refugee)

My intrigue and admiration for Tibetan people started with my interaction with a few of them at a sweater bazar. From then on, any news concerning the refugees from Tibet or Indian confrontations with China or His Holiness Dalai Lama’s peace plans has always caught my attention, almost instinctively.

Tibetan Exiles, India

I read and followed many websites and books on the issue but the work that caught my attention the most is by Ms/ Mrs (I’m not sure) Honey Oberoi Vahali. She is an Associate Professor at Department of Psychology, Delhi University. She has compiled and analyzed stories that date back to at least 3-5 decades ago when the very lovely people of Tibet had to flee from their homes, leaving their hearts behind.

Her book LIVES IN EXILE: Exploring the Inner world of Tibetan Refugees, is a heart wrenching collection of real stories of people who have faced severe inhumanities and troubles and who, despite all the wrath didn’t succumb to death. Instead, they gathered courage and fought for their rights. One cannot ignore noticing that they are still fighting for their cause but peacefully and this makes their fight special.

It amazes me how, after the extreme level of difficulties, torture and inhuman behaviour, these people had to face; they still chose the path of non-violence and peace.

Buddhism is a very strong religion, I must say. It teaches you to forgive and be at peace with your body and soul, because unless that happens; you will never be able to forgive your own tormentors.

While reading the book, I came across stories of men and women:

Women were raped repeatedly and not allowed to have a bath or change clothes for 11 years! (How long is that? Ever wondered?) Every month when they had menstrual bleeding, they let their blood flow to the ground and kept wearing the same clothes, didn’t wash and kept living in filth and dirt. And men were paraded naked and were given electric shocks.

But the unity of Tibetan people didn’t give way. These people were fighting for a bigger cause, for freedom from exile, for freedom of life.

When His Holiness sought refuge in India, many Tibetans followed. The Indian government allotted them places in Manali, Dharamsala and Mcleodganj and they started re-building their lives here.

But when life is harsh and struggle-some, God is bound to take more merciless decisions. Initially, people were kind and helpful but with time, the sense of having helped for much longer than expected, peeped in. Troubles started brewing in the lush green and peaceful valley of Himachal and Tibetans nostalgically started having a feeling of being uprooted once again.

Prayer Wheel

When you live in a place for more than 4 decades, when you see your children growing and getting married there, you make it your home, another home. The Tibetans still struggle for food, to keep hunger at bay, to educate their children but for them, life is here.

While the old Tibetans, who have faced cruelties first-hand, still struggle with the inner turmoil, they say the younger generations have become materialistic. They are more interested in mobiles, bikes and brands and less interested in knowing about the struggles of their forefathers.

Although many young and active volunteers like Tenzin Tsundae, and people from TYC (Tibetan Youth Congress) have come up with foundations and charities which work extensively for the cause of freedom from exile, the more common ones still look detached.

This hurts the elderly who still have nightmares about getting raped, about being paraded naked, about being tortured by inserting things into their vagina/ anus, about their nails being chipped by bamboo sticks and about being hungry for ages. Those who have seen the nightmarish days have set up schools and institutes (Norbulingkar Institute, Tibetan Children Villages, TIPA, etc.) to protect their heritage, arts and culture.

Mcleodganj, a small hamlet in Himachal Pradesh is a saviour of sorts. It is home to 3 sets of uprooted people- Gaddis (nomads of Himachal), Tibetans(people from Tibet/Lhasa) and the local Dharamsala people.

I feel proud of the fact that we have provided homes to the uprooted but the recent news of upheavals in the valley, about clashes between local people and refugees, pains me enormously.

Although I understand that where 3 sets of cultures and people mix, languages mix, co-existence becomes tough, but at the same time, I believe that sheltering and helping is the best form of mankind. If we lose hope and heart, lives will go haywire. I am not a Tibetan, neither do I live in any of the places around their settlements but I feel very strongly for the people who have lost their homes, their parents, their children and their lives.

Physical torments heal with time but what remains are the scratches on the heart and the mind. Psychological wounds never heal, their pain subsides but when the pain is excruciating even after decades, it calls for help, it calls for fight; fight for freedom from the clutches of foreign powers. As children from young times, we have seen none of it; no wars, no fights for freedom, no impoverishment, no tortures but education has opened me up to a plethora of dark realities in existence.

Sometimes I wonder, if even in 21st century we have scope for world war 3 (Ukraine and Russia), scope for slavery and exile; what worth is education anyways?

When we seem to touch the highest pinnacles of technology, these sinful mishappenings pull us back and throw us upon the ground. It’s high time for a reality check! I and you will never experience what people in exile already have; neither can we ever wash away the permanent markers of their agony.

We cannot understand what hanging between namelessness and homelessness means. I don’t know how I could help but I’m sure I’ll find ways. Till I find the right channels I can at least spread the word and do something meaningful of my education and life.

As I wrap this up, I would quote the voice of a hurt, wounded lady from the refugee camp-

The one who keeps hoping in the face of a hopeless situation suffers much more than the one who no longer hopes…

Vandana Yadav is an engineer turned journalist who works at the intersection of content and branding for entrepreneurs and large institutions. A thoughtful writer, an ever ready traveller, she is a poet and a shayara at heart.

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  1. Vandana,

    Gaddis are not uprooted (I have also corrected you terming them as muslims). Gaddis are Himachal’s nomad tribe and Kangra/Chamba is their home. In Chamba area there are few gujjar tribes which are muslims and they are there due to bordering J&K. Also Dharamsala people are not from SIND, there is a good mixture but mostly locals are majority from Himachal only.

    1. says: Vandana

      hmm Thank You for the corrections Mr. Avinash but what i posted, the bits of information.. they’re all from a book by the name my post title goes… Apologies if anything has been misrepresented. 🙂

      1. Oh no apologies needed. Just wanted to point out and I hope the book author also gets this message. I was born and brought up in the area. Gaddis are locals and so are most of D’shala residents. There are Gurkhas also but then we do have history with them and wars were fought with their help and with them before and after independence. There is very little written about locals, Gaddis and other castes which dominate the area and they do have rich history and culture.

        Somehow only Tibetans are of interest for many of the writers.

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