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TIBET: SUCCESS STORIES

March 16, 2009

Free Tibet Inc
Fifty years after a trans-Himalayan exodus, Tibetans scale professional
heights with elan ...

Anjali Puri, Outlook India
http://www.outlookindia.com

Kunsang Tanzin’s first trip to Bombay in the late ‘80s was a disaster.
Armed with orders from French importers of home furnishings, the young
would-be entrepreneur went to the city in search of fabric. He couldn’t
pay advances, so he told suppliers he would pay up as soon as his buyers
paid him. Not a single deal worked out. On the train back to Delhi,
Kunsang shared his disappointment with a fellow traveller. He listened
attentively, and then asked, "Where did you stay’" "At a small hotel
near Bombay Central station," replied Kunsang. "Why’" The man shook his
head, and told him, "That’s not how you do business here. Next time,
stay at a five-star hotel, and ask the agents and suppliers to come to
you." Kunsang followed his advice, though almost unnerved by his own
extravagance’and it worked. Once he ‘looked’ the part, the 55-year-old
recounts with a laugh, he got credit. And that’s how the young Tibetan
refugee, who grew up in the austere world of settlements, took his first
tentative steps into the real India; and became, along the way, an
upper-middle class Delhiite, going for morning walks with his Defence
Colony neighbours, sending his girls to convent schools, and running a
home furnishings business with a Rs 5-crore annual turnover. Last week,
nearly 50 years after he crossed over into India, his three-storeyed
Gurgaon factory was a mass of green and pink, with a hundred workers
preparing a shipment of cot-bumpers for French babies. Only three
employees were Tibetan, the rest were Indian. "My way," said Kunsang,
with a grace that has survived the brutalities of the Indian
marketplace, "of giving back to India".

This is the Tibetan story you don’t hear. For most Indians, Tibetans are
frozen in cultural tableaux. People who live in ‘little Lhasas’
scattered across the country, and especially in ‘the hills’;
red-and-ochre robed monks, tradespeople selling sweaters, stall-owners
dishing out soups and momos. Every now and then, when a Chinese leader
visits, an anniversary comes up, or when a new wave of repression is
unleashed in Tibet, the tableau unfreezes and turns into that other
Tibetan visual cliche’a mass of protesters with Free Tibet banners.

Beyond the cliches, however, a small, but growing number of Tibetans
have been trickling out of picturesque ghettoes for vocational degree
and professional education, and finding their way into the Indian
mainstream. "The educational profile of the community has changed
dramatically since we first took shelter in India in 1959," says Thupten
Lungrik, education minister in Tibet’s government-in-exile at Dharamsala.

The adults arrived in India from a closed society untouched by modern
education, but the children, and their children, went to school. School
attendance is high, 3 to 4 per cent of the 1,00,000-plus Tibetan
community in India are graduates, about 1.5 per cent postgraduates
(these figures would be higher if only younger Tibetans were counted).
Seventy per cent of Tibetans in India continue to sell sweaters but
Thupten estimates that about 15 per cent now live in cities, not
settlements, and work in India’s bustling service sector. Anecdotal
evidence suggests this largely means nurses, flight attendants,
salespeople and call-centre workers, but scattered among them are
engineers, doctors, lawyers, advertising and media professionals’young
Tibetans in workplaces where you wouldn’t have found them a generation ago.

A distinctive kind of modern Tibetan is Tenzing Choesang. An alumnus of
the elite National Law School, Bangalore, she now works for Indira
Jaising’s Lawyers Collective in Delhi. Like every Tibetan I met for this
story, she feels deeply for the political cause. But her professional
life is filled with other traumatic histories’of Indian women beaten up,
thrown out their homes, denied maintenance, deprived of their children.

The path-breaking Domestic Violence Act (DVA) took shape in this very
office, and Tenzing is closely involved in tracking its implementation.
Unlike most Tibetan refugee children, she went to a mainstream Indian
school in Gangtok, which explains, she says, why her Tibetan is not
perfect ("she speaks it like NRIs speak Hindi," teases her friend). But
it also probably accounts for the ease with which she has fitted into a
larger Indian space. "Do you think Gujarat is your problem’" I ask her,
as she recalls college years filled with issues like Narmada, Gujarat
and reservations, and making Muslim friends, because they stood out,
like her. "It is definitely my problem. Every human rights violation is
everyone’s problem, not just Tibet," says the young lawyer seriously.


Tenzin Kalden, Choklay, 26, Chef: She grew up in Dharamsala, but became
a chef at the Mumbai Taj, discovering a new life. She lights candles for
Tibet, but post-26/11, also feels close to colleagues.

Tenzin Kalden Choklay’s is a different narrative. She grew up in
Dharamsala, the nerve-centre of India’s Tibetan refugee community,
studying in a Tibetan school. At the end of her schooldays, she recalls,
she was scared to leave home. "I had never been outside Tibetan society;
my communication skills weren’t great, neither in Hindi, nor English."
She only left because her sisters, settled in the West (like an
increasing number of young Tibetans), pushed her, telling her she needed
to grow. So Tenzing found her way to a hotel management school in
Mumbai, and then into the Taj Hotel, where she is now a chef. "I am a
different person," she says. 26/11 was a defining experience’she was on
leave at the time, but came back shocked to find colleagues dead. As the
hotel remained closed, she found herself hanging about in hospitals,
with the families of sick and injured colleagues. Today, she argues
strongly for "more Tibetans to come into Indian society". Voicing an
angst that many young Tibetans feels, she describes how deprived she
feels by the lack of a proper passport, recalling how she was virtually
a prisoner for two days at Dubai airport, because her refugee papers
weren’t recognised.


Tenzing Namdhak, 27, Banker: Like many young Tibetans, he crisscrossed
India in search of education’from engineering college in Calicut to an
MBA at Delhi University. He now works at HSBC in Bangalore.

A third story. Unlike the two Tenzings, Sonam Tsetam was born not in
India but Lhasa, in 1978, one of a steady stream of latter-day refugees
who have made their way to India. His mother left him to be fostered and
sent to school in Dharamsala. His is a tale of extreme, poignant
dislocation, with his parents in Lhasa and siblings scattered the world
over. His close-knit community made the difference, making it possible
for him go to the elite Madras Christian College for a degree in
economics, followed by a mass communications course in Pune. At the end
of it, he landed a job with ndtv, as it happened on the highly
India-specific political satire programme, Gustakhi Maaf. Three years
later, the assistant producer, who was once mystified by references to
"roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks", knows his Indian politics.
For the first time in his life, he has friends who are not Tibetans. But
he is marking time, until he has the capital to become a documentary
filmmaker. His pet project, already taking shape in his mind, is called
A Girl from China, a film with Tibetan, Indian and Chinese characters,
based on the story of a Chinese girl who fantasises about visiting the
Taj Mahal.Now, if only he finds a financier.

They share the larger narrative of exile and relocation, but within it,
these individual stories are unique, all hinting at challenges and
dilemmas for a community trying to preserve its culture and at the same
time engage with the modern world. Should the education system, which
has helped keep the Tibetan flame burning all these decades, be modified
to make it easier for Tibetans to compete in the modern world’ Should
more Tibetans get Indian passports so they have greater access to
opportunities in India’ Or will they then, as Tibetan authorities fear,
end up, 50 years from now, being just another Indian ethnic community’

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