Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Free Tibet Inc.

March 17, 2009

Fifty years after a trans-Himalayan exodus,
Tibetans scale professional heights with elan
Outlook India
March 16, 2009

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’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 feel, 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.

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?
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank