Friends, I know that China-Pakistan friendship – in the words of Pak ambassador to Beijing – is higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, and sweeter than honey. This week – with no disrespect to your best friend – I want to share the stories of those citizens of China who do not want to be called Chinese. What Kashmiris are to India, Tibetans are to China. Delhi has a large number of Tibetan refugees who came to India after China took over their land in 1959. Today, those original refugees have grandchildren who have seen only one country – India – but who still consider themselves people of a nation that they have never seen – Tibet. Last week, I met two young Tibetans. Through their stories, I’m trying to understand how personal lives are shaped by territorial conflicts that span generations.
One day Sonam Tsomo was the eldest BA-pass daughter of respectable parents, who were Tibetan refugees in Kalimpong, a hill town in West Bengal. However, when she reached the Indian capital she ceased to be respectable. Instead, she was an easy catch, a “chinky noodle”, (worse) a “Chinese”, a woman who is asked her “rate” as she walks down the road.
Those slurs have nothing to do with who Tsomo is – but what she looks like and what she wears. Her small eyes and flat nose set her apart from the people of the city. In addition, Tibetan women – and also girls from North East India – wear skirts and jeans rather than the usual North Indian costumes like saris or salwar suits. “Each time people make opinions about me because of my racial features or my clothes, I feel as if I can never belong to India,” said Tsomo, 30, who first came to Delhi 10 years ago. She began her working life as a receptionist, then a restaurant hostess, a television producer and finally a public relations executive.
“It hurts,” she said, reaching out for her banana muffin at the Barista café in Defence Colony. “But you try to ignore it, as you can’t go around slapping those guys.”
Back home in Kalimpong, “where there are no opportunities” Tsomo was just another face in the Tibetan settlement colony. She had a fair idea of what she was getting into when she took a bumpy bus ride to New Jalpaiguri, and from there a 16-hour train journey to Delhi. “I knew we people would be teased as chinkies,” she said, wearing a long flowing white skirt. “But I didn’t know I would be treated so differently from other Indian girls.” Tsomo had never imagined she would be looked down as “a lady of loose character.”
“Of course, it’s not articulated in words when somebody thinks that we Tibetan girls are prostitutes but there’s that hint in the air. I can recognise their prejudice.”
Once a friend of hers, fresh from Kalimpong, went shopping to Lajpat Nagar where a young man rolled down his car window and asked, “Chinky, what’s your rate?” The friend had prepared herself for the worst – eve-teasing, groping, and even rape-like situations, just like any Delhi girl – but she could not stomach this. “She cried like hell that night,” Tsomo said.
Now consider the case of Lobsang Dorji Hayer. “On paper, I’m an Indian because my dad is from Himachal Pradesh, but my heart beats for Tibet,” said Dorji, over steamed momos in his family-owned Dolma House, a popular eatery in Majnu ka Teela. MT, as the north Delhi neighbourhood is called, was established as a refugee camp in the 60s. It is considered Delhi’s Little Lhasa.
Dorji explained why his loyalty lies where it does. “Look, I was brought up by my Tibetan mother among Tibetans here in MT, so I’ve grown to be very Tibetan. But yes, I also have a sense of belonging to Delhi.” In MT, which has a population of around 5,000 Tibetans, there are very few like Dorji who lives so comfortably with his double identity. In fact, a very few born-in-India Tibetans here have Indian citizenship.
What if by some miracle Tibet gets independence from China? Would Dorji leave India? “I’ll stay back,” he said. “I don’t know how Lhasa would be, while Delhi is a place I know.”
Indeed, the different places in the city maps the choices Dorji Hayer took at different stages in his life. After graduating from Delhi University’s Ramjas College, he did graveyard shifts at a call centre in Gurgaon and is now pursuing a computer course in Shakti Nagar. “I want to do software programming,” he said.
There are times when Dorji feels like a foreigner in the city of his birth. “You know, Delhi people tease you with names like ‘Chinky’ or ‘Chinese’ just because you have fair skin and slanted eyes,” he said. “And some Indians think that our girls are easy, which makes you scared to take your girlfriend anywhere except the malls.”
These discomforts apart, Dorji has no major issues with this city. “When I close my eyes, I see Tibetan flags fluttering on MT’s rooftops and that’s Delhi for me.” While showing me his favorite hangouts in MT, like the coffee shop, the video game parlour, the bookstore, Dorji suddenly said “It’s true that I’m a Delhiite, but I’m a Tibetan first.”
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.