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Bread and Freedom
By e-mail[Monday, January 29, 2007 11:29]
Review by Bhuchung D. Sonam

KORA: stories and poems by Tenzin Tsundue
Published by: TibetWrites
Price: Rs.50/

Pa Topgyal is 79 years old. While speaking to his elder daughter on the phone he wails like a three-year old boy. She is in the USA, an illegal Tibetan without papers. He is a refugee living in India for 47 years. She is 38. They haven’t met for 17 years. If numbers alone can be sorrows, it’s 181 years of pain and dislocation, longing and desire, grief and resignation, promises and disappointment, and hope and surrender. Despite four decades of selling sweaters, Pa’s Hindi is rudimentary and the number of words in English he knows is less than fingers on his hands. He is an old man, his mind full and but voice restricted. Tsundue gives voice to Pa’s desperation.

I am tired
I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,
40 years of sitting in dust and spit.


Tenzin Yarphel is a 20-years-old college-going guy. His mother is 40. She was born somewhere between Manali and Spiti. His father is 47 and was born in the year Tibet lost her independence. If numbers alone can be confusion, it’s 107 years of chaos and turmoil, an idea of home and a sense of not belonging, romantic illusion and harsh reality, and an everyday struggle to assert identity. Yarphel is educated, upright, and humble, perhaps a little too humble. At times his humility is bombarded by a salvo of questions about who he is and where he’s from. He is lost between a strong desire to answer and not knowing quite how to. Tsundue sums up this confusion.

I am more of an Indian.
Except for my chinky Tibetan face.
I am a Tibetan. But I am not from Tibet.


There are hundreds of young Tibetan refugees studying in various colleges in India. Every now and then they are asked if they are Manipuri, Nepali, Thai, Japanese, Chinese or Koreans. They trudge on shouting “I am a Tibetan!” Once one of them wore a Free Tibet T-shirt and was asked, “From where can I get it free?”; if only he wasn’t suffering from student poverty, he would have freely given the T-shirt. Most Tibetan students live on a shoestring budget. Tsundue was one of them. Penniless and with nowhere to stretch his tired legs for a night in Mumbai, Tsundue found a reliable companion in words which comforted him in his homeless hours.

your walls open into cupboards
is there an empty space for me
i’ll sleep under your bed
and watch TV in the mirror


He seldom whines at his predicament instead; as he once said, he tries to face them with composure and narrates them with comical twists.

On your forehead
There is an R embossed
My teacher said.
I scratched and scrubbed,
to find a brash of red pain.


Exiled-Tibet has a young generation of aspiring poets and writers. They are unknown, often unclaimed, individuals producing verses between the need to earn their daily bread and a strong quest for freedom. Some of them moonlight in Indian metropolis like Delhi and Bangalore; some are in offices of the exile establishment and a few sell bread and laphing in the streets of Mcleod Ganj. Still few try their luck with not-so-young foreign women. They are bread-and-freedom poets in testing circumstances. “Bad times, after all, traditionally produce good books,” writes Salman Rushdie. I’d say good verses, in our case. The writings of these young poets are testimony to a displaced people trying to find their roots.

The most visible face among them is a thin, pony-tailed, bespectacled, backpack-carrying young man always on the foot. You are right that he also wears a red bandana like one of those ready-to-shriek-and-kick characters in Kung-fu films. But Tsundue hardly kicks, though he certainly shrieks – “Freedom!”

The latest edition of KORA, published by TibetWrites, is Tsundue’s second book after Crossing the Border. It has fourteen poems, four essays, a short story and an interview. KORA has run into four reprints and sold over seven thousand copies. At a time when poetry is left for the eccentric few, and shunned by mainstream publishers, that’s doing pretty well. It has been translated into French and Malayalam and its poems are included in many anthologies and printed in numerous magazines and newspapers. He is poet first and activist second. Your have the full liberty to argue against this and you may even win.

“Creative work is forever a dream unfulfilled,” wrote Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad. He might as well have written this for our nimble man, who has turned the ‘brash of red pain’ on his forehead into a red bandana. His activism and the need to rush from one place to another, and from one protest to another, steals time away from his pen and paper. There’s no telling which is more important. Both are equally necessary and crucial. Though Tsundue’s creative work has taken a backseat, it benefits from his activism. Poetry, after all, is to be found in the thick of life’s activities. If one does not squeeze the bitter juice out of ‘bad times’ there won’t be good books.

Every now and then Tsundue is asked to undertake more writing and less activism. Some even tell him to give up his activism to engage in fulltime creative writing which, they reason, will be more useful for the cause than mere protests and shouting of slogans. Tsundue is in the public domain. Everyone has a say about him.

But for now he wears many hats. And which one suits him the most is a question of a luxury available to only those who have ‘home.’ Exile does not give choices. It thrusts caps onto you. Those who refuse to wear them are often left behind trailing in clouds of self-doubt and eventually dumped into the forgotten dustbins of history.

In his ‘very simple, almost child-like’ English, Tenzin conveys the agonizing reality of a displaced nation very well. His birth in a tent pitched on a roadside in Kullu valley, stopovers in different schools, and eventual dispersal of his family members in India makes him one of the living tissues of woes of exile and the severe identity crisis faced by those born and raised in the space of others.

Kora – in Buddhist parlance – means circumambulation, a full circle around a stupa, a monastery, a holy hill, a heap of mani stones or a holy tree. Our final kora will be complete when we return to a ‘free’ homeland after years of roaming in foreign jungles. But to fulfil this ultimate journey, we need writers, activists, statesmen, thinkers and most of all bread-and-freedom poets to paint our reality as it is…so that when the kora is complete we can plan our future ‘in our own words, in our own silence, and in our own wisdom.’

Bhuchung D. Sonam can be reached at tsampa@tibetwrites.org


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