Rendezvous with Courage from Tibet

A shy looking man that entered our seminar room quietly: he crossed the hall so unnoticeably that it was only when he had walked and stood near the podium, did we realize that our guest speaker had arrived.

Our college ‘Acad forum’ President introduced him. He went on narrating heroic tales of his bravery and courage; how he had dared to stand up against one enormous global power; how he had dared to defy the rules and dared to fight for his rights. A truly gallant determined man who feared nothing in this world.

Hence it was quite a surprise when this quiet, shy looking man stepped up to the mike as the audience courteously applauded him. My friend and I looked at each other, amused. Well, its not as if we haven’t heard the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ on several occasions in our lives, but it was but natural that one would expect such a magnificent introduction being followed by an equally big, rugged, strident personality. But here he was our guest speaker for the day, seemingly humble and friendly, smiling kindly at his audience.

His accent was the first thing that struck me. It was a concoction of the Indian, Tibetan and a bit of the American accent! While I sat there amused by his colorfully blended accent, my friend was occupied observing his unique sense of style. If I may confess, quite a few girls in the audience seemed pretty impressed by his black and blue jeans-shirt combo, combined with his black specs and red band around his head. (We were to find out later that he was declared as one of ‘India’s Top 50 most stylish People’ in the July 2002 Elle Magazine edition!)

And then he began to speak. He started off describing his life growing up in India. Born to a Tibetan refugee family, he shared with us the struggles he and his family faced during the chaotic era of Tibetan refugee resettlement in India in the early seventies. He told us how he had been just another Indian teenager who had completed his graduation amidst the protected carefree walls of the Madras University. As a student, writing and poetry had always fascinated him, a hobby that he continued to pursue throughout his life in college.

However, his heart was never at peace; a heart that continue to live in his native country of Tibet. It pained him to see that while he lived securely within the borders of India, across the borders in his nation, his fellow brothers and sisters were being victimized and exploited by the Chinese forces. And thus burst the spark into flames; the fire to see his nation free, to be able to walk freely in his own land, to be able to enjoy what was rightly his.

And thus, after finishing his studies from Madras, this ‘shy’ looking man took to the mighty Himalayas on foot, braving the snowstorms and entered into the land of ‘forbidden Tibet’, just to see for himself the plight of his countrymen. He was immediately stopped and thrown into prison by the Chinese, only to be shoved back into India 3 months later.

In 1999, he officially joined the ‘Friends of Tibet’ (India) and has since then been closely working with them as their General Secretary. Despite being imprisoned several times, the confinement only made him stronger and more determined. Leading several protest rallies across the world, he even managed to perform the daring feat of unfurling the Tibetan flag and a ‘Free Tibet’ banner, by climbing onto the 14th floor of the Mumbai Oberoi Towers in January 2002, while the Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji sat inside. Such ‘bold’ stunts of his compelled the Indian Government to detain him in Dharamshala during the Chinese President’s visit in November 2006, on the request of the Beijing Government.

But his achievements didn’t end there. Besides being an activist, he is also a well known author- a rare blend in the Tibetan community in exile. His first book of poems “Crossing the Border”, published with money begged and borrowed from his classmates in Bombay University, won much appreciation. He was awarded the first-ever ‘Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction’ in 2001. Both His second book ‘Kora’ and the third ‘Semshook’, have also been greatly popular.

As this man stood there describing his life’s experiences, we all sat there completely stunned. His courage amazed us. I remember him asking us to guess what he might have been doing while the rest of us sat in our homes enjoying the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He answered his own question. He was in jail; imprisoned by the Chinese in the fear that he might stir up another global protest. He even joked at how sorry he felt for the four middle aged police men that had to follow him everywhere during his detention in Dharamshala, because mind you, following an adventurer who crossed the Himalayas on foot, isn’t a piece of cake!

It seemed so strange. A man just in the middle years of his life, and yet it seemed he had lived a hundred lives already. One of the world’s biggest powers was doing all it could to crush him, and yet his spirit never failed: a spirit that also inspired with it a thousand other Tibetan people. He also explained to us how he and his fellow Tibetans would never take up arms to fight for freedom, for as he said ‘we don’t believe in taking someone else’s freedom to gain our own freedom’. Though it may take centuries to gain independence, but he and his people would continue to fight through the correct means.

During his speech however, I recall a time when he said that despite being born and brought up in India, he never thought of himself as an Indian. He was, in all heart and soul, a true Tibetan. I confess that I was rather displeased by this comment of his and his lack of appreciation for the nation that had provided him and his people security. But then he told us that how it was often the Indian government that detained him, how every Tibetan from Dharamshala had to own a special ‘visa’ to travel within India; how India did provide them security but had always, like every other nation, hesitated and refrained from globally protesting against China. Thus, it wasn’t as if he didn’t respect the Indians’ help to the Tibetan community, but why should he consider himself an Indian citizen when the country itself didn’t recognize him as one?

And thus spoke Tenzin Tsundue – the great Tibetan writer-activist. An hour later I joined the audience as we stood up to applaud this great man. Admiration and awe filled my eyes. There stood before me a man full of passion and fire. A man who stuck by his principles and dared to defy the worst. No power in this world could seem to crush him- his spirit and his soul. A man for whom there were no boundaries, no limits, no challenge insurmountable. With just pure courage, and determination this man continued to walk, not stopping till he has fulfilled his ultimate goal and reached his ultimate destination – his own free nation; his own free people; his own free Tibet. A brave spirited, ‘humble’ man, who truly lived up to every magnificent description of his!
Mallika Parmar


[Image source:]