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Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death—Sitting Down with Tenzin Tsundue

Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan writer and activist. The author of four books of poetry and stories, he won the first ever Picador-Outlook Non-Fiction Contest in 2002. He is now working on his fifth book, a book of Tibetan refugee stories. During his visit to Manipal for MILAP cultural events, he mesmerised the audience with his poems and radical views. After his panel, we got an opportunity to sit down with him.

As you have mentioned before, you identify yourself as an activist before a writer. So could you talk about your early life and the factors that pushed you into pursuing writing in the midst of the struggle?

It started at school. Ours was a very small school, called Tibetian Children’s Village Pathlikuhl. It’s in Kudu Valley, on the banks of river Beas. It was a tiny school with about 250 kids. It was wooden planks nailed together onto one wooden pillar, with a tin sheet on top. It becomes classrooms during the daytime and dormitories at night. In that school, I think my first education was that although we are born in India, and this is the only country we’ve ever known, this is not a country we belong to. We’ve been told that we were all Tibetans and eventually we’ll have to go back. And that’s shocking to me as a stubborn little boy. Suddenly the ground underneath your feet is shattering. My identity was questioned. The teachers would tell us about the ongoing freedom struggle and that we’d one day go back to our country.

It was our duty to take part in this struggle, and we were so enthusiastic about it that we’d think if we didn’t grow up fast enough, the teachers would complete this struggle for us. So we read about Bhagat Singh, Subash Chandra Bose, Gandhi among others. They were our heroes. As a confused 5th grade child I went up to my teacher, asking her what can a little boy do. My teacher said, you seem to be asking questions, and see things clearly. Why don’t you become a journalist? Write about Tibet, in English and let the world know about us. Get them to help our cause. So in 5th standard, I took a pledge: when I grew up, I’d be a freedom fighter and my weapon would be a pen.

In your poem, A Personal Reconnaissance, you talk about your journey to Tibet and the subsequent freedom struggle. What was the journey like, to walk The Himalayas by foot and the events that unfurled?

Staying in India the most I could do was protest and shout slogans. It doesn’t amount to any freedom struggle. There was no romance in it; there wasn’t a solution. This made me want to go to Tibet and fight the struggle on the ground. Even if I get killed, it would be for the freedom of my country and inspire more people to eventually stand up. So I went to Ladhak after my graduation and taught for a year while secretly finding ways to get into Tibet. When I actually did in March 1997, I was to meet some Tibetans on the other side of the border. However, when I crossed the border, they weren’t there. Not wanting to return, I kept pushing myself deeper into Tibet, and I got lost. It’s 4000 m above sea level, not a single human being in sight and a cold desert. It’s dry rocky mountains and plains with just rocks and dry grass. No water, no food and no human contact. At night, everything gets frozen. The entire Indus river is frozen into a giant ice-snake.

For five days I was lost in the mountains, my lips were cracked from bleeding. On the 5th day, I got arrested by border security, and they blindfolded me and subjected me to several interrogations. I was thrown into jail and was repeatedly questioned if I was sent by the government of India on a spy mission. They couldn’t believe that a young, educated man went there on his own. After weeks of torture and thrashings, I was taken to a jail in Lhasa. Hope for getting out dwindled with each day. I was helpless and vulnerable. Half-remembered Tibetan prayers and Bollywood songs like Suhaana Safar Hai kept me going each day while also admiring my first growth of moustache in the dingy window glasses. After a few gruelling weeks, I was “pushed back” into India where I was questioned for my sanity, again.

How important do you think it is for an individual to have a unique definite cultural identity? You are Tibetian, raised in Bengaluru, then moved to Dharamshala, and have travelled all across India. You were exposed to a plethora of languages and cultures and lifestyles. How would you describe your cultural identity, because the confusion regarding this seems to be a recurring pattern in your work?

Culture is everywhere. The way people behave, eat think and talk is culture. There’s traditional culture; there’s spiritual culture. Some of them are our homes, our roots. Being very emotional about my homeland Tibet: beyond the Himalayas, on the mountains, having nine months of winter and cut out from the rest of the world with majority Buddhism, it created a unique mentality. Hardy strong while equally compassionate. I believe there is a Tibetian mind which helps you deal with your happiness and your mistakes. Tibetan religion and culture come about with a basic ethos of dealing with happiness and sadness together with equanimity. However, there is a consistent effort from China to destroy this culture, so that everybody becomes consumers like them. Therefore I am extra emotional about my religion and culture because this is being systematically destroyed.

In your article, “Tibet: A Room for Hope?”, you said, “As an activist, I try Gandhi. Dalai Lama is too complicated. I keep my Guru at heart but work with Gandhi.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

I’m a very practical man. I practice Buddhism; although I don’t follow rituals, I am a Buddhist at heart. I find Gandhi’s confrontational non-violence more practical, than Dalai Lama’s self-effacing forgiving and forgoing behaviour and compassion to the point that you would give up your rights for others, for example, his practice of seeking autonomy within China. At the same time, I love and respect His Holiness Dalai Lama so much, because I think he’s going beyond the individual desire. I am caught into the nationalistic fervour, and he goes beyond that. However, I cannot pretend and follow something I don’t believe in.

Tibetian politics and religion are deeply intertwined. What are your views on this blend?

I would like to say Tibetans are confrontationally compassionate. Even though we aren’t physically fighting China with weapons and violence, we are spiritually putting up the best fight. The beauty of this spiritual struggle is that it guarantees your survival and without provoking the other, you are assuaging and instilling a sense of kind and compassion in them. I think our practice of non-violence has not only guaranteed the survival of our religion and culture; it has given us a great sense of purpose in life and a hope for a future. This practice truly is the religion we stand for, and that is our identity

What does freedom essentially mean to you? How far are we from it?

Freedom for me is not just kicking the Chinese out. It’s a human society; there will be a cycle of violence and injustice. Once we regain control over Tibet, there’s a lot of work to be done to decolonize. Many mechanisms in the functioning of the government have to be optimised. But I believe with a constant fight, we will achieve everything our land deserves.