Little Tibet: World Within a World

This is the place my heart will yearn for once we leave and return to the dust-coated, sun-drenched streets of Delhi with its din and traffic and honking and cows and boars and guys selling random stuff at traffic stops and the occasional camel.

We have been hiding out here in Majnu ka Tilla — at a Tibetan refugee camp — for nearly two weeks now. There is a big square in the middle of the place with a huge Tibetan Buddhist temple, and in every guesthouse, restaurant, and shop, the Dalai Lama smiles benevolently from the wall, sometimes flanked by lesser-lamas on either side, sometimes with seven candles lit beneath him. Dalai Lama look-alikes roam the streets with their faces glued to mobile phones dressed in maroon and orange robes. (Seriously, I have never seen so many monks looking at mobile phones in my life.) One of the monks said of our child:

“He looks like a monk.”

“She’s a she.”

“She looks like a monk.”

The buildings here are close together, blocking the sun, with stone walkways between them, so you are in the shade most of the time. There is no trash anywhere, and there are very few flies, and there is a sign on the wall that says “Please do not pee here,” and they have good wifi and good coffee and affordable guesthouses with hot water and ice cream. Most of the restaurants sell “buff” — buffalo — and so, like a good American, my favorite food here is a plate of steamed buff momos (a dim sum type of thing) and a Coke in a glass bottle. I like to partake of these sitting in front of a big high def TV with some Bollywood film on.

We once tried a Tibetan dish called “Lowa.”

What is it, we asked.

Meat, they said.

Turns out it was stuffed goat lung.

Yesterday we met a Chinese lady who called herself a “living Buddha.” She was perfectly nice, but I must admit I thought her a bit pretentious.

Turns out “living Buddha” is a thing: the Chinese government has made a living Buddha registry with 800-something government-certified living buddhas, evidently to protect its people from all the fake buddhas running around out there

I say to this Buddha-lady, “I haven’t seen many Chinese people here.” And she says, “98% of these people are Chinese.”

“Huh? Oh! You mean, they’re Tibetan. And Tibet is part of China.”

“Yes, she says. To us, Tibetan, Chinese, it is the same.”

And this, I think, is the most fascinating (and kind of sad) thing about this place. A generation or two back — 1959, to be precise — Tibetans fled to India from Tibet because, among other reasons (like, you know, the whole oppressive Communist regime thing), they felt they were a people distinct from the Chinese. And certainly, they have a distinct culture and national identity. Many of them came here — specifically, to Majnu ka Tilla — to bide their time while the ideological struggle for Tibet — with its concomitant “free Tibet” T-shirts and bumper stickers — waged on, in the hopes that the exiles would all one day return to their homeland.

Today, Tibet is subject to constant surveillance, re-education programs, a deliberate attempt to dilute the Tibetan ethnicity, isolation from the rest of the world, and — the terror of these kinds of regimes — constant fear of getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing. Some claim that Tibet one of the areas in the world with the least freedom, ranking even lower than North Korea.

In protest, some Tibetans resort to self-immolation.

In 1959, India opened its arms to Tibetan refugees, and doubtless, most Tibetans in India live in relative comfort and freedom. Up on the footbridge over the road outside Majnu ka Tilla — the one decorated with colorful Tibetan prayer flags — there is a big picture of the Dalai Lama with a quote of his, expressing the Tibetans’ gratitude toward and friendship with India. Here in Delhi, the Tibetans have a close-knit, peaceful community with a school for their children called TCV — a school that teaches traditional Tibetan culture, values, and language. They tend to marry within their group, and thereby maintain a national identity. You walk down the narrow walkways and you see shopkeepers watching Tibetan parliament meetings on TV, a gathering of the leaders of the government-in-exile.

The thing is, most of these people are not likely to return to Tibet. Even the Dalai Lama has said as much.

And even if they did return, Tibet is not what it used to be:

It is —

as the living Buddha pointed out —

part of China.

And for us, it’s another world into which we peer as strangers — cut off by language, culture, identity, and — perhaps — to some degree — different ways of being.

The other day I sat in my favorite café with the momos and the Coke and the big TV — with my baby on my lap — (a baby is the best ambassador, my mother-in-law has said) — and there were three British girls to my right, speaking their British-Hindi, looking at pictures of guys on their mobile phones and giggling. To my left, there was an South Indian couple speaking Malayalam — the woman feeding the man with her hand, the man wrapping a tendril of the woman’s hair around her finger. As I tried to eat my buff momos, and as I thought about the different private worlds we all inhabit — miles apart in language and experience, yet so close in physical proximity — the North Indian waiter took my fussy American baby girl and walked her around the room, then gave her to the Tibetan waiter, and they talked baby talk to her and made her smile, and later the couple from Kerala came and talked to me, and I found out they weren’t married, but the woman winked at me and so I knew she really had the hots for this guy, and I realized again that there are certain human functions that bring us all together, despite our culture, our language, our habits, good and bad:

Babies.

Bollywood.

Feeding one’s lover with one’s hands. (Ok, maybe I’m too American for that one).

Coke in glass bottles.

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