The refugee is a universal figure in the 21st century. The refugee figure’s existence became apparent following a series of pogroms, persecutions and wars in the 20th century and it was formally recognised by United Nations in the 1920s following World War I. Despite the refugee’s universal existence, every refugee’s experience is deeply personal and unique. The skeletal structure of the refugee figure is the same everywhere: A conflict breaks out, a single community of people is targeted and those who can flee, do so, leaving behind a whole life and carrying their drive for survival, language, culture, and memories.

June 20 is designated as the World Refugee Day by the United Nations and the weeks leading up to this day are accompanied by a sense of anxiety for a refugee like me. It is a certain guilt that speaks to us, prompting us to action. I am not sure if non-refugees are similarly plagued by a quest “to do something” about this day, or about the time that is granted to us in survival. In The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, writer and translator, Tenzin Dickie, brings together a unique collection of essays by Tibetan writers, written and translated into English.

‘A cleft in time’

Tenzin Tsundue invokes the guilt of living in freedom. But this kind of anthology is precisely a result of that “guilt” – a healthy and necessary consequence of a survivor’s guilt. Who would Odyessus be without narrating his tale of survival after the Trojan War? Who is a refugee if not a survivor who wonders, “Why me? Why was I spared? But first, why did I have to leave my home?” These questions haunt every refugee and it is these questions that lead them to tell their story.

This anthology of non-fiction memoir essays by Tibetans features prominent writers like Bhuchung D Sonam, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, poet-activist Tenzin Tsundue, Ann Tashi Slater and Chhimi Tenduf-la attempts to answer these questions. It also contains notable essays by 26 contributors such as Jamyang Norbu, Pema Bhum, Tenzing Sonam, and Sangdor among others including seven translated essays by Tenzin Dickie, Pema Tsewang Shastri, Lowell Cook, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Dhondup T Rekjong, Dechen Pemba, and Catherine Tsuji.

Svetlana Alexievich writes, “It takes at least 50 years for an event to become history…” It has been over 50 years since the first Tibetan uprising in 1959. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers fled to India through the treacherous Himalayan landscape and the Tibetan refugees found their base in McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala. That was the first Tibetan exodus followed by another in the 1980s. The third wave of exiles who sought refuge in India between the 1990s to 2020s.

Sixty-four years ago, the first Tibetans arrived in India, Nepal, Bhutan and other neighbouring countries, escaping Chinese prosecution after years of protests throughout the 1950s that culminated in the 1959 uprising in Lhasa. The Tibetan uprising is a singular moment that essentially changed the course of every known Tibetan life. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa calls that time in Tibetan history “a cleft in time”. Many fled with their families, some fled alone and most would send over their children to different parts of India and Nepal to study at the schools run by Tibetan Children’s Village.

The thing about lived histories, retellings, and memoirs is that the intersections of these genres carry tales of a fractured community. A memoir indicates a break away from the conventional, from the societal norms and contains real-life stories that defy expectations, and highlights some painful truths about survival and living with the pain.

This book is a collection of many such real-life accounts about defying the odds of crossing the harsh-weathered Himalayan roads, smuggling into another nation to survive, leaving your family and loved ones behind and not knowing if you’ll ever see them again, doing your best to follow a set path in the adopted nation and navigate racism, poverty, the mostly cold and mostly rainy weather of Dharamsala, the heat of North India, the taste of sambar, the ghettos of Kathmandu, Losar, the Tibetan New year – a reminder of lost relationships, the complicated ways of assimilation into the immigrant communities in Nepal, Bhutan, and some Indian states and many western nations where the Tibetan population is now scattered and consists as a nation of people and communities without a nation to their name.

Poet and translator Bhuchung D Sonam, paints the very picture of the loneliness of survival in exile – away from parents, family, loved ones, festivals, gatherings, celebrations, and mourning. How does a young boy survive and make a home in a different nation? Over the years Sonam has painstakingly documented the Tibetan lives in exile in his poetry and other writings and yet, the essay “Unhealed” might be his most personal and heartbreaking yet. He states that “the exile is love lost…a compromise.” But there’s strength in opening and laying bare the threads that bind together an exiled existence. And the way Sonam defines his life story is how one can describe every exile’s life: “a resistance to being forgotten.”

Novelist Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poignant essay “Nation of Two” gives a unique insight into the multi-layered, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural ways of navigating exile in India and Nepal. By tracing the trajectory of her mother’s life and how she brought up Dhompa in exile, Dhompa focuses both on the minute details of a mother-daughter relationship and simultaneously paints a picture of a community of women who carried on with the task of living, surviving, and loving in exile.

Chimmi Tenduf-la narrates a Tibetan life in Sri Lanka in “The Prince of Tibet” that deviates from the cultural bond most share with their Tibetan identity. Tenzin Dickie writes an essay about the functioning of a “non-embassy” office run by the Tibetan government in the United States. Ann Tashi Slater contemplates her relationship with her mother in “Calcutta Evening” and the life of her grandmother in Darjeeling and wonders about what is passed on to the next generation while surviving a life-threatening medical condition in “Travelling in Bardo”.

Tenzin Dickie’s introduction deserves separate mention for its clarity of thought and the urgency and need for Tibetan voices to be heard. Dickie succeeds as an editor in the task of bringing together varied voices from the community. She raises a radical notion that perfectly describes what it means to be a Tibetan in today’s time, “exile is an essential condition” (for Tibetans) both living in and outside Tibet.

A yearning for home

The original event of the Tibetan exodus, now history, gave rise to three generations of Tibetans in India: the ones who were the first to arrive and lived with their lives sliced into two halves: the first half spent in Tibet before 1959 and the second half spent in exile. This was followed by the generation of Tibetans born in different nations in South Asia to those who worked hard to create a life for themselves. Most of the Tibetans who arrived in 1959 and 1960s worked as manual labourers and built the roads of Manali. The third generation is the one born in the 1990s and after.

Tenzin Tsundue, well known for his activism for Tibetan freedom and his poetry, wrote two essays for this anthology. In his poetry, he depicts what it means to be a refugee. A yearning for home appears in his poem “Exile House” with the lines,

Our tiled roof dripped
and the four walls threatened to fall apart
but we were to go home soon

But the poem soon turns into a question of identity.

The fences have grown into a jungle,
now how can I tell my children
where we came from?

His writings and activism detail the struggles of the Tibetan community in exile. A well-known anecdote that has turned into an oral history legend is that at the age of 22, he crossed into the Tibetan territory from the Indian border at Ladakh, was caught by Chinese patrol guards stationed at the Tibetan border, jailed, tortured and was one of the few who lived to tell the tale. In his essay, “Nowhere to Call Home”, he puts this incident on paper.

Tenzin Tsundue writes in his poem “My Tibetanness” about the second and third generation of Tibetan refugees: At every check-post and office,

I am an “Indian-Tibetan”.
My Registration Certificate,
I renew every year, with a salaam.
A foreigner born in India.

I am Tibetan.
But I am not from Tibet.
Never been there.
Yet I dream
of dying there.

He evokes a similar sentiment in his essays, “My Kind of Exile” and “Nowhere to Call Home” in this anthology. The Tibetan refugee is a complicated figure, according to Tsundue. They belong to neither Tibet nor India. Their documents and official bureaucratic language hesitate to call them refugees. They are considered “foreigners”. There is racism directed at their facial features.

The third generation is not as connected to the language as previous generations. Even when Tibetans get a chance for a reunion with their family back in Tibet, they can hardly remember what their parents or siblings look like. Those punished for carrying Tibetan flags or “Free Tibet” posters and surviving the prison have no choice except to flee to India. Since 2009, Tibetans even took to the act of self-immolation as a form of protest. The latest one is the musician Tsewang Norbu whose manner of death was not confirmed in official records and his music and social media presence has all but disappeared from Chinese media and the internet.

As I read the essays in this collection, I recalled Norbu’s song “Returning Home” which he sang on a Chinese variety show in 2021 and captivated the audience and judges present there has become an anthem since his death. In that performance, he had subtly replaced the word “Nagchu” with “homeland Tibet” as described on the website High Peaks Pure Earth and a single utterance of the word Tibet remains etched in my memory. It made me think about the power of the word “Tibet” sung by Norbu and the power of the written word.

The essays in this anthology are an evocation. They evocate lived experiences of Tibetans in exile and Tibetans in Tibet who do not have the luxury of speaking up without facing persecution.

It is the first anthology of essays by Tibetans-in-exile published in India but it certainly should not be the last. For decades, Tibetans have continued to hold on to their language, culture, religion, and traditions in the tightly-knit exiled communities and have their own elected government-in-exile. By recording and documenting their lives, they are leaving an imprint and a roadmap for the next generation. Hence, they too remember the homeland and the taste of the Tibetan staple, Tsampa, even if it is narrated to them in a song.

This exercise of bringing together an anthology of memoirs reminded me of Anne Berest’s words on inter-generational trauma in The Postcard, “Psychomagic, as Jodorowsky says, are places in the genealogical tree that are traumatised and unprocessed, eternally seeking relief. From these places, arrows are launched toward future generations. Anything that is not resolved, must be repeated and will affect someone else, a target located one or more generations in the future.”

Books like these are psychomagic too. The words they carry are the arrows shot into the future, if not to resolve the trauma, at least to remember what happened and how their previous generations survived while carrying the weight of the word “refugee”.

The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie, Penguin India.