At the first glance, he looks like a direct import from the hippie days: long hair and a red bandana over the forehead, glasses with a black rim, an ethnic kurta (he’d insist it is Tibetan), complete with jeans and Lee Cooper shoes. A strikingly different personality in the crowd! Introduce him as a poet, he’d oppose vehemently. He prefers to call himself an activist, working for the cause of Tibetan freedom.
This is Tenzin Tsundue for you: a Tibetan refugee born in India, a poet who writes in English (has already published two books of poems, essays and stories, Crossing the Border and Kora), and an ardent fighter for the Tibetan cause, currently working as a general secretary of the organization, ‘Friends of Tibet, India.’
Tibet is in his blood. He breathes and thinks Tibet. But where is the real motherland? His generation knows about it only through their elders’ tales. For them, it’s only a dot on the map, a place occupied by Communist China.
For Tenzin, it’s a difficult experience to be a refugee, an exile: "You grow up in different places thinking about your home that you have never seen." It’s very much like Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. Some years ago, he remembers crying while watching opening of the Olympic Games on TV, because his country was not represented in the march past. He writes: "I am Tibetan/ But I am not from Tibet/ Never been there/ Yet, I dream/ Of dying there."
It was this sense of identity crisis that led him into the path of activism. For him the Tibetans in the world are a desperate lot, scattered all over, and losing their identity by the day, especially the new generation. It is important to make them understand their predicament, their glorious past and their present. Tenzin explains discreetly: "I’m not a poet, or a writer. Whatever I write is just to create awareness, to spread the views across."
Currently based in Dharmashala, Himachal Pradesh, the seat of His Holiness Dalai Lama, 31-year-old Tenzin has a colourful, not to mention hazardous experience of life. He was born in Manali where his parents worked as labours. Though his parents later settled down in Karnataka, there was no home for Tenzin. He travelled from Karnataka to Dharmashala, then to Madras to do graduation and to Bombay to do an MA.
In Bombay his talents for writing found an outlet. He published his first book of poems Crossing the Border with money begged and borrowed from his classmates. In 2002, he published his second collection of poems, essays and stories called Kora. But his biggest literary achievement remains the first prize he received in the first ever "Outlook Picador Awards for Non-Fiction" in 2001.
The reality of being a refugee looms large in Tenzin’s personality. He writes: "We are refugee here/ People of a lost country/ Citizen of no nation."
The innocence and sincerity of hill people ooze from Tenzin as he speaks. Again, his revolution is restrained, stemming from his Buddhist cultural background. For Tenzin, being a Tibetan comes with being a Buddhist, which he sees one of the reasons why the struggle for Tibetan freedom has not geared up, as it should have been. Buddhism teaches tolerance, suffering and acceptance. That is why Tibetans (especially refugees) are not coming together to fight back the strong clutches of Imperial China. Tenzin writes: "But we are Buddhist/ People say we should be/ Peaceful and non violent/ So I forgive my enemy."
But in reality Tenzin could never forgive his enemy. As he explains Buddhist non-violence as different from Gandhi’s politically motivated non-violence, thereby failing to achieve the Tibetan aim, he has some other strategies. He believes, sooner or later, the Tibetans have to wage their war against China, and, for the present, he is doing the groundwork, motivating the youth. The process may be slow, but there’s progress nonetheless. For one thing, Tenzin and his group have been successful in banning the sale of ‘Made in China’ products in and around Dharmashala. He hopes to spread this agenda all over India.
At the same time, patriotism for Tenzin is a personal choice. He was enamoured by Tibet and its tragic sense of lose so much so that after graduating from Madras, he braved snowstorms and treacherous mountains, broke all rules and restrictions, crossed the Himalayas on foot and went to forbidden Tibet. The purpose was to see the situation under Chinese occupation and to find out if he could lend a hand or two in the freedom struggle. He was arrested by the Chinese Border Police in Lhasa before being deported to India.
Then in January 2002, Tenzin grabbed the media attention when he climbed the scaffolding to the 14th floor of the Oberoi Towers in Mumbai to unfurl the Tibetan national flag and a banner which read ‘Free Tibet,’ at the time when Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was inside attending a business conference.
This is Tenzin Tsundue, a living passion for the Tibetan freedom, the post revolutionary.