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Leaving Majnu Ka Tilla

Majnu Ka Tilla,  the Tibetan “colony”, extends along the large Yamuna river which runs through the eastern side of Delhi. Strings of prayer flags distinguish the neighborhood from its Indian neighbors across the broad, bustling thoroughfare ; to the east, trees close the final distance between the buildings and the riverbank. A forest meets Yamuna’s other edge the city’s protected woodland.

This means that, unlike most places in Delhi, you can see the stars from my rooftop.

Look west, and the dense lights turn the haze into cloud cover and drown any celestial attempt to be seen. Overhead, the sky fades into potential sparkle, and as you look out over the river, the stars fully arrive in the darkness, filling out the east. 

Jyoti, my Belgian/Nepali roommate, left Delhi for a Vipassana retreat, which is a particular and intense form of meditation. My time here is winding down as well: after extending by more than a month, I’m looking at the last two weeks of so in the country, spending time with local friends and preparing for the final haul — the challenge of Kolkata, and the east. 

I invite a friend to come by after work and enjoy the rare view of the stars, promising to attempt proper chai with the supplies brought back from Vishnu’s tea shop in Varanasi. 

Jyoti and I had no trouble adding each other to our rooms when either was coming or going, and I thought nothing of it. In the early afternoon, I swung by the desk to let the receptionist know that I had another person coming tonight, honoring the notice declaring that guests must be registered if they are there after a certain hour.

The receptionist asks for the nationality of the guest.
Indian.
And she explains that only Tibetans and foreigners are allowed.

I’ve been living next door to this woman on and off for a month now; I adjust the truth and look for a loophole, banking on my longterm presence. It seems possible to get around the rule, and I go back upstairs, exhausted from irregular sleep.

In the half-waking daze post-nap, I remember DePaul, ethics, and myself. It doesn’t take long to pack.

Indians are allowed to work in the guest house and attached restaurant, although it is run by Tibetans and owned by a Nepali. The young guys who wash their clothes on the rooftop and snooze in the afternoon, who carefully treated me with respect, are the grunt labor, working in the kitchen or on the cleaning staff. Even the one who sleeps in the lobby at night, there to unlock the door if needed, is Indian.

I lay the keys on the desk, backpack on. Having promised to not do anything dramatic, I lay words on carefully: I’m leaving but will pay for tonight, because I know it is past the check-out time, although I was supposed to stay for the rest of my time in Delhi. 

“You’ve been kind to me, and I’m grateful for that,” I go on, and she gives a real smile, the first true one I’ve seen from her. And then,

“I know you just work here, that you do not make the rules, but please tell the owner that I am deeply offended, and will not stay where my friends are not welcome.” Her face drops, then almost looks as if she could cry when she hears what I say next.

“When Tibetans fled the Chinese, Indians welcomed them into their country. That Tibetans won’t allow them into a guest house is unacceptable.” I gesture at the enormous framed image of the Dalai Lama occupying almost an entire wall of the lobby, and say, “You have to take down the photo of His Holiness [hitting home with their terms] or allow everyone.”

And walk out in her silence, returning to Paharganj, the chaotic old market budget neighborhood where harassment is plenty and the people let you know exactly what they think.

This is not a condemnation of the entire Tibetan community. That would require standing on the outside in judgment,  rather than acknowledging the complex, conflictual dynamics between the two cultural and national entities. There has certainly been unfair conduct from Indians towards Tibetans (and I experience far more harassment from Indian men), but marking injustice where it occurs must be done on both sides. The Tibetan community tends to be privileged, especially by foreigners. And the exclusivity at the guest house, especially matched with employment of cheap (Indian) labor, is deeply problematic and unproductive. 

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The Tibetan Corner of Delhi

Majnu Ka Tilla is also called “the Tibetan colony,” although even with the direct bus to McLeodganj, you couldn’t call the Tibetan presence in India an empire.

It’s a small neighborhood in the northeastern part of Delhi, bordering the river. It’s a rougher, slightly more urban version of McLeodganj: a mixture of modern and old, with saffron-robed monks sitting in restaurants and elderly ladies pacing the streets in their chupas. The Dalai Lama lectures from the odd t.v. screen blasting his voice into the street from a shelf in a shop. His face is for sale via sticker, postcard, or button. The whole space seems less strained in my eyes, probably improved by the lack of traffic. The “streets” are really alleys, windy footpaths slipping around buildings that reject most wheeled trouble. Eating has suddenly abandoned pain; the noodle soups and steamed momos a gentle celebration of relief. And my spice tolerance has actually improved since traveling in India.

The real reason I am here, however, can be seen if you are paying attention: women work in the shops and restaurants, they walk alone or with their friends. A deeper wave of relief arrives and washes my eyes with a rosy delight. I feel safer here, less disrupted, slipping in with their more balanced gender ratio. It affects how I am treated from the guest house to the coffee shop.

The upper part of the neighborhood holds the central row of market stalls, layered with similar yet competing piles of scarves and blankets, dust & pollution masks, the staple metal thermoses which largely seem used for tea, and winter clothes for the nighttime cold. This is also where most of the restaurants are, plus the (upper budget) hotels. The cluster of tiny temples mark the central area. The lower area is the most beautiful, and the quietest. Vines weave down banisters, flower pots dot inner courtyards, and the old crumbling buildings shelter a charm that my mind connects back to quiet European neighborhoods.

I spend three days trying to find a place to live in the prettiest end, but settle on a top floor room with crusting water-dripped walls and a shared bathroom — more in my budget. All is redeemed by my view: each rooftop is bedecked with prayer flags, and in one direction you can see the green-shouldered river as far as the Sikh gurdwara, if the pollution haze is low. Some of the strings of prayer flags connect buildings, and I imagine the planning process; someone throwing a weighted end to another waiting on an adjacent rooftop, hoping to hit the mark and not a window. All now a tangle at various degrees of worn, they flutter and dream for the community below.

Until Tomorrow

I flew to the other side of the world and built a simple, normal life in a mountain town.

Routines in Chicago swept significance aside, making me groan about the speed at which my life flowed, driving me away from the familiar and up into the Himalayan Mountains. Where I proceeded to reconstruct my life back in the States.

It’s not simply that I lingered for a month, with regular (although volunteer) employment and friends. I organized a solo female traveler’s women’s group, complete with meetings, a contact list, and casual events. Once I started helping one of my charity’s co-founders with networking, community development, and social media, it became quite clear that I had to leave McLeodganj if I was going to do any of this solo work.

But routine can be a gift once you see it form unexpectedly. I could see how significance was built, as I grew to know more and more people after starting with nothing, and saw my friendships deepened. For a brief time, I could feel as if I lived in McLeodganj.

When we follow the routes that have been laid before us without examination or thought, it is harder to see their complexity and importance. To live in Chicago and never go to the top of the Sears tower is normal; and almost every tourist attempts it. I tried to get to the top of the tower before I left, but I was too busy saying goodbye to friends. How beautiful is that?

Once I realized I was nearly halfway through my time in India, I knew I had to go or I would not finish in time. I closed down my life, passed on my responsibilities, and packed. Again.

One particular good-bye was difficult. My friend/co-worker/boss and I had become close friends; I had come to respect how her insight and humor helped me process the challenging side of India. My visions of self-improvement, of yoga and Hindi classes, fell aside as I focused on the café, on her dreams and story.

We hugged goodbye and I promised to return; when I said I would miss her as well, she responded with her classic “Truly??”

Leaving me with the café, off to finish work at the office, she shouted “sange jeyo!” through the open window. In Tibetan, the words for “goodbye” actually mean “see you tomorrow,” making it feel as if I would greet her the next morning like always, and begin to mop the floors while she sets out the baked goods, and we tell each other our stories and ideas for the future.

I will miss her, and my life there. Truly.

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