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.
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.
There was a pile of at least twenty milk cartons on our front stoop yesterday morning.
Although there are heaps of litter everywhere and no garbage cans, there is a collection service — an open-bed green truck that charges up the road every morning — and I have never found trash like that in front of the cafe.
My manager discovered a small booklet lying amongst the refuse, one that is used to record orders in a restaurant — a particular restaurant (the name printed upon it), one “Taste of India.” It’s just down the road.
They walked uphill at least 100 feet to dump their garbage on our doorstep.
“Should I go down there and say something to them, or is that too American?”
“Too American. They are Indian, and we are Tibetan. There is not a good relationship between the two communities,” she waved her hands around a bit, “…”
She explained that there would be no point in talking to them, nothing would be done. I bet there was a bit of a peaceful Buddhist perspective in there as well; here, I am more aware of my American upbringing than ever before. We spent the morning discussing local stories of discrimination against Tibetans by Indian police, and I shared a little bit about Chicago.
Out of respect for her, I won’t say anything directly to the restaurant. But I stopped eating there long before this, and I am spreading the word amongst the travellers I know. Just a little organizing, just a little sprinkle of American resistance tactics.
Last night, young people from all over the world squeezed into a room, sitting knee to knee on the floor, to hear a former political prisoner tell his story. The room doubled as a classroom during the day, hosting free English classes for Tibetans to which foreign volunteers are welcome. Monks padded quietly amongst the seated youth, passing out plates of noodles – a fundraising meal. The ex-prisoner and his translator sat in small plastic chairs at the front of the simple room; over the next hour and a half, we heard his story in disjointed pieces.
In 1989, he was one of a group of six Tibetan Buddhist monks arrested in China for resisting the regime. The exact charges were not clear due to the translator’s modest ability to speak English. The speaker was held for three years in a Chinese prison, forced into hard labor for long hours, interrogated and tortured.
“We were not human to them, not human,” he said, over and over.
China invaded Tibet in 1959, claiming that it had previously been territory some hundreds of years before; Tibetans argue otherwise, that it was always an independent country. The invasion forced His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the political and religious leader of Tibet, to flee with his government. Being a peaceful, inward-focused country with little development or weaponry, there was no reasonable defense. H. H. the Dalai Lama currently resides in Upper Dharamsala, a.k.a. McLeodganj, in the Indian Himalayas, and maintains the Tibetan government in exile. Many Tibetans followed him over the years, attempting to maintain their culture and language as refugees in a foreign country. Their children struggle with identity and connection.
The ex-prisoner’s face held no expression, his eyes staring into the wall as he listened blankly to the translation. When the translator paused to listen again, he leaned over and spoke quietly in Tibetan, stone-faced. I sat at his feet, near the door, having arrived just before his talk began. His eyes fell into mine and I instinctively smiled – a small smile broke his face in response, and I felt relieved to find some piece of him still alive beneath the experience.
When he was released from prison in 1992, he was not allowed to return to his monastery; the Chinese police constantly monitored his movements. After remaining in Tibet for six years under those conditions, he made the arduous months-long journey over the mountains, through Nepal, to Dharamsala. He told us, “Maybe physical freedom, but without mental liberation, there is no peace.”
Finally in India, the physical and mental damage of the torture prevented him from succeeding in his studies of Tibetan Buddhism, although he tried for several years.
Fifty years after the invasion, the situation continues to worsen. Those remaining in Tibet face oppression, violence, and a constant influx of Chinese settlers sent to destabilize the Tibetan community. Tibetan Buddhism is actively suppressed by the Chinese government, and it is illegal to have a picture of H. H. the Dalai Lama – he is considered a threat to China due to his activism around Tibetan issues and strong popularity amongst the Tibetan population, and the world.
Some believe that China will hold out on a peaceful solution until H. H. the Dalai Lama dies, thinking that the Tibetan cause will die with him.