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.
Sitting on a borrowed cushion, I fiddled with the tuner on my radio, attempting to find the English translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
Thousands of people had gathered in the temple complex, a select few sitting in the room proper, the rest filling the balconies and courtyard. I had slept through the morning session and was late for the afternoon one — ate a muffin while charging through the streets, consistently rushing to class wherever I am in the world.
I had circumambulated the inner temple partly out of respect and partly to see what there was to see. As I mentioned before, walking clockwise around sacred objects (kora in Tibetan) is done to gain merit. As I made my way around the building, crowds of eyes pushed me along, but for a long moment I had been able to see H. H. the Dalai Lama through the main temple opening, his elevated seat draped in gold fabric, speaking into two microphones. Young monks in saffron robes took notes while the youngest played with tiny plastic airplanes. Turning another corner, an older group of monks filled the large southern balcony, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of my gender. Moving by individuals leaning into microphones offering the various translations, I made my way back to the main seating area.
Having settled into a good spot in the lower courtyard, I had pulled out my radio, only to discover that it refused to pick up the correct frequency for English. Or maybe the problem was that the language changed on the same setting if I pointed the antenna a different direction. And French was not one of them either.
As I was messing with it, a Tibetan toddler wandered up, curious. Considering that it was already broken, I showed him how to pull the antenna up and down, which was very exciting. He took it from me and waved it around; then with a “pew, pew!” he shot at me, antenna blazing, as I died dramatically. Arguably inappropriate for a Buddhist lecture. He reached up and gently pulled the headphones out of my ears and tried to put them in his own. His embarrassed mother arrived and swept him away before I could put on some foreign language that neither of us understood but might be fun to listen to.
Eventually I did get to hear a bit of the lecture, sharing an earbud with a friend. Sitting among a crowd of Tibetans, thumbing through my prayer beads, and contemplating H. H. the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, for everyone, even your enemies, was meaningful on its own.
But the experience of being a few feet away from him as he walked out of the hall has no words.
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.