Poetry book review: Crossing the Border

Title: Crossing the Border
Poet: Tenzin Tsundue
Publisher: Tenzin Tsundue
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 42
Rating: 4/5

Initially, I thought I won’t, in this review, comment on the Tibetan scene: the history of the land, and the plight of the refugees, etc. But then, I realised I can’t be writing about Tenzin Tsundue and his work without referring to the long political and cultural struggle of the Tibetans.

Ever since 1949, the Tibetans have been subjected to the atrocities of the Chinese government, when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army without any provocation. Since then, the Chinese forces have brutally overturned Tibet’s economy to suit their interests; have forced the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, to leave his homeland like a fugitive; have passed laws and not followed them; have destroyed numerous Tibetan monasteries and the valuable relics and manuscripts they housed, thereby maiming the Tibetan culture; have, by forcing arbitrary laws like instruction in Chinese in Tibetan schools and banning learning English until the Tibetans give up their language, under-equipped young Tibetans to pursue meaningful careers.

The Tibetans have tried to engage the Chinese government in a dialogue leading to a peace settlement – in keeping with the Tibetan Buddhist belief of non-violence. The Chinese government, however, has either ignored these proposals, or has agreed to things on paper and continued with the inhuman exploitation of Tibet. To this day, as we go on living our free, democratic lives, Tibetans are fighting for their right to basic human dignity.

Tenzin Tsundue is one of the many Tibetans whose families have been forced to leave their homeland and settle in India, Nepal, or Bhutan as refugees. This post is about my experience of reading his first poetry collection, Crossing the Border.

When my cousin handed me a book of poems by Tenzin Tsundue, I was through with reading the book in no time and also had numerous consequent readings. I might have read the book at least ten times now. I think that’s the beauty of a poetry book – every time you read it, a new understanding, a new meaning comes to life. Often, the one you had missed the last time around.

My cousin studied with Tsundue at University, and the copy I have is one of the first batches of Tsundue’s self-published book with a dedication in his hand. It gave me the feeling of being a tiny part of a larger yet intimate world of poets.

Tsundue dedicates his dream – the book – to the refugees who couldn’t make it across the border.

The most dominating theme of the book is that of yearning for the homeland and realising, at the same time, of having romanticized it:

The poem ‘Illusion’ is about the “statelessness”  refugees like Tsundue experience in their exile, and what happens when they finally get there:

I saw it there.

I tried to cross over.

I crossed over.

There wasn’t anything
on the other side of the bridge.

I thought I saw something
on the other side of the bridge.

It occurs again in the poem ‘A Personal Recconoitre’:

From Ladakh
Tibet is just a gaze away.
They said:
From that black knoll
at Dumtse, it’s Tibet.
For the first time, I saw
my country Tibet.
In a hurried hiding trip,
I was there, at the mound.

I didn’t see the border,
I swear there wasn’t anything
different, there.

They said the kyangs
come here every winter;
they said the kyangs
go there every summer.

In the poem ‘Crossing the Border’, from which the title of the book is derived, Tsundue writes about the painful, arduous journey on foot many Tibetans undertake to save their lives. Some don’t make it, some lose their loved ones on the way:

Through many monstrous mountains we crawled,
whose death-blankets often covered travellers
passing by.

Another theme that occurs in the book is that of the identity of an ‘Indian-Tibetan’:

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 more of an Indian.
Except for my chinky Tibetan face.
“Nepali?” “Thai?” “Japanese?”
“Chinese?” “Naga?” “Manipuri?”
but never the question – “Tibetan?”

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

In the same poem, Tsundue comments, in a bold voice, on the actions of the Chinese government and on way the world is handling the Tibetan situation:

Thirty-nine years in exile.
Yet no nation  supports us.
Not a single bloody nation!

We are refugees here.
People of a lost country.
Citizen to no nation.
Tibetans: the world’s sympathy stock…

Sometimes, his faith vanishes. But there is always hope in new beginnings:

Though in a borrowed garden
you grow, grow well my sister.
Send your roots
through the bricks,
stones, tiles and sand.
Spread your branches wide
and rise
above the hedges high.

Tashi Delek!

From the poem ‘Losar Greeting’.

You can help the Tibetan cause here.


The Fortieth Rule of Love

Ella approached the window and looked at the sky, which was an amazing indigo in all directions. It swirled with an invisible speed of its own, dissolving into nothingness and encountering therein infinite possibilities, like a whirling dervish:

“A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western… Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire! The universe turns differently when fire loves water.”


The Thirty-Ninth Rule of Love

Little by little one turns forty, fifty, and sixty and, with each major decade, feels more complete.You need to keep walking, though there’s no place to arrive at. The universe is turning, constantly and relentlessly, and so are the earth and the moon, but it is nothing other than a secret embedded within us human beings that makes it all move. With that knowledge we dervishes will dance our way through love and heartbreak even if no one understands what we are doing. We will dance in the middle of a brawl or a major war, all the same. We will dance in our hurt and grief, with joy and elation, alone and together, as slow and fast as the flow of water. We will dance in our blood. There is perfect harmony and subtle balance in all that is as was in the universe. The dots change constantly and replace one another, but the circle remains intact:

“While the parts change, the whole always remains the same. For every thief who departs this world, a new one is born. And every decent person who passes away is replaced by  a new one. In this way not only does nothing remain the same but also nothing ever really changes. For every Sufi who dies, another is born somewhere.”

The Thirty-Eighth Rule of Love

The first step is always the hardest:

“It is never too late to ask yourself, ‘Am I ready to change the life I am living? Am I ready to change within?’ Even if a single day in your life is the same as the day before, it surely is a pity. At every moment and with each new breath, one should be renewed and renewed again. There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.”