Poem of the week: Week Fourteen.

To do justice to the theme ‘Exile’, Tenzin Tsundue’s poetry has to be a part of it. This second poem of the said theme is from his first collection of poems Crossing the Border. I have reviewed the book here.

Crossing the border
Tenzin Tsundue

Creeping in the nights, hiding in the days,
we reached the snow mountains after twenty
          nights.
The border was away by several days still.
The rugged terrain withered us to strains.

Over our heads a bomber flew,
my children shrieked in fear,
I covered them under my bosom.
Exhaustion tore my limbs apart,
but my mind warned me…
We must go on or die here.
A daughter here, a son there,
a baby on my back,
we reached the snowfields.

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

In the middle of the white killing fields,
a heap of frozen corpses
set our weakening spirit trembling.
Blotches of blood spattered the snow.
The armymen must have crossed their path.
Our land has fallen to the red dragons.
We prayed to the ‘Yishin Norbu’.
With hope in our hearts,
prayers on our lips,
hardly anything to eat,
with only ice to quench our thirst,
we crawled for nights together. 

Then, one night, my daughter complained about
           a burning foot.
She stumbled and rose again on her frost-bitten
           leg.

Peeled and slashed with deep bloody cuts,
she reeled and writhed in pain.
By the next day, both her legs were severed.
Gripped by deaths all around,
I was a helpless mother. 
“Amala, save my brothers,
I shall rest here for a while”.

Till I could no longer see her fading figure,
till I could no longer hear her fainting wails,
I kept looking back in tears ans agony.
My legs carried me, but my spirit remained with
            her.

Long after in exile, I can still see her
waving her frost-bitten hands to me.
Eldest of them, yet just in her teens,
leaving home must have been tough for her.
Every night I light a lamp for her,
and her brothers join me in prayer.

Yishin Norbu – another title of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan.

Amala – Mother in Tibetan.

***

 

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.