One sunny morning, I walked into one of the many Tibetan refugee cooperatives in Leh. Basically a courtyard with tiny tented shops, it was reminiscent of flea markets all over the world, with the notable difference that the vendors here were people who’d been displaced from their homeland. It was relatively early in the morning, and they looked at me without interest as I walked past their shops and watched them dust out their wares and display them. There was a strange aura of inertia which I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I examined a silver pendant and moved on, but not before I heard the old lady behind the counter tell her daughter in a derisive undertone that it was best not to waste her time trying to sell to Indians, that the Western tourists would come soon with their dollars …
Up ahead, a young Tibetan girl stood out amongst her inscrutable brethren by actually laughing and chatting with some Indian window shoppers. I made a beeline towards her. “You can’t blame my people,” said she, when I commented on how few of the shopkeepers seemed even interested in selling their wares, “they’re not here out of choice, this isn’t where they want to be…”
Her name was Sonam, said she, and her family had escaped from Tibet 16 years ago when she was just a baby, and made the arduous trek across the Himalayas to safety in India. “We’d left everything we owned behind in Lhasa, not just our land and homes, but also a way of life which perhaps we’ll never regain,” she said. Her words were poignant, but the old lady’s comment still rankled.
Sonam beckoned me to her stall, where she and her mother strung turquoise, lapis and coral beads into gorgeous jewellry. “We went straight to Dharamsala when we arrived in India,” she went on, “for we knew that was our best bet.” For Dharamsala, which she referred to as ‘the seat of their government in exile’ extended every possible help it could to people like Sonam. She was put in a school for Tibetan children there. “We had wonderful teachers, mostly westerners who wanted to do their bit for Tibet,” she reminisced, “there was never any dearth of books to read, games to play — all these were sent from across the world for children like me. Volunteers even took us trekking in the mountains!”
Listening to her, I reflected that Sonam had probably had a better education than most kids of privileged backgrounds. But in my experience, people who visibly thrive when things fall into their laps, sometimes tend not to do so well when they have to create their own destinies. This is exactly what seemed to have happened to Sonam.
“Unfortunately,” she went on in her perfect English, “while our government and all those western volunteers ensured that we got a good education and lacked for nothing in our childhood, they have not been able to get us good jobs now that we are adults,” said she, “so even though I am educated, speak fluent English, I have no job prospects at all. So I sit here with my mother and sell the jewellry we make to tourists…”
Just then, a couple of unsuspecting Germans sauntered in. The ghetto (for that’s how it seemed to me) instantly roused itself from its inertia and began exhorting them to see their wares. It was a generation that had shackled itself to Western munificence, I reflected sadly. How would freedom, if and when it comes to them, rest easy upon its shoulders?
6 months ago