Tenzin Tsundue won the first Outlook/Picador nonfiction writing prize in 2001. I was on the shortlist, and was naturally disappointed that I had not won. But then I read Tenzin’s winning essay, and was no longer disappointed. I didn’t mind losing to the eloquent passion and power of his “My Kind of Exile”: a stirring, wrenching statement about the sadness of exile, the meaning of being uprooted and unrooted.

Tenzin, of course, is Tibetan; he calls himself that even though he was born and grew to manhood here in India. He is Tibetan in his fierce yearning for a free country—that particular free country, of course—he can call home. There’s a paragraph in his essay about watching the Sydney Olympics on television, watching athletes from the world’s various countries turn out under their flags. Read it and feel Tenzin’s Tibetan loss, though hardly as acutely as he must feel it every day:

“I couldn’t see clearly anymore and my face felt wet. I was crying … I tried hard to explain to those around me. But they couldn’t understand, couldn’t even begin to understand … how could they? They belong to a nation. They have never had to conceive of its loss, they have never had to cry for their country.”

What must it mean to hold on to something as ephemeral, yet always real, as longing like this, for a nation? Somehow today, in these uncertain times of Iraq and terrorism and the Patriot Act, I find that question cutting even closer than it ever did. How close must it cut for Tenzin?

Besides his writing, Tenzin has repeatedly held up a metaphorical lantern for whoever cares to look at what it lights up. The things he does are designed to remind the world of one thing alone: how China has treated Tibet. Now maybe you think these are weak reminders, or that they hardly matter to most people. Maybe you even think Tibet hardly matters.

But it matters to Tenzin.

In early 2002, Tenzin chose spectacular style for his lantern act. During the then Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji’s visit to Bombay, Tenzin climbed the scaffolding erected on the outside of the Oberoi Hotel, where Zhu and his entourage were staying. He scrambled all the way up to the 14th floor. There, he unfurled a banner and a flag, and we all knew what this was about. “Free Tibet” was Tenzin’s message, close enough for the Chinese guests to see, impossible for them to ignore, large enough to be visible on hundreds of thousands of front pages the next day. He was led away by security, but that didn’t matter. He had made his point: China and its leaders would be nagged and reminded about Tibet, followed wherever they went in India.

This April, he did it once more. When Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao visited the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Tenzin turned up too. He appeared suddenly, high on an institute building, again with his flag and red “Free Tibet” banner. India Today reported that “he may have climbed the building three days in advance” to elude the tight security arrangements for Wen. He was led away by security again, this time jailed and beaten. The embarrassed Indian authorities offered their “regrets”—for what, I have to wonder—to the Chinese visitors, and the Bangalore police is having conniptions over how this “breach of security” happened.

But again, Tenzin had made his point.

In between, Tenzin keeps putting his passion into words too: “I feel I am a deity with multiple hands,” he once said to me. In a Times of India commentary not long ago, he actually criticized the Dalai Lama (not easily done, for a Tibetan) for saying he is willing to negotiate with China for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet within that country.
Whatever that phrase means, this much is clear about it: it is a dismaying comedown from the aspirations exiled Tibetans in India—like Tenzin—have nurtured for half a century. Their hope has been nothing less than full independence from China. Now watered down, courtesy the Dalai Lama, to “genuine autonomy” within China.

So, wrote Tenzin, the Dalai Lama does not go unopposed within the Tibetan community, especially among the youngsters who do not cow down … I can never think of being party to the corrupted Communist China, which has brutally massacred her own children on Tiananmen Square when they demanded freedom and democracy.

For Indians who have long believed Tibet must be free, it is particularly galling to watch the Indian courtship of the Chinese. These leaders must, at least, be steadily reminded of their country’s treatment of an entire people, and there was a time when we would have done just that.

In fact, the way we gave exiled Tibetans a home spoke of our sympathy with their plight, our determination to see them get their land and freedom back, and our disgust with China.

But today, that nauseating beast called “realpolitik” dictates that we fall over ourselves to welcome and schmooze the Zhus and Wens. It’s very simple: we want China to recognize our annexure of Sikkim. In return, we will be silent on Tibet.

And sure enough, that’s just what has happened. We reacted with a certain glee when Wen handed over a map he had brought, for it acknowledged our claim on Sikkim. We are also thrilled because China said it will “support” our hankering for that ultimate sign of India’s arrival at the big boys’ table—a permanent seat on the Security Council. Such are the crumbs for which we are craven enough to shut up about Tibet.

Fortunately, there are Tenzins out there, men neither as craven nor as willing to shut up, and utterly unaffected by the demands of realpolitik.

Power to your flag and banner, Tenzin. May they fly from a thousand more places, unexpectedly.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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