Body Belongs

A Tibetan poet and activist explains how one can belong intensely to one’s convictions, when one’s body is subjected to torture.

The Tibetan Body Politic

A conversation with Tenzin Tsundue, poet and Tibetan activist

Rizio: Even as human thought has reached a certain advancement in the 21st century, we find that the world over people are discriminated against in the name of race, caste, class, etc., as evident from the presence of their bodies. As a Tibetan in India, how do you see such discriminations? Do you have any experience of it, and how do you resist and cope?

Tenzin Tsundue: Human beings, I believe, are essentially as selfish and self-serving as all animals; being territorial and protecting the clan are survival skills. We have come a long way as humans, trying to go beyond primeval instincts. We all face discrimination in our times, just that the ration for each is different. Carrying a ‘chinki’ face in India is an oddity. I am called names openly in public, everywhere. At some point of the day I am sure to meet someone who would openly call me out as ‘Chinese’ or suggestively say ‘Ching Chong’. And I do not want to fight; I am not interested and have not the time or energy either. So sometimes when I hear such things, I go up to them and talk back in Tamil “Enna da, enna venum? Apdiya, ungalke Tamil thereliya, seri, na basha le pesringe, ha..bhaya..bolo kya baat hai?” (Hello, what do you want? Oh, I see you don’t know Tamil, eh? Alright, then I’ll talk in your language. Ha, brother, tell me, what’s the matter?). Sometimes, in a metro, I give a big bhashan (speech) so that everybody hears about our country being sawa sau karor (having a population of 125 crore), and that India is Ladakh to Kanyakumari and Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat. If you confront negativity with empathy and a sense of humour, a certain inviolability can be achieved.

R: As a Tibetan striving to build a nation, have your experiences, both positive and negative, in India, China and elsewhere, helped you visualise its people? Is Tibet a nation that would embrace all? How would you describe the body of the Tibetan nation in your vision? How would you bring it into practical reality?

TT: I think from the pastoral and nomadic old Tibet to the colonised and occupied country under China, Tibet has undergone significant changes. From the chaotic experiments of socialism to the now rampant capitalism, Tibet has seen in 60 years what Europe tried in 200 years. But the idea of the Tibetan nation, I believe, is still there. It is not just the military, the law, the market and the mining pits that have scarred the Tibetan plateau. The real aspiration of our nation today is to recreate Tibet by recognising its people as its true wealth. Their culture, creativity and togetherness should define the nation. It cannot be built by merely making money out of the people and the land. I still believe that our dream to create an inclusive, democratic country is more powerful than the way China is keeping Tibet as ‘Xizang’, a treasure house.

Protest against China in India (April 19, 2008)

R:  Your experiences in China are well known. What inspires your mind to be committed to a struggle that might lead to a loss of the body, to enjoy the final realisation of your dream? How does this inspiration to transcend the body’s suffering become a collective feature of a people?

TT: I was in jail in Lhasa, the Capital of Tibet. The more my endurance was tested, the harder I became – my body adapted to newer limits of pain, starvation, deprivation of sleep, solitary confinement, and hours of intense psychological pressure during interrogation. The idea of torture in prison is to gain control and obedience by inserting fear in your mind. So, the more they try to assert their part of the story the more you are convinced of your cause. Torture begets the reverse of its intended effect on you. After a point, when endurance alone becomes your resistance, you start to enjoy it, maybe masochistically. Someone please tell the Chinese their method is not working.

Tenzin Tsundue protesting across from Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao’s hotel room in Bangalore (2005).

R: Time has passed since the arrival of Dalai Lama in India. These decades have seen the world becoming more of a global village, with lures of development and lifestyle opportunities. Citizens of particular nations have, paradoxically, become cosmopolitan in their outlook on the one hand, and gotten acclimatised to their locations on the other. In this scenario, how do you understand Tibetans across the world still feeling part of the Tibetan body politic and its imaginary?

TT: Tibet is essentially the six million Tibetans who are still living there, under Chinese occupation, for the past sixty years. And the exiled Tibetans are intrinsically linked to them as we have travelled the world and have played eyes and ears for those back in Homeland. Our collective international experience can help shape Tibet into the plurality the Tibetan society needs and the Democracy China has denied the Tibetans all this while. Tibetans are a body of people that are united by our common dream of freedom and of recreating Tibet as a free and independent country. We are united by our culture of nonviolence based on Buddhist principles, language and most importantly, by the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Years ago, when I went to Tibet to fight China, tired of sloganeering in India, I got arrested by the Chinese security forces who blindfolded me, beat me up and interrogated me suspecting that I was sent by India on a spy mission. I was a romantic superhero on a ‘Mission Impossible’ to liberate Tibet from China. I was 22.

Police detain Tenzin Tsundue, general secretary of ‘Friends of Tibet’ as he sits atop a tower of the main building of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, holding a banner and the flag of Tibet (April 10, 2005). Tsundue breached tight security at the British era building of the IIS centre during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and climbed the tower shouting anti-China slogans. Photo: Gautam Singh for AP

I wrote a poem in reminiscence of my three-month jail term in a Chinese detention centre in Lhasa, capital of the China-occupied-Tibet. Locked up in a single-room cell, banned from any social contact except for the 10-minute fresh air moment when we were exposed to the morning sun. The prisoners were not allowed to speak among themselves either. Being so used to India’s freedom, I was exploding inside. And, I wrote:


Kill my Dalai Lama
that I can believe no more.

Bury my head
beat it
disrobe me
chain it.
But don’t let me free.

Within the prison
this body is yours.
But within the body
my belief is only mine.

You want to do it?
Kill me here – silently.
Make sure no breath remains.
But don’t let me free.

If you want,
do it again.
Right from the beginning:
Discipline me
Re-educate me
Indoctrinate me
show me your communist gimmicks.
But don’t let me free.

Kill my Dalai Lama
and I will
believe no more.

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