Tenzing Sonam on his homeland Tibet - Not on Any Map

From as far back as I can remember, I knew that the places I called home were not really home. In Darjeeling, where I was born and where I spent my early years, there was a sense of temporariness, of constantly being told that our real home lay in Tibet, just across the towering Kanchenjunga range in whose shadow we lived. The comings and goings of various newly-escaped relatives and acquaintances from Tibet made me understand that my own parents had made this journey across the Himalaya, had left their homes and families behind. What kept us going through this initial phase of exile was the unquestioned certainty that we would be returning to Tibet, if not this year, then the next. My father, especially, was adamant on this point and until his death in 1999 in a Delhi hospital, he retained that hope.

I went to a Jesuit boarding school when I was nine. One day, in the heat of an argument with an Indian classmate, I was stunned into silence when he contemptuously called me a "refugee", the word loaded with implications of inferiority. This, and other encounters, where my stateless status was deployed to denigrate me, led me, perhaps unconsciously, to distance myself from my Tibetan identity. Through my college days in Delhi, my friends were all Indian and I was happy and secure within the bubble that we created, which had nothing to do with Tibet.

But I could not escape the fact that my friends' homes were unlike my own; they had a sense of permanence and continuity that I had never known. At the time, my father was serving a life sentence in a prison in Kathmandu for his role as one of the leaders of the Tibetan resistance that had operated out of northern Nepal (he was granted amnesty by the Nepalese king after seven years of incarceration). Every time I went to meet him, I was reminded again of the harsh truth of our existence; that we were homeless, not out of choice but because our homeland was under occupation, and that our lives in exile were about the struggle to redress that situation.

After college, I worked for the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala for a year and, after a gap of many years, renewed my connection to my roots. In a way, it was a homecoming. Immersed in a completely Tibetan community, reconnected to its politics and speaking my mother tongue on a daily basis, my sense of identity was reinforced. But despite the strong and close-knit nature of that world, I also understood its inherent rootlessness and alienation. In India, we were living in a parallel world that had nothing to do with our immediate surroundings and, in many ways, even less to do with our estranged motherland. As exiles, we had no home except for an increasingly mythical one that grew more remote with each passing year. The very state of statelessness was becoming our reality, our home in the absence of home.

I tried to embrace this new awareness by rebranding myself as a citizen of the world; I didn't belong anywhere, so I belonged everywhere. Inspired by the writings of my literary heroes, Jack Kerouac and Pablo Neruda — both exiles in their own ways — I left India and for nearly 20 years, travelled, studied, worked and lived in different countries, and befriended many people with similar utopian aspirations. I settled in London with my partner Ritu and lived there for nine years, the longest I had spent anywhere since my childhood. Although this itinerant life and the network of like-minded souls it attracted was a rewarding one, it became evident to me that my fellow travellers on this journey were mostly ideological or idealistic refugees from developed nations. Unlike me, each had a country to fall back on and a home of their own, whether they chose to reject it or not.

A trip to Tibet in 1995, during which I met many relatives for the first time, was a life-changing experience. Finally, I could put a context to the abstract notion of home that had sustained me through these years. The reality was brutally shocking. Nearly four decades of occupation and colonisation had transformed the fabric of the country. Tibet under Chinese rule was far removed from our world and our idealised vision of it. Would any of us born and brought up in exile be able to live in Tibet even if it was to become free? At the time, it was difficult for me to imagine this. Today, nearly 20 years later, when the situation in Tibet has deteriorated further, and the gulf between exile and homeland has dramatically widened, it seems even less likely.

Ritu and I returned to India with our young children in 2006 and sank roots in Dharamsala. For the younger generation of Tibetans born in exile, the definition of home will necessarily change. For our children, Dharamsala will be the closest they have to a home. But for me, and those of my generation, the distant and, perhaps, unrealistic goal of one day returning to Tibet remains as strong as ever. I know Tibet is as alien to me as India once was to my parents' generation, but the idea of home — a spiritual and cultural sanctuary, and a place and a landscape that contains within it the links to my past — is something I desperately yearn for. 

See also:
In 2003, the Vajpayee government went further than any other government before by stating that the “Tibetan Autonomous Region of China is part of the territory of China.” - http://www.idsa.in/node/712/1782

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