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PAULYNN SIDHU

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 4/15/2017 |


This year is the Chinese year of the Monkey, and my mind goes back to the many actual monkeys I saw in India. On a road journey I took to Dharamsala last year, some even dared to scamper right up to the car window and look right in. They wanted to be fed of course. Dharamsala is the abode of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Located in the Kangra district in the state of Himachal Pradesh in North India, it is surrounded by the spectacular Dhauladhar mountains. As the capital of the Central Tibetan Administration, a Tibetan government in exile led by the Dalai Lama, you cannot miss coming across Tibetan refugees when you are walking about in suburban villages such as McLeod Ganj. Bhagsunath, Dharamkot, ForsythGanj, Kotwali Bazaar and Kaccheri Adda. McLeod Ganj or ‘Little Lhasa” as it is also known, is a bustling complex filled with shops, vehicles, stalls and lots of Tibetan people. This busy suburb got its name from David McLeod who was Lieutenant of Punjab during the British colonial days. As for the Tibetans, their mode of dress, Lhasa dialect, and lined faces are easily distinguishable from those of the local Himachali folks. I found myself in Dharamsala on October 14, 2015, after I had taken a  drive up to its elevated level of 1457m from the town of Joginder Nagar further to its south-east, in the district of Mandi. What a scenic drive it was. I was taken in by the soft rain that was falling, the rolling mist in the tall coniferous trees, the sight of local villagers sitting at bus-stops and the domes of the Hindu temples that dotted the road. It being India, herds of goats being led to grazing grounds often swallow a large part of the thin ribbon of road. But, drivers here are so used to it that they can do nothing but go with the flow. Assessing the hopeless situation along one very narrow stretch, I got down from my hired car, caught up with the village goatherds in their woollen caps and thick coats, and just traipsed gaily along with them. Much to their toothy delight, I could speak in Hindi to them despite being a foreigner.

The wind had a cold nip in it, and the smell of goats filled the air, but I was happy taking that brisk walk with those four-footed animals as they bleated their way forward. Watching me take my time, my driver rolled down the car window and asked, “Do you want to live in the mountains with the goats, Madam, or do you want to follow me to Dharamsala?” 
I laughed and told him cheekily, “You go on without me!”

A shadow of momentary disbelief crossed his face, but it was rapidly banished by understanding that all I wanted to do was tarry, and not hurry.  Infected by my joy, he drove ahead, parked the car at the road-side and lit a beedi.  But, just when he thought that I had had enough, I confounded him by veering off the main road to walk through a field filled with wild flowers to snap photos of brown and white ponies chomping on the grass. And, then without a second thought, I darted up a green hill to join a group of local goatherds I had espied seated around a wood fire.

“Aare, Madam,” my exasperated driver yelled, “are you out of your mind?”
I called out to him, “Come on up.”
He shook his head, but came anyway.

One of the goatherds was cooking lentils (dal) in a pot hanging over the flickering flames, another was shaving and yet another was milking a nanny goat.  They were friendly and welcoming, and being typically men, jokingly invited me to stay the night in their camp with them! My driver kept shaking his head and pointing at his watch. Finally I followed him to the car like a docile lamb, and he made no bones that there would be no more stops after that. Due to my friskiness, it was dusk by the time I finally reached Dharamkot, which is about 10km away from McLeod Ganj.

Dharmashala is a compound Hindi word, derived from Sanskrit, of the words "dharma" and "shala". Meaning “shelter”, a dharmashala is traditionally a rest house located in a remote area for pilgrims to have a place to sleep for the night. In Dharamsala, I visited TCV – the Tibetan Children's Village School. It was located up on a hill which needed the driver to traverse a narrow, pitted road lined with huts and numerous local handicraft shops. To get there, you pass the placid Dal Lake which is bordered by the stately Himalayan (deodar) cedar. The day I first saw these tall mountain trees, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was out and swallows and eagles circled high above the silvery waters of the lake.

As for the Tibetans, they are proud of being who they are, and despite living in exile in India, stay true to their traditional dress, character and virtues. After Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 (and the mass genocide of more than one million Tibetans), the refugees, led by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, came to Dharamsala. A nursery to care for the ravaged children and orphans of war was immediately set up. Yes, TCV has been in existence since 1960 - the year I was born! The school's current principal is Dhonamp Gyarpo. He was busy with work the day I went there. Nonetheless, he gave me a few minutes of his precious time. With regular classes on and a play scheduled for that very afternoon, the teachers too were scurrying about, with most of the ladies attired becomingly in their Tibetan wrap dress. It might interest you to know that the dialect of Riglam is taught in TCV and that all the teachers are dedicated, hard-working and focused on giving Tibetan children a sense of pride & dignity in being Tibetan as well as an education that will serve them well in the future. In order not to disturb them at work, I went off to the office that was  "manned" by two very pretty Tibetan women who provide information and entertain financial sponsors. For their natural affability and up-to-date knowledge, I must commend  both Ms Tsenkyi and Ms Tenzin Dickey, the two ladies who attended to me on that day.

At the office, I was also introduced to an Italian couple, Marialetizia and Franco, who have, since 4 years ago, sponsored a student in the school. They refer to the girl aided by their money as their Tibetan "daughter". She is now 16, and fortuitously enough, the proud ‘parents’ had come that very day to check on her progress, and visit her. Outside the information office, I met several elderly Tibetans. They used to work in the center about forty years ago, and had on that day come to collect their monthly stipend. Since I liked the warmth of the sun, I decided to sit on the stone steps with them and enjoy their company. I did not understand a single word of the Lhasa language the old lady next to me was using, but it did not stop me from giving her a listening ear, nodding my head and agreeing with all that she said. Fact is, she was happy snuggled against me, and so was I. That was all that mattered.

I have learned through experience, that if you practise the "be good, do good" philosophy in your life, and show L.U.C.K (Love. Understanding. Compassion. Kindness) to one and all, as well as have an optimistic and upbeat attitude, there is no mountain high enough that you cannot climb.


[PAULYNN SIDHU]

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