Thursday, April 30, 2009 7:03
Sonam and Shangri La, Part 2
McCleod Ganj is the most prominent of the Indian Tibetan settlements, which are spread from North to South. The settlements might easily be overlooked; just another town of concrete and congestion, cars and cows, were it not for the inevitable Tibetan prayer flags, layered like cobwebs across the towns highest points.
More than 100,000 Tibetans live in India. Some, like Sonam’s parents, fled Tibet in 1959, joining the Dalai Lama in a mass exodus from Chinese repression. Others arrived later, escaping across the frozen shadows of the Himalaya, before dropping into the swarming heat, humidity, and dislocation of India.
McCleod Ganj is modest in means, if not ambitions. It clings to the crest of hill, the cement houses holding tight to steep embankments and stomach turning roads. The center of town is little more than a dysfunctional traffic stop; five merging roads that spill onto an undersized, gridlocked square. Town residents pick their way through the stagnant lines of cars, dodging beggars while holding cloths across their mouths to catch the billows of fumes.
Nothing all that exceptional for an Indian hill town but for one resident: the Dalai Lama. India’s most prominent refugee lives in a compound just below the hill’s crest. His nondescript gate is surrounded by a row of ramshackle shelters, hastily constructed for the hunger-strikers who maintain a constant protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Monks and lay people flow through the Dalai Lama’s gate from morning to night, massaging their prayer beads and murmuring prayers. They stop to read the latest communique from the Tibetan government in exile before slipping off their shoes to enter the compound’s two-story temple. A seamless blend of spirituality, politics, and unfulfilled aspirations, all focused on the shoulders of a single, aging man who somehow still manages a smile.
Sonam works a few blocks up from the Dalai Lama’s residence. I met him there the next day, stepping through the darkened door of the Tibetan Welcome Center. The office was quiet; just cold cement space, florescent lights, and tired, musty air. Sonam sat behind a large metal desk, filling one corner of the room, next to long stacks of binders.
He reached for my hand, offering a seat in the shadows of the files. “You see in this office, no people,” he began, as his two co-workers looked on. “Since the uprising in Tibet, no people come. Chinese shut down border. Only rest for us”, he said, hinting at a smile, and motioning to the aging men who leaned against their desks and rubbed their fingernails back and forth. “I feel very relaxed. Otherwise, believe me, this job too much…” he said, with a quick shake of his head.
I glanced around the room. Photos of the Dalai Lama hung from nearly every wall, reading like some time-elapse growth chart; the young Dalai, recently escaped from Tibet, an open searching face, dense arching brows and a flat placid mouth. Then a later version; hints of lines running across his forehead, cheeks rising with the years. And finally the most recent photo; thick, trademark spectacles, wide toothy grin, and arching eyebrows, two dark buffers against the folding creases that waved back and forth across his brow.
Sonam followed my glances from photo to photo. “In this small office,” he said, “you see how many photos of Dalai Lama? One, two…” and he traced his finger from photo to photo, ending his count at “six.” “It’s too much,” he said, as a quick churl of laughter slipped through his smile.
“I have special feelings for the Dalai Lama,” Sonam continued, landing a palm against his chest. “I went to Ladakh and read one of his books called Way to Freedom. I thought to myself, “Wow!’ and I read it three more times. “I say to myself ‘Wow, this is true’. It changed me. Now I live very simple.”
“Dalai Lama philosophy is great. Dalia Lama, he’s not only our leader, our spiritual teacher, he is as our father. I change because of Dalai Lama. You believe me. The Dalai Lama great, yeah” and he stretched out the last word, his thin strands of hair swinging as he bobbed his head up and down with approval.
The room fell back to the dull hum of the overhead lights. Sonam’s colleagues gazed absently out the iron-barred window, watching the sporadic flow of traffic and faces. I continued to survey the office, picking up where I left off.
That’s when I noticed the poster. The colors were stark; the dark red of a monk’s cloth, the burst of yellow flame pouring off his running body, and a whitened face gripped with searing, unimaginable pain. “That’s Pao Tudun,” Sonam said, as we moved towards the image. “It’s true picture. He was on hunger strike in Delhi to protest Chinese occupation. The Indian police broke up demonstration, so he went around corner, put kerosene on himself and then fire.” My eyes lingered on the monk’s face, strangely reminiscent of Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ “He is Tibetan Martyr.” Sonam continued, his voice dropping to a graveled whisper. “There is a chorten for Tudun on backside of the Dalai Lama Temple. I will take you there tomorrow,” he said, and he gave a hushed suck at his lips.
The office fell back to a hollow silence. Sonam’s colleagues continued to sit behind their desks, elbows resting on the cold green steel, rubbing their fingernails back and forth with methodical diligence. “Good for hair growth,” Sonam explained, lifting his chin towards their shifting fingers. “We go take some tea?” he asked. I agreed with a quick nod of my balding head, mumbling “too late for me,” as we stepped back into muted morning light.
We crossed the street to the chai stand. The stand was tucked behind a haphazard electrical station filled with thick and tangled wires oozing with grease and thousands of volts. “Do Chai,” (“Two chai), I said, pulling up one of the short plastic stools, and raising two fingers just to be certain. Unimpressed, the chai wallah set about ladling milk and sugar into a pot, before dropping two heapings of crushed tea into the frothing mix. Sonam and I leaned back against the cold, cinder block wall, just beyond the grasp of a fine, drizzling mist.
“I have nothing to do there,” Sonam said, motioning towards the darkened opening of his office. “Just sitting, sitting, because no people come. It’s no difference if I sit here with you, or just sit at my desk.”
The wallah lifted two clear glasses of chai in our direction, holding the steaming mix between a grizzled thumb and forefinger. “I’m planning to leave this place,” Sonam said, as he reached for the glasses. We took a sip of the hot, sweet, mud, before placing the cups at our feet. “I’m really tired,” he continued. “Forty five years in this country, it’s too much, believe me.”
Sonam leaned back against the wall and fished a beedie from his pocket, placing it between his lips, and holding a trembling match to the thin pale-green cylinder. He took a deep, hard drag, pulling his cheeks into the shadows of his mouth.
“I want to go to Mount Kailash,” Sonam said, wisps of smoke trailing behind each word. “I have done many wrong in my life, so I have to go to the mountain and do some prostrations. Make up for past bad. Two times I have tried for Chinese visa but they turned me down. Chinese believe that those who hold Dharamsala registration might be troublemaker. They have some suspicion…” he said, and his voice trailed off as he reached to re-light the extinguished beedie.
Sonam took another pull, and then flicked the ashes onto the rough cement floor. “I thought to go to Tibet by high mountain pass” he said, and raised his hand towards the hills, a thin line of pale blue smoke marking each motion. “But the Chinese might think I’m spy. Whole six months they torture you, then they let you go. In the meantime, your body finished. Finished,” he repeated, as he lowered his hand and glanced out onto the street.
“I went to the Oracle here in McLeod Ganj. She lives behind Dalai Lama residence” he said, and pointed down the winding road. “I asked her if I should cross over the mountains. She said, ‘no, no, no, Sonam, without permit, don’t go.”
“Believe me,” he continued, “I saw a picture of Mt Kailash and I got some good feelings, good vibrations. I believe I may have some connection in my past life. Otherwise I have no reason for these feelings.”
Sonam paused just long enough to take another pull from his beedie. “I will get there, believe me” he said, with a firm shake of his head. “Everyday, I pray to Dalai Lama to help me, and now I have a real good invitation letter from Tibet. Next fall I go to Chinese embassy and try again for visa. I will get there. I will get to Western Tibet. I want to end my story there,” and as he finished, Sonam released a smile, which swept across his narrow face.
The rain had begun to fall with conviction, spilling onto the road from blocked gutters. Pedestrians picked their way across the impromptu streams, stepping over folding currents of water and debris with their umbrellas raised in defense. We followed the constant procession, watching their strategic maneuvers and taking the final sips of our tea. Then, after one last tilt of the glass, we shook hands, agreed to meet the next day, and stepped into the hard and fast pound of the monsoon rain.