Tenzin Tsundue, a 42-year-old Tibetan poet, writer and Rangzen (freedom) activist, first caught the attention of the international media in 2002 for registering an unusual form of protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. During the Chinese premier Zhu Rongji's visit to Mumbai, Tsundue climbed the scaffolding outside the hotel at which Rongji was staying and unfurled a 20-foot banner that read “Free Tibet: China, Get Out.” Tsundue was the first recipient of the Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction in 2001 and has authored four books that have been translated into several languages. His poems and other writings reveal a frank awareness of the Tibetan situation, and are marked by an emphasis on what it means to grow up in exile. Now based in Dharamshala, Tsundue has dedicated his life to the cause of Tibetan freedom, as symbolised by the trademark red bandana that he has vowed to take off only when Rangzen has been achieved.
Last week, Ishan Marvel, a web reporter at The Caravan, met Tsundue a day after his session at the Indian Languages Festival Samanvay. In this interview, Tsundue spoke to Marvel about his life in India and journey to Tibet, the curious fusion of religion and politics that has marked the region’s freedom struggle and his views on the Dalai Lama.
Ishan Marvel:Could you tell us about your early life?
Tenzin Tsundue: I was born in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, where my parents were working as road construction labourers at the time. Soon after, in 1975, we were rehabilitated to a refugee camp in Kollegal, Karnataka. I grew up there before being adopted by a small school in the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh that housed about 300 Tibetan children. After seventh grade, I finished my schooling in Dharamshala. I then moved to Madras for a Bachelor of Arts degree and to Bombay for a Master of Arts. I lived in Bombay for five years and completed a double major in literature and philosophy. When I was 22, I went to Tibet. The idea was to go there, fight for freedom, and perhaps die. But I got arrested. I was blindfolded, beaten and interrogated in jail for three months before being thrown out of Tibet. That was a kind of rebirth for me.
IM: Could you describe the journey to Tibet and your subsequent imprisonment?