It is a picturesque downhill trek from the Dalai Lama’s residence in McLeod Ganj to Tenzin Tsundue’s house, a few metres uphill from the main bazaar of Dharamsala. The poet, essayist and activist lives in one of the rented rooms of an almost 100-year-old British bungalow, exuding an old-world charm even in disrepair. He calls it the Rangzen Ashram (rangzen meaning “freedom” in Tibetan). Four other tenants live with him in the “ashram”.

“The roof leaks,” he says as he gives me a tour of the house.

Sometimes the clever rain come
from behind my room,
the treacherous walls lift
their heels and allow
a small flood into my room.
… This room has sheltered
many homeless people.

(From Tsundue’s poem “When it rains in Dharamsala”)

Tsundue’s “island-nation bed” is surrounded on all sides by piles of books—mostly non-fiction and poetry—resting on every possible surface. Neruda, Tagore and Khalil Gibran peep from between thick books on China written by young Chinese authors.

In the common room that he shares with other tenants of the house, a charcoal sketch of Arundhati Roy vies for attention with a portrait of the Dalai Lama just above the dining table. Tsundue greatly admires the Booker-winning author-activist and he made her sketch, his one and only, in 2003. The table is full of Losar goodies.

I am Tibetan.
But I am not from Tibet.
Never been there.
Yet I dream
of dying there. 

(From “My Tibetanness”)

An India-born Tibetan refugee in Dharamsala, Tsundue has authored four books of poetry and essays—Crossing the Border (1999), Semshook (2007), Tsengol (2012), and the more popular Kora (2002).He is the winner of the first Outlook-Picador Non-Fiction Competition in 2001.

His fame in writing is matched only by his reputation as an activist. In 2002, he was arrested in Mumbai after he waved a banner reading “Free Tibet: China, Get out of Tibet” and shouted slogans from the scaffolding of a building where Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was addressing a meeting while on a state visit to India. He repeated the one-man stunt in 2005 in Bangalore, where premier Wen Jiabao was addressing a conference. Tsundue stood with a red banner that read “Free Tibet” on the balcony of a 200-feet tower, into which he had sneaked before the police barricaded the area and had remained hidden overnight.

Tsundue is a firebrand leader in the Tibetan Youth Congress, a youth organisation in the Tibetan diaspora that advocates rangzen, or independence. This line of thought is in complete opposition to that of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, who advocate the Middle Way, or “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic of China.

In police custody after being arrested for demonstrating during Zhu Rongji’s visit, he wrote:
He was tall
arms akimbo
like the Everest
I climbed the Everest
and I was taller
my hands free.

(From “Why I’ll climb more scaffolding and towers”)

Tsundue is restless. He speaks animatedly. He writes with the zeal of an activist and passion of a lover. He writes with wry wit and often with the sense of hopelessness, about the pains of refugee life and the unending struggle for freedom.

I am tired,
I am tired doing that 10th March ritual,
screaming from the hills of Dharamsala.
I am tired,
I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,
40 years of sitting, waiting in dust and spit.
… I am tired,
I am tired fighting for the country
I have never seen.

(From “I’m tired”)

I first met Tsundue at the candlelight solidarity march he organised at McLeod Ganj in March this year, on the day a monk in Tibet immolated himself. It was the 127th case of self-immolation in the past four years. “Global trade is one of the main reasons Chinese oppression in Tibet has heightened, leading to Tibetan self-immolations. The West benefits from the suffering of the Tibetan people,” he told the gathering of activists, sympathisers and tourists from all over the world.

I’ve met Tsundue several times since then. He looks the same every time, exactly as he does in almost all his photographs in the results of a Google image search—wearing a black Tibetan full-sleeve shirt over a pair of loose-fitting denims, frayed at the seams, and a red bandana on the head. The headgear is the symbol of his pledge to the freedom struggle and will be taken off only when Tibet is finally free, he told me.

Not surprisingly, Tsundue is dressed in the same way when I call on him one fine March morning. We chat over cups of milky tea made by him in the common kitchen.
When I was born
My mother said
you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.

(From “Refugee”)

Tsundue’s parents followed the Dalai Lama to India as refugees after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. He was born over 40 years ago—“my papers say I was born in 1973. I don’t know the real date”—in a tent on a roadside labour camp in Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh. His parents worked there as road-construction labourers like many other Tibetan refugees, engaged in building highways in India. After elementary education at a school for children of Tibetan refugees, he went to Loyola College in Chennai for graduate and then to University of Mumbai for post-graduate studies.

Taking a walk through Dharamsala, Tsundue shows me the road-side stall where he buys second-hand clothes. The sky is clear and the snow-capped Dhauladhar ranges are out in their full glory. From a vantage point at the Kangra Art Museum, he identifies the peaks for me and tells me how the concrete jungle is slowly replacing the natural green expanses. He shows me the road built by Tibetan refugees.

“Tsundue is the Tibetan Bhagat Singh,” a local doctor, whom we meet in Sadar Bazar, tells me. Tsundue has many acquaintances among the passers-by. Hellos stretch to long conversations on the roadside. One of the people we meet is Tsundue’s friend who offers to cook us lunch at his place while we finish the walk. When we are back at Tsundue’s house, lunch is waiting on the tree trunks in the overgrown front garden and we tuck into the delicious meal of organic rice, cabbage and pickle.

A few months after, I meet Tsundue briefly in Kolkata before he takes a flight to Bangalore where he has to appear in court in connection with the case of his daring demonstration of 2005.

You seem to lead a hermit’s life—single, living in the mountains. You turned vegetarian (unusual for a Tibetan) 17 years ago, and you don’t smoke or drink alcohol. To quote you:
Cowardice and fear
I left behind
in the valley
among the meowly cats
and lapping dogs.
I am single,
I have nothing
to lose 

(From “I am a Terrorist”)
I lead a purposive life, a meaningful life; in which I am more effective in doing what I have set out to. I maintain focus in my work.

When did you start writing poetry? 
I always believed in the power of words. However, I hated poetry in school; we had to learn the verses by heart and recite them in front of the class. And I couldn’t remember beyond the first stanzas. My recitation kept circling in the first four lines, and for that I used to get beatings, or had to stand on the chair. Later, I realised that even if I couldn’t remember the lines of the great many miserable poets, I could say something funny and write something that made some sense, or at least came across as witty to some of my friends. But I didn’t have the language then. It was only in college that my English improved to a level that I could articulate what I wanted to say. I started to write seriously when I was at the university. It was just after I was thrown out of a prison in Tibet. And there were so many girls in my literature class (for inspiration).

So it was all inspired by the girls in your class...
(Laughs) On a serious note, that was the time when I was just thrown out of Tibet by the Chinese authorities. It was the most humiliating experience in my life. Besides the trauma of having survived Chinese jail, interrogation and beatings in the jail, I was still pursued by Indian intelligence trying to extract information from me about my Tibet stay. I was undergoing a crisis in my life. I was going through a crisis within me and there was no one to talk to. I took recourse to poetry.

How did you land up inside Tibet? 
I did not land up there. I had been planning it for almost a year. My idea was to leave India and all the life of sloganeering, and to go to Tibet, live with the nomads and start a revolution there. The plan didn’t work. Now when I look back to 15 years ago, I think I was way too romantic.

Was it then that you adopted poetry as a tool for activism?
Oh, poetry was never a tool of activism for me. I was in deep contemplation after the failure of my Mission Impossible in Tibet. I realised there was nothing much I could do and I was moving towards the life of a campaigner and not a freedom fighter. That’s when poetry really started. It was the need to reach at certain depths for the purpose of my life. Poetic articulation of things around was possible in Bombay. It had the right atmosphere. I was fortunate to get to meet eminent poets such as Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre and attend poetry-readings by the likes of Javed Akhtar and Gulzar.

You said you make a living peddling poetry. 
Yes. I am a poetry-peddler. I peddle poetry, just like the drug peddler peddles drugs. Only that poetry is much more potent. I publish my books on my own. I arrange money to get them printed. I take them to bookshops in Dharamsala. I travel all over the world with them. My friends in India and abroad help me sell them. I get myself invited as a poet for reading sessions, and also to give talks. My living comes from selling poetry.

You have the qualifications to take up a good job and lead an easy life anywhere. Why have you not given that a thought?
I could. I was in Bombay, the city of opportunities. But I am focused in my work, and that is to struggle for the freedom of Tibet. For that I need to be right here, at the centre of the larger Tibetan thinking.

You lead a modest life without many wants.
Absolutely. I have two pair of jeans which I wear in turns. My expenses are small. In fact, my expenses are even smaller than my income. There is always something extra which I use in my work as an activist. So, actually, it is the poet who is feeding the hungry activist. Simple life is always a powerful life.

You don’t seem to be that fond of food either.
True. My relationship with food is functional. I am detached from taste and I eat only when I am hungry. Many people take all the pains to travel to a certain place on a certain street to eat a certain dish. That does not happen to me.

In July this year, you went on a marathon trip to Europe. What did you do there? What was your message? Was it the same as you give to tourists in Dharamsala—‘you are also at fault’?
I visited 17 towns and cities in six European countries and participated in 32 meetings. I was invited by the Association of Human Rights in Italy and I also called on Tibetan activists and various Tibet support groups in Europe. I met politicians, academics and intellectuals and people in the media and the arts. I gave talks and also read my poetry to the general public.

My message was simple: ‘I have not come here to beg for Tibet. I am a Tibetan refugee born and brought up in India. I have come here to make you own your responsibility for the ‘Made in China’ trade you do with Chinese dictators, which enslaves millions of Chinese labourers everyday and plunders natural resources from occupied countries like East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Tibet. You have directly benefited from the oppression and the suffering our people. In order to feed your industries in China the Chinese government has further strengthened their military occupation of Tibet. You must own responsibility to your trade benefits.’

This year, for the first time, India allowed Tibetan refugees born in India to vote. Not many, including you, seemed to care. Similarly, not many have shown any keenness to accept Indian citizenship either.
We are holding on to the dream we are born into. Freedom struggle for me is the meaning of my life, as is the case with many other Tibetans. I don’t want to be diverted from here. Many Tibetans are going to foreign countries where they are taking the citizenship of those countries. I don’t want to speak for them. They must be having their own reasons. But, by and large, most Tibetans are living with the dreams and hopes of going back to their own land some day.

India is home to the largest number of Tibetan refugees in the world. Is India a good host?
Like Nepal and Bhutan, India is directly affected by Chinese occupation of Tibet as it shares the more than 4,000 kilometres of Himalayan border with Tibet: from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. India was the first country to officially accept Tibet as a part of China by signing the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement. But it would have been suicidal on the part of India not to use the leverage against China, that leverage that came in the form of the asylum sought by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the 80,000 Tibetan refugees in 1959. The presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in India is China’s biggest source of insecurity.

As Tibetans we remain grateful to India for the refuge and the freedom with which we have not only preserved our culture, but resuscitated our struggle to this level and recreated hope once again. It is in India’s national interest to have Tibet regain its independence and relieve herself from the Chinese imperialist designs.

But India could do more, do you think?
The Himalayas in India are extremely neglected. The people in the Himalayan region are hugely neglected in India. Most Indians have no idea who the people are in the Himalayas. They dismiss them all as ‘chinkies’ and foreigners. This is something I have also faced because of my Tibetan looks. Because the Himalayas are neglected, India is unable to protect its Himalayan borders. If India protects its Himalayas and provides better welfare to the Himalayan people, it will also directly benefit the Tibetan struggle.

Also, I keep telling my Indian friends that they must support our freedom struggle. Tibet as a part of China is forever a danger for India.

You are a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress and a supporter of rangzen, while the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile are for the Middle Way. How do you see your struggle with a stand that is not on line with the Dalai Lama’s?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a Universalist: for him, global peace and harmony are more important than the freedom of his own country. He is not a freedom fighter or a politician. While for CTA (Central Tibetan Administration), the demand for autonomy is a policy. Personally, I feel the demand for autonomy is a temporary strategy to sustain the struggle when the international community needs China more than Tibet or the Dalai Lama. For me, the ultimate goal of the struggle is to make sure that the Tibetan people live in freedom in their own country. I have my limitations. I do not have the Dalai Lama’s compassion. I am a Tibetan as any other, just like an Indian is an Indian and an American, American. My goal is the freedom of my country.

You have shown boldness in speaking of the time after the Dalai Lama, something which Tibetans do not do. How do you see the movement going forward after His Holiness?
Young Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet have long been discussing strategies to manage the struggle after His Holiness. Observance of non-violence during the lifetime of His Holiness not only reflects the principled nature of the Tibetans, but a mark of respect for His Holiness. But absolutism is always flawed. I think the true voice of the Tibetan people will emerge after His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

In future when His Holiness will not be there, the Tibetans will start to think and act on their own. Some expression will be different from how it’s been going on now. Therefore, China must think realistically and grab the opportunity now when the Dalai Lama is here. 

So are you suggesting that Dalai Lama’s passing away may lead to a violent agitation?
At the moment, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has consolidated the methods of freedom struggle and created a uniformity of non-violent expression. But it is impossible and it will be wrong to say that all six million Tibetans think alike. In future when His Holiness will not be there, the Tibetans will start to think and act on their own. Some expression will be different from how it’s been going on now. Therefore, China must think realistically and grab the opportunity now when the Dalai Lama is here. It will be wrong on their part to think that the Tibetan movement will die after the Dalai Lama.

There are many Tibetan refugee writers writing these days, like Bhuchung D. Sonam. What do you think of Tibetan literature in exile? How does the youth relate to it?
Tibetan exile literature helps the larger population make sense of their life where they live in between the hard reality of exile and romance of freedom of their country. And also to constantly point the moments of hope and make one where there is none. Very often the youth find their articulation of complex issues of identity and aspiration in the writings of these exile writers.

What are you writing at the moment? 
Nothing really. Writing does not happen to me just like that.

Is rangzen possible? Do you see that happening in your lifetime?
It depends on the Tibetan people. Freedom is never about oppressors, it’s always about the oppressed fighters. As long as we never give up, there will be rangzen, a free and independent Tibet. The basic strategy of our freedom struggle is to empower ourselves spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and financially so much so that they can no longer control us.

China will collapse due to its own insecurity and internal fights, realising that it is more expensive to rule over others than managing its own kitchens. More than 130 Tibetans in the past four years have self-immolated, demanding freedom for Tibet and the return of His Holiness as their leader. The dead have left the living a legacy of hope.