Sunday snapshot: The Tibetan refugee of Majnu Ka Tilla India

majnu ka tilla tibetan refugees
Flames of freedom – It’s one thing to be a refugee, it’s another thing to be a refugee in country of a billion people.

One fine evening, I went to Connaught Place, Delhi’s Orchard Road to make some contact lenses. At the optician I noticed two Asian ladies, one looking much younger, and the older one looking at a pair of glasses. There was a significant difference in their dressing. One of them was wearing a structured coat and high boots, the other a faded Burberry pattern coat and grey pants.

They were speaking in a tongue I did not understand. It was gentle, soft and easily on the ears. Japanese maybe? And maybe that fairer lady was the mother of the other girl.

I waited for my contact lenses and they sat down next to me. The ladies continued scrutinizing a pair of pink Prada glasses.

“You are buying that?” I turned to talk to the girl in the Burberry-printed coat.

She turns and looks at me and smiles. “Maybe we will buy that. My friend is contacting her friend to ask about the price.”

And then it led to the natural question – where are you from?

“Tibet.” She said. I should have guessed. There was a string of red beads on the other lady’s hands, and some ethnic gold earrings on her ears. Burberry-printed coat girl wasn’t wearing any jewellery. Her name is Dhana.

It was my first time listening to the Tibetan language, and I must say it sounded really nice. Soft and gentle, maybe like a mix of Japanese and Korean.

“Have you been to Majnu Ka Tila?” She asked me. Majnu Ka Tila is a Tibetan area in Delhi. It’s a refugee camp actually – I didn’t know it was a ‘refugee camp’ until she told me about it.

I told her I did. Two years ago, I had visited that area, it was very nice. The people (mostly Indians) were warm and friendly and it was my first time interacting with the street children. But strangely, I didn’t see many Tibetans.

She asked me if I would like to go again. “Perhaps I can show you around that area?” she said.

Now I was facing the prospect of spending 12 days of my life with no one to talk to, and I was definitely interested to learn more about the Tibetans. India is a land of so many different cultures, it’s strangely comforting to be in the company of people who share some similarities with you – the same small eyes, fairer skin and similar dressing.

I decide to visit her the day after. Dhana said she was free the whole day as she would be going to Dharamsala the next day to say prayers for 49 days her relative had passed away.

I asked who was that lady with her, and she said she was her friend. She said her friend had come from Belgium to visit. That explained the difference in wealth I saw based on their outward appearance.

We head back to the train station together. It was close to 7pm at Rajiv Chowk, and the whole platform was packed. We could not even enter the platform. When we finally did, it was just swarming with men. When the doors open, there was many a push and shove, and some frantic yells. Very unnerving for any foreign visitor.

In the end, we decide to take an autorickshaw. Dhana asked for a refund at the ticket counter. The counter staff refused, and shooed her away with a wave of his hand. She pressed on, though her soft and gentle voice didn’t have any effect.

My experience in this country, India, tells me you have to be fierce and fight for your rights sometime.

“Excuse me, can we have a refund please.” I said it loud and clear in a rather firm and assertive tone.

“No, you can’t. The money has already been deducted when you entered the train station.” A passenger queuing up told me.

That is true. In Singapore, once you enter the train station, money will be deducted. And I am not about to fight with this guy for a small refund?

We leave the counter but she still feels indignant. How much have you paid, I asked her. RS40 (SGD1) she told me.

“Oh that’s okay.” I said and we proceeded to flag an autorickshaw. Little did I know, it’s not okay, for her at least.

All the autos passed and no one stops. Finally one stops and she spends a great time haggling. She offers to drop me off an my hostel but I refuse. It would cost even more. We bid farewell and agreed to meet at 11am the next day.

* * *

The next day, I arrived at Majnu Ka Tila. I looked for a phone booth and went to call her. I can hardly describe my location. She said she will be there in fifteen minutes and I wander up and down the aisle. It’s funny, cos I see more Indians than Tibetans.

15 minutes later she has not arrived. I call her once again at the phone booth. We agree to meet at a green bridge.

Then I saw her. She asks me to cross the bridge. “This is the camp. The Tibetan refugee camp, she said. “There are mostly Tibetans here only. Tibetans go over to that area (the area where I was at) for some shopping. But we stay here.”

Now in my head, refugee camps are filled with usually starving and suffering people, and I was slightly uncomfortable when she used that term.

As we proceed down the street, I see rows and rows of organised and neat shops and houses. The ground was so clean, devoid of any piece of litter. There was a shallow stream carved into the ground to allow water to flow through, just like a drain. There was no water mix rubbish, a sight common in the streets of Delhi. I think, Majnu Ka Tila is one of the cleanest areas in the whole of Delhi.

She ask me if I would like to join her for lunch.

I said yes, it was quite cool to try Tibetan food!

She goes about buying some food. Mushrooms, carrots, this vege that looks like the local Cai Xin we get in Singapore, and cheese.

We reach back to her home to find two men in there. I nearly had a shock of my life when she told me one of them was her husband. I mean she looked pretty young to get married. She’s 26 but does not look like it. The other man is her husband’s cousin.

Her husband resembles a good for nothing honestly. It is close to 12 noon and he continues lying on their sofa/bed watching TV. Clad in some fashionable jeans and T-shirt, the guys look like any other Chinese youth.

They were watching some Hindi programmes on TV – I wondered if they understand most of it.

Her husband continued to lie down, while his cousin got up to help her peel the vegetables. It was a little awkward cos I can’t really communicate with them. I am not sure how strong their English was, and if they could speak Mandarin.

I looked around the house, it’s mostly covered with Tibetan styled carpets. There is a table full of winter jackets and the kitchen is so narrow you can’t fit two people in side by side. The entire house is approximately the size of my dining room + toilet.

When lunch is finally ready, her friend (the one from yesterday arrives), and some more others come in to join. We eat rice, brocolli and carrots, and mushrooms in cheese sauce. Which taste pretty yummy on a cool winter’s day.

Then she tells me her story. She is 26 years old. When she was 15 years old, she crossed the Himalayas to come to India. “It was difficult,” she said.

“Why have you left Tibet then?” I asked.

“Because in Tibet, there are little chances of education for Tibetan children. The schools are mostly for the Chinese,” she said.

She then studied at the Dalai Lama school in Dharamsala for nine years before coming to Delhi. Then she got married and has been living in this abode since then. “It is good to have someone,” she tells me. “One tends to get lonely at times.”

Back in Tibet, she has two brothers. Her parents are also in Tibet. “Have you managed to visit them?” I asked.

No, she said. “I tried three times. Twice in India and once in Kathmandu. But the Chinese government does not allow for it.”

“Then is it possible to visit other countries?” I asked

She said, yes it was. The Indian government has given them a card, but they would need a letter of invitation from nationals of that country they want to visit.

“So what do you do for a living?” I asked.

“I make Tibetan carpets and sell them to the handicraft stalls.” she said.

“And your husband?” I asked.

“He is not working. He helps me sometimes with these crafts. But we have not worked for sometime. We have to go to Dharamsala for some prayers. I will have to start as soon as we get back.” She replied.

At that point, I was quite shock. It’s really weird that a guy depends on his wife to make a living.

“Then what do other Tibetans do?”

“They take on jobs in hotels, but we are not doing that.” She said. “The children have some opportunity to go to good schools if they excel in a test when they are young. But we have passed that age.”

“In India, it is difficult to find opportunities because there are so many people.”

“Rent in Majnu Ka Tila is high and there is always high demand,” she continued.

How much is your rent? I asked.

“RS5000 (SGD110/ USD83) a month.”

In my head, I went like gosh! How many Tibetan carpets does she have to make to get that amount of money? And that is not even including the cost of food and daily necessities. Of course, I wanted to ask why is her husband not finding a job – but I decide it is not polite to do so. And then I understand why she was so upset over the RS40 (SGD1/USD0.60) the day before.

Her friend from Belgium is different. She speaks to me in Mandarin only and tells me that she has a Traditional Chinese Medicine practice. “Coming to India alone is not safe. You must be careful,” she said to me in Chinese.

Her friend suggests we go down to a Tibetan restaurant downstairs for a cup of lemon grass tea.

Dhana, before leaving her home, helps her husband who has laid down again to watch TV wear some socks.

At the restaurant, she meets a stranger who attended the same Dalai Lama school as her. After some conversation, he stands up to leave and leaves a RS500 (SGD11/USD8.30) note by the side of her plate.

She vehemently tries to reject but he smiles and is gone.

I tried to pay for the meal, but Dhana’s friend from Belgium insist she pays.

What can I do for Dhana? I leave RS200 (SGD5/ RS3.50) by her plate. (Looking back, I should have given more.)

After tea, we bid our farewells. She has to go back to her husband. Take care, I tell her. And thank you.

I am back in Singapore. Tomorrow I will go about my job, working some long hours and I will feel tired. But there is something to look forward to. The breakfast made by my father, the little conversations I have with my mother and brother, the promotions, the bonuses, the possible backpacking trips I can take in the future. Maybe buy a house next time.

But when I look into Dhana’s life, I cannot see beyond Tibetan carpets. Perhaps there will be children. Perhaps there will be happiness in the company of friends.

But will she get a chance to see her family again, in this lifetime? Will she be able to rent a bigger flat? Enjoy the greater comforts in life?

How can we help them?

The post was written in 2012. 

Tibetan enclave majnu ka tilla
Dhana buying something from the sundry shop
Korean movies majnu ka tilla delhi
Korean movies on sale
majnu ka tilla groceries
Buying groceries
tibetan family majnu ka tilla delhi
They look very much Chinese
tibetan home cook food india
Nice home cooked Tibetan fare
tibetan refugees india
Dhana and her friend
beef momos tibetan food delhi
Beef momos
lemon grass ginger tea delhi majnu ka tilla
Lemon grass and ginger tea
Similar faces, different lives – The Tibetan refugee of Majnu Ka Tilla India
*Note: I am a very doubtful person and I confess I don’t sympathise with people easily. This could easily be a scheme – perhaps a means to dig out some money from this rich foreigner wandering around in Connaught Place. But it’s not the case. This is because Dhana didn’t know the metro had Ladies-only carriages. If she did, she wouldn’t have taken the auto.

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