Exclusive interview with the author of 'Tibet With My Eyes Closed'

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New Delhi — “I met Tibetans who fought against the People's Liberation Army for the independence of Tibet, and had the opportunity to talk with them, their stories are very powerful. The Tibetan issue must be taken seriously - they have their own homeland. I really believe and hope that one day Tibetans can go to their own country and be free,” said Madhu Gurung, the author of “Tibet with My Eyes Closed” while interacting with TPI.

Author Madhu Gurung believes that there are stories that need to be told and that stories lead the way. Perhaps it is this belief that has enabled her to resonate with the Tibetan community and create authentic and touching stories that represent the spirit and soul of Tibetans in her book "Tibet With My Eyes Closed".

In an exclusive interview with Tibet Post International (TPI), author Madhu talks about her interaction with Tibetans in exile, how her book "Tibet With My Eyes Closed" was written, and her views on the Tibetan issue.

TPI: What inspired you to talk about Tibet in your book?

Interviewee: In 2011 or 2012, I received a call from François, a French-Canadian photographer, when we met in Delhi, he told me that he was visiting Dharamshala and showed me some photos from their trip. These photos were of old Tibetans and were in black and white. These photos were very beautiful. I told him that he should send these photos to magazines, even National Geographic. He laughed and said that although he could take pictures, he could not write, and ask me to do so. With that, I went to Dharamshala and we went to Jampaling (Tibetan Home for the Aged). I met the Tibetans there and they started telling their stories of coming to India as refugees and their struggles. I think memory is such a wonderful thing. As they were telling all these stories, I literally wrote them down.

When I came back, I sent what I had written to National Geographic along with the photos. Then I got a letter from the editor saying they liked the story. They asked me to keep writing and send them some more, so that the story would cover all aspects over a longer period of time. But at that time, I was actually working on my first book, When I finished the book, I saw the story and wanted to do something with it, I thought I should do some more stories. That's when I met Sangay, the guy from my first story, "Zinda". Then I met my agent and editor, and they agreed to the idea. That's how I started writing these stories.

TPI: Is there any story that holds a special significance or a personal connection to you?

Author: I think is about Sangay’s story, the story of Sangay is based on the village of Zinda in Tibet. It is the story of a five year old boy, who comes from Tibet with his father and grows up in India. They learn that his mother has passed away. Nearly 25 years later, someone comes and gives him a note that says: "I am alive". It was at this time that the Chinese government opened up and allowed people to return to Tibet. So he returned to Tibet to find his mother and bring her to India. Then I went to her mother and hugged her, and I thought it was a beautiful story to have been alive all these years. After that, I started meeting with Tibetans to collect more stories, and more stories came up.

TPI: Your book has been praised for the depth of research that went into it. What sort of preparation did you do for that to ensure that the book represented the community accurately?

Author: I was very aware that I was writing about a community. I did not want to get the facts wrong. Tibetans, as individuals and as a community, are very stoic. They do not talk much, about whatever they do, they never say in too many words, everything they want to say about the loss of their homeland, their parents or a loved one, everything they have experienced.

I remember talking to Sangay, and he told me that when he entered Tibet, everything was so tightly controlled by the Chinese government; that he was told he had to go to such and such a place, and that he took a truck to such and such a town and finally to the village where his mother was. He knocked on a door which opened to reveal a young man standing before him. After talking, he realizes that it was his brother whom they had to leave behind when he was one or two years old. I stopped at that point and asked him what happened when you met your brother. He looked at me and said he had been crying. I was crying when I heard that and I can imagine how he must have felt.

Then he talks about the time his brother took him riding and he took him to the village. He says that the whole village was out and everyone was running to me and crying. Sangay says he stood there and asked "which one is my mother?" because he did not know or remember what she looked like. Then his brother took his hand and led him to her.

TPI: What is the biggest message, according to you, that the Tibetan community in India is sending to India and rest of the world?

Author: I met Tibetans who fought against the People's Liberation Army for the independence of Tibet, and had the opportunity to talk with them, their stories are very powerful.

The message I felt is that the Tibetan issue must be taken seriously - they have a homeland. Having met them, having interacted with them, I really believe and hope that one day Tibetans would be able to go to their own homeland and they would be free. I also want to see some amount of mindfulness from everybody on Tibetan cause.

TPI: The framework of the book revolves around the Tibetan prayer flag. What symbolic significance does the flag hold to you and the stories?

Author: Well, there are five colours, blue is sky, white is air, red is fire, green is water, and yellow is earth. When I started writing it, I just wrote the way I met people. But when I started looking at them, I believe that the stories fell into certain ways.

I have written in this regard that the flag of a nation is its soul. The five colors are synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism. Many legends are attached to them - some are attributed to Gautama Buddha. I go on to say in the book that the five colors represent the five elements. Each of the stories I tell embodies a central element of the prayer flag. The stories in the blue section, that is, Zinda ,63 and Jampaling because the stories that are written as Zinda, 63 and Jampaling are stitched onto the sky that stretches all the way to their Homeland. It goes (quoting from the book) “they came not as refugees who flee natural disaster,but as what the Dalai Lama calls, people who are forced to flee. The sky in their new home is never quite the same.” Just like that, I grouped all of these stories together based on the flag.

TPI: What element of the Tibetan population and culture would you want your readers to take away from the book?

Author: I have been wondering what made me write this book. Maybe it has something to do with identity. But when we talk about identity, I feel that we completely neglect the Tibetan identity. Although, the young Tibetans, even before they can sing their own songs would be singing Bollywood songs because that is how they have grown up. So if you ask me one thing that is very different about Tibetans, it is the ability to embrace and let go. I think that is part of Buddhism. I do not know of any other culture that does that. There may be insults, there may be indifference, but letting go and not fighting - that is so Tibetan.