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Published: August 2nd 2010
I really am living her life now. For those who don’t know who I’m talking about, her name is Lhamo Tso. She is 37 and has been through more than we can imagine. Her husband is Dhondup Wangchen, somewhat of a hero in Tibet due to the legendary documentary he made documenting the feelings of Tibetans about various things in 2008. As a consequence of this he was imprisoned for 6 years. He is now in a labour camp, despite having contracted Hepatitis B and is receiving no medical care. Lhamo Tso, her four children, niece, Dhondups parents and brothers family had to flee to India in order to be immune from being harassed by the Chinese government themselves. She is supporting so many mouths on the salary of a bread maker selling her bread at the side of the road. She can’t even afford a big enough room to have her children live with her, they have to live in the school. So not only has she lost her husband, potentially forever, but she rarely even has the comfort of her children around her.
To have gone through all this (and more, check my other blogs) and still remain strong, takes one hell of a woman, so I feel so privileged that she has invited me to live with her. I regard her as my mother and my best friend here. I seem to be spending more and more time with her, hitting a record of 3 hours selling bread and 7 hours in her home today so I really have an inside view of her life. More and more I’m learning about just how difficult it is for her as well as the other Tibetan refugees living in this bizarre world of Mcleod Ganj. Seemingly a world of its own.
As I said, she invited me to live with her, but obviously in the pigeon hole she lives in, there’s no room so we began room hunting as she intended to move regardless of meeting me. She needs to as when her children return in school holidays two have to sleep on the coffee table, two in one single bed, and Lhamo Tso and her niece in the other single bed. Talk about cramped. Also, more of her family is planning to flee to India, so she needs a space to put them. You might be thinking, how on earth can she possibly support more people? Just as I said, she’s one incredible woman. Finding a room to fulfil these needs should be easy right? The answer is a big fat no. Especially if you’re Tibetan. I’ve been astonished and somewhat mortified by the outright racism here from Indians to Tibetans. I knew there was a little resentment from some Indians here towards the Tibetans for the amount of help they’re getting, but I didn’t think it would stretch as far as refusing to give a woman a room purely because she is Tibetan.
If I’m honest I cried over this experience. Any kind of discrimination really gets to me because I really feel in my heart that we are all equal, especially after having strong bonds with people all over the world. To cut the story short. Lhamo Tso has rented two tiny dirty rooms in a building here for 4 years, one for her and another for her husband‘s parents. A bigger better room became vacant in the building. The section with the best rooms that houses only Indians. Coincidence? I am certain it isn’t after the owners despicable words. He clearly likes to hide the Tibetans in the dirty dark corners. He wanted 4000 rupees for the room. 500 more than the other Indian tenants were paying for the exact same rooms. We reluctantly agreed the unfair rent and took the key. It was final, or so I thought. The next day he changes the lock on the door and tells us “you cannot have this room, you are Tibetan, only Kashmiri can live in this room”. A woman that’s been through more than you can imagine, is told she cannot have a room in a building she has been a good tenant in for 4 years, purely because of her nationality. What makes me even more sick to my stomach, is that we couldn’t budge him down from 4000, yet he gives it to an Indian family for 3200. Unbelievable. He’d rather take a 800 rupee loss than let her have the room. This guys own father said he was a madman and that he should give her the room, yet the resentment he feels for Tibetans is obviously so strong he couldn’t bring himself to let her have it. I felt a real pain in my heart for her. Can people stomp on her anymore than they already have? I imagine she thought I was stupid for crying as she brushed it off. I guess when you’ve been through what she has, you have to just brush things like this off.
This experience really brought home how Dharamsala isn’t the perfect getaway that I thought it was. Many come here in hope of greater things, to meet the Dalai Lama or purely because they were forced to due to harassment by the Chinese government. Do they get the life they dreamed of though? They can earn very little money, have to live in small grotty rooms, are parted from their families, the area is nowhere near as beautiful, clean or peaceful, they are facing discrimination from local Indians on a daily basis and their culture is clearly being diluted here. Many turn to alcohol and start chasing westerners in the hope of a visa, as they see that the rut they’re stuck in is inescapable. Whilst others pray to be picked in the visa lotteries or pay thousands of rupees in applying for western visas to be rejected and lose their money. How can you save for a brighter future when you’re earning 2500 per month (£35) and your rent is 2000 (for the crummiest room ever might I add) and a meal out is 70 rupees per head. It’s baffling to me how they can even feed themselves. Maybe the grass isn’t so green on the other side. This became all the more apparent when I returned from battling it out with the building owner to Lhamo’s home and looked through her photos with tears silently rolling down my cheeks. Seeing pictures of her in beautiful fields in her motherland or in her big, beautiful home and pictures of her, Dhondup and their beautiful children was a smack in the face of what she’s really lost. She puts on a brave face everyday. I have more admiration for this woman than anyone that I have ever met.
It’s not all bad though. She’s clearly got a lot of friends and support from both locals and foreigners. Many want to spread her message and help her out, even if it’s just by favouring her for their morning bread. One way in which she’s really being helped is by the Students for a Free Tibet organisation. They have been working their asses off to get her visas for many countries in Europe and as far as I can see, everything is going smoothly, so in October she’ll be joining us in Europe to speak about her husband. International pressure is a really effective way to get people released, so I’m praying this will work. I’d give up so much to see this wish granted. If only I had that kind of influence in this world.
One thing is for the sure. Lhamo Tso will always have a special place in my heart and this will not be the last time I will see her. I will visit her again, both here in India and in Tibet once Tibet is free!
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