Textually Yours

My Beautiful Palden Lhamo

Posted in appropriation, Hampshire College, Tibet, traveling, women by arpitaincuba on February 4, 2009

an image of Palden Lhamo

an image of Palden Lhamo

There is a Tibetan market next to Charbagh railway station in Lucknow, and every weekend scores of people flock there to find cheap Chinese electronics and counterfeit sports brands. At that age I had no concept of Tibet. I would often pass it thinking that these street peddlers were Chinese businessmen and women importing goods from our fearless neighbor. They spoke Hindi that was grammatically incorrect but there was no foreign accent in their voices. They seemed to be in tune with Indian aesthetics and culture, but they always maintained a distance. A similar market existed in my grandmother’s hometown of Nainital. However, it was grander and there was an entire neighborhood enclosing this market space; the residents here were distinct in their appearance, language, and culinary choices.

I confused this Tibetan neighborhood with the indigenous Pahari population of the Kumaon region.

I was a product of the ignorance that comes from being the Hindi speaking majority of the Gangetic plains. I was shamelessly unaware that the students with East Asian features in my all girls Irish catholic school were not Nepalese, or Chinese, or Korean but Tibetan. I paid little attention to the news about Tibetan protest in Dharamshala, or the world condemnation of the killing of the Tibetan monks in Lhasa.

Then I visited Dharamshala.

As a tourist.

“Bhaiya, yeh India hain?” I asked the North Indian looking shopkeeper in Mcleodganj.

(Sir, Is this India?)

“ Haan haan. Yeh sab log Tibet se hain. Bahout saal se idhar hain.

Inka leader Dalai Lama rehta hain idhar.” He responded

(Of course. All these people are from Tibet. They have been here for several years. Their leader, HH Dalai Lama lives here.)

“Acha par yeh gore log kyon hain idhar?” I inquired

(Okay, what are these white people doing here?)

“Arre, yeh sab hippy log hain. Idhar ganja dhoondte hain aur phir kabhi kabhi Tibetan logon ke saath naare lagate hain aur phir yoga karte hain. Inke wajah se yahan paisa aata hain. To bhai bhala hain.” He said.

(Oh, they are the hippy people. They look for pot, and then sometimes with the Tibetans they will protest, and then do some Yoga. Because of them, I have money so it is all good)

It was all good.

I took several pictures of the scenic mountains surrounding Dharamshala, I bought Tibetan jewellery, and feasted on momos and thupkas.

During my visits to the monasteries, I became enamored with the myth of Palden Lhamo—another incarnation of Kaali. The prayer wheels, and the prayer flags, the gompas and the stupas all fueled my exotic fascination.

I recall a cringe-inducing conversation with a ochre robed Buddhist monk where I told him that I sensed the peace and mysticism of Buddhism in Mcleodganj.

Mcleodganj! What a tourist trap!

Yes, I played out my role as a tourist well. I exotified this world that had always existed as a parallel universe to my North Indian existence. I appropriated its aesthetics to make a fashion statement, and I researched its religious symbolism to enhance my pretentious persona.

And that was not enough.

When I visited Delhi, I othered it.

I solidified the boundaries between “us,” and “them.” I perpetuated the prevalent stereotypes of a degraded youth culture to maintain this boundary.

Every time I would travel through Majnu ka Tila in the northern part of the capital, my heart would race and I would fear my safety. I clung to my belief that Tibetan youth were promiscuous, and degraded, and extended this to the entire north eastern Indian population. People from Sikkim, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland were all clumped under the derogatory umbrella term of “chinks.”

This is not a confession of my racism. This is a commentary of the power I had as a result of my majority status in India.

However, it all changed when I moved to the United States for college. There, the Tibetans, the North Indians, the South Indians, the African Americans, and the Latin Americans were all clumped under the umbrella term of “people of color.”

Positioned at the powerless end of the politics of othering, I quickly began to identify with Tibetan culture in the sea of whiteness at Hampshire College. I was dedicated to break those boundaries of “us” and “them,” to be able build solidarity against appropriation of our cultures, and our identities.

Palden Lhamo is an incarnation of our Kaali. You, Kunsang, know who Kaali is.

You, Kunsang, know what Mcleodganj is really about.

You, Kunsang, have lived like me at the foothills of the Himalayas.

You, Kunsang, know what is re-colonization.

You, Kunsang, know inji, and goras.

You, Kunsang, know. And understand.

You, Kunsang, are my beautiful Palden Lhamo.