I am sitting in the audience underneath a festive orange makeshift tent outside the grounds of the Tibetan Refugee Handlooms Market in Old Gurgaon, one of over two hundred seasonal Tibetan winter markets in India. It’s December 2nd, the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s conferment of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Award. And per tradition, the market had closed its gates for the day in order to celebrate this important historical moment through music, dance, and food.
Facing me is a framed portrait of His Holiness that is sitting on the podium in between two Tibetan flags that have been hung from the tent. The smell of day-see, a sweet Tibetan rice dish mixed with cashews, butter, and raisins permeates the air. Paper cups that have been filled to the brim with Tibetan butter tea are being passed around in the audience. And the program’s emcee, Urgyen Lhundup, a Tibetan song-writer from Dalhousie who works at the market is cracking jokes- seamlessly flitting between Hindi and Tibetan-clearly reveling in the attention and laughter he is getting from the audience.
The sweet, buttery smell of day-see and the salty aroma of butter tea transport me for a brief splendid moment away from the dizzying metropolitan hub of Gurgaon and back home to New York, back into the halls of the Armenian Church on thecorner of 2nd Ave and 34th. Growing up, my family and I and what felt like all of New York and New Jersey’s Tibetan community would congregate in these church halls to celebrate everything from Tibetan New Year to the Dalai Lama’s birthday. We would wear our traditional chupas, sing to traditional and modern Tibetan music, and dance gorshey, a traditional Tibetan circle dance. Growing up, I don’t think I really fully appreciated how special and necessary this community space was. Instead, as I entered my teenage years when I no longer found it fun to go to these gatherings, I would count the hours and minutes till I could go back home so I could take off my long apron-like chupa, undo the makeup I had put on, and take off the jewelry that my mom would force me to wear.. It’s only now when I look back, through the rosy tint of nostalgia and a trained sociological lens that I realize how important it was and still is that Tibetan immigrants created our own world, our own Tibet inside these church walls- in a city that couldn’t be further and more different from Tibet.
And as I’m sitting under this orange tent in Gurgaon, dressed in my chupa as I laugh to Urgyen’s jokes, it feels as though the rest of the city sort of washes away- the noise of the car honks, the gloomy grey fog that hangs over the city- they all just disappear. All that exists inside this orange tent of a bubble are me as the observing intruder, the Tibetan traders, and their hired helpers.
Migration is a confounding blend of the sweet and the bitter- of loss, displacement, and hope. To migrate from a place, to depart, is to accept that there is no longer a world there for you- that there is no hope- so you do the only sensible thing to do- you let go. Some migration can be triggered by a great rupture such as war and fear of persecution. And other times, this departure from the familiar to the strange can be prompted by something as banal but nonetheless important desire as making more money. Whatever the reason for migration- to migrate to a new, foreign land, is a move towards hope, towards some vision of a future. And it is only hope that can buoy an individual, a family to undertake an act as courageous as leaving one’s home- a courage that is not without fear.
Leaving old worlds and creating new ones is a quintessentially Tibetan story. In fact, Tibetans are rather good at it. My pala did so when he had to escape to Nepal when he was just a young teenager. And he did it again when he and my amala immigrated to New York, saddled in debt, but nonetheless brimming with hope to create a better life for me and my brother- a hope that they have largely fulfilled.
And every year, in this Tibetan refugee market in Gurgaon and in hundreds of others around the country, like clockwork, approximately 45% of India’s 94,000 Tibetans leave their refugee settlements in October to and with family in tow, they temporarily resettle their lives in another town- usually the same place- to sell sweaters, scarves, shawls and other items. They return home to their settlements in February or March to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year. And seven months later, they again pack up everything and re-uproot their lives.
For Tibetans like my father and the thousands of Tibetans in India who leave their settlements to set up shop in these temporary markets, there is a double layer of migration that is occurring. The first is a more political and violent migration- one caused by China’s violent capture of Tibet- a movement that essentially marked our parents’ and grandparents’ newfound identities as refugees and shaped the rest of their lives and the lives of subsequent generations. And the second layer of movement that is occurring is a more economically motivated one- whether that is immigrating to the West or engaging in these cyclical trades every year. Yet, no movement exists without precarity- not for immigrants like my parents who came to America speaking little English nor does it exist for the Tibetan traders who work in these informal economies- where uncertainty of repaying large amounts of loans, of securing a market space, of trading in an increasingly competitive market looms large.
One moment that especially highlighted the precariousness of this business was when a fire incident that occurred in November, 2016 in the Lal Quila market in Old Delhi all but ravaged the entire market. Tsewangla, one of the elected officers from the market association who had been working at the market since 1994 recalled to me how the fire engulfed everything in the market- all 138 of its stalls and the merchandise that they had brought for the season which had only just started- everything but the CCTV camera and the makeshift office were spared. The fire had broken around at midnight when everyone but a few night guards were home in their rental apartments. To make matters worse, the winds were particularly harsh that night and because firefighters were busy managing another fire accident in a neighboring area, there were no firefighters readily available to help them. Tsewangla described the silvery metal sheets used to cover up the market as almost paper-like.
Yet as difficult as these disasters are for its victims, these moments also have a way of bringing people together. The season had only just started- so the market traders had a lot of damage and lost funds to recuperate. When I asked Tsewangla if and how this event brought them closer together, with a shy smile, he answered in the wise way we often hear from our parents, “when things are easy, we forget.” But “when everyone is suffering, everyone comes together.” So in a unified front, the market ended up setting up forty stands as opposed to the 138 stands that they originally had, the earned money of which would go towards a general fund for everyone to recuperate from the losses. This display of unity also extended to meals- while it was customary for each family to bring their own tiffin boxes for lunch- during this time, everyone cooked and ate together. They also delegated amongst themselves in small groups to collect donations from different Tibetan markets around India.. The collective support extended beyond the market community-Tibetan NGOs in India, the Central Tibetan Administration, and even the Delhi government provided relief and aid.
This fire is unfortunately not a sole incident. Right around the time of my visit to the Gurgaon market in October, I witnessed firsthand a meeting between the president of the Gurgaon association and two Tibetan traders from a market in Maharashtra where a fire had broken out and who were seeking financial support. During this exchange, the president affirmed the need to help them, emphasizing the fact that something as unfortunate as this could also have just as easily happened to them.
In Tibetan, the word for association is kyi-dhuk. Kyi-dhuks are usually organized on the basis of the region of Tibet its members are from. Kyi on its own signifies happiness, and dhuk suffering. Embedded in just this one simple word is this larger idea that in a union or an association- everyone is in this together- in good and bad times. It’s a fitting and apt term for what community means and what all communities should aspire to be. Tsewangla’s retelling of the fire tragedy at the Lal Quilamarket illustrates a model of a community that goes beyond an amorphous and intangible sense of affinity and belonging- which, while important, isn’t and shouldn’t be the litmus test for a community. His story spoke of a community that was more material, more tangible- one supported by action, generosity- one defined by accountability and collectivity. That Tibetans like my pala and the thousands of Tibetan migrants in India are resilient and good at creating new worlds in new places can perhaps then be attributed to Tibetans’ understanding that real community can only come about from a union of kyi-dhuk, of this blend of the sweet and the bitter.
- Lau, Timm. “Sweater Business: Commodity Exchange and the Mediation of Agency in the Tibetan Itinerant Sweater Trade in India.” Moving Subjects, Moving Objects: Transnationalism, Cultural Production, and Emotions, edited by Maruska Svasek, Berghahn Books, 2014; 96-114.
- “Tibet in Exile.” Central Tibetan Administration. https://tibet.net/about-cta/tibet-in-exile/