Issue :   
April 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         April 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Apr' 2018


A voice for Tibetans

Purnima Sharma

Pinakie Kansabanik Having spent his childhood in Siliguri, a picturesque town in West Bengal, Pinakie Kansabanik grew up with many Tibetan friends, but the thought that he'd be writing about them one day had never really crossed his mind. It was only much later – after he came to Delhi and met some members of the community staying in the Capital that he decided to become their 'voice'.
Through his debut novel, Mountains to Manhattan, and the character of his young protagonist, Tenzin Lhamo, he has strived to highlight the Tibetan struggle, their sense of suffering and angst… A tete a tete with the budding author…

Question : How did you get inspired to write your first novel?

Answer : Although I grew up amidst Tibetans in Siliguri, it was when I was in my early 20s – after I got a job as a teacher at Gangtok's Tashi Namgyal Academy, one of the best schools in Sikkim, that I was suddenly in the middle of the Tibetan culture and needless to say, fell in love with it. I was fascinated by its art, food and music and would often pick up Tibetan cassettes despite not understanding the lyrics. And yes, this attraction often took me to the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Darjeeling where I made many friends from the community.
This continued even when my next job took me to Sherwood College in Nainital where I would often visit the refugee market beside the Naini Lake at Malli Taal. Later, when I shifted base to Delhi and profession to international exhibition management, I made a few Tibetan friends and learnt that there was a difference between the ones residing here and the ones who stayed in Sikkim. And this difference is that while the latter enjoys an Indian citizenship, the Tibetans in the Capital are given the status only of 'refugees'.
Soon, I was reading up whatever books – history, memoirs, travelogues -- I could find on this community. But surprisingly, I didn't come across any fiction on them. That's when I decided to start writing a novel and through my characters, take their thoughts and feelings to the general populace.

Q: Tell us about the research that's gone into the book...

A : Of course, like I mentioned, there was a lot of reading that went into the research of this book. I spent a great amount of time speaking to the Tibetans I knew for first-hand reference, understanding their psyche etc.
People ask me if I actually went and stayed with them in their settlements to understand their way of life, but I did not have to do that. My interactions helped me understand that the psyche of the Tibetans living in Gangtok is very different from those living in Delhi, Ladakh, Mysore, Orissa, etc – because they are refugees; they are consequently forced to look at life differently because of all those restrictions and no right to an Indian passport. However, while they appreciate India for giving them a home, most Tibetans have one aim -- to go to Europe or the US, get citizenship and become part of the mainstream there.
So, once I started serious research and writing, I became more and more immersed and fascinated by their thoughts and culture. And each time I finished a few chapters, I would send them to my Tibetan friends and they'd tell me that I seem to know about their customs more than they do -- which I took as a huge compliment.

Q: The book seems to have emerged more as a voice for the Tibetans -- how have they responded to it?

A: Like I said, initially, I was a little skeptical writing about a community as an outsider but their overwhelming responses made me really happy. The discussions following the various book-reading sessions would often throw up many interesting facts – one, that while most of them are ardent followers of the Dalai Lama, there are others who seem to be losing their patience with non-violence. Despite not being very vocal about it, the Tibetan Youth Congress wants independence at any cost.
Then there are those who are not thinking about these things at all – all they want is a reasonably comfortable life – through good education and jobs – for now. But they all agree on one thing – that it is the Dalai Lama who has kept the Tibetan community together.

And, I must add here, that through all these efforts, I have come to better understand the Tibetan pain and heartache. Whenever I come across members of the Tibetan community, I feel like I'm one with them.

Q: Like the protagonist of your book, do most Tibetan youngsters also have a relationship of discontentment with India?

The Tibetans should answer this but yes, I felt there is a mixed feeling. Nonetheless, as I earlier said, they are all very grateful and thankful to India.

Q: What do they feel about those that immolated themselves to bring attention to the Tibetan cause?

A : A lot of them often wonder if immolation of one's own self was worthwhile at all? As far as I have come to understand, not all of them believe it was the right way.

Q: Is the protagonist of the book based on a real person?

A: No it isn't, well, not exactly. It's not about one individual – the storyline has been derived from the life of three Tibetan women who are now settled abroad. However, the content mostly is based on my understanding, experience and interactions with Tibetans here. And my character of Tenzin (Tenla) is very close to my heart -- I have understood and felt the pain of her discrimination. I have traveled the entire journey with her, lending my support to her. And, the feedback of the book says that readers have done so too.
People often ask me if it was difficult being the voice of a female protagonist? Should I have had a male one but I don't agree with that at all. Though this is my debut novel, I have some 8-10 unpublished short stories of urban educated Indian women. All my protagonists are women -- I am very comfortable with them. May be, I feel that this is how a female should raise her voice.

Q: Tell us about your forthcoming work. Will it again be about refugees?

A: Although I have been asked to write about the Rohingyas and the Chakmas, my next book is not about them. It'll be a very different subject and should be ready by next year.