“My impeccable Hindi shocks people; my gentle Punjabi invites appreciative smiles; my attempts at Bengali receive nods of approval; only I notice Tibetan leaving my tongue.”
These poignant words by Tenzin Nangsyal were recorded by photographer Serena Chopra in 2010, along with a photograph of the young Tibetan living in Majnu ka Tilla. Today, they feature in Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries, a self-published photo book chronicling the hopes, insecurities and notions of identity of the Tibetan community living in this north Delhi neighbourhood.
Chopra first visited the area in the 1970s, as a Delhi University student in search of momos and dzi-bead jewellery. In 2007, when she revisited the Tibetan refugee neighbourhood, she was no longer that carefree student and had spent a fair amount of time in McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, and Tibetan settlements around the country.
She has long been inspired by Buddhist philosophy and the Dalai Lama, who “invests the word freedom with profound meaning”, she writes in the introduction to the book, launched earlier this month. “...I wanted to understand the Tibetans fully. Perhaps I would gain an insight into what the word ‘freedom’ truly meant to Tibetans. How did they respond to the message of their spiritual leader?”
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As she delved deeper, Chopra realised that in spite of having lived in India since 1959, the community—nearly 100,000, spread around the country—continued to grapple with issues of identity and nationhood. “My frequent trips to Majnu ka Tilla and conversations with people of the community gave me different insights into the lives and hearts of the residents I had spent time with. It aroused a visceral response, which seemed to propel me into wanting to tell a story that needed to be told,” says Chopra.
As she navigated the lanes of Majnu ka Tilla between 2007-15 for the book, she realised that even younger members of the community considered Delhi a temporary destination and continued to harbour hopes of returning to their country one day as free Tibetans. “The bustling lanes and alleyways of Majnu ka Tilla, filled with the business of living and surviving, are nevertheless a sanctuary, a place to reinvent lives, while firmly embracing their culture. To give the word ‘temporary’ a definitive time scale belies authentic probabilities. Without such predictable future prospects, belonging to a community and a designated strip of land takes on paramount importance,” says Chopra.
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The photographer enlisted the help of her friend, Tenzin Thardoe Thar, and his brother, Tenzin Norsang, to build portraits of members of the community. “I focused on each person as an individual, to pull them out of the isolation and anonymity of a collective abstraction, and to retain the integrity and beauty of each person’s life,” she writes in the introduction to the book.
Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries draws from the diaries Chopra built over eight years and has been presented as a replica of the three journals she compiled. It features photographs of homes, everyday environments and portraits taken on Chopra’s Hasselblad. These accompany the thoughts of members of the Tibetan community, etched in their own handwriting and preferred language.
In each image, the subjects look directly at the camera. To the viewer, it almost feels as if they are telling the accompanying stories. “It was important to me that the protagonist in the book was the person in exile. By stepping out of the frame myself, I hoped to give each individual a voice, to enable them to speak intimately and directly to the reader,” says Chopra.
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The book opens with a black and white image of a bridge that connects two refugee colonies in Majnu ka Tilla. The next image is of a mother and child, sitting with their possessions on the road bordering Majnu ka Tilla. In a way, the photographs act as a navigation tool for the neighbourhood—almost as if you are taking a virtual walk through the area, with stories unfurling at each step.
The entries by members of all ages—from octogenarians to youngsters—present different aspirations. Some of the individuals she photographed wrote in the Tibetan script, so she enlisted the help of Norsang to translate the words into English. At times when a person didn’t know how to write, Norsang would jot those words down in the diary.
The older ones—the first few inhabitants of Majnu ka Tilla—are more wistful, chronicling the arduous journey to India and reminiscing about their villages and home-towns in Tibet. Take, for instance, the words of 83-year-old Dolkar, who arrived in India in 1959 and even worked in the 1997 Hollywood film Seven Years In Tibet—it reminded her of home. “Now that I am old and all my children are settled, all I wish is I can see my village Phari in Tibet,” she writes.
Younger Tibetans, many of whom were born in India, are holding on to the idea of Tibet, a place they could belong to, and which would belong to them. Nangsyal, for instance, is particular about every element of their identity.
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Kunchok Dolma Deukhan, who was born and raised in India, writes about moments of insecurity while growing up—a sense of not belonging anywhere. As the years passed, though, she grew up to be proud. “I first realised I was different when I stood last in the row to get admission to a class. They told my parents we were refugees,” she writes. This has made Deukhan want to learn about her community’s history and why it makes her stand out. “I make it a point to have something with me that is ‘Tibet’ or ‘Tibetan’,” she adds. This includes wearing a chupa to work even in Delhi’s summer heat or just sporting a small badge depicting the Tibetan flag.
Tsewang Khangsar, who was 61 when his entry was recorded in 2009, has closely observed the challenge young Tibetans face in holding on to their cultural identity. “As long as the Tibetan identity remains alive in living, breathing Tibetans, Tibet will never perish,” he writes. “Tibet will live in India, Nepal, America for as long as it takes, so long as the Tibetans do not forget their cultural recognitions.”