Healing oneself to heal others
The diversity of people we meet in the clinic's waiting room is testimony to Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar's fame and effectiveness
My first memory is of being at Raxaul railway station in Bihar," says Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar, popularly known as Dr Dolkar to her patients, friends and well-wishers. Sitting across from me at her clinic in Kalkaji, Delhi, she recounts her early childhood as a refugee. “I was one of the youngest children in a group that had fled from Tibet, making a long, arduous journey to India via Nepal. I did not know where my parents were. My grandmother was with me. My grandfather, a prominent man, had been arrested by the Chinese who had begun to lay siege to Tibet.
“A man who sold peanuts at the station would give me a handful of peanuts every time he saw me. It is my first memory of kindness. I won’t be able to find that man again, yet I can never forget how much his act sustained me as a child who was suddenly a refugee."
Tears are stinging my eyes as I type this, but when Dolkar narrates the story of the six eventful decades of her life, there is no self-pity, or even a hint of victimhood. She punctuates everything she says with a laughter that guides the listener to stay in the present.
“My next memory is of being put on a bus. There was a small bag slung around my neck with a few guavas and coins in it. When I saw my grandmother sitting outside the bus, I panicked and started crying. I had no idea of what was happening to me."
That bus took the child, Dolkar, along with other children, to a Tibetan refugee camp in Dalhousie. It would be a few years before she was reunited with her mother, sister and grandmother.
I had first met Dolkar at her Herbal Medicine Clinic in my 20s, when I was searching for a cure for my inexplicable abdominal migraines. Later, I went back to her with various friends and then, finally, when our firstborn daughter was diagnosed with paediatric asthma. As parents, we had begun to get alarmed by the side effects of corticosteroids that our child was inhaling through a nebulizer. That’s when Dolkar became our family physician and an elder we began to rely on.
The diversity of people we meet in the clinic’s waiting room is testimony to Dolkar’s fame and effectiveness. There are people from Delhi and the rest of India, Tibetan families, monks and nuns, Europeans and people from Central Asian countries who travel to Delhi to meet the amchi—a traditional Tibetan doctor.
“When was the last time you had ice cream?" she often asks Sahar, our daughter, as she holds her wrist and closes her eyes to concentrate on the pulse. Dissatisfied with the child’s silence and my defensive muttering, she says, “What? No ice cream? Your job is simply to keep the child happy. My medicines will take care of the rest."
Dolkar reminds us of the essentials. Eat seasonal and organic food. Clean up our lives. Leave the city whenever we can. If our lifestyle itself is an assault on the body’s immunity, no system of medicine can repair it effectively.
Over the years, she has guided us to not be obsessed with protecting our children. Make them resilient instead. Expose them to challenges that create happiness. “Do you swim? Are you cycling? Learning dance?" she often asks the children. “You guys have so many options, all we knew was how to climb trees and steal fruits. And then run for our lives."
Last year, we spoke to Dolkar about the sadness and anxiety that had overwhelmed our middle daughter. “What is the matter?" she asked gently.
“I feel miserable in school," the child answered. “The children are bullies. The teachers don’t care."
Dolkar told her about her own school, as if it was an episode from a comedy series. “A girl bullied me about the shape of my eyes. I punched her in the face and ran. I was so scared of the consequences that I didn’t stop running and hid in the wilderness near our school in Dalhousie. I was so rebellious that I dropped out of the English-medium school after class III and came home to my mother in Dharamsala."
This also became the turning point that led Dolkar, the refugee child, to grow up and become a world-renowned Tibetan doctor. Dolkar is the daughter of Dolma, the first woman traditional physician in Tibet.
Dolkar points my attention towards a black and white framed photograph in her clinic. “He was my teacher," she says. The monk met her as a child in Dharamsala and told her mother that he would train her to become a doctor too. “He was very good to me," Dolkar recalls. “I didn’t care about becoming a doctor, but he rewarded me for everything I learnt. I would memorize anything blindly just to get the 4 annas he would give me as a prize. It would buy me a bag of groundnuts," she beams.
At 22, her mentors sent her to Delhi and she has been practising in this city ever since. She met her husband here and their daughters were born here.
Dolkar says it took her years to understand Indian culture and attitudes. “I was stunned by Delhi. I couldn’t understand routes and addresses. I was harassed by men here. Traditional Tibetan culture is very liberated. I used to watch Hindi films and try to make sense of Indian society."
This leads her to another one of her anecdotes, multi-layered and rich with meaning, yet told with a disarming simplicity. When she was newly practising out of her small home in Delhi, a family from Punjab brought a patient who had been diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis was poor and they told her that the patient had just a year to live.
“I had just seen the film, Anand, in which Rajesh Khanna plays a charming cancer patient who spreads love and laughter till his dying day," recalls Dolkar, who was so moved that she committed herself to treating the patient for free. “He became better and lived on my medication for 12 years. I stopped making impulsive offers of free medicine after that," she laughs.
By the time she was 34, both her parents, her husband and one of her children had died. She raised and educated both her daughters and became dedicated to her destiny as a healer.
“What is loneliness, Natasha?" she says to me. “You can be surrounded by people, by your own family, and still find yourself isolated. On the other hand, there is a freedom in being on one’s own. It’s all in our mind, we decide what to make of circumstances.
“I’m not a philosophical person, I am very practical. I seem religious, but take me to a sermon in a monastery and I might fall asleep promptly. Don’t lie, don’t hurt anyone, don’t steal, they will tell you. But I have already done all of that. I had to survive. I am not perfect."
“You don’t lie," I say.
“I do," she says. “I lie to patients. I have lied to my children. I once went to watch a film and took 75 paise for the ticket from both my parents. What a beating I received when I returned home!"
“Who has been your support?" I ask her.
“Uparwala hai. God looks out for me. And my patients do. Now there are generations of them," she says, pointing to my daughter and me.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets @natashabadhwar