Hame kya chahiye? What do we want?


back to issue

Hame kya chahiye? Azar chahiye! What do we want? We want chilli paste!

That was not how the chant actually went, of course. The chant was: What do we want? We want freedom! Except the Hindi word for freedom, azad, was very similar to ‘azar’, a sweet and sour chilli paste that flavoured our daily school lunch of rice and dal. So when the person leading the chants yelled, what do we want, we whispered back, we want chilli paste, and collapsed in a heap of laughter.

The entire Tibetan population of Dharamshala turned out for the march, and the grownups who noticed us pursed their lips, narrowed their eyes. For them, March 10, the Tibetan National Uprising Day, was a sacred political ritual of pain and purification, of remembering, renewing and reclaiming.

For us, teenagers at a Tibetan boarding school, it was a day out of class, a day out in the bazaar. From upper Dharamshala, through Kotwali bazaar to Kachari, the Indian town at the base of the mountain, we marched in long unending lines, with flags and banners. Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress wore headbands saying ‘Rangzen’ and led the chants with bullhorns, and women from the Tibetan Women’s Association wore their signature green chupas and tried to keep order among the people.

Many of our slogans followed in the Indian tradition of sloganeering. We said, Dalai Lama, zindabaad! Jiang Zemin, murdabaad! Long live Dalai Lama. Down with Jiang Zemin. We were all sorry when Li Peng was replaced with Zhu Rongji. Li Peng kutta, maro juta was such a fun slogan; throwing shoes at that dog Zhu Rongji did not scan so well.

There was also, Alu poori tel me, Chini neta jail me! Potatoes and poori in the oil, Chinese leaders in the jail! Did our elders really expect us to shout that slogan with a straight face?

There were others that were more serious, more portentous. Marching through Kotwali bazaar, we shouted, Chini Hindi Bhai Bhai, Yahin Chin ka dhoka hai! Chinese Indian brotherhood, this is China’s betrayal. This was followed with Yaad karo, yaad karo! San unis so basath ko yaad karo! Remember, Remember, Remember the year 1962! When Mao Zedong punctured Nehru’s dreams of a Sino-Indian socialist brotherhood by launching a brief surprise war that ended in a humiliating defeat for India.


The Indians who were our audience – the shopkeepers, tailors, orthodontists, fruit-sellers along the bazaar – did not want to remember. They looked up, distracted, bored, irritated, and then went back to their business. Most people ignored us but some smiled and others scoffed. We glared fiercely at those who scoffed, feeling instantly protective of the adults around us, feeling that the gravity of their pain and sorrow must be acknowledged, if not respected.

Even then, even as we cracked jokes, we understood that it wasn’t comic but tragicomic. We understood that although this ritual could not be undertaken without spectators, its primary audience was not them but ourselves. Looking at the grownups around us – the monks and nuns from their institutions, the shopkeepers and sweater-sellers, the restaurateurs and the travel agents, the activists and the artists – was to see them making vows, affirming to themselves and each other that Yahi hamara naarah hai, Tibbet desh hamara hai! This is our demand, the country of Tibet is ours! Jaan be denge, khoon be denge, Desh ki mitti kabhi na denge! We’ll give our lives, we’ll give our blood, but we’ll never give our land!


How do you not give up something that was already taken? But as I grew up, first in India and then in the United States, I thought I began to see. Edward Said said that exile was the unhealable rift forced between the human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. For an exile, even as this rift can never be bridged, the only possibility of healing remains in trying, always trying to get closer to one’s true home.

One’s true home. My true home. For all the slogans we learned, for all the terms that were handed down to us by our parents’ generation, they were careful to deal in abstractions and not discrete practicalities lest the fracture in our souls gape so wide that we shatter.

But for me, one way of reaching across this rift was precisely to fill in the blanks. Hame kya chahiye? What do we want? What do I want? I want to eat at this shabby little restaurant in Lhasa that only sells alu khatsa; I want His Holiness to be able to rest because he can; I want to go on an ancestral pilgrimage with my parents from Lithang in the East to Kyirong in the West; I want English to actually be my second language; I want to hang out with my brother in the Barkhor bazaar watching people pray or flirt or bargain, and then I want to take a walk along the Kyichu river and write the beginning of a poem.