By Anoushka Singh
Before Tsering Norling’s family decided to send him to Delhi at the age of 14, along with his brother, for better opportunities, he lived at a Tibetan refugee camp in Miao, Arunachal Pradesh. The settlement was small, in a largely untouched part of North-east India with scanty tourism and few opportunities. His fate was primarily relegated to the tiny carpet industry there. Twelve years on, Tsering owns one of the relatively larger souvenir shops in North Delhi’s Tibetan refugee colony, popularly known as Majnu-ka-Tilla.
Situated on the banks of Yamuna, Majnu-ka-Tilla was built on a piece of land granted to Tibetan asylum seekers fleeing Chinese occupation, in 1960. Since then it has been frequented by tourists and students alike for a taste of their culture. The community has somewhat succeeded in attaining a balance in preserving their communal identity as well as establishing a flourishing commercial hub.
Restaurants like Ama cafe and Dolma are textbook favourites offering Tibetan cuisine like Thukpa and Laphing. A flick through the menus acquaints one with the unpronounceable names of dishes, which is probably why the restaurant staff encourages customers to write down their order on a notepad kept on the table. Wouldn’t it be easier to simplify the names? The receptionist at Dolma doesn’t think so. It would compromise with what the dish actually is and where it comes from, she states.
The narrow alleys crowded with houses on each side, jostling with shops, are similar to any middle-class domestic space, yet distinct. As followers of Buddhism, the prayer wheels and statues of Lord Buddha with portraits of His Holiness Dalai Lama are an inseparable part of every household.
The Tibetan Newcomer’s Society was recently established to aid new inhabitants who come from other settlements across India. However, as the society president informed, “People don’t really vote here. Even the few who are eligible do not have voter ID cards.”
Despite the failure to assimilate politically, the community doesn’t remain untouched from cultural assimilation; one can hear Bollywood songs being played in the streets with kids flocking around hawkers. An influx of Korean culture is also witnessed all around: a restaurant offering Korean cuisine, a departmental store playing Korean pop music that hasn’t yet been released in India.
A lot of fake products, ranging from shoes to bags that aren’t available otherwise, are displayed at storefronts. Fake Kanken bags, the original only available online and retailing at up to Rs 20,000 on Amazon, were being sold at Rs.1,500. A customer sporting a similar bag said he picked up an original from Australia at Rs 8,000 and this was a real steal.
The president of the Housing Welfare of Aruna Nagar, Karten Tsering, remarked, “Delhi is a multi-cultural city and has room for everybody. I think there is more acceptance now; we aren’t treated like foreigners. Language is a barrier for the older inhabitants, but that is being broken down by the newer generation.”
Their sustenance depends largely on the popularity the settlement enjoys among tourists and students. Tsering explained, “There are people who work outside on a daily basis, but the commercial business of restaurants and handicraft stores remains the largest source of income for most families. It is not just our livelihood, it helps to keep our culture alive.”
There are migrants from other states, too, who come here in search of employment. Ravi, 28, belongs to a village in Odisha and has been employed in a Tibetan store for two years. Before this, he was working in Tamil Nadu and came to Delhi in search of better opportunities, just like Tsering. Poverty has made him a nomad in his own right.
The struggle for identity is not just constitutional, but also a challenge to find a cultural footing. Majnu-ka-Tilla may appear like any other resident settlement in North Delhi, with a school, pharmacy and monastery. However, the prayer flags and distinct handicrafts in shop windows serve as constant reminders of the heritage of its occupants. The school comes under the Central Tibetan Schools Administration, an Indian government body under the Ministry of Humans Resource Development, educating the students about their history and their culture.
On the question of community solidarity, the president of the Tibetan Newcomer’s Society, Tenzin Nampa, said, “Tibetans inside and outside the settlement celebrate on three occasions — Tibetan Uprising Day, His Holiness’ birthday and Nobel Peace Prize Day. I don’t think our identity is endangered or being diminished in any way. We hold onto what matters.”