Doing Dharma in Dharma-ville: A Year in McLeod Ganj

Monks outnumber cars on the roads in McLeod Ganj.
Monks outnumber cars on the roads in McLeod Ganj.

By Susan Irvine
Reprinted by permission from World Tibet Network News

For the past year I have been working with the Tibetans in India, much of it spent teaching English in the Reception Centre for new arrivals. This is a large hostel in McLeod Ganj, above the small town of Dharamsala, which houses nearly 400 Tibetans who have very recently arrived from Tibet. Some of them have come with permission from the Chinese, and they must return, but the majority are young people who have escaped from Tibet.

Go up the steps into the Reception Centre and the first room you see is a huge dormitory with over 100 beds pushed closely together in four lines. People spend their days here, playing cards, sleeping and talking about Tibet.

Members of the Tibetan Government-in-exile use this room to give talks and show educational films to the new arrivals.

A large kitchen, with vast cauldrons of rice and dhal bubbling, provides three meals a day to a hungry line of people who push their way to the kitchen hatch.

On the next floor up is another dormitory — no beds in this one, but there is a blackboard where I teach.

Opposite there is a passage of small rooms, each with four beds, and new arrivals who can afford it pay a few rupees for a bed here. Further up the stairs is the office where the hardworking staff not only run the Reception Centre, but also organize the futures of the constant stream of new arrivals — placing them either in educational establishments or in the already over stretched settlements. For the staff who live on the premises, running the Reception Centre is often a 24-hour job.

For three months of the winter, when the nearby school closed for the long holidays, the Reception Centre was allowed to spill over into the classrooms. But for most of the year the flat roof is crammed with people who have nowhere else to sleep — whatever the weather in wet Dharamsala.

Washing facilities are limited. There are four lavatories and one outside tap on the street that is used for cleaning dishes, brushing teeth and washing whatever parts of the body the clean-minded choose to expose.

Scabies spread rapidly through the dormitories — most of the occupants of the Reception Centre suffer from it at some point — and TB is also very common and much feared. New arrivals fall prey to diseases that are unknown in the high altitudes of Tibet, and whenever I passed Delek Hospital I would usually see some of my students in the outpatients’ queue.

New arrivals are meant to stay in the Reception Centre for fifteen days but in practice alterative arrangements cannot possibly be made so quickly and most people live there for many months. The most important event on their arrival in Dharamsala is an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who meets all newcomers from Tibet.

The Reception Centre is dark, dirty and overcrowded, but far from being a depressing place I find the atmosphere electric. These people are full of hope for the future and are quick to laugh, no matter how little they may have to laugh about. Whenever I go in, I am greeted by calls of “Hello. How are you?” and books are thrust in front of me with a request to pronounce an English word just once more.

I teach my students “survival” English to enable them to communicate in a country where no Tibetan is spoken outside the settlements. More important perhaps, English lessons give the newcomers an occupation each day and make them feel they are achieving something in India.

I also try to be a steppingstone from the open spaces of Tibet to the strange ways of the West that bombard new arrivals in McLeod Ganj. Life in exile must be strange at first and I am often told, “I miss Tibet. I miss my father and mother.”

My classes are large: between 20 and 70 students, mostly young men in their early/mid twenties. Two-thirds of the new arrivals are under 25 and a greater number of men decide to leave their families and make the arduous one-month walk over the mountains to Kathmandu.

None of my students knew any English when they arrived in India and some have had little education at all. But they are all enthusiastic and many are incredibly quick.

At first it is difficult to get the new students to speak individually — the girls are especially shy and will hide behind their books in nervous giggles. I encourage them to be noisy. In the classroom is sixty students spilt into two groups shouting a non-stop cycle of:

“I am fine. How are you?”

“I am fine. How are you?”

“I am fine….” etc !

People wander in and out of the dormitory classroom: a group of women run a ladies’ gambling ring at the back and babies are placed to sleep in the shadows under the blackboard.

Some of my students have progressed to the rewarding stage where they can tell me about their lives. Lehdrup, a quiet intellectual, was a Tibetan teacher in Tibet. He began to incite other teachers to call for Tibetan independence and put up posters. Arrested by the Chinese, he spent three years in prison and, upon his release, his mother, fearing he would always be watched, urged him to flee.

He showed me bizarre photographs taken in prison–himself and other gaunt prisoners with numbers on their shirts standing in front of a painted backdrop of an idyllic Chinese pagoda bridge scene.

Konchuk was a nomad in Amdo (one of the many nomads in my class) and would tell me about yak races and the wildflowers of the plains. He produced a huge pile of family photographs which he had carried in his bag over the mountains to remind him of home.

Konchuk often wears a heavy fleeced chuba (Tibetan dress) and is exceptionally good- natured. His absence must leave a vacuum in the family tent.

Passang was a monk in Tibet who wrote anti-Chinese letters for public display. Tipped off that the police knew the author, his family begged him to leave quickly. He is a very gentle and respectful and he wrote me a moving essay about his life which ended, “And so l lost hometown and my family tree.”

Anything I teach my students is more than repaid by what they teach me. They are enthusiastic; they are constantly supportive to each other; they are cheerful in the face of all difficulties; and they display remarkable dignity in a generaton brought up under Chinese oppression.


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