At 5 in the morning, the streets were deserted, at the Tibetan Refugee Camp. The four of you are up, wandering the lamp-lit streets, to be in time for the early morning ritual prayers they said happen at the main monastery. And from the darkness, this old monk in maroon robes walking into the light, to stop in front of you. Big warm smile. And he invites you home for tea. He says he’ll take you for the prayers, but "first have tea". The others hesitate, but you gravitate towards warmth, as you always do, and say Yes, we will. He is absolutely delighted, his soul flowing out to you, mingling in the mist with yours.
So we walk in the darkness from one yellow pool of light to the next, to arrive at his small house, set tightly among many others. We bend and go into the cluster of small rooms. In the semi-darkness, photos of the Dalai Lama everywhere. Old furniture, old vessels, old relics from Tibet. The Buddha and the Taras. The infinite beauty of Tibetan art, an abundance of colours. Old black-and-white family photos. Carpets. He brings in a huge flask full of tea, and pours it out in small old ceramic cups for you. All the while chattering away about his home in Tibet, the Dalai Lama. The majestic mountains. The snow. The prayer flags. The ancient monasteries. The colors. His parents. The very air. Home, the most beautiful place on earth.
Then we go out again, with our self-appointed guide. As the dawn slowly breaks in thin orange slivers at the horizon, he takes us to the main monastery, opens doors only accessible to a few, takes us to rooms where the ancient musical instruments are kept, rooms where the Dalai Lama holds audience whenever he visits. And then from a balcony within the massive building, we see the huge hall below with hundreds of monks in maroon robes sitting in long lines facing each other, chanting their morning prayers. Goose bumps are probably the only befitting response.
Looking out of an upstairs window, he pauses, points to the acres of fields all around, on undulating hills, and tells you, “Beyond that, is India”. There is a silence. You who had not for a moment felt not-at-home, standing on soil you believe have every right to be on, your birthright. Which you have never imagined anyone will take away from you. A security you have never for a second questioned. You who otherwise never take anything for granted. You are struck dumb by the enormity of what you have, and what he doesn’t.
By now you have become his most eager listener, the only one who keeps pace with him. And he is talking non-stop, the stories flowing out of him like a dam suddenly opened, you are one river without boundaries now. The others are tiring of his non-stop chatter, in an accent difficult to follow, they lag behind. You know this want, this need to make your stories come alive in the narration. For everything that is uttered, at last, attains reality, it is no longer something you just imagined. You will not deny this kind stranger this joy, this comfort. You will not set conditions for this connection.
He takes you all around the refugee camp, the various temples, the shops, he wants you to experience the best of Tibetan culture. And when the sun is firmly up in the sky, he finally takes leave. You feel you have lost family you have found after years.
A few minutes after he says his goodbye and leaves, another monk stops us on the road. He asks if the old man was bothering us. We are puzzled. He says, “I’m sorry if he was bothering you, he does this to all strangers. He’s mentally imbalanced, he’s not well. He’s been in this camp since he was a young man, and had to flee Tibet, walking across the mountains for weeks. Ever since he’s realized he can never go back home again, he’s not been okay.”
It tears you up. You want to go down on your knees and cry. Home. A wish you can in no way help him fulfill. You cannot even just buy him a ticket, because that, you would’ve done instantly, wiping out all your savings if need be, without a second thought, to hell with reason. You are fighting against forces so powerful that can so mindlessly crush an innocent man’s desire to go see if his parents are still alive, or have been killed, whether their souls have departed without the necessary last rites of passage into the other world, unprepared for the bardo of Fear.
Madness, the only way out of that desire to go home. And a reaching out to people, who will listen to your stories, people who will help you recreate that space into being, people who will watch over you kindly while you trip over words, clearly not in control of yourself.
Many many years later, when you listen to the fiery young Tibetan activist, Tenzin Tsundue, at a film screening at Nani Cinématheque about a march to Tibet, you remember the old man walking around at the Refugee Centre, desperately seeking a kind ear who will watch over him while he re-builds his sand castle called Home.
Before the next wave washes it away.