4 September 2019. Majnu Ka Tila (Tibetan refugee colony), New Delhi
The small restaurant still had the ambience of a shady mob club even with the modern clientele. He remembered his visits in the 90s when the crowd was a bit older, rough and usually drunk. Lot had changed in two decades, yet few things remained the same. Most of the new customers wore stylish clothes, talked in fake accents and seemed to be college students out trying to impress people of other sex or perhaps of the same. Their expensive haircuts, strong perfumes, glow of mobile phones and flashy accessories were a far cry from crewcuts, sour faces, loud guffaws and the smell of illegal liquor that he remembered from the 90s. On the other hand, furniture, most of the staff, lighting and even the menu had not changed much.
Som cleaned his shoes on the doormat and nodded to Namdol manning the counter. Both men knew each other for decades. “How’re you doing Namdol? Wife treating you fine?”
“Yeah, same old. How’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in months.”
“You know, same old work, family routine.”
“Yeah, you’re getting too old for this place. As you can see, it’s for young college kids now. It’s supposed to be better than the mob of ruffians that you trained. But I’d rather have them any day than this instagram crowd.”
“Maybe you should start selling illegal liquor and drugs again.”
“Who said I ever stopped!”
“I don’t want to know.”
“Good. Now come with me, we need to talk.”
Namdol asked one of his workers to take over the counter and escorted Som to his private cabin. He poured homebrewed beer in two mugs and handed one to him.
“Dalai Lama is sick.”
“Sick enough that I felt the need to call you here. He will probably survive this time, but he is not getting younger and healthier. We need to be ready whenever it happens.” Namdol stretched in his chair, took a long swig and sighed in satisfaction. He had brewed the rice beer himself. The fact that it was technically illegal was of little concern “His original replacement, I mean the reincarnation is still missing and people are getting restless. Some of us believe that he should be considered lost and search for the new Dalai Lama be done from scratch.”
Som sipped homebrewed beer with caution. People who made this liquor didn’t care much about limiting the alcoholic content.“But the current one has expressed his desire that this tradition of choosing the leader should be stopped. Wouldn’t people agree with him?”
“And choose Kalsang as the official leader of Tibetan people?” Namdol put his mug on the table and asked pointedly. He had been working with Indian agencies for most of his adult life and probably knew about their inner working more than many actual employees. He realised that all dealings with governments always had some give and take. You couldn’t expect to gain something on a charitable basis from bureaucrats and politicians. India had provided shelter and safety to lakhs of Tibetan Buddhists because Tibetan leadership was mostly compliant of their demands. Although Dalai Lama had been a good ally, some people in the regime thought that a political leader would have more authority than a religious figurehead. He knew well how Kalsang had been carefully cultivated as a powerful resource over decades by India and they’d rather have a politician like him in charge rather than the controversy and chaos of choosing the next Dalai Lama. There were some other people who felt that Chinese would find a religious figure much harder to control than a politician. But they seemed to be in a minority.
Som felt slightly surprised by the question “I didn’t know that there’s something wrong with him.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with him. It’s just that he has one or two good competitors who are quite capable too. He may not get so much support in the next elections.”
“Are Choedon and Paljor so popular now or is Kalsang losing his touch?” Som took a bigger appreciative sip of his beer.
Namdol chuckled lightly and finished his mug in a long gulp. He waited till Som hurriedly finished his and then refilled the mugs again. Som watched as his host took another long swig from his new drink. “You still drink like a camel.”
“It’s medicine, you jerk. People like me need this after dealing with all of those wannabes outside.” Namdol glanced through the darkened glass window of his cabin and took another long swig. “Anyhow, your friend Kalsang will win the next election unless he really shoots himself in the foot which is not very likely. Choedon is happy just getting his name in the news and the attention. It’s Paljor you need to watch.”
“Is it because he doesn’t like the Dalai Lama and his ‘Middle Way’?”
Middle Way Approach was Dalai Lama’s pacifist solution for solving the Tibetan issue. He wanted a special semi-autonomous status for Tibet under Chinese control. The majority of Tibetans looked up to him and trusted him to make all such decisions for them. But he faced sizable opposition to this idea even among his dedicated and more religious followers. There was a consensus to follow the policy for a while, but it was on a conditional basis, not permanent.
“More or less. Young people here now want some change. They’ve seen three generations of Tibetans as refugees and they want some action now.”
Som stared at a collage of photos on the wall. Most of them were taken in the restaurant from its early days. Some of the faces were of people he had worked with within Establishment 22. “Just like the first generation.” He observed, more to himself than Namdol.
“Kalsang is like Dalai Lama in his policy of dealing with the Chinese. He has been working on the Middle Way and will keep on doing it for god knows how long no matter what Chinese do or say. Paljor thinks differently and has publicly announced his disdain for the policy and even asks for full separation of politics from religion.”
“I can’t say that I dislike the man for this.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.” Namdol squinted at Som and shook his head. “A significant number of Tibetans think this way too, at least the younger ones. We oldies are too set in our ways to change. Frankly, I am not against this either but there is this matter of his ties with the Americans. We don’t have any problems with them per se, but we’re also more than just aware of their policy of use and throw with ‘allies’. We have firsthand experience of it from not too long back. It’s not like you guys are any better, but with you, it’s more like dealing with a known devil.”
Som laughed and took another sip. “Glad to know that. You do know our official policy, right? My government says that it fully respects the right of Tibetan people to choose their own leadership.”
“It’d have been believable if the Tibetan government was an independent one based in Lhasa, not Tibetan Government in Exile based in Dharamshala, India. We acknowledge the tight rope that you have to walk, yet you need to be aware of the sentiments here. Paljor will only grow more popular and stronger from here.”
“And if Kalsang wants to keep winning elections, then he needs to be aware of such sentiments among his people.” Som finished the sentence.
Namdol nodded and finished the rest of his drink in another long gulp.