[Reader-list] Building of Identity in a Hostel:The Case of the Tibetan Youth Hostel

mallica mishra mallica_jnu at yahoo.co.in
Sat Apr 29 21:44:50 IST 2006

  Dear All,
  Hi! This posting is way behind schedule (a little less than a fortnight) and am very apologetic about the same. Nonetheless, it seeks to explore links between the identities of Tibetan youth in Delhi and the place of their residence (in this case the Tibetan Youth in Rohini, Delhi). I have summed it up in the following paragraphs: 
  Building Identity in a Hostel: The case of the Tibetan Youth Hostel in Delhi
  Refugeeism & identity 
  For all groups of refugees the world over, the necessity to preserve; to hang onto segments of their original, native identity (which is seen as evolving from their native place of birth or origin) in the country of migration, is seen as essential. The older generations of people are specially loathe to give up their native identity and try to socialize their children through patterns of upbringing and social control to enable them to have within their personalities, elements of their original culture, tradition, language and identity, to the extent possible. Specific strategies are also incorporated and institutionalized by refugee communities for preservation of their cultures; languages and identities in exile through the mechanism of education (schools); religion 
  (church/monasteries etc); political and economic organizations and other committees. Refugees, in this respect, need to be looked as active agents who strategize and negotiate in their place of migration to retain their essential and core identities. 
  Identity is to be seen  here as more than the basic idea(s) about the definition of the self and others categorization of the self or ‘I; Me and Myself’; it is to be seen as encompassing social; cultural; economic; religious; regional and political identity. Rather than taking identity as something given; it is to be seen as a process, which is socially and politically constructed. 
  Identity, especially in the context of the Tibetan youth in Delhi seems to me to be an ongoing construction of a process taking place within the environs of a building, the Tibetan youth hostel in Rohini, Delhi which houses a substantial number of outstation Tibetan students pursuing graduation in Delhi University. Many of the youth I spoke with agreed that it is because of the stay of three years within its environs that many Tibetans are able to ‘retain’ their ‘Tibetanness’ that is seen as in danger of being washed away by the tide of external (Indian and global) cultures and influences of the city of Delhi. It is this essential connection between the identities of Tibetan youth and the place of their residence (in this context the Tibetan Youth Hostel) that I seek to explore in this posting.
  Setting up of the Tibetan Youth Hostel: Preserving of roots in the city
  The Tibetan Youth Hostel was set up in the late 1990’s (probably 1997) because, alongwith other reasons like expensive stay in rented accommodation etc, it was believed that the Tibetan youth was ‘losing touch with Tibetan related studies’. The project proposal (for the setting up of the hostel) states in unequivocal terms that the Tibetan education that children receive in Tibetan schools was getting eroded with the children receiving higher education in Delhi University and other Indian universities after school. 
  The project proposal clearly states this saying that ‘In order to preserve the Tibetan identity, the Tibetan children are diligently taught Tibetan language, religion, history and culture as part of their school curriculum. However in Indian colleges, Tibetan related education is not available. Hence during their 3 to 7 years in college, the Tibetan students are totally out of touch with Tibetan related studies. This puts a stop (to the former) and many forget what they had diligently learnt in school. Since preservation and promotion of Tibetan culture amongst the new generation of Tibetans is crucial for the survival of the Tibetan community as a whole, we need to address this problem’.
  It was believed (by the Department of Education of the Tibetan government in exile, the implementing agency of the project) that the setting up of the hostel in Delhi would solve the above problem and it would be a major step towards preserving and promoting Tibetan language and culture in the city of Delhi, a place with the largest concentration of Tibetan students alongwith Chandigarh and Bangalore. The project proposal envisages the provision of ‘Tibetan related education’ in the hostel, with classes in Tibetan language and history ; organizing of Tibetan dance and music competition; discussions on latest political developments on Tibetan issues in the hostel etc. In this way, it was believed that the Tibetan students ‘can keep in touch with their language, religion, culture and Tibetan way of life while receiving a modern education in the colleges’. 
  The Tibetan Youth Hostel in Rohini(East) 
  It is located in a quiet neighbourhood (even though the main road and metro station is located a little distance from hostel and the local fire station also emits noises of sirens and occasional drills ). The rickshaw-wallas know the hostel as a place where the ‘Nepalese’ stay.  There is a small market nearby which the students have named as ‘chota Prashant Vihar’ (the ‘bada’ or the normal Prashant Vihar is a proper shopping complex at a larger distance from the hostel). This is the place where they hang around sometimes in the evenings (girls always in groups) to have tea and snacks or to buy knick-knacks etc.
  Just outside the hostel, there is a small shop of a chai-wallah who also gets the students as customers in the evenings. 
  Religion & Identity in the hostel
  The building is huge and impressive to look at and very aesthetically done. The architecture of the building is very ‘Tibetan’ and one is struck by the sheer visual appeal of it as soon as one steps inside the hostel gates .It is brightly painted with the traditional colors of things denoting ‘Tibetanness’: red; yellow; blue and green. 
  The religion of Tibetan Buddhism and particularly the institution and persona of His Holiness The Dalai Lama seems to emerge as the most important element, which constitutes the core of Tibetan identity in exile in India. This is also visible in the structure and ambience of the building that seeks to preserve Tibetan identity and to ‘protect’ the students from outside influences, as a cocoon would do to larvae of a butterfly.  In the lawn there is a huge pole with prayer-flags attached to it fluttering in the breeze. These prayer-flags called ‘therchock or tarchok’ come in various colors and with prayers embossed upon them, are hoisted aloft to drive away evil spirits and to bring plenty and prosperity’. They also “symbolize the undying continuity of the hoary Tibetan tradition”(Saklani,1984:441). The building is spruced up during festivities like losar (Tibetan New Year).There are also huge urns made of concrete in the premises used for burning traditional Tibetan
 incense during festivities like Losar During my visit to the hostel during Losar ,I saw ceremonial Tibetan scarves called Khartak or Khadar tied around these urns. 
  The Food 
  There is a mess for students that, does not serve lunch (except on weekends). This is because during lunchtime students are expected to be in college and usually eat out in their college canteens. The mess hall has framed pictures of His Holiness The Dalai Lama as well as huge boards with quotations of His Holiness painted on the same displayed for the students benefit. These largely talk about the importance of preserving Tibettanness in exile; of being good human beings; of being good and compassionate towards everyone, especially to Indians. The food is prepared by mostly Indian workers who prepare a combination of Tibetan and Indian food, for instance rice with vegetables cooked with meat. In the evenings tea is served (sometimes with biscuits and post –Losar with a traditional Tibetan snack called Khapse).
  There is a canteen also inside the premises, with traditional Tibetan food on its menu, like Tibetan momos; Thukpa; Tingmo  alongwith fried rice ; fruit juice and also Indian food like rajma-chawal etc. This is the place where students can get their grub at any time of the day (specially the ones who bunk college!) till 9pm in the night. There are also those who cook instant noodles in their rooms if they feel like it.
  Activities in the hostel
  Alongwith the physical layout and character of the building which is very Tibetan the activities taking place within its environs also contribute towards keeping the youth informed of political and other events taking place in Tibet and in exile and consciously strive to preserve their identity as Tibetans. There are notice-boards outside the hostel office; in the girls and the boys wing (both are separate) which display circulars issued by the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (RTYC) about upcoming socio-cultural and political events encouraging students to participate in the same; posters of movies (on the Tibet issue) being shown inside the campus; of upcoming workshops by placement agencies such as YOTA etc. There are also posters of organizations working for the cause of Tibet such as Students for Free Tibet etc on the board exhorting the youth to work for the cause of Tibet. 
  There is a prayer-room also inside the building where every Wednesday prayers are held by the students union of the hostel for the health and well being of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The students union also organizes other religious activities like releasing into the water live fish caught in fishermen’s net with the prayer that these acts of compassion will enhance the health and well being of His Holiness.
  Alongwith the celebration of important days in the Tibetan calender , the hostel informs and encourages the students to participate in activities organized by the TibetanYouth Congress. Such activities have, however, dwindled off late, with the offices of RTYC being shifted from the hostel to some other area of Delhi (Budh Vihar,ISBT).  On occasions such as March 10th (Tibetan Uprising Day), buses organized by the RTYC take students for protest demonstrations at Jantar-Mantar; outside the Chinese Embassy etc and bring them back. RTYC also encourages the students to volunteer and contribute to collection of funds for the former’s activities by participating in cultural programmes and traditional Tibetan dance and song held in Tibetan settlements all over the country. Most of the students, it seems participate enthusiastically in these programmes and demonstrations as they see it as ‘doing their bit for the cause of Tibet’s freedom’. 
  The Hostel Magazine
  The hostel also has an editorial board that brings out a monthly magazine called ‘The Month’. This journal has articles and poems written by Tibetan students and ex-students and is an important forum that enables the students to voice their opinions and voices on issues of importance and concern to them. A cursory glance at the January 2006 issue of the journal reveals a picture of the Potala palace in Lhasa as the magazine cover with the words “The Month pays its deepest respect and prayers on the glorious 70th birth anniversary of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and also for the success of the 2006 Kalachakra in Amravati. May his lotus feet continue to remain for the generations to come leading us from darkness towards freedom’. A look at the cover-page as also some of the articles of the journal give an idea about what constitutes the identity of Tibetan youth, in the city of Delhi. Religion seems to be very important (the issue paying respect and prayers to the
 persona of His Holiness as well as for the success of the Kalachakra discourse held in Amravati). The pride in being Tibetan and of belonging to a Tibetan nation in exile (borne out of and strongly influenced by the leadership of His Holiness The Dalai Lama and by the re-creation of traditional institutions in exile) is also evident. There is the picture of the Potala Palace on the cover-page as also tid-bits of information, for instance, ‘Tibet has a recorded history of 2000 years as an independent nation’ (pg:4) 
  There are articles and poems, which speak about the angst of being a refugee while at the same time expressing a sense of pride in the same. One such poem is titled ‘I was born in Tibet’ by a student called C.D. A few of its lines shed light on the above, 
  “I was born in Tibet.
  But I don’t feel I was.
  I have been deprived of my union with my country
  But, I still call myself a Tibetan.
  For I am a citizen of The Dalai Lama.”
  Many of the articles and poems(for instance, poems titled, ‘Mysterious Gal’ by Dikyi Wangmu and ‘What is love’? by Tsedor), however, also reveal that closely tied to this identity of Tibettanness are also parts of their identity that are similar to youth all over the world, which is brought about by what sociologists’ term ‘youth culture’ which is influenced by forces of globalization and Macdonaldization of the world. 
   Hall(1992) , for instance, suggests three possible consequences of globalization on cultural identities: erosion, strengthening and the  emergence of new identities or ‘new ethnicities’. Hall has coined the term ‘global post-modern’ to refer to ‘a perceived breakdown of all established cultural identities, the fragmentation of cultural codes, pluralisation of styles, and emphasis on the ephemeral, fleeting, aspects of contemporary culture, coupled with the global ubiquity of such features of youth culture as the jeans and trainers uniform’: “the more social life becomes mediated by the global marketing of styles, images and places by globally networked media, the more identities becomes detached-disembedded-from specific times, places, histories and traditions and appear free-floating” (Hall cited in Gillespie,1995:17).
  In the context of the identities of Tibetan youth in the city of Delhi also, what seems to emerge are lives colored by the ‘global post-modern’ life (as evident, for instance, in the plurality of music they seem to like: songs from blockbuster Hindi films; western rock and roll; hip-hop and also a new genre of modern Tibetan music) coupled with features of youth culture like the jeans and trainers ‘uniform’. There seem to be however, limits to the above and to the extent to which their identities have become ‘free-floating’ or ‘homogenized’. There is also a powerful connection to their ethnicity and to their identity as Tibetan and as refugee that institutions in exile, with the persona of His Holiness The Dalai Lama seek to constantly recreate and forge. 
  A case in point is an article, ‘Refugees in a Globalised World’ by Tenzin Dechen, a student of Political Science in Hindu College who writes, “Let us be refugees who can hijack a site, rock the dance floor, analyze political systems, speak the American tongue and above all be a true Tibetan with heart which has its virtues and priorities intact. So lets face and accept what globalization has to offer and in return spread our ethics and thus teach the world the Art of Peace preventing a Third World War, after all a well mixed salad is worth tucking in” (Tenzin Dechen,2006:9).
  The hostel magazine is yet another aspect of life in the hostel and shed light on how different notions of Tibetan-ness are being defined; given meanings to; negotiated and lived out in everyday lives of the students of the hostel. 
  Place as a marker of identity
  What seems important to me is that these notions of Tibettanness and Tibetan identity are being imagined, forged and lived during these years of pursuing graduation from Delhi University as residents of the Tibetan Youth Hostel. The building, its environs and ambience are important as they were created with the prime purpose of preserving Tibetan identity of the youth in the city and this is largely what life within its walls seems to have brought about for the students who reside in it. This does not, however, mean that the students here are not exposed to and influenced by the sights, smells and sounds of the city and its global culture. The same influences them and also reflects upon their sense of their multiple and plural identity (as visible from their tastes in music and clothes, as stated before; in food; in choice of friends; movies etc). 
  Life within the building, however, also seems to preserve their essential identity as Tibetan by keeping them informed and engaged in activities ‘for Tibet’ and ‘for His Holiness The Dalai Lama’. A ‘we-feeling’ and a sense of belonging to the same community is also a natural result of staying together and so is preservation of language, with all the students and staff conversing in Tibetan with each other. 
  Space as Massey (1994) argues, ‘is not ‘empty’ but is produced culturally by social relations.That is, the spaces of home, nation, classroom,front room and so on, are constructed in and through social relations and are invested with emotional commitment in order that space becomes place, according to Silverstone(1994) marked by feeling. That is, places are spaces invested with human experiences, memories, intentions and desires which act as important markers of individual and collective identity’(cited in Baker, Chris,1999:116).
  As Tenzin Tamdin , a resident of the hostel says, “I believe that staying in the Tibetan Youth Hostel has really enabled me to be more aware of my identity as Tibetan and has strengthened my desire to preserve this identity. I had stayed out for a year during this time I had no information about issues regarding Tibet , what was happening there and activities ; festivals etc being celebrated. “Tibettanness is there only if you are in like group”.
  Yet another student states, “I stayed for a year in the college hostel but shifted here because the food we used to get in the former was too spicy and I had stomach problems due to the same. I like staying here as it gives us exposure to events in Tibet and in exile.We also get proper Tibetan food here and the environment is Tibetan. Living outside in rented accommodations has its fair share of problems, like having to cook food. We don’t have to do that and it saves lots of time. Definitely the freedom is more outside, but we have a fair share of freedom here. 
  Staying in the hostel has been very good, specially for girls who have studied in convents  and have no idea about Tibetan culture. Some of them have improved Tibetan speaking skills and more knowledge about our culture; religion and also have had the opportunity to participate in processions of the TYC”.
  This is of particular help to Tibetan students who have studied in Indian English medium schools and are weak in their knowledge of Tibetan language, history and culture. The three-year stay in the hostel provides them with the necessary exposure to Tibetan language; culture and identity that had been previously lacking with their education in English-medium convent and missionary-run schools in the country. For instance, for Dawa Dolkar, a student of Political Science in Hindu College, Tibet , ‘became real’ only in the hostel. Before that, as a student of a convent missionary school in Nainital , she had no idea about Tibet. “Tibet was never in my dictionary earlier. Yahan aane par I found out that I am more Tibetan  than maybe students from Tibetan schools”.
   What seems to be a common thread running across different stories is a deeply –felt need to preserve their “Tibetan-ness” alongwith a practical need to accommodate and adapt to their host and global cultures. These brightly hued tapestries of identities are woven in–side the hostel and its environs and to that extent the former becomes important as a marker of individual and collective identity.
  That’s all for now! I will be further exploring linkages between identities of Tibetan youth in the city of Delhi and several other aspects of life in the city that influence and shape the former in varied ways

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