The number of Tibetan families in the city is dwindling. Meet a few families that are still doing business here
Tashi has been in Kochi for the last 22 years. Every time she refers to home she means a place near Mysore. Her parents escaped from Tibet in the late 50s, and Kushalnagar, a settlement near Coorg became home. That is where Tashi and her siblings (and many others like her) were born.
Search for a better livelihood or as in Tashi's case, ‘some livelihood', brought Tibetans to Kochi. They came much before the Oriyas and the Bihari migrants, not as labourers but as ‘businessmen' (and women), with the business of footwear and garments. Ironically, today there are only five Tibetan families left in Kochi. It is said Fashion Street, once upon a time, had around 20-25 Tibetan families. Local traders and North Indians have taken over the stalls.
Standing at her shoe ‘shop' on the Nepali Market (aka Fashion Street) on Mullasserry Canal Road, she talks, in broken Malayalam, about homeland, culture and also about being a migrant. Malayalam comes as easy as Hindi; rice and dal suit the climate better than momos and thukpa.
She was very young when she came to Kochi , “It was a question of survival.” Kochi has been good to her, she says. She is married and has three kids, all of whom are studying at a school in Bylakuppe near Coorg. Bylakuppe is a Tibetan settlement in Karnataka. She lives in T.D. Road. “That is where most of us live. It is good to live close to each other.” In a foreign land, goes unsaid.
Thupten and his brother Pempa, whose shops are next to Tashi's, have grown up here. Their grandfather came here first in the “late 80s or early 90s,” Thupten hazards a guess. His parents followed their grandfather and joined his business . Thupten and Pempa graduated from Sacred Heart College and Cochin College respectively. They were both team leaders at a BPO before they joined their father in his business. Pempa is all set to migrate to Canada.
“As Dubai is to you , the United States of America is to us. There is or has to be at least one family member there,” the tattoo sporting Thupten jokes. And he? “No! I am happy here. I am staying,” he says emphatically.
Tashi says, “Izzat nahi hai! (there is no respect). After all we are selling stuff on the footpath.” That is one of the reasons, according to her, why Tibetan families moved out for better opportunities. Tenzing minds his parents' footwear business at the ‘shop' near the Ernakulam boat jetty. He says, “I don't sit here. I study in Mysore. My parents live here, they have gone to Mysore. I am just minding the shop, I am doing hotel management there.” He wants to distance himself from the life here, probably this is what Tashi means by ‘izzat'.
Varkala, Thupten says, has around 20-25 Tibetan families, most of them dealing in the antique business. Does he keep in touch with the remaining families? “Not that much. But when there are protests (for Tibet) we make it a point to be there,” he says.
The second generation is upbeat about their present and the future. Thupten has long term plans for his business. He wants to move out of the ‘space' in Mullasserry canal road and open a shop. “We were moved here from MG Road. Now we might be asked to move.”
Namgyal Dsundu, another second generation Tibetan has been here since the early 90s, his shop is adjacent to Tenzing's. He studied in Mysore before joining his parents' business here. His parents lead a retired life, alternating between Kochi and Kushalnagar. His friends back ‘home' refer to him as a ‘Keralan' or a ‘chettan'. He speaks Malayalam fluently which is “good for business.” .
For a people for whom religion is important, how do they worship in Kochi? Is there a place for Buddhists? “There is no place like that. But we have a space in our houses for worship,” Namgyal says. The biggest event on their religious calendar is the New Year (Tibetan), that is when the shops are closed and they head home to Mysore.
Although their children are studying in city schools, there will come a phase when they will be sent to Mysore for further education. Like Tashi did. “Teaching our children about our culture is very important for us. We don't have a country to call our own.”
Her eyes well up, she chokes on her words as she talks. She likes Kochi and India, the people have been kind and the country hospitable but it still is not home.
This sense of being an outsider is strong, which is why probably there has been no integration or assimilation. They are reticent, and are cautious about what they say. They speak the language, have Malayali friends, they like being here…their engagement with Kerala stops there. And they are content going on, for the time being.