By Francisca van Holthoon
DEVON, England, 6 December 2018
I will never forget my first encounter with Palden Gyatso la. The year was 1993. I had just arrived in Dharamshala, after a long and involved solo trip from Beijing, to Lhasa, to Dharamshala via Kathmandu. Before I left the Netherlands, my native soil, a friend at Amnesty International had asked me to look out for Palden Gyatso, for whose release AI had been campaigning for many years. Amnesty was aware that Palden had arrived safely in Dharamshala, but no Amnesty researcher had been able to interview him there to harvest his wealth of information on prisons and prisoners in Tibet.
I did not know where to start looking, but the Reception Centre for new arrivals from Tibet, which was then located near the McLeod Ganj post office, seemed as good a place as any. I smiled my way past the office and walked around the building. People sitting on beds everywhere, waiting for something to happen, in the dark, slightly musty building (the monsoon was in full flood). I went upstairs and discovered the exile government’s Security Department in a small office on the roof.
I asked a rather daunting-looking official where I might find Kushog Palden Gyatso. He smiled and made the classic Tibetan gesture of pointing with pursed lips: I looked behind me and saw a stick-thin monk with fiery eyes. The very man in question. When he heard I had been looking for him he gave me a big, toothless smile, and grabbed my hand.
Palden and I spent morning after morning in a small upstairs room in the Reception Centre while I was trying to piece together his story. My TIbetan was then not quite good enough to follow his rapid-fire narrative, but the Department of Information and International Relations kindly provided the services of a young Tibetan Muslim from Kashmir, Masood Butt, a diligent gem. It was brilliant to have him there, since the story Palden was telling us both badly needed to be heard by young Tibetans born in exile, deprived until then of any direct experience of the harshness and complexity of life inside Tibet.
The three of us bonded over the following weeks, and as my TIbetan picked up I could let Masood go back to his office job while Palden carried on a conversation which lasted 25 years, in a manner of speaking.
Everyone now knows about Palden’s heroism, his courage, his indomitable passion to stand and speak up for Tibetan Independence. Some of us also know how he could try your patience: complaining that others were not doing enough, that they didn’t go about the freedom struggle in the right way, that they were too passive, that he was not getting the facilities he needed, and so the list goes on. But one forgave him for his imperfection: after 33 years of surviving in hell anyone gains the right to complain, I guess?
He often came to see me in my smelly little house below Nowrojee’s store (alas, it has been demolished to make place for a hideous new building). He always cracked me up by peering under the beds to check whether there were any spies hiding there. His paranoia was understandable of course.
In fact when I first knew Palden he had plenty of reason to be unhappy. He was living with a relative, half underground, in a smelly and very humid building. He did not yet have the superb false teeth which were given to him by foreign friends, so he could not digest his food properly, as a result of which he had perpetual stomach troubles. His tempestuous temper had backfired and he had lost the job he had originally been given in the Security Department, leaving him rather penniless and forgotten.
I remember going to see him on the first day of Losar, with my friend Emily. It was bitterly cold, with sludgy snow making the steps going down to Palden’s house very treacherous. Palden’s face lit up when he saw me and Emily (she was undoubtedly his most favourite person, though they could not exchange a single word!) and he sat upright in his tent-like thick burgundy monk’s cloak, ordering his relative to brew some poe-cha (salty butter tea). It was then I felt more strongly than ever that this man deserved better than to be forgotten in a mouldy basement.
As if my prayers were heard, I received a letter from my mother soon after Losar. I had sent her a summary of Palden’s story, to give her an idea of the kind of people I was spending time with in Dharamshala. She and her friend, who ran a small publishing company, decided to produce a short story of Palden’s life, in an effort to give him the voice he appeared to have lost. I remember putting the finished product in his hands: a beautiful looking 20-page booklet with his image on the cover. I’d like to think this small publication (called Lifelines) set off the extraordinary chain of events that led to his foreign speaking tours, the invitations that started pouring in, his renewed status as a spokesman for Tibet, and then Tsering Shakya’s wonderful biography, Fire under the Snow, and the film of the same title.
Who knows? Perhaps it was nothing to do with me at all, and it could well have been Palden’s burning passion itself which propelled his story out into the waiting wider world where his audience was increasing by the day.
Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to see him once again after many years. I was on a visit to Dharamshala, from my home in Devon, with my husband and children and we decided to call in on him. As we approached his comfortable room at Kirti Monastery I saw him bending over to stroke a cat. As he was rather deaf by then, he did not hear us coming. When he looked up and realized it was me, he broke into the biggest grin I had ever seen. He ushered us in, immediately busying himself with brewing sweet tea (thank goodness not poe-cha!) and finding some biscuits. We talked for a while, and he still said he felt he was being under-utilized.
“I want to make use of the little time I have left,” he observed with some urgency. “I am being treated like an old man who has to rest and take it easy. But how can I take it easy when there is still so much work left to be done?”
When we said goodbye, the thought arose that it might be the last time we would see him. And so it was. The old, unchanged Palden. Cared for and mellower, but still an indomitable spirit.
Palden was and will always be a big presence in my life. I am grateful for the time we had together, I am grateful my family had a chance to get to know him. I am grateful my parents met him when Palden toured around the Netherlands. And I will never forget him shaking hands with my father at Amsterdam Central Station: two men who did not share a common language but who did share a fatherly sort of relationship with me. The look in their eyes as they smiled at each other is a memory I will always treasure.
Rest In Peace, Great Shining Light on the Wide Ocean!
About the author
Francisca van Holthoon was Tibet Information Network's Dharamshala-based researcher in the early 1990s, and assisted in the production of ITV's iconic documentary, Escape From Tibet.