Tenzin Dudul Taklha
Born In Lhasa is the autobiography of Namgyal Lhamo Taklha (rnam rgyal lha mo stag lha). Born in 1942, the author tells the story of her life through 2001. The book begins with the author recreating her life in Lhasa as the daughter of an aristocratic family before the Chinese occupation. She describes her education in India (pre-occupation) as well as in Lhasa under Chinese rule. The author then goes on to recount her experiences as a refugee (in India, Switzerland, the United States, and then back to India), serving in various capacities in the exile Tibetan government. The book is written to give young Tibetans “a glimpse of their homeland and tell them the story of my struggles to build a new life in exile while preserving the best of our culture and heritage.”
In chapter 1, the author remembers her childhood and introduces her family. The author’s grandfather, Dasang Damdul Tsarong, was one of the key figures in the first half of 20th century Tibetan history. A favorite of the 13th Dalai Lama, Tsarong was unique amongst his countrymen because of his progressive outlook. Tsarong sent all his children, including his daughters, to study in India. The chapter ends with the author recounting how one of her brothers (the author has five siblings) was recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist teacher, the Drikung Rinpoche.
The second chapter introduces the author’s house and its operation. The author describes the prayer rooms, storerooms, living quarters, washrooms, kitchen, and garden, as well as the role of the different employees in the Tsarong household. Chapter 3 begins by emphasizing the centrality of religion in the lives of Tibetans: “most of the thirty-five major festivals in a year were religious celebrations.” The author then details the customs of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and the rituals performed as part of the celebration. Notably, these holidays were “some of the few opportunities the public had to glimpse His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
The fourth chapter serves as historical background to the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The bulk of the chapter is a note written by the author’s husband, Lobsang Samden, an elder brother to the Dalai Lama. His note emphasizes the helplessness of the Tibetan government: “In Lhasa, the government was filled with anxiety and terribly discouraged by the negative responses from the countries from which we had sought help.” The Dalai Lama is enthroned at the age of fifteen in this precarious period and leaves for Dromo, a small town near the Indian border. However, he returns to Lhasa hoping to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Chinese Communist Party.
In Chapter 5, the author leaves for India with her family. The author’s mother falls sick which the author believes is due to the “stress of the precarious events in Tibet and the tiresome journey.” Fortunately, she makes a full recovery and the family travels to Sikkim and then Kalimpong. Eventually, as the tension in Tibet eases, the author’s family returns to Tibet, but the author and her sister remain in India to attend school in Darjeeling.
Chapter 6 describes the years that the author spent in Mount Hermon School. It is during this period that the author is introduced to the Western world (education, people, clothes, religions, etc.). Chapter 7 begins with the author’s mother making the journey from Lhasa to Darjeeling to take the author and her sister back to Lhasa. Under Chinese rule now, the author describes the Chinese soldiers in the streets of Lhasa as dull appearing but very friendly. The author enrolls in the new Lhasa Primary School run by the Communists and even gets selected to travel to nearby villages as a political representative of the Chinese Communists. The author remembers how “we young people did not fully comprehend China’s betrayal.” The author and her sister then join an “experimental” boarding school, the first of its kind in central Tibet, where most teachers were arrivals from China. The author describes the school as a nightmare and recalls incidents such as when the Chinese teacher had to rush to the hospital because someone threw a stone at his head.
Chapter 8 starts with the author and a number of her family members leaving Lhasa once again for India. The party from Lhasa travels around India and makes pilgrimages to holy sites such as Lumbini and Bodhgaya. To her delight, the author is once again enrolled at Mount Hermon School. Two years later, while at school, the author receives the news that Lhasa is bombed by the Chinese and that the Dalai Lama fled to exile. She also learns that her grandfather died leading the popular uprising against the Chinese.
Chapter 9 details the plight of approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees as they attempt to transition to life in India. Most have an extremely difficult time adjusting to the Indian way of life (climate, food, clothes). The author finishes school and enrolls in a secretarial college in Calcutta. She is then approached by some members of the Dalai Lama’s family with the suggestion that she marry his immediate elder brother, Lobsang Samden. The two meet, take a liking to each other and get married in August 1962. The author ends the chapter explaining the traditional practices of marriage in Tibet.
Chapter 10 begins with the author’s new role as a staff member at the Bureau of the Dalai Lama in Delhi, a center for Tibetans going through the Indian capital city. The author gives birth to two children during this period. The highlight of this chapter is a lunch that the author has with the Dalai Lama and his mother. The author recalls being extremely nervous but the Dalai Lama “did not look as frightening as I had imagined.” The author and her husband then get transferred to work at the Office of Tibet in Geneva, Switzerland.
In Chapter 11, the author’s family travels to New York City. The author experiences the subway, shopping at the supermarket, using a washing machine, and eating pancakes. The family takes a trip to Indiana to visit the author’s brother-in-law, Taktser Rinpoche. The author recounts how the West “changed her outlook on life” and forced her to “become more independent and more confident.”
Chapter 12 accounts for the author’s experience in Switzerland working in the Office of Tibet in Geneva. A handful of Tibetan refugees had immigrated to Switzerland and some Tibetan children had even been adopted by Swiss nationals. The author remembers helping Tibetans adjust to life in Switzerland, attending dinners with dignitaries, and making new friends. In Chapter 13, the author and her husband travel around Europe to visit the various projects assisting Tibetan refugee children. After living in Switzerland for five years, the author and her family decide to move to the United States.
Chapter 14 starts with the author’s family finding a house in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. They open a Tibetan Arts and Crafts shop in Manhattan. However, after two years, they realize that they were not making much financial progress. The author takes a job as a receptionist and her husband as a janitor in a school. The author’s brother, Drikung Rinpoche, who the author had not seen for twenty years, escapes Tibet during this time and visits the United States. The family then decides to move back to India.
In Chapter 15, the author and her family settle in Dharamsala. Soon after, the author’s husband is selected as a member of the first exile fact-finding delegation. He is to go to Tibet and witness the living conditions of its people. The author makes a trip to Ladakh to celebrate the eight hundred anniversary of the founding of the Drikung Kagyu lineage. After returning from the visit, the author’s husband is appointed director of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute. The author is appointed as an English correspondent. Struggling with depression, the author undertakes Buddhist studies with Serkhong Rinpoche.
Chapter 16 describes the brief thaw in the early 1980s. Families separated in 1959 are able to reunite and Tibetans from Tibet are allowed to visit India to receive blessings from the Dalai Lama. The author’s husband becomes despondent and quiet after his visit to Tibet. After catching a bad flu, he passes away unexpectedly. The author realizes “the only way to avoid these samsaric sufferings in the wheel of life was to follow the teachings of the Lord Buddha.”
Chapter 17 explains the author’s role as a researcher in the production of the movie Kundun. Preparing for this movie allows the author to reminisce about Tibet and her life. In Chapter 18, the author returns to Dharamsala and goes back to work in the Tibetan government in exile. The author ends the book by expressing her wish to return to Tibet one day.