6 Poems on Life in Exile and Of Home from “A Thousand Parallel Lives” by Tenzin Pema Chashar

Six Poems from Tenzin Pema Chashar’s recently published A Thousand Parallel Lives: A book of Poems about Life in Exile and of Home, Real and Imagined. The poems, according to Pema la are in “chronological sequence of how things have unfolded for us [Tibetans] prior to our escape into exile, then early life in exile, and finally to today – where the Tibetan diaspora is really spread across the world, with each of us holding onto our sense of identity and, now more so than before, maybe even asserting them more forcefully in our own way, irrespective of our age, location, and background.”

About each poem: 

The first poem “The Young, the Holy, and the Wealthy” is one version of my interpretation from the many stories I’ve been told about how key members of a family, who had been identified for torture/prison/thamzing, were given fair warning from those whose loyalty the Chinese tried to buy but couldn’t. 

The second poem “Here Vs. There” is something I wrote from my memory of listening to the elders talk constantly about how everything was always that much better or more abundant or brighter or bigger (even the ravens, as I recall) in Tibet. So it’s written from the vantage of someone who is about to set off for life in exile and has these hopes for how this new life/home should be.

The third poem “Wait for Me” is something I wrote from the perspective of so many of our parents and elders who had to leave their parents or children and loved ones behind as many of them had to make a hasty escape. However, many stayed somewhere close to the borders, waiting for their loved ones to join them, and not making the final descent into exile because of their belief too that the issue of Tibet would be a temporary one.

The fourth poem “Call to Arms” is about early life in exile when Tibetans in nearly every settlement called on their youth to practice ‘March Past’ every morning (with wooden toy guns) so that they would be ready if ever there was a war with the Chinese.

The fifth poem “Stone Bench” is about life in exile in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the longing for home (where the life they had left behind was home) was still palpable and a focal point of all conversations between the elders.


The Young, the Holy, and the Wealthy

The message came one early morning,

It was the shepherd who heard it first,

They were coming for us, he said,

They are coming for the young, the holy, and the wealthy.

We cobbled together that morning,

Our shepherd recounting the details,

They had earmarked the houses and the places, he said, 

Where the young, the holy, and the wealthy reside.

The sheep in the pens forgotten that morning,

As we speculated and strategized and organized,

For they have decreed, the shepherd said, to remove 

From this earth, the young, the holy, and the wealthy.

The bags were hastily packed that evening,

The deities consulted, the offerings made,

To embark on the journey we must make,

With haste, before the morning comes.

For they are coming. They are coming.

They are coming for the young, the holy, and the wealthy.


Here vs. There

Tell me the sun shines,

As gently there as it does here.

Tell me the barley grows,

As abundantly there as it does here.

Tell me the butter tastes and looks,

As creamy and rich there as it does here.

Tell me the black-necked cranes descend and dance, As majestically there as they do here.

Tell me the mustard fields glow,

As luminously like rows of gold as they do here.

Tell me the monastery towers gleam,

As fulgently from a distance as they do here.

Tell me the heart will feel,

As full and free there as it does here.


Wait for Me

Please wait for me,

By the river beyond that mountain,

The halfway point to our destination;

I’ll come when the time is ripe,

And together we shall cross the bigger mountains, 

To the land where the people only wear white.

If the tsampa is running out,

Or the bag with the dried yak meat is thinning, Don’t despair. Just wait for me.

I’ll come laden, with more bags of food,

To last us as we make our way across,

To the land where the people only wear white.

When the nights are cold,

And the days run long,

Don’t be afraid. Think of me.

For I’ll be there, before the season turns,

So that together we may welcome the new season, 

In the land where the people only wear white.

When your hope runs dry,

Or the prayers refuse to escape your cracked, bloody lips. 

Don’t give up. Hold out for me.

I’m around the corner. Making my way to you.

So together we can soldier on and descend the mountains, 

To the land where the people only wear white.


The Call to Arms

Listen carefully

And you will hear,

The call to arms –

So fierce, so sure,

So brazen, so bold;

No hint of doubt,

Nor trace of fear.

Come learn, they said. Learn the drill. 

To prepare ourselves for what is to come.

The calls, unrelenting,

Come every morning,

Prompting the young – the men and women, 

To gather each day,

Their wooden toy guns blazing,

In the village school yard,

Surrounded by acres of corn fields,

And the conspiracy of the ravens,

Perched atop rows of Eucalyptus trees.

And so they stood, shoulder to shoulder, Marching – Left, Right, Left; Left, Right, Left; Their collective enthusiasm shrouding

The lack of harmony

In the movement of their feet,

Even as the leader shouted out the orders, Willing them to work in unison,

Whether to move forward or to stop,

To stand at ease or at attention.

Soon it became a ritual,

Another addition to their morning chores, 

As the young – the men and women, 

Slinging their guns on their shoulders, 

Heeded, each day, the call to arms,

Readying to fight a war, they said, is coming, Unannounced and sudden, in terrains unknown. But prepare we can, they said. Prepare we must. As they gathered each day for their daily drill.


The Stone Bench

Alone it stood, at the center of two neighborly homes, 

The rustic stone bench;

Where many a good friend gathered each evening, 

Reminiscing, remembering, recalling, repeating

Every little memory – fresh or fading,

Of home and hearth, family and friends,

Of hurried departures and narrow escapes,

Of serendipitous reunions and of rebuilding,

Of new homes purposefully built amongst those with a shared past.

And so it quietly stood, a silent member of this daily party, 

The old weathered stone bench;

Where the others came each day, as if to gather for a ritual, 

Discussing, dissecting, deliberating, debating

Every tiny detail of a life – relived or relieved,

Of the whitewash of houses against the maroon of the monasteries,

Of ravens, barley fields, yaks, and horses – as far as the eye can see,

Of the scent of their mother’s apron and of fresh butter,

Of the taste of sweet, butterless tea, and the sight of blazing corn fields.

Rigid and invincible it stood, the keeper of many truths,

The rugged stone bench;

Where the crevices of its ragged, rough edges, each house a story,

Unforgettable, unprecedented, unearthly, untold;

Every turn of events in a tale – familiar yet unique,

Of divine interventions and oracles, omens and miracles,

Of bellowing, clamoring, and shouting in alien alleyways,

Of many moons spent thriving in the prison walls of a free country,

Of practicing for wars with wooden toy guns, but fighting it, always, with compassion.


A Thousand Parallel Lives

In the dark of the night, under a blanket of stars,

A timid little girl crouched down on the ground,

Her eyes forever up, searching for patterns in the sky,

Her ears taking in the sounds of a village asleep,

Her lips mouthing a song, the lyrics carefully mastered, 

Over many stolen moments, between study time and play.

She went about her business, with an unhurried pace,

As her father stood guard, out of sight yet within earshot,

“My child, when you go for the party tomorrow,

The other girls your age will sway with finesse to every tune, 

But you, my child, can you dance if you need to,

or learn a move or two, 

To fit in with the others, because you will need to,” he said.

“O Father,” the little girl said, “Worry not.”

“I know a step or two, as well as to act as if I do,

So I’ll have no trouble fitting in or seeming like one of them, 

But that too, only if I want to.”

And her father smiled to himself in the dark,

While waiting patiently for the girl,

As he pondered that answer and all its weight,

The fearlessness, the confidence, and the innocence.


At the crack of dawn, under a fluorescent tube light,

An unsure young bride hunched over her kitchen table,

Her hands forever moving – creating and then repairing,

Her eyes sizing each log of wood, every handful of corn cob,

Her mind racing through the same list of tasks – imperative yet insignificant,

To be toiled through days and weeks and months on end, until winter comes.

She boiled the water over the fire, as she hastened to finish her other chores,

Her thoughts turning to the words of her sister, u ttered in the kitchen of her mother’s home;

“My sister, when you go to your husband’s home tomorrow,

The hands of the other young brides your age, will be marked by calluses and corns, 

While you, my sister, with your soft and gentle hands, will you be as able as them, 

And fit in with the other brides your age, because you will need to,” she said.

“O Sister,” the young bride recalls saying, “Worry not.”

“I know how to churn bu er and roast barley, as Mother oft did,

But better still, to bargain and make a sale when winter comes calling, 

So I’ll have no trouble fitting in or standing out, whichever I may choose.” 

And her sister had smiled uneasily at her that morning,

Her face fraught with worry, searching for signs of reassurance, 

As she considered that answer and all its truths,

The precociousness, the uncertainty, and the optimism.


In the heat of the afternoon, under a dust-laden fan,

A matronly woman, middle-aged, poured over the contents of her suitcase,

Her hands weighing time and again, the things she had chosen to start afresh,

Her silent, timorous tears falling on carefully folded clothes,

Her heart laden with apprehension, overpowering her hopes

For what lay before her – the end of one life, the promise of another.

She hurried through her packing, a charm box and a peja* atop a heap of documents,

While her husband waited in the shadows, as if readying for the long wait ahead;

“My wife, when you go to this foreign land tomorrow,

The people of your new home will expect, that you talk and eat and walk like them,

But you, my wife, will you learn a language that you haven’t heard or live like you’re one of them,

In a desperate bid to fit in, because you will need to,” he said.

“O Husband,” the woman said, “Worry not.”

“I know a sentence or two, or to replace a missing word with a kind smile or deed,

To trust the blood of our elders that course through our veins, their steely determination and fortitude,

It’ll enable me, I’m sure, to rebuild and belong; to experience the best of both worlds.”

And her husband smiled gratefully at her that afternoon,

As he helped her prepare the things that would define the foundations of a new life,

All the while reflecting on her answer and all its truths,

The perseverance, the courage, and the hope.


At the fag end of a long day, under the light of the se tting sun,

A wise old lady sat in her blue armchair,

Her eyes forever darting, from one flower bed to the next in her gently loved garden,

Her right hand turning a prayer wheel, her left a rosary with 108 prayer beads,

Her lips chanting a prayer – words, paragraphs and whole pages from memory,

Etched forever in all corners of her mind, ready to be wielded at any waking moment.

She went about her evening, with an unhurried pace; watching,

As her grandson wandered about – always within sight, always with a question;

“My Grandmother, when you go for the teachings tomorrow,

The other elders your age, will soak in every syllable of the Dharma, 

But you, my MomoLa**, with your many years away from it all, will you understand,

And know what to chant and when and why, because you will need to,” he said.

“O Grandson,” the old lady said, “Worry not.”

“I know enough about the Dharma, or as much as I should,

To chant in unison with the others in the congregation, or to stop, to listen, to be,

But never to fit in; no, never that; only to be who I truly am, only to just be.”

And her grandson smiled softly as the sun moved beyond the horizon, 

Bending his head forward towards his grandmother, foreheads touching,

While the old lady hoped he had comprehended her answer and all its wisdom,

The resilience, the defiance, and the poise.



*Peja: Tibetan scriptures and prayer books **MomoLa: Grandmother

[Thank you to Pema la for giving me (Dawa Lokyitsang) permission to feature her poetry on Lhakar Diaries. Pema la’s strong response “World Owes Tibetan Community Apology For Attacking Pure Acts Of Love” during the media frenzy to damage His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama image resonated with many Tibetans and literally helped to spark the #ApologizeNow campaign against disinformation by Tibetans and Himalayan people worldwide. Lhakar Diaries is thankful to Pema la for sharing her resonant poems about the social life of Tibetan elder’s memories among exile Tibetans and how such memories not only reproduce the memory of homeland but how it reproduces us and our politics in exile as Tibetans.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in Tibetan Women’s writing in the West by scholars of Tibetan Studies. Much of this interest has come from academic scholars of Religious Studies interested in how lay Tibetan society engages with Tibetan Buddhism. While I welcome these much needed new developments, there has been a tendency to neglect, de-prioritize, and differentiate Tibetan writers and scholars of exile background and the intersection of the religious and the political which co-produces contemporary Tibetan lives, Buddhist and otherwise. This is in spite of the shared parallels between Tibetans inside and outside especially when it comes to the experience of ‘exile’ due to our shared political conditioning because of Chinese colonialism in Tibet and imperialism abroad.

This distinction between Tibetans inside and outside is not of our own making but is one imposed by outsiders. Rather than find divides and differentiate Tibetans arbitrarily based on colonially defined borders and frameworks, finding and understanding these shared parallels between Tibetans can foreground how Tibetans themselves negotiate such colonially produced dispossession that exile represents by choosing each-other time and time again. Prioritizing and historicizing Tibetan perspectives on how they challenge such colonially produced differences and dispossession through collective imaginings that are both world-making and producing can have healing impacts if scholars are truly interested in decolonial imaginings. But this isn’t an appeal, the reality of the matter is, this is how Tibetans live their lives and connect with one another in the post-1959 invasion contemporary moment. Pema la’s poetry demonstrates this. Hopefully, readers of Lhakar Diaries will find her poetic and insightful memories enlightening for understanding this simple fact about us Tibetans.]

To purchase A Thousand Parallel Lives please click on the kindle links below for your respective countries:

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