Apart from holding the title "Great Mother," what made Diki Tsering such a remarkable woman--and it comes through shiningly in this book--is her humility and rock-solid strength of character. In the snobby aristocratic milieu of Lhasa society, she stuck fast to her Amdo traditions, wearing the hari, a heavy, gold-brocaded overdress for married women, until the day she died. She protected her family as best she could after the death of her husband and the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and taught them to be, above all, compassionate and true to their heritage. "Traditions are the creators of your spirit and your pride," she said. "They make you what you are and define what you want to be."
Sixteen years after her death, Khedroob Thondup, Diki Tsering's grandson, decided to publish her autobiography. Khedroob's father, Gyalo Thondub, is an older brother of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and his mother, Chu Tan, was the daughter of a Kuomingtang general. His parents met while Gyalo was studying in China. They moved to India in the 1950s when China's grip on Tibet tightened and the family's advisers suggested that a brother of the Dalai Lama with a Chinese wife would be a political liability in Lhasa.
Khedroob was born in Calcutta in 1952 and educated at a renowned Jesuit school in Darjeeling, India, and later at the University of San Francisco, where he earned an M.B.A. After returning to India, he served as special assistant to His Holiness and traveled with him extensively. In 1980, Khedroob was also part of a special team to begin dialogue between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the People's Republic of China. In 1986, he was appointed to run the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre in Darjeeling, which his mother founded. He is also an elected official of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. He spoke with Beliefnet's Buddhism producer Mary Talbot on a recent visit to New York.
How did this book come about?
This book is my sister, Yangzom Doma's, legacy. When she returned to India from graduate school in England, she got a job with the Tibetan Library and Archives in Dharamsala and became the editor of the Tibetan Journal. In 1979, she got the idea of recording our grandmother's life story. When my sister asked her if she would mind, she was taken aback at first. Nobody had ever asked about her life, or how she felt about it. But she wanted people to know what her childhood was like, and together they recorded a number of tapes. They got up to the point where my grandmother left Tibet, and then, in 1981, my grandmother died. In 1982, my sister went on holiday to North Africa and was killed in a car accident. My mother wanted to complete the project, but she was busy raising my sister's son. Then my mother contracted cancer and died in 1986. In 1997, I decided it was time for me to take up the project.
It's hard to imagine a life as hard as your grandmother's--she recalls sleeping just three or four hours a night--and yet she describes how much she missed the countryside after her son was recognized as the Dalai Lama and the family moved to Lhasa.
Women were treated very badly, especially once they were married and had to move in with the husband's families. They were expected to do all the work. And if their husbands died, they often committed suicide rather than be married off to yet another family.
My grandmother's mother-in-law was very hard on her because she wanted a male heir, and my grandmother's first baby was a girl. The mother-in-law died before any sons were born; as it happened, she had the strange karma of giving birth to three reincarnated lamas! But my grandmother never cringed from her duty. She loved to work and be busy. She used to say to her children and grandchildren, "You guys are spoiled. You don't do any work." When she moved to Lhasa, she would carry rocks back and forth on the roof to keep her body strong for childbirth.
When the Dalai Lama, your grandmother, and other members of your family finally escaped to India in 1959, how did your life change?
Up until then, I had no idea of who I was or what I represented. I was 7 and the headmaster of my boarding school called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble, but he told me my parents had asked for me to come home. He said, "Young man, today history is being made." When I got home, my parents took me to see His Holiness' procession, which stopped near Darjeeling [an Indian hill station near the Tibetan border where Khedroob grew up], and there were hundreds of people trying to get a glimpse of him. It began to dawn on me that I was part of something very important, and how much he meant to the Tibetan people.