Butter lamp in the wind

Shobhan Saxena: On March 26, before sunrays could sneak into the room and wake his roommates, Jamphel Yeshi had already left his bed. He folded his blanket , placed it on the mattress, and put two books by the Dalai Lama on top of it. Then he hanged a rosary on a nail and strung two pens to it with red silk threads. Soon he picked a bag and walked to the gompa - Tibetan temple at Majnu ka Tila - and quietly ate bread with tea at a stall. After that he took a bus to Jantar Mantar, where a few hours later he turned into a ball of fire. When the van taking him to a hospital left Jantar Mantar, Yeshi was conscious. As his friend Sonam carried him to a stretcher, Yeshi spoke. "Why did you bring me here?" he asked Sonam. "He wanted to die at the protest," says Sonam, fighting his tears. "He knew what he was doing."

Yeshi always knew what he was doing. Born in a village in the Tawu county of Kham region in Tibet in 1985, Yeshi was youngest among four brothers who lived with their widowed mother in a small house. Their life was simple but hard. On a typical day, Jamphel would walk to school, work in the field, take the cows for grazing, collect wood in forest, and eat tsampa - roasted barley - and dried yak meat with butter tea. But he desired something more. He wanted to learn Tibetan language. "He was very hard working and honest. He learnt Tibetan by himself after he stopped going to school," says Kesang Norbu, 26, Yeshi's friend who grew up with him. "It was not possible for a poor Tibetan boy to go to a higher school, and they don't teach our language in Chinese-run schools."

In 1959 as the Chinese moved into Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Communist Party began
'reforms' which led to starvation deaths and destruction of Tibetan culture. Living in fear, the Tibetans would talk about their history in low voices. It was at such whispers by the kitchen fire at night that Yeshi learnt Tibetan history. "He became aware of what was going on in Tibet," says Sonam Wangyal, 32, his cousin and roommate in Delhi. "He was a good Buddhist. If he thought something was wrong, he would stand against it."

Since there were many things wrong in Tibet, Yeshi was over-active . His friends and cousins - now in India - recall how in 2005 Yeshi rode his bicycle to the district headquarters 30 km from his village and pasted a poster on a wall, demanding the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. "He cycled all night. If he thought it was right to do something, he would do it any cost," says Wangyal.

As it was tough to learn Tibetan, in 2005, he decided to escape to India. But he got caught. The Chinese army put him on a truck, tied his hands behind his back and shifted him from one jail to another for five months. "When he came out, he was determined to go to India so that he could see the Dalai Lama and learn Tibetan," says Norbu.

In 2006, Yeshi made another dash to the border. Travelling at night, moving on foot and hitching rides, he reached Kathmandu. From there he went to Delhi and then to Dharamshala , where he was sent to the Tibetan Transit School to study Tibetan, English and computers. "On Sundays, he would take his books and go to a quiet place. His Tibetan was becoming better by the day. He hardly went out to have fun," says Wangyal, who was with Yeshi at the school for some time. But in 2008, when the Beijing Olympics torch passed through Delhi and Tibetans organized protests in the Capital, Yeshi went to Delhi - to commit self-immolation . But Wangyal stopped him. "He went back to Dharamshala ," says Wangyal.

On March 30, Yeshi went back to Dharamshala , but in a coffin draped in the Tibetan flag. At Majnu ka Tila colony, everybody misses Yeshi. He was that young man with a smiling face who was always ready to help others. Tenzin Wangchu, an activist, remembers him as a man who would materialize at all activities just to serve tea or organize mattresses . For Kelsang, a neighbour, Yeshi was the early riser who would often take care of his two-year-old son as she worked in her kitchen. At home, he was always making tea, chopping vegetables and making thukpa and momos for his mates and numerous Tibetans who dropped by while passing through Delhi. "He never talked about his future, only about Tibet's future," says Lobgyal, his cousin.

But he continued to work on his Tibetan. Even as he managed the night desk at a hotel for some time, he practiced his typing in Tibetan on an old laptop, read the Dalai Lama's Four Noble Truths again and again. "We know him as the man who lived for Tibet," says Norbu. "And he died for Tibet."

Twice a day now, the settlement's residents gather at the gompa to pray for Yeshi. On a table, there are hundreds of butter lamps, flickering in the wind. On the floor, old women chant as they spin their prayer wheels. The young stand around, murmuring mantras. Moist eyes rise to a huge poster with two photos of Pawo (martyr) Jamphel Yehsi. In one photo, he is a young man in blue jeans at the gompa; in another, he is an inferno . There is also a long banner with photos of 30 persons who have committed self-immolations in Tibet since 2009.

After the first self-immolation by a Tibetan , Thupten Ngodup, at Jantar Mantar in 1998, as the community debated if he committed an act of violence, writer Jamyang Norbu put the issue in perspective. "When I look at his (Ngodup) last photograph I feel I am seeing the calm, happy face of someone who has discovered a simple truth about life; something Tibetans have regarded as basic to any major undertaking, especially the effective practise of dharma - thak choego ray, you have to make a decision and act on it."

Yeshi made his decision on March 16, when he wrote a letter to all Tibetans. And he decided to act on it on March 26. A day earlier, he told Lobgyal that he had opened a bank account for him in Dharamshala. Yeshi told Wangyal not to call him. "He said his phone would be switched off as he might get arrested at the protest," says Wangyal.

The next morning when his neighbour Kelsang saw Yeshi at Jantar Mantar, he was carrying a bag and smiling. "He joked with me, saying 'you wouldn't get arrested because you are here with your kids," says Kelsang. Then he vanished. Nobody saw him till he appeared on the street engulfed in flames.

One day after Yeshi's self-immolation , Lobgyal found Yeshi's letter in a bookshelf. "Freedom is the basis of happiness for all living beings. Without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction...if we unitedly put our strength together, there will be result. So, don't be disheartened...," Yeshi wrote in beautiful Tibetan.

For Wangyal, Norbu and Lobgyal, too, Yeshi is still around. Every day, they drop some tsampa in a clay pot hanging near their door. Inside, Yeshi's bed looks like an altar, with two butter lamps burning on a table near it. His roommates pray for Yeshi everyday. They miss him, but they respect him for being a good Tibetan because he made a decision and acted on it.

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