Miss Freedom

Indian Express Indian Express

Published in:

by Manraj Grewal
Photographs by Kamleshwar Singh

Kalsang Dickey fled Lhasa to take part in the Miss Tibet contest. Last week, Manraj Grewal saw her live out her dream.

It was a friend from McLeodganj who first told her about the night they crowned Miss Tibet. About the girl from nowhere who would now represent Tibet Participants on the world stage.

Imagine the ripples it'll create when she stands up there with Miss China, he'd said, his hands pointing upwards at an imaginary stage.

Kalsang Dickey, a nurse, dancer and struggling model, couldn't sleep a wink that night. A month later, in September 2003, she fled Lhasa to pursue her dream.

Last week, it came true. Dickey, 24, was one of the five contestants at the Miss Tibet pageant, part of the Free Spirit festival, held at McLeodganj, the seat of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. There were no losers in the contest where participation itself is an act of courage and the cause – a free Tibet – the real star.

Participants In 2002, a handful of Tibetan youngsters led by Lobsang Wangyal decided to take the 36-24-36 route to global attention. A flamboyant 30-something photojournalist with a flowing mane, Wangyal says the idea took root after he organised the heady arts fest for young Tibetans in India in October 2000.

"I thought why shouldn't we, the dispossessed, have a beauty pageant as well? A contest which would give us another platform to fight for our independence."

Back then, Wangyal's radical idea had few takers. And the Internet announcement of the contest was met with stern disapproval from none other than Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, who said the corrupting influence of the West was to blame.

Two smiling

2002 Dolma Tsering, 19, was the first Miss Tibet. Tsering even got to share the stage with Miss China at the Miss Tourism Intercontinental Contest in Malaysia after the event, where she won the Miss Goodwill subsidiary title and Best National Costume title in Mexico. Now she's working on an album.
2003 Tsering Kyi, 21, from Amdo in north eastern Tibet, was the winner. Kyi, who studied in a monastery in Himachal Pradesh, is a budding poet and has a collection (in Tibetan) to her name.
2004 Tashi Yangchen is a computer engineer who works for the Information Technology department in Gangtok. The 24-year-old wants to do an MBA abroad.

Wangyal and his team went ahead anyway. The first Miss Tibet in October 2002 attracted a respectable 30 entries, of which four made it to D-Day.

The next year was a downer, with nine of the 10 participants opting out just before the contest, mainly due to the swimsuit round. Many prominent Tibetans say they are not comfortable with the skin show. And even though Wangyal has kept this round closed to the public right from the start, it continues to be a sore point.

This time, a small but spirited bunch of five girls gave it a go, watched by, among others, a camera crew who had specially flown in from Hamburg. And no one was more thrilled than Dickey. "I never thought I would make it here," she says through an interpreter.

Dickey was seven when one night her bickering parents pushed her out into Lhasa's icy streets. "I was pleading with my father, asking him not to leave us when ..." She's crying as she tells you how she spent the next few days begging on the streets, this in a city where the act is considered a crime. A week later, a local court ordered her mother to take custody of her.

After school, Dickey, a dance enthusiast, did a three-month course at the Chengdu Institute of Arts, but a fall from a bike quashed her starry plans. And until the pageant called, life was all about being a nurse.

"I told my parents, who are now divorced and remarried, I wanted to go to Nepal for a pilgrimage," she smiles. Nepal was only a smokescreen. Dickey was escaping to India via Kathmandu.

It wasn't easy. For one, she had no travel documents. But a friend from India helped her tag on to four foreigners crossing the border.

"It was tough," she shudders, recalling the jagged mountains she climbed using just ropes, and the dense vegetation that sometimes took a swipe at her. "Only the thought of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and participating in the contest kept me going."

It was afternoon when they finally made the crossing after a hurried and hefty exchange of money with a sherpa who led them across to Nepal.

Then on, it was a smooth ride. "I called up the local Tibetan reception centre, which sent a truck to fetch me." Kathmandu was smoky and crowded. "Quite unlike Lhasa with its spanking new buildings, gleaming roads and round-the-clock electricity," she says, oblivious to the political incorrectness of the statement in a place reared on anti-China sentiment.

The swimsuit round But Dickey, who worked as a receptionist-cum-errand girl at a local hotel for 4,000 Nepali rupees a month, learnt to like the city. It was at least a step closer to the Dalai Lama.

The monsoon brought good news. The Miss Tibet contest was on. Dickey persuaded a friend to fill in the form for her. She also wrote in her secret: She had no money.

Back in McLeodganj, Wangyal had received not one but two applications from Nepal. The other one was from Sonam Dickey, a girl who had earlier visited McLeodganj to do a computer course.

Tsering Kyi 2003 "Lobsang got in touch with the Voice of Asia correspondent in Kathmandu who gave me Kalsang's phone number," recalls Sonam. It was September 21. A day later, she called up and met Dickey. Six days on, they were at McLeodganj. But Dickey's journey was finally made possible by US-based Tsering Yangdon. A correspondent with Radio Free Asia, Yangdon sent Dickey $300 after an SOS from Wangyal.

"She spoke to me on the phone and told me to buy all that I needed for the pageant," beams Dickey, flashing a flowery diamante ring. Barring some anxious moments at the Indo-Nepal border, the three-day Kathmandu-Delhi bus journey was a happy blur.

"I used to think McLeodganj was a small hamlet perched atop a hill, but it's so full of energy, big shops, people..."

Among the people were the three other feisty girls who'd come from as far as Sikkim to be part of the pageant. Tashi Yangchen, a pretty computer engineer from Gangtok, and a former Ms Fresher at her engineering college in Pune, who eventually wore the crown of Miss Tibet. Dhondup Wangmo, a customer care officer with Delhi-based BPO Convergys, was driven by the cause, but easily embarrassed by any display of vanity. Local girl Thinlay Dolma, who worked with her uncle at a cloth shop, won many fans with her grace in high heels.

A US-based journalist sent Dickey $300 to participate Together the five explored their little kingdom under the watchful eyes of the Team Lobsang, a group of volunteers dedicated to a free Tibet.

If Kris Majchrzak, the lady who chaperoned beauties at the Miss World contest in China last year, represented Europe, Lauren Cutcliffe, the emcee, pitched in for the English, while Sherry Winklemann, the creative director, made up the American contribution.

Indians played the generous hosts with Sangeeta J, a former beauty advisor for Miss India pageants, not only grooming the girls, but also liaisoning with the judges. A local resort did its bit by putting the participants up.

Dickey was impressed, happy and at peace. She prayed at Nechung monastery, took a leisurely tour of Parliament where Dolma Gyari, deputy speaker, declared them all winners, and basked in the beauty of Norbulingka, the centre for Tibetan arts, swinging to Thaiyan Thaiyan (Chhaiyan, Chhaiyan), or crooning Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai.

Miss Tibet 2004 turned out to be fun. She got to walk a la Preity Zinta, her favourite actress, in a lilac swimsuit. "I was a little edgy at first, but it was fine after a while."

In the final round, Dickey wore a slinky pink gown topped with a fur hat. And one of the judges told her she'd narrowly missed the crown.

The contest over, she's busy packing. "I'll go back to Lhasa after meeting His Holiness," she says. Ask her if she fears being put behind bars and she shrugs: "So what? That will only help me spread my message. I've lived my dream, I am ready to pay the price."

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