"Do you have a copy of Contact?" asked a man with an American accent. The owner of the voice, a strapping lad with disheveled sandy hair and green eyes, seemed to have just arrived at Mcleod Ganj, a Tibetan settlement in upper Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh) and the urgency in his voice suggested that Contact held the key to a magical world that he was in search of. "Here, this the last copy that we have," said the owner of the bookshop, as he handed over an issue of the black and white 'magazine' to him. "And how much is this for?" "Oh! It's free," replied the Tibetan shop owner.
As I glanced at the issue over the shopkeeper's shoulder, the sixteen-page magazine seemed to look familiar. Now wasn't it the same one that knots of eager tourists were poring over at street side cafes and restaurants? Several shops and eateries in the area stocked up on issues of the Contact magazine and the publication seemed to be attracting tourists as well as Tibetans, like bees to honey. The magazine was being snapped up by people keen on finding their way across the place; tourists who had decided to stay on for sometime and contribute their bit to the Tibetan society; and, educated Tibetans who wanted to keep up-to-date with the pulse of Mcleod.
Curious to know more about the Contact magazine, I picked up a copy for myself from another shop.
Eight sheets of crisp paper printed in black-and-white and stapled together, formed Dharamshala's grassroots community publication. Crammed with news, photographs and an assortment of ads, the magazine at first glance, looked like the paper-version of the pulse of Little Lhasa.
"Let's close the generation gap" read the headline of the cover story. Photographs of Tibetans dancing, and rejoicing illustrated the article about an initiative to organize a festive day at the Elder's Home by the Hope Education Centre (HEC), an English language school in Mcleod Ganj. "Local NGO Tong-Len working for the slum-dwellers in Dharamshala", read another story about a Buddhist monk trying to help the poor children of Dharamshala. Another page carried the story about the preparations being made in anticipation of the march back to Tibet. An article on the Tibetan Women's Leadership Conference jostled with ads such as "Learn Ancient Tibetan Games" and "Learn Yoga at Yoga Siddhartha Centre".
As I flipped through the pages, reading the articles, glancing at the ads, I could see the emotions of the Tibetan community in Mcleod, woven through the sentences of the articles and portrayed in the numerous ads that peeked out from the last few pages of the magazine. Hope shared space with frustration; smiles with tears. "Happy Losar! Let's hope that the next Losar is in Tibet" announces a cheery message that shares space with an article on the Chinese dominion of Tibet and the Tibetan Government's stance on this. Health and education projects for Tibetan refugees jostled with ads about Tibetan cooking and Buddhist Philosophy.
An interesting section for all those travelers and do-gooders who would like to roll up their sleeves and help out the community, there are snippets and ads that call out to all those who can contribute their bit to the community in exile. "We run a conversation class and we are in constant need of conversation partners. They love to ask questions about your life and exchange ideas on many topics," reads an ad asking for volunteers to participate in an English-conversation class for newly-arrived refugees from Tibet.
"Tibetan Handicapped children at Nyingtob Ling need you help. Please visit their craft shop.."; "Tong-Len needs Primary Teachers & Assistants, Nurses and health Workers"; "Rogpa Community Free Tibetan Baby Care Centre - Come and volunteer at the centre which provides care, art time, games and fun for Tibetan Refugee children"; "Gu-Chu-Sum, which provides support to ex-political prisoners and their families needs help with English conversation and tutoring."
Right from learning meditation, Buddhism and Tibetan Thanka painting to teaching English and helping with health care and animal welfare, the ads in Contact, help fill in the requirements and meet the needs of not only the Tibetans here but also of all those travelers who seek to do some good or take away a piece of Tibetan culture and Buddhism with them.
Says Lobsang Rabsel, the publisher of Contact, who also moonlights as a Tour Guide, Translator and Business Card designer, "Apart from keeping readers up-to-date on current issues and events and by networking education, health, and service workers, this magazine also aims to build a community through communication." He adds that Contact is also serious about helping out environment-related causes and the articles coaxing people to sort out their garbage and clean their localities stand testimony to this fact.
Started in April 1997 by an American traveler ("Mark something..sorry I don't remember his full name," says Lobsang), the magazine is an example of voluntary community work. Indians, Westerners and Tibetans in Mcleod Ganj with something to say, can send in their articles to the magazine, which are then edited by editors who work on a voluntary basis. (At present, the editorial team comprises of Lauren Smith, Ram Ranganath and Tashi.)
Funded completely by ads, the paper is then printed and distributed for free at shops across Mcleod Ganj. Published once a month, the magazine is abuzz with issues and events happening in the little settlement. And apart from acting as a bridge between travelers and Tibetans, the magazine also doubles up as an English language text-book for several Tibetan refugees who want to test their reading skills. "We used to print simple English grammar exercises to help refugees smarten up their English, but now they just use the text in the magazine to learn about words and sentences," quips Lobsang.
This grassroots magazine can also be accessed on the internet at www.contactmag.org and if you have a little time to spare, you could even help with the editing of this community magazine. You can get in touch with Lobsang at email@example.com.