‘Twas a windy day as we roamed the streets of McLeod Ganj, a beautiful little town in Himachal Pradesh. The air was laden with the fresh scent of pine trees and the cool wind blew in our faces. My oldest friend from school Divya and I had decided to go on an all-girls trip to explore Dharamsala & McLeod Ganj. As we made our way through the crowded by-lanes of the market, we saw plenty of curio shops with “Free Tibet” signs outside. Prayer flags adorned every tree, every shop entrance and every house, creating a festive & colourful atmosphere.
We spotted a quaint little organic café and meandered in. To one side of the café, I noticed a lady wearing a traditional Tibetan dress sitting by herself with a cup of coffee. She was chatting to the store owner in Tibetan while showing her some pictures on her phone. The Tibetan language, with its high-pitched tones & intonations, sounded almost like a bird song. Suddenly she broke out into a lovely folk song. Her voice engulfing the room like waves gently covering the sandy shore. Enraptured, I knew I had to speak with her and find out more.
“You have such a lovely voice,” I gushed. She looked up at me and smiled. “I am a musician from Delhi and would love to learn this song from you. Please could you tell me the lyrics so I could write them down?”
She looked around shyly, surprised at the unexpected attention, but after a little egging on, she obliged. I wrote down the words she narrated on a paper napkin I’d borrowed from the lady at the counter (who looked both amused and delighted with the scene). She taught me the song line by line and then we sang it together; the café echoing with the sound of our voices. When we finished, the other customers at the café cheered and clapped. We had become the stars of a mini concert in a little corner of the world.
“Could you explain the meaning of the words?” I asked her, curious.
“It is about a bird flying above the mountains looking for freedom,” she explained in a soft voice that trailed off.
I sensed there was something deeper to her words and wished to know more about her story. She was born in a beautiful little village in Tibet where she lived an idyllic life with her husband, a school teacher. This was until China occupied Tibet and all hell broke loose. Scores of monasteries were broken down. Strict oppressive laws were brought into place. People, who raised their voices, mysteriously disappeared. Musicians, who sang about injustice, were jailed. In desperation, monks started self-immolating to bring attention to their cause. India opened her arms to hundreds of Tibetans, led by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
“A lot of people tried to flee Tibet during this time,” she continued. “Those who were fortunate escaped, but many didn’t. I managed to escape to India with my children but my husband… He was not allowed to leave.”
She rummaged in her purse and pulled out a photo concealed in a plastic cover for protection. Two handsome young men looked at me, almost forlornly, from the picture.
“These are my boys,” she said with pride. “One is 19 and the other is 17. We live in Bangalore, where I work at a healing centre.”
“And your husband? When did you last see him?” I asked, dreading the answer. With a faraway look in her eyes she said, “I haven’t seen him in 17 years”. Seventeen years! And I complain if I don’t see my husband for two weeks.
“I speak with him when I can on the phone but most of the times I can’t reach him and don’t know if he’s ok. When I miss him a lot, I sing these songs, they remind me of him, and our life together. I don’t know when I’ll see him again but I pray that I will, someday… Pray for me?”
Something about her story struck an emotional chord in my heart and I couldn’t hold back my tears.
“May I give you a hug?” I asked. She gave me a nod; we hugged and sobbed in each others arms. Not saying anything but understanding… everything. Two strangers, now friends, bound by a story of love and loss, and a moving song.
We sang together again, one last time in unison. Our voices ringing with truth, a silent prayer and the conviction that one day the bird would indeed fly to freedom and be re-united with his beloved sky.
Eternal optimist, songwriter, musician & story teller, Pragnya is inspired by the simple things in life. She released her debut album “Journey to the Sun” in 2012 which was nominated for multiple categories at the South East Asian Music awards, GIMA & Jack Daniels Rock Awards. She is the founder of Mousai India, an organisation which explores using sound & movement for liberating people’s true potential. She writes an informative music blog A Musician’s Musings for indie musicians in her free time. Connect with Pragnya.
Feature Image Credit: Bhavani