In mid 2007, my work with an I.T. firm took me to the city of Seattle, USA. This is a city that has been home to some of the greatest music acts the world has ever known. From bands like Nirvana that introduced the world to grunge music to alternative acts like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and more recently Macklemore & Ryan Lewis—Seattle is a city that has inspired many a musician. Here I was, a fledgling singer, wide-eyed and excited, scouring the city for my next musical inspiration. I had chosen to live in the city and not in the suburbs unlike most of my other Indian co-workers, because I felt the city was more alive… with street performers at every corner, a buzzing nightlife and vibrant markets.
One evening as I was walking home after work, I noticed an old man sitting by himself. He was surrounded by bright balloons and a teddy bear, and he held a cardboard sign. I squinted and read the colourful letters aloud “Free Hugs.” ‘Free Hugs’? How does that work? Intrigued, I went up to the old man and initiated a conversation.
“Hi there! What’s ‘Free Hugs’? What are you doing this for?” I asked.
“Hello young lady! I give free hugs to whoever wants one. I’m just an old man who wants to spread a little love and sunshine in this world. The world is a dark place, it needs more people that care… I come here everyday at this time.”
“That’s such a beautiful thing to do! How long have you been doing this?”
“Oh for many years now! After my children left, I’ve led a lonely life. I know there are a lot of other lonely people in the world as well who could use a hug. Sometimes people have had a bad day and there’s no one to go to. It’s the least I can do to help people break the walls that surround them and reach out to one another.”
“And you don’t get paid for this I guess?”
“Only in smiles,” he said with a toothy grin.
With a smile, I extended my arms out for a hug. It was a nice, warm friendly hug in the middle of a crowded street. I felt pure joy at being a part of this simple act of kindness from a stranger. In this world where money and time are a priority, here was someone whose only agenda was to spread sunshine.
There was a Starbucks nearby and I hopped over to buy both of us a coffee. The least I could do on that cold day was warm the hands of a man who had spent most of his life warming so many hearts.
The story didn’t end there. On returning to India a year later, some friends and I organised a Free Hugs campaign in Pune, the city I lived in at that point. This was post the Mumbai terror attacks and it was our way of passing forward the message of love and hope that I’d received in Seattle.
It’s been over 5 years since I met the old man from Seattle and yet, every time I sing my song “Free Hugs” on stage, I see his face with that toothy grin, holding the old cardboard sign endearingly asking, “A free hug for you today sir?”
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.