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from the August 2015 issue: Myth and History: Writing from Indonesia

The Dream of a Wandering Minstrel

1. Tsering the Wandering Minstrel traveled the road in search of a dream.

2. One night during the spring when Tsering turned fourteen years old, he had a dream. A girl appeared in the landscape of his dream. Tsering already knew his alphabet by then and at times even wrote simple lyrics. Here is the entry in his diary detailing his dream:

“Yesterday, a girl appeared in my dreams. I have never seen her before. I still see her image clearly in my mind. She was around the same age as me. She had a fair and round face with a green mole on her chin. Her hair, pulled into tiny plaits all over her head, looked very pretty. She said we should play catch and ran in front of me as I chased her. I ran until I was exhausted and out of breath but no matter how I ran and ran, I couldn’t catch her. We were lost in our play for a long time. And then she left. I felt as if I had known her in my real life. I don’t know her name or what village she’s from. But I’ll never forget her.”

The next day when Tsering recounted his dream to his father, his father laughed at him and said, “When you grow up, you can take this girl of your dreams as your bride.”

Tsering sat lost in thought with a smile on his face.

The girl appeared in Tsering’s dreams many more times. Each time, they played catch. Each time Tsering wrote down the details of his dream and narrated the details of his dream to his father, and time his father laughed and said to him, “When you grow up, you can take this girl of your dreams as your bride.”

Each time he struggled to understand what the dream meant and sat lost in his thoughts with a smile on his face. Who could have known then that this dream would turn into the search of his life

3. The sun had nearly set. The became blurry as dusk fell. At the end of each day, Tsering had no idea where he would find shelter that night.

All these years, his dream and his piwang, the fiddle decorated with a dragon’s head, clung to him like a second skin. Who knows how many plains, mountains, and valleys he had crossed in search of his dream and who knows how many more plains, mountains, and valleys he would still have to cross? During this endless journey of his, he began to feel his senses failing one by one and sometimes he felt so tired in his body and mind that he thought he just couldn't go on. But he kept following the road and continued his journey, facing countless challenges, searching for the dream. He wondered whether his dream was true or not but then he remembered this quote by some unknown person, "Why do people come to this world but to search for a dream?" and his heart filled with hope and faith again, and he continued on his way in search of the dream.

4. As Tsering grew up and became a young man, so the girl in his dreams grew up and became a young woman. She still appeared regularly in his dreams. As the girl grew up, Tsering’s heart became unsettled like a summer lake. They had long stopped playing catch with each other. Tsering kept a record of each dream just as he had done before, but he stopped sharing his dreams with his father. For a period of about two years, he dreamed the same dream each time. Below is a record of this dream.

"Yesterday she appeared again in my dreams. Her face was as fair and round as ever and she had the same green mole on her chin. She looked like a goddess come to earth. As I looked at her breasts and the peaceful and gentle expression her face, I couldn’t help realizing that she had now blossomed into a sixteen-year-old girl in the full flower of her youth. Her lovely eyes were fixed on me, and I felt and understood the secret hopes and dreams hidden in her eyes. Her mouth parted, her soft and lovely lips moved but she never spoke a word. I still had no idea what her name was and she never asked for mine. I asked her gently to tell me her name but she just smiled and gave no answer. We stood in front of each other, not moving, not touching, just staring at each other with desire. I reached out my hand to touch her but no matter how I reached for her, I could never touch her. Then I woke up."

5. Tsering the Wandering Minstrel felt a great fatigue. He stopped walking, slipped the dragon-headed piwang off his shoulder, and set it down on the ground. He turned toward the west and stood staring into the distance.

The sun had gone down over the distant horizon. The evening clouds, pierced with the remaining rays of the red sun, appeared bloodshot. In front of Tsering flowed a river. He did not know its name. It was a river running in the opposite direction. Tsering had first come across this river a month ago when the edges of its waters were still frozen. Since then, he met with this river again and again. Spring had arrived but the grass and greenery had yet to sprout and everything was white and barren as if it were still winter. Blocks of ice that had broken off from the bank drifted in the water following the current. A cold breeze rose from the water, and Tsering couldn’t help shivering.

Tsering rose, slung his dragon-headed piwang on his back, and set off towards the water. As he neared the water, he felt a sudden thirst and hunger. He squatted on his haunches, pulled out his wooden bowl and tsampa bag from the fold of his chupa and placed them on the ground. Then he opened his tsampa bag, grabbed some tsampa with his fingers, and poured it in his mouth. With his bowl, he scooped up some water, drank and chewed the tsampa in his mouth. After he ate his fill, he put his bowl and tsampa bag back into the fold of his clothes. He looked out at the water and thought about his dream. After some time, he stroked his dragon-headed piwang and began to play it. In his soulful baritone, he sang a sorrowful song.

"Love of my dreams,
Where are you?
In search of you,
I cross countless mountains, valleys, and plains.
Love of my dreams,
Where are you?”

He was eighteen when he wrote the song. It was a song he loved to sing. Its haunting tunes still echo across all the towns and plains that he passed through.

The wind carried away the refrain of the song into the far corners of the world. Tsering ran his fingers over his piwang, looked off into the distance, and gave a deep sigh.

6. The dragon-headed piwang was Tsering’s only inheritance from his father. Tsering’s father had been a famous minstrel who not only knew many episodes of the great epic of King Gesar by heart, but also knew a great number of folk songs from Amdo, U-tsang, and Kham. Because he possessed the dragon-headed piwang, his fame travelled far and wide like thunder in the summertime. This piwang was given to Tsering’s father by his own father at the time of his death. Tsering’s grandfather had also been a famous minstrel. On his deathbed he gave the piwang to his son and said, “This dragon-headed piwang is an instrument that comes from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. It is made of sandalwood and more than ten of your ancestors have died for its sake. This piwang shall turn you into a minstrel without equal. At that time Tsering’s father had no idea how to play the piwang. He had never even touched the piwang in his father’s hand. When he touched the strings of this instrument, carefully and with wonder, a strange music he had never heard before sounded in his ears. At that very same moment,, a feeling that he had never experienced before spread through his body and he felt as if he had suddenly become a skilled musician. From then on, he began his wandering, traveling from place to place with the invaluable piwang on his back.

When Tsering’s father was around thirty, he came to Kham. It was a hot summer. Seeing the blazing green pastures and the white, red, and yellow flowers blooming across the grass, he fell in love with the place and stayed there for a month. Plucking the strings of his dragon-headed piwang and speaking in a sweet and melodious voice, he told the tales of King Gesar of Ling to the people who had lived on these fields for generations. He sang them many sad and sorrowful songs. His music and his songs brought much joy to the lives of these people who had heard no music till then and also won him the heart of a girl. That girl was Tsering’s mother. When his father left those pastures behind the girl left with him. In a year’s time Tsering was born, and not long after that, she passed away. Tsering’s father bottled up the sorrow in his heart, took up his piwang again, bundled Tsering into the fold of his chupa, and set off once more to be a solitary  traveling minstrel. Whenever he heard a small cry from Tsering, he felt a gladness in his heart.

7. One day, Tsering the Wandering Minstrel was resting after the day’s travel when he found himself singing that  sad little song again in his baritone. Whenever Tsering sang this song, his thoughts went immediately to the dream that he still sought out.

He lifted his head slowly and looked into the distance. It was almost dusk. The mountains in the distance, cloaked in approaching darkness, began to grow indistinct. A strong, cold air rolled in stealthily from all four directions, making him restless. Every now and then, a bird or two flew over his head. Tsering stroked his dragon-headed piwang and thought about his dream again.  

After some time, he took out his little notebook from his chupa and began reading it. In this notebook were the written records of every single dream that he’d had since he was fourteen years old. Because it was almost dusk, the words on the pages were blurry, indistinct. But he deliberately turned over every single page. Every word he had written on these pages, every page, was like a picture carved into his brain. Even without looking at the book, he could still see each dream appearing in front of him like a vision. He read the notebook several times, turning all the pages this way and then that way, before tucking the book away in his chupa. He lifted his head again, looked into the distance, and thought again about the dream he sought.

8. The girl grew into a gorgeous young woman throughout each of Tsering’s dreams. This was a time of great pain for Tsering, as he was pierced with sorrow by his desire and longing for her. During this period, the girl only entered Tsering’s dreams but a few times. A deep sadness haunted him, a sadness he had never known before. He saw her image all the time as if she were really standing in front of him, and he never knew a moment’s peace. He recorded his dreams during this period in his greasy little notebook without neglecting  a single detail, and he never let his father or anyone look at this notebook. He always found a secluded spot where no one could find him and he read over the dreams he’d written down in his small notebook again and again, at times forgetting to snap out of those dreams. His dreams during this period were almost always the same.What follows is the record of a dream he had during this period as it was written down in his greasy little notebook:

“She has grown up now, there’s no doubt about it. Now there was no trace of discomfort or uneasiness on her face. Her cheeks glowed with the luster of youth. The green mole on her chin was still there, and she looked lovely and illuminated. She looked at me with wide eyes, dark and deep, and I saw hiding in them a burning love and passion, and her sorrow etched between her brows and her loneliness. Her chest rose and fell with each quick breath and I was seized by such an overpowering feeling of lust that my own breathing ceased. She was seized by the same lust—her soft lips trembled as she said something. We moved slowly toward one other. We gazed longingly at each other. We could hear the sounds of our hearts beating. Now there were only two or three steps remaining between us. We stopped walking, staring silently at each other with eyes opened and blinded by love. After an unbearable interval, we went to kiss each other as our lips trembled. But just then, there was a terrific rumbling sound like thunder and the ground under our feet cracked and broke in two, opening a deep, unfathomably deep ravine between us. We stood at the opposite edges of the ravine, watching other with despairing love, wanting to call out to each other but unable to do so, silently looking at each other like dumb fools.”

9. It became dark. The shroud of night covered the land near and far so that the only thing visible was a blanket darkness. As before, a cold wind blew unceasingly from the four corners of the world. A bright white light shone and shivered on the river where slabs of ice crashed against each other, sending up splashes of water, the ice melting and running as the river fled away into the distance.

 Tsering the Wandering Minstrel stood on a boulder. After setting his dragon-headed piwang on the ground, he leaned against the rock and closed his eyes. The hard day’s exhaustion stealthily stole upon him like an altar rat, covered him like a cloak, and bound him body and mind. He thought the time had come for him to rest.

10. Tsering’s soulful baritone voice, resonant with love and longing, was not a voice that came to him naturally but one he achieved later with his training. Ever since Tsering was a young boy, he loved music and his father had high hopes for him. His father used to tell him, “Your voice is not good enough, but that does not mean that you can’t become a great minstrel. You must learn and practice with great dedication.”

When he was tormented by his dreams, he pushed his sorrow and his anguish deep inside himself, kept them in a ball in the pit of his stomach, and threw himself into his lessons with his father.

Overcoming the scorching heat of three summers and the icy chill of three winters, through the angry thunder and fiery breath of a thousand dragons, he studied and mastered range and register, the highs and lows, the depths and hollows of sound and music such that the end of each day’s practice left him too bone-tired to move and his throat raw with blood and pus.

One night after Tsering had finished his practice when he was in his seventeenth year, he heard in his dream a strange and gentle tune coming from afar, a tune that he had never heard before. A sadhu with white hair and a white beard appeared before his eyes and placed in Tsering’s mouth a tiny white conch that coiled to the right. The sadhu made him swallow the conch and he said, “Listen, my child. As you desire, you will become a great minstrel. Bring joy to the hearts of the people of this land with your sweet voice.”

And again a sweet tune sounded from the distance, and then the sadhu with white hair and white beard disappeared like a rainbow in the sky.

When Tsering woke from his sleep, it was bright outside. The night’s dream came immediately to his mind. He sat up with wonder and remembered his dream, mulled it over from start to finish. He felt as if there were a small change in him but he didn’t know what this change was.  

A sudden desire to sing rose in him and the unbelievable thing was, his voice was no longer his voice of old—he now had a soulful baritone, a voice resonant with love and longing. He felt as if he had miraculously received a divine blessing and, unable to contain himself, he jumped up and down. In awe and delight, he closed his eyes to invoke and praise the deity that had so blessed him.

His father, who was saying his Mani prayers outside the tent, heard this beautiful song and not trusting his ears came inside the tent to ask from whence came this song that he had just heard. Tsering laughed and sang the song again. His father couldn’t believe his ears and just stared at his son. Tsering then told his father exactly what had happened in his dream.

Tsering’s father listened to his story in shock, without moving. Then, a great smile broke out on his wrinkled face and he exclaimed, “Azi, my dream has come true. My dream has come true.” That year, death came for his father and took him away to the beyond.

11. In a short while, Tsering the Wandering Minstrel fell asleep and traveled to the land of dreams. In his dream, the girl was hurrying towards him from a distance. Her hair was wild and tangled and her usual peaceful and gentle expression was nowhere to be seen. In the blink of an eye, she was standing next to him. There were several  steps between them now. She moved her mouth as if she wanted to say something. As her lips quivered, the green mole on her chin also quivered. He moved toward her and he wanted to ask why she was so upset. He opened his mouth but could make no sounds. She looked behind her in terror and kept hastening toward him. Now there were only four or five steps between them A tentative smile came to their faces and they stopped walking and just looked at each other. But when they started to take another step to move in even closer, they found they couldn’t move their feet. They were stuck as if they were statues. They tried hard to move toward each other, but the distance of four or five steps remained steady between them. Then, very slowly, the distance began to lessen. He put out his hand toward her to comfort her and she moved her lips and raised her hand toward him. But again, just as their hands were about to touch, with only a finger’s width between them now, they found they could not move, they were stuck as if they were figures in a drawing. With eyes full of hope, they looked at each other with great desire. Anguish filled their faces, and doubt and confusion. Suddenly, there was a terrible sound and a great wave of water came out of nowhere, rushing between them and sweeping the girl away in its wake. He ran after her. He shouted for her but no sound came from his lips. He kept running after the wave of water. Suddenly laughter rose from the waves that made the hair on his neck stand up and then, abruptly, everything was gone without a trace.

Tsering suddenly woke up from this terrible dream. His face was white, his breathing quick and ragged, and his body was covered in sweat.

Day came but Tsering couldn’t shake off the terrible dream. His face remained white and his breath still ran short.

After some time, he sat up, slowly looked into the distance, and fixed his gaze at the horizon. He tried to think of other things in order to get out of his terrible dream.           

Slowly, Tsering calmed down a little. No matter how terrifying his dream was, Tsering thought he ought to note it down in his notebook like usual.  Recalling the dream, he wrote it down, trembling as he did so, in his greasy little notebook.

12. When his father lay dying, he had held Tsering’s hand tightly and said to him, “You must never search for your dream. The dream is empty.”

Tsering just looked at father’s wrinkled face without saying a thing. His father looked at him with love in his eyes. Then, slowly, the light faded from his face and his eyes closed.

It was during Tsering’s time of happiness, after he had received the divine blessing, that his father saw the greasy little notebook. He read the notebook and he became uneasy. On the one hand, he was happy that Tsering had been blessed by the gods, but on the other hand he worried that the dreams were making his son unhappy. His father’s wrinkles etched deeper and deeper into his face and his body became thinner and thinner. On a night when the cold wintry gale was blowing more fiercely than ever, his father left behind this mundane, karmic world. After his father’s death, Tsering embarked on his solitary travels and became a lone wandering minstrel.

During his lifetime, Tsering’s father had known countless human joys and sorrows and walked many straight and crooked paths. His father understood the best and worst of life and so he said what he said—so Tsering thought to himself after his father’s death.

13. The sun burned red in the distant horizon. A scattering of black clouds drifted this way and near the sun’s edges. After a little while, the clouds had swallowed the last rays of the sun, making the sun look white like the moon.

Tsering, the Wandering Minstrel, went on his way as before. He kept thinking about the terrible dream he had the night before. Agitated and distressed, he found no peace in his heart. That day, he was once again following the same river, the river whose name he did not know. The water was not clear like usual and the ice floating at the edges of the water had all vanished. The surrounding fields were filled with hay and fodder. Seeing this, Tsering felt even more miserable than before.

The sun began to set. The black clouds hovering on the horizon still drifted gently across the sky. Then he saw in front of him a blurry and indistinct village and he felt joy. He hadn’t come across a village in many days. Because a village meant people, whenever he came across a village, he felt a spontaneous joy in his heart. He usually stayed in such villages for two or three days. People fell in love with his music and showered him with gifts when he left.

The river, whose name he did not know, flowed from the direction of that village, so he continued walking along the river toward it.

As he neared the village, he saw that a crowd of people had massed by the nameless river. They were all talking in high voices. He stopped walking and watched them for a while before he slowly started toward them again.

As he came upon them, one man among them caught sight of him. He turned toward him and then watched him in astonishment.  

Tsering stopped walking, put his hands together in greeting and asked,
“Why are you all gathered here?”

“We came to see the girl that the water has taken,” the man said. He still watched Tsering with surprise on his face.

“What kind of girl is she?”

Tsering, feeling a sudden fear in his heart, asked this question in some haste.

The surprise left the man’s face and he began to tell his story without hesitation, almost as if he had been commanded to do so. “It will be hard to believe. Who would believe that this was a body brought in by the water? There’s still a color to her cheeks as if she had just woken from sleep, and her whole body is so clean—not a speck of dirt on her. Ahh—she had a green mole on her chin. Ahh, she was such a beauty . . .”

Tsering’s brain went dark for a moment and he couldn’t hear any more. He gave a great cry of sorrow and said, “But she’s the dream I have been searching for!”

The crowd in front of him turned around as one to look at him in great surprise. Their bodies grew blurry in his eyes. Slowly, he walked to the front.  

It was dark when Tsering left the village. He sat on his haunches in front of the river, the river whose name he did not know. He took out his greasy little notebook, tore the pages and flung them one by one into the river and watched the water carry away the pages. He sat and watched for a long time. Then he fixed his gaze into the distance, and plucking the strings of his dragon-headed piwang, he sang in a sweet, low voice filled with pain and sorrow.

“Love of my dreams,
You are no more.
In search of you,
I crossed countless mountains, valleys and plains.
Love of my dreams,
You are no more.”

August 2015
Myth and History: Writing from Indonesia
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