On the way to Mcleodganj from Dharamshala, there is a church set deep in the woods, called the St. John’s Church in the Wilderness. I had read a lot about this church and made it a point to visit it. So on the very first day, I decided to stop by.
True to its name, there it was, amidst the dense deodars in the light mist, a Gothic structure that transports you to another place in time. It is an Anglican church dedicated to John the Baptist built in 1852. I had a list of all the things I wanted to check out here; the baptismal font, the stained glass windows and the famous iron cast bell. But what caught my eye just as I entered the church compound was a marble plaque with the following inscribed on it.
In one salutation to thee, my God, let all my sense spread out and touch this world at thy feet.
Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their mountain nests let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one salutation to thee…..Rabindranath Tagore
Ye are the temple of God, and the spirit of God dweleth in you…..Corinthians.
The name brought an image of the yester year’s film star to my mind. I was unable to connect this plaque to the church. So I took a picture of the plaque and decided to find out about it later. I went off to explore the church grounds and the cemetery, as the doors of the church were closed.
The rocket like memorial of Lord Elgin was very interesting, as were the century old graves in the cemetery. The air was heavy and an eerie feeling prevailed. I took pictures of the baptismal font and the cast iron bell and walked among the graves under the deodars. The visitors were noisy and their squeals and loud talk made it impossible to experience the otherwise peaceful quiet of this place. And my mind kept going back to the plaque! What was it doing there?
That evening, I scoured the net for all information on Priya Rajvanshi. And this is what I discovered.
Priya ( Vera Sunder Singh)was born in Shimla in 1937. Her father was a conservator in the Forest Department. Her childhood was spent in large bunglows in Himachal surrounded by nature. She received her education at St. Bede’s Shimla and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. At the age of 22, she was discovered by Chetan Anand and offered a role as the leading lady in his movie Haqeeqat. Soon she was in a relationship with her mentor and lived in with him, much to the displeasure of his family. After his death in 1997, she inherited a part of his property and this did not go well with his sons from his first marriage. She received several threats and feared for her life. She had tried to voice her fears to friends and family but was not taken seriously. On 27th March 2000, she was found murdered in her flat in Juhu. Her maid and driver were arrested and they confessed to have committed the crime on the behest of Chetan Anand’s sons. All four were sentenced to life imprisonment, but Chetan Anand’s sons were acquitted by a higher court. Till date, there are no takers for her Juhu apartment which is supposed to be haunted.
I watched a few of her songs from her movies. A particular one is my favourite from the film Haste Zakhm. ‘Tum jo mil gaye ho, toh yeh lagta ha, ke jahaan mil gaya hai….( having found you, I have found the universe). That night, I can almost feel her presence outside my screen door! ‘No, Priya’, I tell her, ‘we truly die when no one takes our name anymore. Then we are truly forgotten. I acknowledge your life…..and I can imagine the agony you went through.’ I drifted off to sleep thinking about her.
But the mystery of the plaque here in Mcleodganj still hovered. I was determined to find out. I asked around in the cafes, and Pema, a Tibetan girl from London, studying in the Tibetan Centre for Cultural Studies, tells me a story. According to her, Priya’s wish was that her ashes be scattered in a peaceful place in Himachal Pradesh, under the deodars. She had voiced her wish to a close friend, who then scattered her ashes in the church compound in Mcleodganj, hoping it brought peace to her agonised soul. So Priya was now part of the flowers and ferns around the church!
On my last visit , I was elated to see the doors open, and not a soul around. The silence and the peace enveloped me as I entered inside. I admired the famous stained glass windows and sat under the deodars. A cool breeze brushed past, and birds sang. I sat there and meditated. I prayed for peace for Priya’s soul. Later I walked among the flowers and stroked the ferns where her ashes were scattered. A song broke from my lips…..tum jo mil gaye ho, toh yeh lagta hai……ke jahaaan mil gaya hai….
I narrated the story to my friend Basudha, whom I met and spent a wonderful day with in Delhi. Together we sang the song again. I think that made Priya happy!