George Harrison was very angry. I could tell from the look on his face, the way he was glowering at me. His lips were tight, he looked very very pissed off.
We were standing in the elevator area of the seventh floor of an old apartment building in Calcutta. The year was 1976. Behind him was the closed door of the residence where he was staying. In front of us was the trellis door of the old mechanical elevator. We could hear it cranking up slowly from the ground floor, stopping at every floor.
It would take at least five minutes for it to reach us. I had George Harrison all to myself for five minutes. And I knew there was only question I wanted to ask him.
Celebrity in the city
It had started as another uneventful morning in the offices of Junior Statesman, the youth magazine where I was a reporter. Around 11 am, I was suddenly summoned to the editor’s room. Desmond Doig, an Irishman in his fifties, was probably the youngest soul in this office where no one was over 30. And he was looking very serious this morning, which meant that he could barely contain his excitement.
“Rumour has it,” he said melodramatically, “that a certain George Harrison is currently somewhere within this very city. Rumour adds that he may not be here tomorrow. It is whispered that he will be off to the holy city of Varanasi. Your assignment for the day is to track him down, interview him, and thus get the scoop of a lifetime.”
And so it started.
Calcutta is not a big city; everyone knows everyone. These were the days before the Internet, and SMS and WhatsApp, but I was sure that a few strategically placed telephone calls would yield a jackpot. I thought I’d go through the city’s thriving rock and roll fraternity first.
Each call meant calling the telephone exchange of The Statesman, our parent newspaper, and sweet-talking Cynthia, the only operator on duty, to give high priority to my calls. Cynthia was a softie, plus she kind of liked me
She put me through to Nondon Bagchi, drummer with the legendary group Great Bear; the late Dilip Balakrishnan, their guitarist and singer; Lou Hilt, bassist with another group; Louis Banks, jazz maestro; a Braganza, another jazz player. Many of them were clearly stoned; some others had just woken from sleeping in. All of them sounded vaguely hurt that George Harrison was in town and no one had told them.
Try the night clubs, said a fellow reporter; maybe George had an engagement at one of them. Great idea! I called up Trinca’s, the Moulin Rouge (no, not the French one, just the Bengali imitation), Mocambo. After a while, I realised that this was not leading anywhere either.
By lunchtime, I was no closer to finding George Harrison. My job as an investigative reporter was now on the line, and so was my self-respect, dignity, and reputation as a sharp-shooting journalist. I went down to staff canteen for a bite of lunch in this despondent mood.
The trail gets warmer
I took the only seat available, opposite the cranky Indian dance critic. Of all the writers in the main newspaper, the Indian dance critic was the most abhorred. He was supercilious, bombastic, and in plain French, a pain in the ass.
“Bloody prima donna!” he cursed, as he slurped up the mulligatawny soup.
“Who?” I asked, not that I cared.
“The whole bloody family!” he said. “Just because one is a musician and the other is a dancer, they think the sun shines from their collective backsides and they don’t have to honour commitments. But in my book, an appointment is an appointment.”
“Who is this family with a musician and a dancer who are skipping appointments?” I asked absently.
“The bloody Shankars!” he said, slamming the bread into into soup and spilling it all over himself.
“Ravi Shankar?” I asked, suddenly perking up. Everybody knew George Harrison was gung-ho about Ravi Shankar and was learning sitar from him.
“No,” said the dance critic grumpily. “Don’t you journalists know anything? Ravi Shankar lives in Varanasi, not Calcutta. I’m talking about his brother Uday Shankar, the dancer.”
“He skipped an appointment with you?”
“That’s exactly what he did,” said the dance critic, frowning. “He said he had a special visitor, and couldn’t meet me today.”
“And who was that special visitor?” I asked, suddenly alert.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Some stupid foreigner who is going to Varanasi tomorrow to buy a clay statue of Saraswati.”
In a flash, I knew knew who that “special visitor” was. I knew I’d found George Harrison. He was holed out with his mentor Ravi Shankar’s brother.
In the flesh
Back at my desk, I placed a call to Uday Shankar’s house, with a little help from Cynthia. I said I had a letter for Mr Uday Shankar, and would he be home to receive it? Yes, he would. I said I also had a letter for a Mr Harrison, was there any such person. The phone was slammed down.
Almost at once, I heard the voice of Cynthia, the telephone operator. She had been eavesdropping all morning, and knew everything I knew. “So,” she said. “You off to meet George Harrison?” I confessed it.
“Well, how difficult would it be for you to ask Mr Harrison for an autograph for poor little Cynthia, who helped you so much today?”
Not at all difficult, I said.
About an hour later, we were in the old Bengali compound where Uday Shankar lived on the seventh floor of an old mossy building. The lift, with an octogenarian liftman half asleep like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland. He stopped at every floor, whether anyone was there or not.
Five minutes, at the seventh floor, I rang Uday Shankar’s doorbell. It opened a crack, and the cook said, “Yes? What do you want?”
Behind him, I could see the famous gaunt face of one of the finest lead guitarists of our times, the famous third Beatle, George Harrison. At this moment, he was looking worried and anxious. Clearly, being discovered by the press was his favourite nightmare.
And now I, the press, accompanied by my photographer, had found him.
I told the cook I had an appointment with Uday da or Brother Uday. At this, the door opened trustingly, and I walked right into the house. Not missing a beat, George walked right out of the house, past me. The door closed behind me.
Not to be outdone when I was so close to my scoop interview, I did a U-turn and went right out again.
The door closed behind. And there we were, George Harrison and CY Gopinath, waiting for the infinitely slow lift.
I looked at George Harrison. George Harrison scowled at the lift trellis door. He was dressed in a pajama and kurta, and his hair flowed long behind him. I was absolutely certain of one thing: there was going to be no scoop interview. I thought of Cynthia. She was probably excitedly telling all her friends she was going to get George Harrison’s autograph.
I extended my reporter’s notebook towards him, open on a fresh page.
“Could I have your autograph, please, Mr Harrison?” I said. He gave me a withering look. “I thought you were from press, man!” he snapped, and turned away.
And those were the only words George Harrison ever spoke to me.
PS: My story, What was George Harrison Doing by the Ganges at Midnight? appeared in the JS magazine. George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. In 2013, Martin Scorsese made his biopic on Harrison, called Living in the Material World. The camera zooms into a copy of my 1974 article.
As for Cynthia the telephone operator, she did get her George Harrison autograph. To this day, she believes that George signed it.