Book review

Why did The Beatles come to India (again and again)? This book has answers without being starry-eyed

Ajoy Bose’s ‘Across The Universe’ is clear-eyed and not a hagiography. ‘Jai Gurudeva!’

I must confess that before I came across Ajoy Bose’s third book, Across the Universe, I had neither heard of the author nor of his first two books – on India’s Emergency and Mayawati. With those precedents, a book about The Beatles did strike me as odd.

The first thing I noticed about the cover was an allusion to Sgt Pepper, with a liberal sprinkling of saffron. Most of the figures in the pantheon bore a passing resemblance to their real selves but the rendition of John Lennon was rather appalling. This was somewhat redeemed by the inspired Abbey-Road-on-Lakshman-Jhula image on the back cover.

It is only fitting that an Indian should take on the task of writing the full story of the band’s three-year affair with India. Meticulously researched, the result is a compelling tale. It is indeed a labour of love and his love for his subject is evident on every page.

But instead of a hagiography, Bose reveals insightful glimpses into the main characters. While most of the incidents, anecdotes and quotes in the book are borrowed from previously published sources, there are a handful of new nuggets as well, thanks to his first-hand interviews with some of those who were there.

It began before Rishikesh

Across the Universe focuses on the band’s connections with India from their first encounter with Indian musical instruments during the filming of Help! in April, 1965 up to their Rishikesh retreat between February and April 1968, when they had come to deepen their understanding of Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While Ringo (and wife Maureen) and Paul (and his girlfriend Jane Asher) had arrived later and left earlier, John and George (along with their partners) were there longer, right till the abrupt, bitter end.

This was not the first visit to India by the Beatles. Apart from a brief layover in Calcutta in June 1964, they had first set foot in the country on July 6, 1966, on the way back to England from a distressing tour of Japan and the Philippines. Despite having originally planned to spend time in India, feeling traumatised by the Philippines experience, they had abandoned the idea and were anxious to return home as fast as possible. Only George and roadie Neil Aspinall intended to get off in Delhi to buy a sitar.

But as it turned out, unavailability of seats for the Delhi-London leg of the trip resulted in an unscheduled sojourn. Even without the shelter of anonymity in India that they were expecting, they nonetheless managed to spend a relaxed day sightseeing and shopping. The highlight was a visit to Rikhi Ram and Sons – subsequently a famous shop in Delhi’s Connaught Place – to buy Indian musical instruments.

From this trip onwards, Harrison, the Beatle with the deepest devotion to Indian music and spirituality, would return to India multiple times. His last would be to Varanasi three months before his death, where his ashes were finally scattered in the Ganges according to his wishes and Hindu rites.

Making Mahesh famous

Coming back to Rishikesh and to the end the book, it does not provide a conclusive answer to the one big question: what provoked Lennon to depart hastily from the ashram. Did the Maharishi really come on to Mia Farrow and/or to one or more of the other female acolytes? I guess we will never know for sure, but we do know that eventually none of the other Beatles or any of those who were present was convinced of the Maharishi’s impropriety.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is largely forgotten in India. In fact today even the locals better know the Chaurasi Ashram in Rishikesh as the Beatles Ashram. But ever since his association with the Beatles, his teachings continue to attract a large worldwide following, even ten years after his death. Acclaimed movie director, David Lynch started the Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and Peace in 2005, which advocates Transcendental Meditation as a way for better learning and peace. The foundation counts the two surviving Beatles – both knighted since then ­– amongst its most ardent supporters.

The Beatles did help make the Maharishi famous globally, and were also instrumental in putting Indian music and spirituality on the world stage, but it was not completely one-sided. Apart from learning Transcendental Meditation, of which they remained lifelong, albeit intermittent adherents, their stay in India resulted in many of their later classic songs. Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, his book on the impact of Indian spirituality on the West, referred to the Beatles’s expedition to Rishikesh as “the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.”

Right up there

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I couldn’t help but pick a bone with the author in reference to one stray sentence towards the beginning – perhaps the only discordant note in an otherwise harmonious narrative. It is a casual reference to Elvis Presley as a pop star, lumping him with Ricky Nelson and unforgivably, Cliff Richard.

Without meaning any disrespect, the latter, despite his redoubtable success and pop star fame, was an innocuous Elvis wannabe. Presley, on the other hand, was an original, truly deserving the crown of the King of Rock and Roll, whose recordings of That’s Alright (Mama) on July 5, 1954 and Heartbreak Hotel in January 10, 1956 are two seismic events in the history of rock.

True, in his later years he was a pale, and at times, ludicrous shadow of his younger self, but Lennon himself was the first to admit that without Elvis there would have been no Beatles. Such was their enduring reverence that even as they covered many of their idols – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and some others – they never released an Elvis cover in their entire recording career.

There are literally hundreds of books that borrow their names from Beatles song titles. More than fifty of these are novels – Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, for instance – but there are many more that are chronicles of the band’s short career and long influence. Out of these, only a few can claim any literary merit. Can’t Buy Me Love and You Never Give Me Your Money are two such.

While Hunter Davies’s The Beatles is outstanding and the only authorised biography in existence, another book of the same name by Bob Spitz is also worth a read. A couple of other notable ones are Shout! by Philip Norman and Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald.

However, the most exhaustive and authoritative work by far is Mark Lewisohn’s All These Years: Volume 1: Tune In, which runs to a thousand pages and only covers their story up to 1962. Lewisohn expects to release the second volume in 2020 and the third in 2028! Those prepared to wait another 10 years will no doubt be rewarded with the most comprehensive and definitive account of the Beatles yet. Bose’s literary effort deserves its place alongside these better books.

Across the Universe: The Beatles in India, Ajoy Bose, Penguin Random House.

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