Monday, 19 November 2018

Ashram Notebook 50 Years Ago: Beatles, Maharishi, Crows And Catapults

I received a call from an editor reminding me of my stay with the Beatles 50 years ago this February in Rishikesh. He was keen that, at this distance in time, I hammer out a piece placing that visitation in perspective.

There was irony in the request itself. The value the editor was placing on the story was in sharp contrast to the cold reception it received from the Resident Editor of the Statesman all those decades ago.

In my 20s then, I belonged to a generation which straddled two worlds. My love for classical Indian music did not obstruct my being enmoured of the Beatles. But the Statesman, self conscious of its status as the country’s premier newspaper, had not yet shuffled itself out of its Victorian mould. The last British editors had left in 1966 but there were still senior assistant editors and their brown progeny, in a cultural sense, who were more conversant with Benjamin Britten than the Liverpool four. The paper’s Delhi office had by contrast transited to such rapid indigenization that neither the resident editor, K. Rangachari, nor New Editor, R.N. Sharma, knew who the Beatles were. India was in cultural flux.

I had actually got myself initiated into the arcane ways of Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi’s feet in anticipation of the Rishikesh jamboree.

As far as I know, I was the only “journalist” who had the Maharishi’s nod to stay in the ashram during the hallowed period.

The Beatles were not the only ones who sat cross legged around the Maharishi as around an altar. There were others – the Beach Boys, Paul Horn the flutist, Donovan, writing a song a day, one of which I have kept as my exclusive possession.

“When the sun is tucked away in bed,

You worry about the life you led.

There’s only one thing to do,

Let the Maharishi lead you.”

The non singing stars, who caught the limelight, were Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence. The galaxy of stars at the ashram may have placed Prudence in the category of less noticed meditators. But she grabbed everyone’s attention when a sadhu looking after her hut rushed to Maharishi’s cell with an unbelievable report: Prudence had slipped into a meditative trance which had lasted from dawn to dusk and was still continuing.

This gave Maharishi the sales pitch he was looking for after the setback at the hands of the Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, who described the Ashram with supreme irreverence as a “Butlin Holiday camp”, and left. Butlin were an inexpensive holiday camp in England in the 60s.

To encourage meditative marathons of the kind Prudence was in thrall of, Maharishi would have to find some deterrence for the crows which had multiplied in the ashram foraging on the frugal fare the meditators had carelessly dropped. The challenge for the Maharishi was to keep Chaurasi Kutiya out of bounds for the noisy avians but without resorting to violence.

The trick, suggested by the Ashram manager, Suresh Babu, a close relative of the Guru, was to arm the Sadhus with catapults. The ammunition would be nothing more lethal than paper balls which would scare the crows but not hurt them. White robed Sadhus with catapults on the ready became a comical sight. I am not certain if the trick to deter crows worked, but establishing noiseless serenity around Prudence Farrow’s hut became a high priority with the guru. It was this heightened concern which caused him to visit her hut frequently, giving rise to a rumour that Maharishi made a pass at Prudence. In reality the rumour was a function of Prudence’s fevered imagination.

Mia Farrow was a problem for another reason: she was a compulsive smoker. “Cigarettes only” Suresh Babu would wink. There appeared to be a tacit understanding among the ashramites that if someone was suspected of smoking marijuana, there would be no whistle blowing. But Mia had created a particular problem for Suresh Babu, a meek man in all circumstances. She regularly sat on a chair outside his cottage, wreathed in circles of smoke, causing raised eyebrows among the Sadhus and the more earnest meditators.

Matters came to a head one day when Raghu Singh, my photographer summoned up enough courage to photograph Mia Farrow either lighting a cigarette or making rings with the smoke. The frame would be perfect if Suresh Babu were also in it. Raghu did manage that photograph but at a price: Mia gave him chase screaming “bastard”, past the sleepy Sadhu manning the gate. Raghu would not be allowed in the ashram any more, Suresh Babu announced.

This was easier said than done. The military alertness the battalion of Sadhus had displayed during the first week or so of the Beatles arrival, had given way to a meditative serenity – except for the crowing of crows, I mention elsewhere. The initial hurly burly was over once the reporters and photographers who had laid siege to the ashram, had been successfully turned away. This opened the way for one or two parked outside the ashram, wailing and beating their breast that their “wrecked” lives could only be repaired by Maharishi. They did get in, armed with cameras, and their “wrecked” lives were placed on the fast lane of enormous financial success. They made a killing hawking their Beatles experience in picture and word.

Raghu Singh, on the other hand, never placed any value, on The Beatles story. He didn’t know who they were.

He precipitated the Mia Farrow incident because he had decided, inside himself, that the story was over after the first burst of excitement. This was the continuation of the disinterest I have already mentioned earlier.

Indeed, Raghu Singh’s boss, Raghu Rai, who later evolved as the country’s greatest photographer, never went back to the Ashram, after that first day when he took a historic shot of the Beatles clustered around the Maharishi in the shadow of a large tree. It was a world scoop. Raghu Rai never returned to the ashram because, he said “I had no interest in the Beatles”.

It was due to the encouragement I received from Desmond Doig who, along with his bevy of boys, edited a cult youth magazine, Junior Statesman, that the Beatles assignment was sustained for weeks.

Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer. He has interviewed world leaders and personalities in India and abroad, which appear in newspapers, magazines and on national television, remained editor of the World Report, a syndication service on foreign affairs, and has written for several publications, both global and Indian, including the BBC News, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Indian Express, The Citizen and Outlook magazine. At the Indian Express, he started in 1977 as a Special Correspondent and eventually becoming, editor, Indian Express, Madras, (1979–1984), and Foreign Editor, The Indian Express, Delhi in 1984, and continues to writes columns and features for the paper.

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