The group visited India at a time of no Internet and very few news sources as compared to today.
Everyone knows about The Beatles and their India connection. The group visited India at a time of no Internet and very few news sources as compared to today. So for all those grey-haired people who have grown up listening to The Beatles, and seek information on the band’s time in India, Ajoy Bose’s book on the group can be a good source of information.
Across the Universe focuses more on the band’s escapades in India, with some stories from other parts of the world thrown in for good measure. The author prefers to justify the title on the grounds of their story involving people from across the world.
Bose did not get to talk to The Beatles, but has done a lot of research on the group and borrowed a lot from people who met them. One of them is Ajit Singh, owner of Pratap Music House in Dehradun, who had visited the Rishikesh ashram and interacted with the band. In fact, he had also repaired their guitar. The author did get to interview George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd to tie up some loose ends. For a Beatles fan, this book brings to life several memories of the songs and the group.
Let’s look at some of the main focal points of this book. First is the interaction with Ravi Shankar, who had some influence on their music in a certain phase of their career. There is a narrative on Shankar’s personal life too, and his relation with Harrison in particular. The song Norwegian Wood has the use of the sitar, which became controversial at that time because it was considered sacrilege to have the holy sitar in a song sung by a group known for drugs. A lot of explanation had to be provided in those conservative times, saying that the sitar was not misused.
Second is the entire story of The Beatles and Mahesh Yogi, who taught meditation and struck a right chord with the group. The narrative is quite detailed here, as it covers their adventures in the jungles of Rishikesh and life in the ashram where they stayed. Here, we are told that Harrison and John Lennon were the main devotees, who drew solace from the ashram and also helped the group to compose some music. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were present, but not too involved with the Maharishi.
The fact that the ashram was vegetarian was a challenge, and the group had to smuggle in food, even eggs. Mia Farrow, the famous Hollywood actor, had also been here for the same purpose of “obtaining peace with oneself” and resided in the ashram at the same time as The Beatles.
Third, there is the expected coverage of the group’s image of drugs and, here, we get to know that McCartney and Starr were the late entrants into the world of drugs and acid, while Harrison and Lennon were the frontrunners. They took some time to get involved and peer pressure played an important role here.
Shankar had looked upon Harrison as a son and mentored him in what was called a ‘karmic relationship’. Harrison tried following Hinduism and also courageously entered temples where only Hindus were allowed. Shankar had collaborated with artistes in the fields of western classic music and jazz, but was never interested in doing so with Harrison and his brand of rock music.
Harrison being mobbed in Delhi and Mumbai are also some stories covered in this book. The close association between these two couples is explained in some detail, where Shankar and (his mistress at that time) Mamta took Harrison and his wife Boyd to Ellora, Banaras, Agra, etc.
There are some interesting escapades of The Beatles in Germany, Japan and Philippines that are quite revealing. Right from their hairstyle to their so-called insult of the Filipino dictator, the pop group had their share of nightmares being chased by the masses. In Japan, radical groups wanted to give the ‘mop-headed boys’ a proper haircut. In Philippines, the fact that they did not bow to Marcos led to their being hounded out of the country with security being withdrawn.
Across the Universe is not a biography, but unique as a book on The Beatles by an Indian. Capturing specific parts of their career, it is well executed. It should be of interest to Beatles fans, but might not resonate with the younger generation.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings