Sex drugs and rock — not quite, even though the sex is there it takes a back seat to transcendental meditation. Half a century after the Beatles landed in Rishikesh and put Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the world map, Ajoy Bose has come out with Across the Universe that explores the back-story behind the technicolour going to India expedition.
He takes an incident previously overlooked and expands its importance. Rishikesh was the catalyst in the ultimate break-up of the Fab Four — John fell in love with Yoko, Paul was cracking the whip after their manager Brian Epstein died, George wanted to play the sitar and Ringo just wanted to drum with a band that he liked.
Bose begins with the Beatles’ arrival in Calcutta where they were mobbed by a frenzy of fans and the quirky story of a fan and the huge scab on her arm —nothing quite matches up to that scab! The narrative moves on from there back and forth in time.
Bose covers the Fab Four’s growth from light pop to rock and the effects of becoming the boys from Liverpool with bowl style haircuts. The point is they were very young, discovered that the world loved them and struggled to fight boredom in whatever way they could falling in love with people and out of love with people.
There were also issues with wives and girlfriends confounded by gigs with Band Aid groupies organised by their manager. In Across the Universe the Beatles’ musical evolution plays a capella with their personal evolution and the people who contributed, which is why there is a very necessary dramatis personae list at the beginning of the book.
A lot of the material comes from printed sources though Bose attempted to track down the remaining Beatles and managed interviews with one or two people who were there at Rishikesh. The result is a narrative filled with well-curated anecdotes for the Beatles fan or the curious reader — like the fact that the Beatles’ first encounter with Indian instruments was during the making of the Daliesque Help! in 1965. George was fascinated by them and Norwegian Wood featured strains of a bad sitar he bought in London.
However, George wanted to go beyond that and karma snapped his sitar string and put him in contact with Ravi Shankar.
The result was a trip to Varanasi where Shankar lived that resulted in his becoming the maestro’s pupil. That fitted in neatly with the arrival of Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi who was taking classes in London while flitting between continents. It could be described as a series of accidental encounters leading to Rishikesh and reinvention.
In all the Beatles’ association with India covered three significant years before they finally went their separate ways. Bose has researched his subject thoroughly — made easier by the fact that even in his political reporting days he was and always had been a Beatles fan.
Most of his matter comes from the published interviews that the Beatles themselves gave, though the people he did manage to get hold of, like Pattie Boyd and journalist Saeed Naqvi, who infiltrated the ashram with his family and pretended to be disciples, provided bonus nuggets.
Occasionally the book is like a jigsaw that has to be pieced together because all the characters play separate roles and hang in different directions. Wives, hangers-on, the amazing Magic Alex all contribute and sometimes it is difficult to link the interplay to the main thread though Rishikesh returns as the leitmotif.
At one level it is a clash between east and west, the Beatles’ basic disinterest in Asian ways unless it related to their music or their lives that led to their disastrous tour of Japan and Manila and a tendency to generalise about India and meditation.
Why the Beatles went at all is a mystery but it was important because the ashram gave them a kind of sabbatical from celebrity hood and the drugs that went with it and enabled them to look at life from a different perspective at least for a while.
Across the Universe highlights the importance of this previously unregarded chapter in the Beatles legend — one that actually encouraged them to experiment with their music and rediscover themselves.
For those who want to read more, the wealth of Bose’s research is supported by footnotes at the end of the book. However, be prepared to find Frank Sinatra dismissed as a crooner in a throwaway line and Elvis similarly underplayed. Even though that is a forgivable aspect of Bose’s fandom.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor