Name: Across the Universe
Author: Ajoy Bose
Publication: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 699
Across the Universe by Ajoy Bose is a must-read — not just as a book on Beatlemania but one that explores the time that a whole new generation was transgressing towards the idea of a better world free from hate, social injustice, dogmatic religiosity and rules that were set by the older generation and imposed on young lives. The global youth was just beginning to explore how life should be and what it meant to be living.
Definitely, it is a book for the hipsters who lived through the late ’60s, experienced the psychedelia of the times and went through the tremendous craziness of Beatlemania. Actually, it could also be for those non-hipsters who were on the periphery of that entire subculture, but did not involve themselves deeply enough to feel the new wave. I would definitely like to recommend it for new kids on the block who have only heard of the times and did not get the opportunity to experience it, but have been great admirers of the Fab Four. In that sense, it’s a book for all. Bose surprised me like Sidharth Bhatia, who wrote India Psychedelic. I knew them both as political journalists. They have done very well to write well-researched stories of a time still remembered and loved — the age of love, music and harmless marijuana.
I had initially thought that the book commemorated 50 years of the Beatles in Rishikesh, and so was expecting something quite different. But reading Across the Universe, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bose had actually documented the journey of the Beatles through their times of fame, fortune and insecurity, both musically and personally, leading them to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and to Rishikesh. And rightly so.
But I felt Bose missed out on the transformation that Rishikesh went through, with large groups of young people from almost all over India, who gathered around Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram just to get a glimpse of the Beatles. It was like a festival, a celebration. Some sat on trees, precariously hoping to get a bird’s-eye view of the Beatles hanging around in the ashram — and possibly catching Lennon in the nude, which he was very well known for. Some waited for news of their movements, hoping they would pass by. There was also one liar who ran shouting, “John touched my camera! John touched my camera…” But it fell on deaf years. The first chapter, ‘The Memory from a Diary of an Indian Teenage Beatles Fan’ — which happens to be Jug Suraiya’s memory — explains that frenzy in India. He celebrated the scab just below his elbow as the most important wound caused by John Lennon. He writes, “I kept it safely in a plastic bag for many years in my cupboard next to my pile of underwear.” If he hadn’t lost it, he could have sold it for millions at an auction today. There was a day when it was rumoured that the Beatles would visit the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, and everybody rushed there, to the bewilderment and perhaps the annoyance of the locals.
Bose missed out on Gobind Pandey’s tuck shop which expanded to the Jai Guru Café, where young artists played Beatles songs, in the hope that the band would hear them. It got together all those young kids from cities as far away as Madras and Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta, like in a festival, while Gobind Pandey ran all the way to the bank and gathered unconditional goodwill. This is just a suggestion, but perhaps, Bose, with his apparent passion for the Beatles, could write another book on the Beatles in Rishikesh which would spread the emotion of Beatlemania far and wide.
Athough the biographical stories that cover Across the Universe are mentioned in several books and Beatles die-hards have read them all, there are some poignant bits which I have, perhaps, missed out in other books. For instance, Paul McCartney’s manipulation of alliances between the four and his apparent tendency to be a control freak. The insecurity and frustrations were all part of their journey to Transcendental Meditation, whatever it meant! And that comes out very well.
Across the Universe unfolds the joys and the dilemmas that the Beatles went through in relation to their personal lives. Yoko Ono, Brian Epstein, Aldous Huxley and their dentist friend, all of whom were great influences on the Fab Four, took recourse to drugs and hallucinogens. I was also not aware that it took Paul quite some time to give in to the drug culture.
I am glad Bose mentions the Angadis. Their son Darien was a great friend of mine and he used to fill me up with Beatles stories. He was particularly a fan of George Harrison and when he came to visit me in India, he just wrapped the bedcover around him, apparently like George did. In those days, at my age, I considered it revolutionary. Ayana and Patricia Angadi of the Asian Music Circle introduced George to a sitar teacher and then to Ravi Shankar. Birendra Shankar (not related to Uday and Ravi Shankar) must be acknowledged as a part of the story, for through his organisation Sanskriti, he took Indian classical musicians of great repute to London and introduced them to the British audience. Bose’s personal interviews with Patti Boyd and others are very revealing and rather than writing about them, I’ll leave it for readers to enlighten themselves.
The book is well-timed, with religious and Hindutva messages polarising people. It explores a new dawning of spirituality, which spread the message of the inclusivity of religion. Across the Universe celebrates that spirituality along with the psychadelia of the ’60s and ’70s. “Jai Gurudeva” (that’s the refrain of the song Across the Universe)!