My knowledge about The Beatles was as bad as chemistry for a student of Architecture and Planning. Yet, I set out for an exciting special story at Rishikesh—a Himalayan spiritual town on the banks of holy Ganga May this year.
A bit of anxiety about the long 356-km journey, particularly a 75-km stretch of extremely mountainous and winding road from Kumarhatti to Nahan, kept bothering me all through the day. Yet, I was sure about the assignment turning out to be a great learning experience, a first of its kind.
Being in Himachal Pradesh for many years as a journalist, there is hardly any place, people or events I haven’t visited or reported. This one, in my neighbouring hill state, was certainly thrilling except for the travels.
Knowing my state of mind and professional commitments, Sandeep Sood, who has been providing me rentals for almost the past 20 years, decided to take the wheel himself, instead of sending Sheeru—my favourite cab driver. Sheeru has been my best companion on all routes in Himachal Pradesh – Lahaul-Spiti to Chamba and Kinnaur—the high altitude travels, but never to Uttarakhand.
Sandeep has been to Rishikesh on several occasions ferrying foreigners and Indian customers. He was a kind of expert hand as far as the journey part was concerned. But, like me, he was also blank about Beatles — more so ‘Chaurasi Kutiya’— popularly known as the ‘Beatles Ashram’.
The Beatles — the legendary English rock band, had arrived in Rishikesh, 54 years ago at the invitation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — exponent of transcendental Meditation. They went exploring India’s rich spiritual history, passionately practising meditation at the Ashram located in a perfect Himalayan setting. They played the guitars, composed 48 iconic songs and posted countless letters to overseas friends.
Their stay brought Rishikesh — then a small Himalayan town to the world tourism map in India in the late 1960s. It’s no less a place of spiritual healing fallen back to utter neglect and ruins yet of great historic value.
On the journey, I shared some facts about the Beatles’ stay at Rishikesh and their stories with Sandeep. His excitement really grew manifold. It was the first time he learnt about English Rock Band and also the place. By the time we reached Dehradun, Sandeep had gotten a fair knowledge of my assignment.
We broke the journey at Dehradun for an overnight stay. As I was planning to meet some of my contacts in the town, I overheard him talking to his acquaintance over the phone to Rishikesh to get me relevant inputs on ‘Chaurasi-Kutiya’ (84 huts)– the sprawling ashram, which is now part of Rajaji National Tiger Reserve overlooking Ganga.
But, before Sandeep could become my full-fledged guide, I came across Raju Gusain—a Dehradun-based journalist and traveller. My friend Madhusudan, introduced me to Raju Gusain — the man, who had quit his full-time journalistic career to turn full-time researcher on Beatles. The venture took him to the UK to study the Beatles and meet people closely associated with them, their band.
Gusain, who also had served as Brand Ambassador of the Beatles, gave me a real insight into the band members— John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. He shared several unknown facts about their journey to Rishikesh, the songs they composed and their visits to Dehradun, particularly at the iconic Pratap Music store. They had developed a bond with Ajeet Singh, the late owner of the store, who himself was an exponent of ‘Vichitra Veena’ and had visited the Ashram at their invitations.
Gusain turned the protagonist of my story about the Beatles. He took me through his search and explained how he established contact with two-time Emmy award-winning Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman, photographer Ram Panjabi and other persons, who had stayed at Maharishi Ashram or visited there during the Fab Four stay.
“The process of obtaining information about the visit of the boys from Liverpool in the Indian Himalayas and other facts about Chaurasi Kutiya still continues. In fact, it has turned into an obsession for me” he claimed.
While searching for veteran photographer Ram Panjabi in Bangalore, Gusain also motivated him to track 1968 negatives and make some prints of The Beatles on their visits. Gusain also shared with me rare newspaper clippings and documents from 1968 onwards –a treasure he loves to preserve with him.
He vividly recalled his interactions with Maharishi followers- including Tony Ellis, Raja Richard, Tim Jones and Maharishi’s nephew Anand Shrivastava and his son Laxman Shrivastava. Gusain conducted countless visits of Indian and foreign dignitaries, movie stars and writers to the Ashram.
Loaded with all facts and a complete overview of Beatles history, I set out for ‘Beatles Ashram’ the next day. On the way, I picked up Virender Negi, a Dehradun-based photojournalist. He was, indeed, a valuable part of my professional venture. I was confident of delivering an excellent news package on The Beatles as per briefs from my editor, Chinki Sinha.
The car moved on Dehradun-Rishikesh Highway, the finest road to my ultimate destination. A brief stop-over way-side for tea to warm up for the day was a sudden thought that came to my mind. Before I could ask Sandeep to park the car, Virender Negi gave me a shock of life. He spoke in a feeble voice blowing off all my cool thoughts.
“Sir, sr..sr !!!. Please stop the car. I have made a blunder,” he told me in a huff.
I quickly turned to him and asked.
“Negi ji are you okay? What is the issue?” And, he looked really lost for words.
“Sir, I forgot to bring the battery of my camera. I had it on electric charging this morning. But, it has slipped my mind. We need to go back and get it. There is no purpose in going with you,” he said apologetically.
Sandeep had no option but to turn back, an 80 to 85 km return drive.
No wonders, finally, the assignment was accomplished but Negi and his battery-less camera gave me really testing moments in my journey to Rishikesh for exploring the Beatles.
The incident still reminds me of the famous song by The Beatles – “Let it be”
‘And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shinin’ until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be’