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Dear Sir or Madam...

The John Lennon Series
by Jude Southerland Kessler

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With the Beatles in India
Page 2  (Previous Page | Next Page)

As the first days passed, I felt the wonderful winter heat of Bombay bathe my body. My neck and back stretched out and stood tall, and my shoulders came upright from their long-defensive hunch. My chest opened up, feeling unrestricted, and my breathing became deep and relaxed, like I couldn't remember. I loved India, that first week, just for that. Just for the visceral, joyful feeling of coming home to a place within myself that I had long forgotten. It was my first conscious step on the journey within, which George Harrison wrote about so beautifully in his songs Within You, Without You and The Inner Light. It would be only a few weeks later, and a few city blocks from where I was staying in Bombay, that George would first record The Inner Light--on January 12, 1968, at EMI's Bombay studios--and I couldn't have imagined that by mid-February my path would unexpectedly cross his, and that of the other Beatles, in Rishikesh.

When the NFB film director and his cameraman arrived a few days later, I moved across the road into the Taj Mahal Hotel. The premier luxury hotel in Bombay, it was renowned for its ornate British Raj architecture. I was now living in luxury on the film production's budget. Two days later, we drove north by Econoline van, filming up the beautiful west coast of Gujarat and across the western scrublands of Rajasthan. Six weeks later, we finished our filming and on January 24, 1968, we drove into New Delhi. I was excited. A letter from my girlfriend back home was waiting for me. All I can remember is her first line: "Dear Paul, I've moved in with Henry." As I read her "Dear Paul" letter that first night in Delhi, my heart felt crushed by a sledgehammer. I could hear a screaming inside me and I feared that if I let it out I would drown in it. I could barely breathe through the tears. I felt totally abandoned, alone.

It didn't help that I was now 'off the production budget', near broke and had to check out of the posh Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel. After checking out the next day, I walked into the hot mid-afternoon sun and found a crowd of between thirty and forty press people milling about. Even though I'd worked in current affairs television for several years, I had never experienced a news scrum. A gaggle of journalists, reporters, news photographers, cameramen and soundmen were camped outside waiting for someone to arrive. A moment later, a white chauffeur-driven Ambassador, then the most common car in India, pulled in and at a shout they all grabbed their news gear. Paparazzi-like, they swarmed the car. The object of the hunt, a petite, wispy, beautiful young woman could barely get herself out of the car. As she and her female friend were rushed into the lobby by hotel staff, the press crushed around yelling out questions, microphones thrust forward, cameras rolling, snapping photographs. I recognized Mia Farrow from the numerous pictures I'd seen of her in newsmagazines, when her marriage to Frank Sinatra had ended.

Mia Farrow

Mia was clearly shaken and frightened by the rapaciousness of the news people as they all pushed past me in pursuit of her. Two large Sikh doormen, wearing starched white uniforms and crimson-red turbans, blocked the press from entering as three assistant managers rushed Mia and her friend through the lobby toward a waiting elevator. One photographer slipped through a side door and as he raced up behind Mia calling her name, so she'd turn around, she lost it. She ran at him, screaming, hitting him with her bag. Two security men grabbed him and ushered him out. Mia was close to tears with a look on her face like that of a terrified child.

Deeply moved by her distress, I bought a beautiful giant yellow mum at the hotel flower shop and took the elevator up to her floor. I got off and headed down the long hall towards the Maharajah Suite. The doorbell sounded quietly through the heavy mahogany double doors. After a long moment, the friend I'd seen Mia enter with opened the door. She was, I later learned, Mia's sister Prudence Farrow. I explained that I had witnessed the scene downstairs and wanted to make a kindly gesture. Prudence was wary but accepted the flower, saying she would give it to Mia, and as I turned and went back down the hall she called after me, "Thank you." As I left, I understood the double-edged sword of fame in a way I never had before.

As I hung around New Delhi, not knowing what to do, I was desperate for relief. A new American acquaintance, Al Bragg, asked me if I wanted to come along to hear the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi give a talk on transcendental meditation. "I'll try anything." I said, jumping at the chance. That night, the large auditorium at New Delhi University was jam-packed, overflowing with foreigners and Indians as we squeezed in against the wall at the back. On stage, a low dais was festooned with flowers. After ten or fifteen minutes, a short, curious little man draped in white cotton, with long scraggly graying hair and beard, entered at the rear of the hall and walked down the center aisle. Close behind, twenty Westerners followed, each of them wearing colorful Indian clothes and garlands of red, white, and orange flowers around their necks. They were, it turned out, part of a group of meditators on their way to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh. As the Maharishi sat cross-legged on the dais, his followers seated themselves in a semicircle behind him.

The Maharishi talked in a high musical voice about meditation as a direct path to inner peace and harmony. He said, "Transcendental meditation naturally takes the mind beyond the present level of experience to the finer stages of experience, and eventually takes it beyond the finest state of experience and leaves it in a state of pure awareness. It takes the mind behind and beyond the fears and anxieties that trouble us. Reaching those fields of pure consciousness, of pure being, we tap the very source of bliss and energy."

All this, he said, could begin quickly and easily without conflict in the mind and without giving up any of life's pleasures. I couldn't quite buy this. I guess I believed the road to inner peace and happiness was one of struggle. And yet, he was light and joyful and his laughter seemed to embody what he promised was available to all of us through meditation. Standing there at the back of the auditorium, I prayed he was right.

That night, I decided to go to his ashram, or spiritual retreat center, in Rishikesh to learn meditation. Distracted by the pain I was feeling, I didn't think to make arrangements and several days later I rode through the night by third-class train, northeast into the foothills of the Himalayas. As morning came, a dawning lavender-pink sky illuminating the forested green slopes that rose on either side of the tracks, we entered Dehra Dun, a town known for its two elite British-run private schools, its temples and as one of two rail stops close to Rishikesh.

An hour and a half ride by scooter-rickshaw and 43 kilometers up the road, at 1,175 feet above sea level, we enter Rishikesh. The majesty of the Himalayas begins as the Shivalik range towers another 5,500 feet above the town that straddles the banks of the Ganges. To India's eight hundred million Hindus, the Ganges is Ganga Ma--or Mother Ganges--the holiest of rivers, making Rishikesh a pilgrimage center filled with temples and hostels. A center for yoga, meditation and philosophical studies since ancient times, it also has many ashrams, both in the town and in the hills around, like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's.

I hadn't realized there were many ashrams there and I asked a young man if he knew where the Maharishi's was. He didn't, but said that most of the ashrams were across the river. Walking through the bustling town, past small white temples, sadhus and a few beggars, I arrived at the bathing steps, or ghats, for pilgrims that lined the river. The Ganges flowed swiftly, a rich emerald green colour, as I hired a small motorboat to take me across the river. The old boatman steered us out into the fast current in a wide trajectory that carried us the 150 yards to the east bank of the river. Nearing the far shore, we passed in front of the ghats on the Swargashram side of the Ganges. Men and women, young and old, were bathing and washing clothes in the bright sun. As the boatman pushed off, he pointed south along the riverbank and said, "Maharishi ashram, there."

>>Continued on Page 3...

This article is Copyright © 2006, Paul Saltzman, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission.

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