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Ashram notebook 50 years ago: Beatles, Maharishi, crows and catapults (Comment: Special to IANS)


I received a call from an reminding me of my stay with 50 years ago this February in He was keen that, at this distance in time, I hammer out a piece placing that visitation in perspective.

There was irony in the request itself. The value the was placing on the story was in sharp contrast to the cold reception it received from the Resident of all those decades ago.

In my 20s then, I belonged to a generation which straddled two worlds. My love for classical Indian music did not obstruct my being enmoured of But the Statesman, self conscious of its status as the country's premier newspaper, had not yet shuffled itself out of its Victorian mould. The last British editors had left in 1966, but there were still editors and their brown progeny, in a cultural sense, who were more conversant with than the four. The paper's Delhi office had, by contrast, transited to such rapid indigenisation that neither the resident editor, K. Rangachari, nor News Editor, Sharma, knew who were. was in cultural flux.

I had actually got myself initiated into the arcane ways of Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi's feet in anticipation of the jamboree.

As far as I know, I was the only "journalist" who had the Maharishi's nod to stay in the ashram during the hallowed period.

were not the only ones who sat cross legged around the as around an altar. There were others -- the Beach Boys, the flutist, Donovan, writing a song a day, one of which I have kept as my exclusive possession.

"When the sun is tucked away in bed,

You worry about the life you led.

There's only one thing to do,

Let the lead you."

The non-singing stars, who caught the limelight, were and her sister Prudence. The galaxy of stars at the ashram may have placed Prudence in the category of less noticed meditators. But she grabbed everyone's attention when a sadhu looking after her hut rushed to Maharishi's cell with an unbelievable report: Prudence had slipped into a meditative trance which had lasted from dawn to dusk and was still continuing.

This gave the sales pitch he was looking for after the setback at the hands of drummer, Ringo Starr, who described the Ashram with supreme irreverence as a "Butlin Holiday camp", and left. Butlin were an inexpensive holiday camp in England in the 1960s.

To encourage meditative marathons of the kind Prudence was in thrall of, would have to find some deterrence for the crows which had multiplied in the ashram foraging on the frugal fare the meditators had carelessly dropped. The challenge for the was to keep Chaurasi Kutiya out of bounds for the noisy avians but without resorting to violence.

The trick, suggested by the Ashram manager, Suresh Babu, a close relative of the Guru, was to arm the Sadhus with catapults. The ammunition would be nothing more lethal than paper balls which would scare the crows but not hurt them. White robed Sadhus with catapults on the ready became a comical sight. I am not certain if the trick to deter crows worked, but establishing noiseless serenity around Prudence Farrow's hut became a high priority with the guru. It was this heightened concern which caused him to visit her hut frequently, giving rise to a rumour that made a pass at Prudence.

In reality the rumour was a function of Prudence's fevered imagination.

was a problem for another reason: She was a compulsive smoker. "Cigarettes only," would wink. There appeared to be a tacit understanding among the ashramites that if someone was suspected of smoking marijuana, there would be no whistle-blowing. But Mia had created a particular problem for Suresh Babu, a meek man in all circumstances. She regularly sat on a outside his cottage, wreathed in circles of smoke, causing raised eyebrows among the Sadhus and the more earnest meditators.

Matters came to a head one day when Raghu Singh, my photographer, summoned up enough courage to photograph either lighting a cigarette or making rings with the smoke. The frame would be perfect if were also in it. Raghu did manage that photograph, but at a price: Mia gave him chase screaming "bastard", past the sleepy Sadhu manning the gate. Raghu would not be allowed in the ashram any more, announced.

This was easier said than done. The military alertness the battalion of Sadhus had displayed during the first week or so of arrival had given way to a meditative serenity -- except for the crowing of crows, I mention elsewhere. The initial hurly burly was over once the reporters and photographers who had laid siege to the ashram, had been successfully turned away. This opened the way for one or two parked outside the ashram, wailing and beating their breast that their "wrecked" lives could only be repaired by They did get in, armed with cameras, and their "wrecked" lives were placed on the fast lane of enormous financial success. They made a killing hawking their Beatles experience in picture and word.

Raghu Singh, on the other hand, never placed any value, on story. He didn't know who they were.

He precipitated the incident because he had decided, inside himself, that the story was over after the first burst of excitement. This was the continuation of the disinterest I have already mentioned earlier.

Indeed, Raghu Singh's boss, Raghu Rai, who later evolved as the country's greatest photographer, never went back to the Ashram, after that first day when he took a historic shot of clustered around the in the shadow of a large tree. It was a world scoop. never returned to the ashram because, he said, "I had no interest in "

It was due to the encouragement I received from who, along with his bevy of boys, edited a cult youth magazine, Junior Statesman, that assignment was sustained for weeks.

(is a on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on



(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sat, February 03 2018. 11:36 IST