November 30, 2001
Writing almost exclusively these past weeks, and months (and, it seems, years), on the topic of international terrorism, and the threat posed by recent unwelcome events to the "broadband education" of our sons and daughters, it comes as an odd sort of relief to be able to say some things about the unwelcome death of a friend, and the passing of a cultural icon. The experience, however sad and sombre, is uplifting by comparison.
The person I am talking about is George Harrison, the ex-Beatle. I met George (and his lovely-wife-to-be Olivia) on an airplane headed from the islands of the Seychelles to Bombay, India. It was a day in December, 1976. George was an ex-Beatle; I was the owner of the successful student travel company, ALSG, and a dabbler in the electronic recording arts as the proprietor of the Massachusetts countryside recording studio, Long View Farm.
We had a lot to talk about in the airplane, and in the Bombay hotel Taj Mahal where, by further coincidence, we were destined to stay for a week or so. Only, it wasn't about the Beatles that we talked, or about the student travel business in the United States, or about the Massachusetts recording studio (which would soon, with a word or two of encouragement from George, be called upon to host the second-most important rock 'n' roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones.) It was about living gods that we talked.
That's what he was doing in India. That's why I was there. We were hunting for living gods divinely empowered human creatures who could do things like levitating matchboxes from across a room, or like living in a cave for two decades, like Rip Van Winkle, on nothing but the smell of incense and lofty thoughts.
It turns out that we both had the same paperback book in our flight bags, Paramahansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi." We had each read it several times. He autographed my copy of the book; I underlined the paragraphs I liked best in his. The book was to be our Michelin Guide, here in the land of virtual saints and sidewalk transcendence.
Neither George Harrison nor I would think any less of the paperback book because we could find no living gods on the sidewalks of Bombay. With great humor and optimism, George assured this author that all good things take a while sometimes to materialize, and that we should satisfy ourselves in the meanwhile with the beauty ingredient in the here-and-now.
Bombay, for example. George taught me how to purchase silver necklaces in tiny stores in alleyways, and how to haggle for sandlewood carvings which told the story of Indian religious figures, including elephants.
George's friends, as another example. He took me an hour outside of town in a lurching, speeding taxicab to the place where Ravi Shankar lived. There was a reason for the trip. Ravi Shankar's niece was to be married that day, in the presence of a demi-god of the West, who was of course George himself. I was happy to be there, eating with the fingers of my right hand while sitting cross-legged on a polished floor, and listening to the music of sitars.
George and I left Bombay in 1976 without having located any living gods. George was not giving up, however. "You've got to come up to Benares, Gil," he said. The every-twenty-year spiritual festival of the Kumbla Mela was just about to begin, and people said that on occasions such as these there were living gods to be seen on every street corner, and in every country cave, each with wisdom to dispense.
I didn't go. I had my business career to attend to, back in the United States. There was a recording studio to watch over, and American students to send to Europe and to points beyond. I tried to explain this to George months later, on the telephone.
And now it's 25 years later still. The recording studio became well known, and filled itself with rock stars. I am still officiating over the travel of American students to Europe and to points beyond, with great passion and dedication. But George Harrison is no longer teasing me about the rarity of living gods, having taken on some of these trappings himself a night or two ago in Los Angeles.
Beats obsessing about the terrorists, thinking these thoughts.
Dr. Gilbert Scott Markle