The Beatles came to Rishikesh in the sixties to live in an ashram and write music. It is said that a good portion of “The White Album” was written here.
Last night we went to see an Indian tabla player and a Chinese sitar player make music together. It was beautiful. When the first strains of music unfurled from the sitar, I heard the Beatles at once. All I could hear was the Beatles. The Chinese man was making music of his own, but I suppose that the only other time I have actively listened to a sitar, it was on a Beatles album. I let my mind float away, and found myself in a million places at once- lying on my back on the living room floor as Daddy’s records spun in the easy twilight of my childhood- in college, high on drugs, listening to the Beatles through the blood thumping in my ears, as the air in the room seemed to unfold in iridescent waves- flying over the Ganges, dipping under the icy waters, re-emerging as a bird that cuts circles in the red light of the setting sun.
The Chinese man played alone for a long time, and my eyes were closed, and I was like any other hippie in that room, moving to the music, losing myself in the sound.
Then the Indian man, the tabla player, joined in. He sat in the lotus position, his legs crossed and his feet resting on his knees. He wore a turquoise shirt that was soaked in sweat by the end of the evening, and he had a great smile that he kept flashing to the small Indian boy and girl who sat in the shadows. His tablas, two small, well-worn hand drums, accompanied the sonorous sitar, sometimes keeping perfect beat, sometimes meandering off and taking on a frenetic beat of their own.
At one point, I opened my eyes and saw that the Indian boy had emerged from the shadows and was crawling on his hands and knees towards us, the white people on the other side of the room. One of his eyes was fixed on us, and the other was wandering off in the distance, unfocused, rebellious. He had a huge smile on his face. He crawled right into our midst, delivering himself into the lap of a curly haired blond girl, who held him gently, and smiled down into his face. Then he was looking past her, and his smile threatened to break into a fit of laughter. I followed his gaze.
Two hippies were sitting behind me, and it was they for whom he had crawled here. They were both sitting cross-legged, and they both had their eyes closed. The girl had wrapped a purple sash over her shoulders, and had countless sparkling rings adorning her fingers. On each hand, her thumb and pointer finger were pressed together, forming that timeless OK symbol that she was now guiding in circles and swoops over her head as she swayed to the music. She looked like Dawn Wiener on the hood of the convertible in Welcome To The Dollhouse. The only thing that was missing was Dawn’s long-haired hero, Steve. In this case, he was replaced by the tabla and sitar player.
Her male counterpart had shaved his head and was bare-chested, like any good hippie in these parts. He also, was displaying the universal OK with his fingers, dipping and nodding his head like he was in deep agreement with someone. His eyes were closed, and his arms were moving like a snake. They were the only people in the room losing themselves so openly to the music. I suppressed a giggle and turned back around. The little boy was still rapturous, taking them in with the open-eyed delight only a child can get away with. He had never seen anything like them.
As the music played on, I kept traversing the tunnels of my mind. Now I was at A.G. Bell elementary, gliding through the velvet woods, skipping over the wooden bridge that clunked hollowly under my feet. The stars twinkled in the sky, and I leapt over a groove in my mind and landed on the other side, a synapse sparking, and found myself in that imaginary ashram where the Beatles once played. Open palms beat the leather of the tablas, and fingers moving as fast as a hummingbird’s wings teased the sitar, the music becoming a frenzy over everyone’s heads.
I opened my eyes and the room was exactly as it had been, people leaned up against the walls in colorful clothes and scarves, their faces open, the music hypnotic and egalitarian. None of us knew each other, but we were reduced to a common denominator as we listened and swayed to those primal sounds, fingers tapping, feet keeping time, cautious smiles catching and flaring across the room. George Harrison may have played the sitar better, or maybe it was Paul or John, but in that sweaty, humid room, we were all just as affected as if the Beatles had been drumming out the music instead the white-clothed Chinese man, and the humbly smiling Indian, drenched in sweat, guided by the music.