Relay: Throwback Thursday

“Do you know where the Beatles ashram is?”

I think it was the poet Marvin Bell who advised my freshman English class as to overcoming writer’s block. “Lower your standards,” he said. 

Let me tell you, I’ve made a career out of Mr. Bell’s counsel, and see no reason to stop now. 

Just the other night, I was having a drink with a writer in Sag Harbor, and we have in common the good fortune to have made our way around India a few times. Talk about stories! Between the poet’s guidance and India’s limitless capacity to present surrealistic imagery and experience, I could write about those journeys for years to come. Perhaps I will. 

Did I ever tell you about the time I was nearly crushed against a stone wall on the banks of the holy Ganges, on a hot summer afternoon in Rishikesh? 

How was I to know it was high season for pilgrimage to the places sanctified by Paramahansa Yogananda and the saints and holy men he described in “Autobiography of a Yogi”? I knew next to nothing about any of it, but (here I go again) the Beatles had studied meditation at an ashram there in 1968 and, bored after nearly a month in Ladakh, in the remote, eastern part of Jammu and Kashmir State, I wanted very much to explore. 

I had been led to believe that the ashram, by then abandoned, was across the Great Ganga (also the name of a hotel, near the Ram Jhula Auto Stand in Muni-ki-Reti) from my accommodations, a self-styled chalet in Tapovan, offering stifling heat and exotic spiders for 150 rupees, around $3 at the time per night. 

“Beatles ashram?” I’d asked the keeper of the chalet. “Do you know where the Beatles ashram is?” Across the Ganga, was his answer. 

It was midafternoon when I set out to cross the Lakshman Jhula, a 450-foot suspension bridge, into Jonk, to walk down the banks toward the ashram.

Here, where the Ganga leaves the outer Himalayas and flows into the plains of northern India, the river was muddy, engorged, and bursting forth. The air was thick and moist, the Lakshman Jhula thicker, with chanting, saffron-robed pilgrims, tourists, and the occasional beggar. I was sopping with perspiration long before reaching the other side. 

The ashram was said to be far down the banks of the Ganga, and on and on I walked, stopping at temples along the way, photographing depictions of Hanuman and Vishnu and many other of Hinduism’s colorful deities. 

The sun bearing down and the ashram nowhere to be found, I was drenched and dizzy, pouring the remaining supply of water over my head for relief. When someone passed on the narrow path, I begged for an answer: “Where is the Beatles ashram?” I was losing hope that I would find it that day. 

“Where is the Beatles ashram?” 

“On the other side,” a man said. 

Disappointed, but more than ready for potable water and a cold shower, I turned back. But now the Lakshman Jhula was completely packed, all of us jostling to stay upright as people crossed in both directions. This was going to take a long time. 

Finally nearing the far banks of the Ganga, beyond which lay the chalet, the sea of humanity was too thick, those still on the bridge unable to move forward as the riverbank, bordered by a very tall stone wall, was itself jam-packed, some people trying to get onto the bridge, others continuing in either direction. The point where the bridge met the land was hopelessly choked. 

After 20 minutes, during which I’d traveled perhaps 20 feet, I was off the Lakshman Jhula, but now between a rock and a hard place — the stone wall and a steadily intensifying crush of people. That was when the worry began. How many times had I read, back in the relative safety of Brooklyn, about such situations, usually in developing countries, and the resulting inevitable mass casualties? There was literally nowhere to go but up. The wall, however, was far too tall to scale. 

As is His custom, however, Sri Krishna was with me. Inching along the wall while trying to keep myself from being crushed against it, a most improbable scenario presented itself. A bicycle leaned casually against the wall, somehow untouched and unbothered by the passing legions. If I could climb onto it, and stand on its seat, and reach toward the sky, perhaps I could pull myself up and out of the crush. 

Standing atop the wall, sweaty and filthy but elated by the narrow escape, rather than return to the chalet I resumed the expedition. “Beatles ashram?” I asked passersby. One pointed the way, and I was jubilant. I’d survived and would soon find the focus of my own pilgrimage. 

But when I reached the site, something seemed amiss. It looked nothing like the photographs I’d seen. “Is this the Beatles ashram?” I asked a very nice old man. 

No, was the reply. “This is the Vithal ashram.” 

In the locals’ accented English, “Beatles” and “Vithal” sound very much alike. Because of this presumed misunderstanding, I was back where I’d started, on the wrong side of the Holy Ganga, having traversed the dangerously overcrowded Lakshman Jhula twice. 

I would have to make the crossing again. But that would have to wait for another day. And that is another story.

Christopher Walsh is senior writer for The Star.