It’s 11 pm on December 3, 2001. I am at a Varanasi hotel lobby. The media and tourists are vying for space. There’s an air of hushed expectancy. Lights are subdued and people are speaking in low whispers. The bitter cold and the fog outside sneaks in with every visitor and produces a collective shiver.
George Harrison has died four days earlier in Los Angeles after battling cancer. He has been cremated in a cardboard coffin. Media reports have it that his ashes are to be immersed in the Ganga at Varanasi. Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani are to carry out the ritual. A throng has descended on the pilgrim town hoping to catch a last glimpse.
Harrison, the ‘quiet Beatle,’ had a long, intimate relationship with Indian mysticism, music and Hinduism. In 1967, Harrison introduced the other Beatles to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. A year earlier, after the Beatles had stopped touring, he came here to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar. Shankar was present during Harrison’s final hours.
That night the vigil continues. Rumours fly thick and fast about the details of the visit. Some say that the ashes would arrive by a special aircraft early on the 4th. There is no official word about the exact programme. I get into a lively discussion with an international channel about the raw deal meted out to Harrison by the other Beatles, and how he deserved equal space with John and Paul. Others join in.
Harrison spent his last moments chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ with his family next to him and pictures of Rama and Krishna near his bed. His 1970 song, My Sweet Lord, introduced millions to the ‘Hare Krishna’ mantra, which he gently interspersed between choruses of Hallelujah.
In a 1982 interview, Harrison said that his song, The Lord Loves the One that Loves the Lord from the album, Living in the Material World, was written about Srila Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement. In 1969, he financed the first hardbound printing of the Krishna Book. In 1973, he donated Bhaktivedanta Manor, a 23-acre estate outside London to the Krishna Society.
It is 4 a.m. The wait is becoming painfully long. Word comes that the local administration and air traffic control have received no communication about the arrival of the ashes. Most people get up and leave. But our vigil was not in vain. We have paid our respects to a great musician and a greater human being by sharing our love for his music and his humanness with each other on a cold winter night.
I don’t retire to my room that night. Instead, I head to the ghats and wait for the sun.