How I pissed off George Harrison

Updated: 10 November, 2020 07:40 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

How a legendary journalist tracked down a world-famous musician, and spent six minutes alone with him in a lift in total silence.

George Harrison with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in 1967. Pic/ C Y Gopinath
George Harrison with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in 1967. Pic/ C Y Gopinath

picI'm not sure if I've told you this, but I'm in a Martin Scorcese film. It's called Living in the Material World, a biopic about a rather well-known musician called George Harrison. You might have heard of him; he was the lead guitarist in a popular band called The Beatles. There is a moment in Scorcese's movie, almost right after Harrison speaks about the power of chanting mantras, when the camera zooms in and you see the legendary writer's name clearly — C. Y. Gopinath.

I don't know Martin at all but I do remember George Harrison very well indeed. I remember being trapped with him in a cramped lift in Calcutta for about six minutes in 1976 as it cranked and creaked very slowly down from the seventh floor to the ground. Really slowly.

I had George Harrison all to myself for six minutes and he glared at me the whole time. He was really upset with me. His lips were tight. He looked completely pissed off.

It had started as another uneventful morning in the office of JS magazine, the youth magazine where I was a reporter. Around 11 am, the editor summoned me, looking very serious, which meant he could barely contain his excitement.

"Rumour has it," he said gravely, "that a certain George Harrison is currently somewhere within this very city. Your assignment for the day is to track him down, interview him and thus get the scoop of a lifetime."

And so it began.

Calcutta is not a big place; everyone knows everyone. A few strategically placed telephone calls should find Harrison for me, I thought. I worked my way systematically through the city's thriving rock and roll fraternity first.

Each call went through sweet-talking Cynthia, the only operator on duty. She agreed to give high priority to my calls; I think she kinda liked me. Plus I'd promised to get her a celebrity's autograph by evening. That might have helped.

I spoke to Nondon Bagchi, the Great Bear's drummer; their bassist, the late Dilip Balakrishnan; Louis Banks, jazz maestro. Some were clearly stoned; all of them sounded vaguely hurt that George was in town and no one had told them.

By lunchtime, I was no closer to finding George. Despondent, I went to the staff canteen for some lunch, taking a chair opposite the The Statesman's cranky dance critic.

"Bloody prima donnas!" he cursed.

"Who?" I asked.

"The Shankars!" he said, slamming the bread into his mulligatawny soup, splashing it all over his kurta. "Too elite to keep an appointment."

"Ravi Shankar?" I suddenly perked up. Everybody knew George Harrison was learning sitar from him.

"Ravi lives in Varanasi," snapped the dance critic. "Don't you know anything? I'm talking about Uday, his brother, the dancer."

"Skipped an appointment with you?"

"Had a visitor, they said, so he couldn't meet me. Some hippie who's come to buy a Saraswati statue from Varanasi."

I smiled. I knew where George Harrison was hiding.

An hour later, my photographer and I were in the weedy compound where Uday Shankar lived on the seventh floor of a mossy old building. An octogenarian lift man kept nodding off like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, stopping and waiting at every floor whether anyone was there or not.

Five minutes later, I was ringing Uday Shankar's doorbell. The cook's head appeared. Behind him — jackpot! I could see the anxious, gaunt face of one of the finest lead guitarists of our times, the famous third Beatle, George Harrison. Being discovered by the press was not his favourite nightmare.

I craftily told the cook I had an appointment with Mr Uday and the door opened trustingly, letting me right in. Not missing a beat, George walked right out of the house, brushing past me and entering the waiting lift. If the press was in, Harrison was out.

Not to be outdone, I executed a U-turn and joined him in the lift. The dormouse pulled the trellis gate shut and the lift began its never-ending six-minute journey down. And there we were, the world-famous musician and the legendary journalist, alone at last.

Of this I was sure: there was going to be no scoop interview. I extended my notebook towards him, open on a fresh page.

"Could I have your autograph, please, sir, Mr Harrison?" I said.

He gave me a withering look. "I thought you were from press, man!" he snapped, spitting out the word press.

And those were the only words George Harrison has ever spoken to me.

PS: George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. My story, What was George Harrison Doing by the Ganges at Midnight? was published in 1976.

As for Cynthia the telephone operator, she got her George Harrison autograph. To this day, she believes George signed it.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper

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First Published: 10 November, 2020 06:35 IST

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