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Remembering John Lennon at Dharamshala

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I remember the exact night, thirty years ago, when I heard John Lennon had been murdered. I was in the hall of the kashag (the Tibetan cabinet) building in Dharamshala, at a benefit dance for the literary magazine Lotus Fields (Pemathang). Raju, the lead guitarist of The Subterranean Vajra Hammer, was dishing out Keith Richard licks, note for note, to the boogieing young Tibetans, inji hippies and travelers , when, somewhere during a set, the lead singer Dave Tomory cleared his throat and made that unhappy announcement .

Dave who later became a travel writer and did a piece on the rock and roll life in Dharamshala, mentioned that the band didn't play Beatles songs, so, that fateful night the drummer Gavin Kilty came forward "...all by himself, and did 'Across The Universe'; and though very shaken, was very good." The rest of us toasted the memory of John Lennon with glasses of chang and Golden Eagle beer, and over subsequent drinks reminded each other of all the wonderful Beatles songs we could remember, and argued fiercely about which one was the best.

The first song I ever sang on stage (at age thirteen) for my school talent night was a Lennon/Macartney composition "I Saw Her Standing There", with my friend and rhythm guitarist, Ratna Das. Though the two of us played together often after that, neither of us could afford a real electric guitar and had to routinely borrow one from a Thai student for every gig. We seldom managed to get a drummer to back us, and worst of all didn't have a snappy name. Only some years later, after I put together another band and Marvel Comics hit Indian magazine stands, I managed to come up with "Dock Ock and His Tentacles".

When George Harrison died in 2001 I remember getting some friends together at my home, Nalanda Cottage at McLeod Ganj, and singing his songs: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Here Comes the Sun" and "My Sweet Lord" among others. A friend, Jordhen, contributed some appropriate Buddhist tweaks to the refrain of the last song:

Hm, my lord, hare krishna, My, my, my lord, hare hare,
My Sweet Lord, Dalai Lama, Hm my lord, bodhicitta.

George Harrison had a special significance for those of us in the sub-continent because of his monumental Concert For Bangladesh. It was the first international benefit concert of its kind to use music for a higher humanitarian purpose, and (after having watched the DVD) is still one of the best. Much of the Western world, especially the America of Nixon and Kissinger (plus Communist China) attempted to play down that terrible genocide to shore up their "loyal" ally, Pakistan. The Liberation of Bangladesh was a hugely important event for all Tibetans. A secret contingent of Tibetan paratroopers had fought (and many had died) to capture the port city of Chittagong which was crucial to the defeat of the Pakistani army. All Tibetans believed that something similarly momentous would happen for Tibet also. And George was there with us.

But John was too, I suspected then, in his own way. At the time the political fashion in the West was radical left and Maoist, but John Lennon was one of the rare young celebrities with the maturity and wisdom to condemn political violence especially of the Cultural Revolution variety:

You say you want a revolution
Well you know,
We all want to change the world....
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know you can count me out...

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world....
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow....

I became convinced when I saw The Killing Fields, the epic film of the Cambodian genocide. Lennon's (supposedly atheistic) song "Imagine" came on at the end, when Dith Pran who had survived the horrendous ordeal of the Maoist inspired carnage of the killing fields, meets his American friend at the refugee camp. When the familiar lyrics "Imagine there's no heaven...", swelled over the speakers, I think I finally understood what John Lennon had been trying to say all along.