In 1961, Allen Ginsberg, the poet who had become notorious and famous for his anti-establishment poem Howl, left New York for Bombay, with his troubled lover, Peter Orlovsky. And yet he would introduce Peter to his Indian friends as 'my beloved wife.'
His Indian sojourn would take Ginsberg to sadhus in Benares, the Krittibas young rebel poets of Calcutta led by Sunil Gangopadhyay (who would become a few years later an inspiring poet and novelist) and to funeral ghats where the visiting poet would meditate on life and death.
Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted biographer Deborah Baker offers in her A Blue Hand, published by Penguin Press, an insightful, colorful and questioning study of Ginsberg and fellow Beats in India.
She has drawn from her extensive research in India, undiscovered letters, journals, and memoirs, to write an endlessly fascinating, often funny multi-layered literary mystery, which, at times, stirs one's emotions. A Blue Hand follows Ginsberg, 35, and his companions as they travel from the ashrams of the Himalayan foothills to Delhi opium dens and the burning pyres of Benares. "They encounter an India of charlatans and saints, a country of spectacular beauty and spiritual promise and of devastating poverty and political unease," notes Baker. "The journey had a tremendous impact on Ginsberg and India remained with him until his death (in 1997)."
"In Calcutta, Ginsberg discovers a circle of hungry young writers (Krittibas poets) whose outrageousness and genius are uncannily reminiscent of his own past," Baker muses. Part of the book is also about Hope Savage, the mysterious and beautiful girl whose path, before she disappeared, had crossed Ginsberg's own in Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Paris. Baker went to Kolkata soon after her marriage to the distinguished novelist Amitav Ghosh. She learned Bengali there, and now visits it every summer with her husband and two children. Here, she discusses her new book on Ginsberg with Arthur J Pais.
You have been going to India every summer since 1990. What do you like most about India?
I love travelling on trains in India, particularly the overnight train to Benaras from Calcutta, buying milky tea through the train window or from a porter with his huge kettle. I love riding in a car in early evening in Calcutta through neighborhood streets crowded with shoppers and tiny shops colorfully lit up and shiny with their wares. I love the smell of evening pujas in the corner shrines and households of Jodhpur Park, the way the crows flock together at dusk.
And what do you dislike?
In Calcutta, I regret the pollution, the tearing down of old houses, the sorrowful living conditions of many urban migrants, the rapacious development of farmland.
Tell us about learning Bengali in India
I studied Bengali for some time with a teacher at the Ramakrishna Mission. Though he was a gentleman and endlessly patient, I had the sense that he felt that I was a disappointing student. I learned Bengali best living at home and trying to get the house cleaned, the beds made, the cooking done.
How did you prepare to live in Calcutta?
I prepared for my first visit by arranging to ship a container's worth of books, three air conditioners (they weren't readily available in India then), copies of files for a book I was planning to write, by buying hundreds of used record albums and a stereo system. We later broke down the plywood container to make our furniture. These days mod coms are readily available and the only thing I really end up bringing is books that I haven't gotten around to reading.
Why did you write this book?
Part of what I wanted to explore in my book was how India appeared in the American imagination from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg and from Christopher Columbus to Jackie Kennedy. When Ginsberg contemplated the idea of India before he actually arrived there, he was afraid of falling ill to some dread disease, of being terrified by the extremes of poverty.
And yet he went to India and spent many months there.
He was 35 when he left for India in 1961. In spite of his fears, he wanted to be in India as he felt there was the sacred in India which had disappeared in America, subsumed by postwar capitalism, materialism, parochialism, and rigid conformity.
You said recently that even in 1990 Americans weren't very popular in Calcutta and that though everyone was very nice, there was a lot of suspicion.
Surely, there are some people who think that every American is a CIA agent. Over the decades America has made really breathtaking interference in the affairs of many countries. But I also faced anti-American feelings in many other places, including Berlin.
You also said Ginsberg had made it a little easier for one to be an American in India.
Allen went to India on a pilgrimage in 1961 and he returned to India a decade later. Some people had also suspected him of being a CIA agent. But he was not an arrogant American. He did not go there as if he had answers to India's problems. In fact, he was a pilgrim in India. And he represented the best in America.
In what way?
He was a free thinker. He was well read on India, but he did not take things for granted. He was always open to what can be learned.
Sunil Gangopadhyay, the poet and former editor of Desh magazine, has said that Ginsberg lived in really filthy hotels in Calcutta. Even though Sunil was struggling in the early 1960s to make a decent living, he could not have brought himself to stay in such hotels, he says.
I think Allen wanted to make a point, and he was serious about it. He wanted to show, despite the fame his poem Howl had received in America, that he was not the typical, overbearing, opinionated white man. He was also Jew, and there were still feelings against Jews in America. Connecting with the very ordinary people in India, especially people who were social and economic outcastes, was important to him. And I think that was one of the reasons the Krittibas poets in Calcutta led by Sunil came to admire him.
What was Ginsberg looking for in India?
He wanted an immediate experience with God, which he thought he could not achieve in America. In India, God was everywhere, especially as an important part of ordinary people's lives. Allen was not really looking for a guru in India. Allen was more interested in learning about spirituality from ordinary people, be it a tribal boy or even a beggar.
He also had interaction with some sadhus.
True. Some sadhus can be very arrogant and look down on foreigners. But one or two sadhus welcomed him and made space for him.
What kind of a God did Ginsberg experience in India?
It certainly was not a God who was judgmental, not a God who judged every breath you took. He found a God with many faces, not the patriarchal and demanding God you found in the Western religions.
Ginsberg went to India two times. He lived for about for more than 25 years after his 1971 sojourn. Did India remain with him?
Very much. He followed mostly the Tibetan Buddhism on his return. He chanted all the time and used harmonium while singing hymns. He brought with him to America a strong faith in non-violent movements, and his Indian experience was an important part of his protests against the Vietnam War. He might not have found the answer for everything he was looking for in India, but what he discovered was enough to sustain his faith in himself and humanity.
How did India influence his political protests?
He had also encountered in India the Baul poets who were quite a bit rebels. And he came to know of a Gandhian called Shankar Rao Deo.
How did Rao Deo influence him?
Rao and 11 Gandhians were prepared to march from New Delhi to Peking to bring about peace between India and China. They carried the minimum, but they had their charka with them. They spun cotton in between their roadside peace talks. They were ridiculed by many in India, even by the people in the Congress party. Their march gained no public support. Allen would watch Rao give speeches celebrating peace and harmony. In China too, Rao and his fellow men were ridiculed. The attacks of Radio Peaking were virulent. There was no way those men could cross the border. Allen learned a few valuable lessons from this episode.
He learned a few things from a failed march?
Allen admired the courage of conviction in Rao. Allen admired it that an old man such as Rao risked ridicule because he believed in peaceful settlement of a dispute between the two countries. Allen brought back that activism with him to the US.
Ginsberg was also very fearful of death before he went to India, isn't it?
Yes and that is why he spent many hours at the ghats, watching the cremations. In whatever he did there was sincerity.
A speaker at the symposium on Ginsberg held at Asia Society recently said he had gone to India looking for boys and drugs, in addition to spirituality.
He never looked for boys in India. In fact, I don't think he had much sex with his lover. Allen was too preoccupied with his own search.
What endeared him to the Krittibas poets?
I think they were impressed by his knowledge of world literature, his spontaneity, his sincerity. Though he was in India for spiritual reasons, he could also connect with the rebel poets. Now, Sunil (Gangopadhyay) is an atheist and yet Allen and he became close friends and have remained so for many decades.