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A Blue Hand: The Beats in India 
by Deborah Baker.
Penguin US, 256 pp., £25.95, April 2008, 978 1 59420 158 5
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Robert Oppenheimer knew Sanskrit. Quotations from the Bhagavad Gita flashed through his mind when he witnessed the first atomic explosion in New Mexico in 1945: ‘Suppose a thousand suns should rise together into the sky: such is the glory of the Shape of the Infinite God.’ Reading that same chapter of the Bhagavad Gita in Darjeeling in 1962, Allen Ginsberg thought of something else: the coloured wheels of psilocybin-induced visions. That two of the 20th century’s most consciousness-altering inventions, the atom bomb and the LSD pill, could be conjoined under the sign of the mushroom cloud is just the sort of thing that convinces poets of the doctrine of secret correspondences in nature, of a transcendental logic ruling reality.

It was this conviction that led Ginsberg to India in the first place. He was not alone. Nor is the story Deborah Baker tells in A Blue Hand – a story about the encounter between optimistic, postcolonial Bengalis and disillusioned American Beats – about Ginsberg alone. It is a dense little slice of bicultural history, collated from biographies, journals, interviews and audiocassettes. It describes a time not so long ago but now very far away: before globalisation and commercial aviation and before American Express morphed into a credit card. (When Ginsberg arrived almost penniless in Bombay on a ship from Mombasa, he headed to the American Express offices in the hope of finding his mail, and possibly some royalty cheques.) The postwar economy of the US had permitted a bohemian renaissance in the cities, so that men and women of different classes – say, a child of immigrants raised in an orphanage like Gregory Corso and a Southern belle on the lam from privilege and electroshock therapy like Hope Savage – could shack up in the Village and trade paperbacks of Rimbaud, Shelley, Swinburne and Goethe, while mapping out pilgrimages to Central Asian cities using ancient texts as guidebooks.

In Ginsberg personal crisis and the crisis of American materialism coincided. A 35-year-old celebrity when he left New York Harbor on the SS America, he was the subject of mocking magazine profiles: he felt he had already passed through fame to caricature, from poet to provocateur. He was haunted by a vision he had had at the age of 22, when, while reading Blake, a voice thundered in his ear:

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done

Could he recapture his youthful faith in God and poetry? Was India that ‘sweet golden clime’ where gurus of ancient faiths would ‘open the doors and windows of his mind’? There was also a prophecy laid out in ‘A Passage to India’ by Walt Whitman, one of Ginsberg’s guiding lights: ‘Passage O soul to India!/Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.’ America’s very origins were bound up in its mistaken identity with India. Surely, Ginsberg thought, these were signs. The atom bomb had cast a shadow on technological optimism. It would take another generation or two before the import of LSD – that consciousness is chemical – detonated fully. But when it did, it put paid to the sunflower visions that sent Ginsberg & Co to India to look for God. If materialism is all there is, then so much for soul-making.

The story Baker tells isn’t simple. We’re introduced to a disparate cast of characters some who go from the US to India, some who go from India to the US, some who make it as far as Tangier or Paris, and some who vanish into history. We hopscotch between New York, San Francisco, Mexico, France, Morocco, India; we ricochet from Bombay to Delhi to Calcutta and Benares, with visits to sundry ashrams and temples in between: in Pondicherry, Tiruvannamalai, Mathura, Jaipur, Dharamsala. First we’re in 1962, then 1958, then 1948, then 1971. There’s no timeline, no map, and no list of dramatis personae. Baker trusts us to pay attention on this manic ride, which is meant perhaps to re-create the disorientation of the senses recommended by Rimbaud and diagnosed by William James.

The groupuscule we call the Beats (short for ‘beatitude’) was by 1961 geographically and emotionally scattered: Kerouac (barely present in Baker’s book) hunkered down at his mother’s house, Burroughs cocooned himself in Tangier, Neal Cassady had just left jail. Gregory Corso was bumming around Europe, urging Ginsberg and his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky to sail with him to India to find his now ex-girlfriend Hope Savage. The married Beats, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, were studying Zen in Kyoto but planned a pilgrimage to India to see the birthplace of Buddhism. It’s hard to imagine how such disparate personalities got on for long enough to create a literary movement. They were each on a quest to expand the mind but, as Baker shows, their methods reflected their temperaments: Ginsberg and Corso, the sensualists, used drugs; Burroughs retooled collage by using violent, anti-humanist cut-ups; Snyder cleaved to Zen with ascetic discipline.

Savage serves as the sphinx at the heart of A Blue Hand. Described by Corso as ‘a beautiful Shelley with a cunt’, a ‘female Rimbaud’, she haunts the others’ correspondence and intersects with them at various points on the journey before finally fading away. Baker seems to see Savage as a Beat purer than the boys who used their spiritual goals to further their literary aims: leaving no writing behind, Savage could disappear into legend, a saint of refusal. (In an interview, Baker had to remind Orlovsky that it was on record, in his archived correspondence, that they had actually met. He remembered only the ghost chase.) The other strong female presence in the book is the down-to-earth Joanne Kyger, grumbling about doing the dishes and arranging flowers while Snyder meditated. In Baker’s account she’s the all-too-human one – ‘moody, difficult, bad-tempered and foul-mouthed’ – and she can’t be a heroine of an era in which madness and negation were virtues. ‘Don’t you want to study Zen and lose your ego?’ Snyder asked her. ‘After all this struggle to obtain one?’ she replied. Unlike Savage, though, Kyger ended up with a Collected Poems to her name.

If this longing to break down the rationalist ego was a reaction to America’s triumphalist complacency, what of the Indian intellectuals and poets who looked to the US for a different kind of liberation? Pupul Jayakar, Buddhadev Bose, Asoke Sarkar and the poets of the College Street Coffee House drifted in and out of Ginsberg’s orbit, either eager to gain passage to the US, or in search of the key to revitalising their own literature, which was still in thrall to Asia’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

Like many American poets, including Ginsberg but also Eliot and Stevens, Ashbery and O’Hara, they were galvanised by modern French poetry. Like the Surrealists, they issued their own magazine (called Krittibas) and manifestos under the collective name ‘the Hungry Generation’ (later the ‘Hungryalists’). But, like William Carlos Williams in America, they decried what they called the ‘vegetarian’ vocabulary of the educated classes and championed the demotic: ‘This language had never been heard in Bengali literature. With it they hoped to break down metre, rhyme and, while they were at it, conventional morality … They studied the lives of artists like Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin for guidance and did their best to imitate them.’ They were, then, ripe for an encounter with the famous Beat poets of America. Ginsberg had the pleasure of introducing them to Williams even as he clucked at their devotion to Modernism. What about their own culture? Why could Bengalis quote Shakespeare but not their own poets? Snyder had a similar reaction: ‘To Allen, he wrote that Indian intellectuals were square, filled with patriotism and anticipation of progress, but with only vague ideas of spiritual values. The concept of hip eluded them entirely.’

Ginsberg was the man for the job. He pontificated: ‘What we are trying to do in America today is to create a new prosody . . . The roots of this kind of poetry go back to the Red Indians and to jazz, which is the one original flower of American civilisation.’ The writer Paul Engle said of Ginsberg: ‘He succeeded in doing the heretofore utterly impossible – bringing dirt to India.’ Baker gives us a glimpse of Ginsberg as seen through the eyes of the founder of Krittibas, Sunil Gangopadhyay:

They were astonished to see Allen squat to pee in the street. Sunil wondered why he dressed like a poor person. Why did he stay in a third-rate Mussalman hotel, in a damp room with dirty walls, windows that would not shut, and two small beds full of bedbugs? The bathroom was indescribably dirty. It was beyond his imagination that white Americans could tolerate such hardship.

Snyder met with similar astonishment when he attempted to travel with the masses in third class. Savage was treated with suspicion when she adopted Middle Eastern dress: what was she, a spy? The Beats liked to empathise with the downtrodden, applying a Whitman ethos (‘Whoever degrades another degrades me’) to the caste system. They were bound to outrage more than they inspired. Perhaps only an ambassador from the mythic country of Rimbaud could have introduced Orlovsky to Indian society as ‘my dear wife’, or urged LSD on the Dalai Lama. Ginsberg was accused of bad manners at best, and corrupting the youth at worst.

It’s a strange reversal of the culture clash, to be the American bringing dirt to India. In Morocco a decade ago I listened to a humanities professor from a ‘good family’ unleashing a tirade against Paul Bowles’s elevation of Moroccan trash. What could I say? Bowles had championed indigenous Moroccan writers and musicians over the upper-class types who had been educated in France and Britain; the Beats did no less for their own culture, opening American literature up ‘to the Red Indians and to jazz’. But such an inversion of provincialism, exported to postcolonial countries, threatened a fragile order. Or maybe – no small thing – a fragile sense of pride.

Ginsberg ended up taking the young poets of Calcutta on a tour of their own country. Guided by the Sufi fakir Asoke Sarkar (who later became Timothy Leary’s guru), they visited the funeral pyres of Nemtola night after night, getting high and meditating on death. They visited the Tantric city of Tarapith, where mystics defied the caste system with impunity. And they travelled to Suri to meet a clan of Bauls, musical vagrants famous for their haunting songs. Asoke translated for Ginsberg:

O blue dressed woman why don’t
      You put on your blue dress again
Put vermilion on yr forehead
      & come before me as a lover,
& wind & bind & plait my hairs …
      I came to play the flute in Brindaban
Now I give the flute to you,
      young girl …
Why don’t you take my flute
      & let it sing on yr lips
Radha Radha Radha

Unfortunately, we don’t get a sense from Baker as to how the young poets of Krittibas and the Hungry Generation changed their poetry in response to Ginsberg’s tutelage, or whether they changed Indian literature as a whole. But neither does she devote any analysis to the change, if there was any, in Ginsberg’s poetry after his visits to the burning ghats. She is more interested in the irony that while Ginsberg came to India to reawaken his faith, his legacy among the young was scepticism and irreverence.

Eventually the anti-establishment antics, and the culture shock, caught up with the Beats. Between India and China’s border disputes and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authorities were getting jumpy. Savage was told she had ten days to leave the country, on trumped-up charges of immorality. She appealed, and asked Ginsberg for help, but he had his own problems: on the night before he was to leave Calcutta for Benares, a policeman had accosted their little group beside the Howrah bridge. What were they doing? Orlovsky piped up: ‘We are trying to see where we should put our bomb.’ The police were not amused and rounded them up for questioning. Ginsberg and Orlovsky made their train the next day, but a shadow hung over the three weeks in Benares. The winter climate was bad for the lungs and the spirit. Ginsberg started worrying that his journals cataloguing Indian misery might be ‘sleazy’. And there were complications from trying to help too many people – saving mendicants from starvation, procuring American visas for students. The couple fought, and Ginsberg resolved to fly out of Calcutta alone. Before leaving, he had one last meeting with Savage, who had gained a reprieve from the government, and told her the latest news: Corso, who had never made it to India after all, was getting married to a schoolteacher from Cleveland whom he’d got pregnant. Then Ginsberg was off to Kyoto to visit Snyder and Kyger en route to the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963. He had come to the conclusion that the wisest thing he had learned in India was to ‘stop looking for a living human guru or a god to worship’. Blake was as good a guiding star as he was ever going to find.

Throughout A Blue Hand, Baker tries hard to catch a mood. The narrative can seem like a trip through a mid-period Dylan song –

Allen lay in bed, listening to the splashes of strangers in his bathtub … Everyone around him was strung out on amphetamines. Peter was often sick from junk withdrawal. Elise Cowen, a dark-haired Barnard graduate with severe butterfly eyeglass frames, hung around him like a shade. And Herbert Huncke, who had stripped his Harlem sublet, was back.

– or a madcap Godard film:

After Hope left Paris on her travels with Jean, Corso fell apart. He tried heroin for the first time. He bought himself a gun. He wrote bad cheques and made drunken scenes in Paris cafés and Spanish bars, living off one girl after another until Allen arrived in Amsterdam to save him from the thugs he’d swindled.

This saga-in-a-paragraph style was invented by the Beats, migrated to music and film, and returns to its origins in Baker’s episodic narrative. Her epilogue, set in 1971, namedrops the impresarios of the rock world – George Harrison, Albert Grossman, Jann Wenner, ‘Keith’, ‘Mick’ – who followed in Ginsberg’s footsteps. The upshot of this story, tellingly, is a failed attempt to relieve the misery of a Bangladeshi refugee camp. (Musicians fail to save the world: what’s new?) The success story – the way India succeeded in influencing American culture – is left unspoken. But we see it every time we come across Hare Krishnas parading on a city street, or hear ‘My Sweet Lord’ playing in a mall, or visit a dorm room full of Urban Outfitters knick-knacks, or pass a flyer for a meditation centre. In Morocco, the pop song I heard most often in cafés and buses was ‘Hotel California’, with its flamenco guitar intro. In India, in 1971, the maverick traditions of sufis and fakirs were bouncing back in the form of chanting hippies.

Baker leaves literary and cultural analysis to others, but what she gives us is a story with its own resonances: the rhyming images of nuclear bomb, LSD pill and sunflower; the sense of destiny planted in Columbus’s mistaking of America for India and in Whitman’s prophecy; the oxymoron of savage hope. If only analogues could still make a cosmos, poetry might again feel like a quest. As it is, thanks to science and to prose, there are no secret places left on the planet. If you hallucinate William Blake’s voice reciting verse, be sure to ask your doctor about clozapine.

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