Monday, August 11, 2008

Off The Beaten Path

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.

Deborah Baker

In a recent interview, Amit Chaudhuri said that “for any cultural practice…the position of the outsider, the misfit, the daydreamer and even of failure are very important categories in the creation of a truly energetic and self-critical social and intellectual space….My anxiety is that in the last 20 years India, typically for a globalising country, hasn't theorized [such a] position.”

To find some of the best examples of such irresponsible misfits, you’d have to look at members of the so-called Beat Generation of the late Fifties and early Sixties in the United States, with their experiments with psychedelic substances, their stand against those in positions of power and their redefinition of what constitutes a literary work. Ironically in light of Chaudhuri’s statement, it was India that some of the most prominent Beats looked to for a degree of illumination and sustenance.

In Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, we find an account of Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky’s sojourn in India in 1962, interleaved with the travels and exploits of others such as Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. In this detailed narrative, Baker draws heavily on not just the unexpurgated and unedited version of Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, but also the books, journals and correspondence of the rest. The logorrhea of the Beats was well-known, and Baker bravely dives into their sea of words for her reconstruction.

Though the sections dealing with India form the bulk of the book, Baker also dwells on the dovetailing effects of the actions of others, including those who never visited India, such as Gregory Corso. In particular, she dwells on Corso and Ginsberg’s fascination for Hope Savage, the charismatic and chimerical young American woman whom both attempted to influence and engage.

Baker is frank about the heroin abuse, psychosis and occasional mystical visions that affected these angel-headed hipsters. She recounts Ginsberg’s vision of a poetry recital by Blake: it was an attempt by the poet to recapture this sense of the ineffable that was in part responsible for his trips to Benares and Rishikesh, among other places.

Because there is so much detail, and because so much of it is interconnected, Baker’s prose can sometimes frustrate as much as it illumines. On occasion, the teasing out of a continuous narrative thread becomes an effort – especially with digressions such as details of Jackie Onassis’s trip to the country, to bolster the aim of examining the role of India in the American imagination.

Some of the most fascinating sections deal with Ginsberg and Orlovsky’s stay in Calcutta, where they were to befriend other poets such as Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay. Baker makes their visits to the College Street coffee house, the burning ghats and to literary soirees come alive and elucidates their East-meets-West interactions with perspicacity.

In conclusion, Baker quotes Ginsberg’s final despairing entry in his Indian journal: “Another day and I leave India/And I never crosslegged pierced heaven/With a thought or found bearded Guru/In Brindaban or levitated in Bodh Gaya…” She asserts, however, that what stayed with Ginsberg the rest of his life was “the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s sadhus, charlatans, poets and saints”. Something evident from even his last poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’ in which there are more than a few lines devoted to the time he spent with Orlovsky in search of his personal brand of salvation.

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