The Beat generation—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Greg Corso, and Gary Snyder—inspired legions of artists, thinkers and writers. They were the “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time” (Jack Kerouac in On the Road) and the ones “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts” (Allen Ginsberg in his legendary poem, Howl). The Beats became famous by telling the world about themselves, fuelling their poetry and novels with real-life experiences.
One particular event spawned two best-selling memoirs, Ginsberg’s Indian Journals and Joanne Kyger’s Strange Big Moon. Both were compilations of journal entries from their 1962 trip to India (accompanied by Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky and Kyger’s husband, Snyder). They criss-crossed the subcontinent, offering acid to the Dalai Lama, searching for opium dens in Delhi, terrorizing Bengali housewives by showing up naked for a dinner party and spouting poetry at Coffee House, the famous haunt of intellectuals at College Street, Kolkata.
A Blue Hand: The Beats in India: Penguin, 226 pages, Rs499
Forty-six years later, Deborah Baker, the US-born wife of author Amitav Ghosh, sifted through their journals, contacted their old acquaintances and pieced together their Indian odyssey in A Blue Hand: The Beats in India.
The problem with writing about writers, especially prolific, talented writers, seems to be a problem of plenty, at least in Baker’s book. Overwhelmed by the raw material, Baker barely manages to take control of her own book. Most of it is dominated by tiresome recounting of the dreams, interviews, and anecdotes of the Beats. And, it is a feat to make this motley, mad group’s tale tiresome.
Ostensibly, the story follows Ginsberg’s first vision of God, “as the living blue hand” of the sky in 1948, and his mad rush through life in a vain attempt to see God again. But Baker’s story, perhaps inspired by the stream-of-consciousness, plot-jumping technique of the Beats themselves, moves back and forth through time and space, tracing the movements of Snyder and Kryger, a mysterious southern girl named Hope Savage, and their Bengali companion Asoke Sarkar.
The scope and depth of Baker’s research is evident. She seems to know these people well, and is able, at times, to make the mythical, long-dead literary heroes come alive. In one of the best passages in the book, Baker discusses Kerouac’s disdain for plots. She manages to weave direct quotes and explanations into such a believable conversational line that it almost seems as if she has just spoken to Kerouac on the phone.
But, overall, she fails to go deeper than a simple reporting of facts. There is no discussion on the effect India had on the Beat poets’ art, or on the effect it had on their relationships. Ginsberg doesn’t even get to India until page 90 in the book. In a 226-page book about Ginsberg in India, that leaves very little time for the author to talk about the effect their trip had on US counterculture, on the Hare Krishna Hare Rama cult in the West, or the boost it gave to the Bengali poetry scene of the time.
It also seems that Baker is torn between fascination for her characters and frustration with them—particularly with Ginsberg’s writings: “His observations tripped over one another, half-undressed, too much in a hurry to do more than sketch a tableaux.”
In the epilogue, Baker transcribes a tape recording of Ginsberg stuck in Kolkata traffic on a return trip to India 10 years after he first left:
“Shall we get out and walk around?”
“Better not try.”
“Is there another road?”
We don’t know who exactly is talking. They turn back, but we don’t know if they try another route. We never know how this second trip impacts Ginsberg. Like much of the book, we have to settle for dry facts which tell us little of Ginsberg, of India, or of the Beats.