We’re asking authors to hold forth on the ending of novels. What pushes them forward towards the final pages? Or do they not start from the very beginning? Do they fear the anti-climax, or just heave sighs of p(l)ain relief when it’s over and done with? Does it get easier with time, or does it always remain the dreaded denouement? FCBOOKS with Deborah Baker, discussing her Beatnick biography, A Blue Hand at the end of the road
Jack Kerouac didn’t believe in plots. No matter how a plot unfolds, the beat novelist said, the story remains the same. His advised the young Sunil Ganguly that to write a novel, he should choose two points in his life and write about what happened in the exact order in which those events occurred. In this way, before you have even begun your book, you know exacty how it will end. You don’t even have to make anything up.
The American poet Allen Ginsberg arrived in India in mid-February 1962 and left 15 months later; this trip was the subject of my book A Blue Hand. Yet, I never knew how it would end, because whether you are writing a novel or not, a story is never just about what happens between point A and point B, it is also about the revelation of character.
I wanted to understand the impact of India on the American imagination and it just happened that Ginsberg was the perfect vehicle. His letters and journals tracked his tireless search for a way out of the stifling desert of 1950s America and his effort to escape the notoriety that dogged him as the self-appointed talking head of the Beat Generation and author of the epic lament, Howl.
Yet the story could not simply follow his itinerary, because his journals were littered with the dreams of the life he left behind. His letters showed how much he missed his fellow beats, and how important it was that they share everything he learned while on the road. So even before I had begun the book, I had to circle back and introduce these shadow companions. One detour led to another and it took longer than I expected to get Allen to India. And no sooner did he get there than I began to worry about how I would get him out. How was this all going to end?
This worry dogged Allen, too. When he was able to conquer his fear of dying in India, he had fantastic expectations of what he would find. He didn’t want to return to America the same man who left it. But on his last night in India, he felt he had failed. “I never pierced Heaven with a thought, found a bearded guru in Brindaban, or levitated in Bodh-Gaya, am I a Beat-nick, is that all the years have to offer?”
No one wants to read a book that ends on a note of self-pitying disappointment. Allen recognised that and his plaint was excised; his published journal ends just before the epiphany that did indeed transform him. But I also wanted an ending that would capture the wider impact of Ginsberg’s trip.
Then, while I was digging around in Allen’s archives, I came across a cassette marked ‘September 2, 1971, Calcutta Salt Lake refugee camp’ from Ginsberg’s two week return trip to India that year. After Bob Dylan gave him a fancy tape recorder, Ginsberg began randomly taping phone, dinner table and car trip conversations. There are literally hundreds of cassettes in the Ginsberg archive, representing hundreds of hours of talk. The cassettes didn’t replace his journals and letters, but added yet another layer to plumb. While it was often hard to make out what is going on, this discovery contained my ending.
The tape I found recorded a journey Ginsberg and Sunil Ganguly had taken to ascertain the living conditions of the refugee camps that had sprung up in the wake of the Bangladesh cyclone and subsequent war with (then) West Pakistan. I listened in on their conversation, Ginsberg’s narration of what he was seeing, and absorbed the background noise of car horns, rickshaw bells and the swishing sound of wheels in water. Switching back and forth between this day-long journey and snapshots of the tumultuous sixties in my Epilogue, I could convey the impact of Ginsberg’s 1962 trip on the political theatre of the American antiwar movement, but also the ways in which Ginsberg himself changed the lives of those young Bengalis whose paths he crossed. .