Discover the Beat
Author Deborah Baker on Allen Ginsberg and the perils of writing fiction.
— Diya Kohli / August 2008
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 …
am I a “Beatnik”
Is that all the years have to offer?
These are the closing lines of beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s journal on India quoted among the closing pages of DEBORAH BAKER’S book A Blue Hand: The Beats in India which traces the travels of Ginsberg and other Beatniks across America and India through the underbelly of cities in a search for meaning and an exploration of a life spent being Beat. Her work, while being suitably well-researched, carries none of the academic drollery and is fashioned as a literary biography, which recounts Ginsberg’s eventful life in all its colour. Baker, who is also writer Amitav Ghosh’s wife, has worked in publishing, written extensively for a variety of publications and whose book In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. t2 met the lady who has made Calcutta a second home and chatted about Beat poetry and biographies.
What made you choose this particular phase of Allen Ginsberg’s life as the subject of your book?
The book began with an idea that was not really about the Beats in the first place. I wanted to write about the relationship between India and America and I started with Columbus, the early transcendentalists like Thoreau down to Mark Twain, for all of whom India emerged as an influence of some kind. However there was a long gap between Twain and Ginsberg and I came to realise that Ginsberg would be the perfect vehicle for this kind of contact between the two countries. Also, Ginsberg had a hugely eventful life with a slew of images. His whole experience in India was one that emerged as quite liberating for him as he immersed himself in the country’s vast polytheistic culture.
How much did you move around yourself while tracing the Journeys undertaken?
Most of my research was undertaken at The Ginsberg Archive at Stanford University, the New York Public Library, with a couple of journeys that I took to interview people like Joanne Kyger (one of the group of Beats and a poet in her own right). In India, especially in Calcutta and Varanasi, I retraced Ginsberg’s footsteps down to the exact spot and visited places I had never thought I would. I visited Nimtala burning ghat in the middle of the night, which has since changed with an electric crematorium, but the temples and sadhus are still there. I went under the Howrah Bridge and sat on the muddy steps, visited the Coffee House, a crumbling eating joint in the Old China Town that he frequented and his hotel room in Varanasi. At one of these places, I found an oldtimer who was a young boy when Ginsberg visited and even dug up some old photographs to show me. The idea was to do this for myself as an obligation to Ginsberg to be able to gauge the atmosphere
What about the large number of tourists who come to India to ‘find themselves’ and ‘search for meaning’ In exoticised India? How did Ginsberg contribute to this perception?
Allen Ginsberg forged an American path with all the protocols of travelling cheaply and experimenting with drugs. He wrote letters to his friends and publishers and word leaked out and people got to know what he was doing. However, he was serious about what he was here for and aware of the politics of the country. Those who follow in the path of a saint are hardly ever as saintly and many of the hippie foreign tourists often end up making fools of themselves!
What about the figure of the female character Hope Savage in this book who is part-inspiration and part-legend for Ginsberg and other beats and a mysteriously elusive figure all through?
Hope became my own personal quest as she was this rather interesting figure who was representative of the anti-Beat narrative and her mystery was the one I wanted to solve. She was this woman who travelled to India and left everything behind and disappeared, thus her story is one I have followed closely in the book.
How important was Calcutta to Ginsberg’s Journey to India?
This was a rich time for the city culturally and extremely desperate times economically with the poets and writers struggling to be a part of the literary establishment as well as to make ends meet. It was quite significant in Ginsberg’s understanding of the country as he travelled across the Bengal countryside and spent time in places like the burning ghats. The city emerged as a space that had the texture of the Lower East Side in Manhattan with its grit and sense of chaos.
Why is the literary biography your chosen form?
I can’t quite write fiction or novels and I like to write about people who have more adventurous lives and suffer extreme states of emotion. Poets and saints have often emerged as chosen subjects as they are trying the hardest to make sense of their surroundings. To write literary biographies, I can choose scenes that are more interesting and leave the boring bits out. I often base my work on people’s memories which are never entirely accurate so… the stress is to bring out what was real emotionally.
Do you and your husband share ideas as far as your individual projects are concerned?
Amitav is a great writer. I have read a work like In An Antique Land many times over and have marvelled not only at the writing but the construction of the novel as well as the way in which he transitions between the different cultures. He is also very sure as a writer and, as I am writing after a long time, I am not quite in the same place. In fact, when I was writing this book I didn’t even tell him about it for the first six months of it and when I wrote him a letter to tell him about it I was also quite daunted, as I was a foreigner writing about India and more importantly I was writing about Calcutta, which was his hometown and I wanted to be sure down to the last letter. It was only when he said he liked it was I satisfied and didn’t even feel the need to get the work published at all.