The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)
— Aveek Sen / August 2008
This is a difficult book about difficult, often extreme, lives. But its wide and exact scholarship is lightly worn, carried along by the author’s unflinching, yet tenderly quizzical, engagement with her subjects. Deborah Baker — straddling Bengal and Brooklyn, and biographer of the American poet, Laura Riding — mixes curiosity, empathy and a finely sustained delicacy of expression to produce a kind of ‘life-writing’ that spins itself out at the interface between life and writing.
The book opens in December, 1962, on the Doon Express hurtling from Calcutta towards Benares. Allen Ginsberg, 37 and already a Beat icon in America, is on the train with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and is writing into his spiral notebook: “he would begin in the present and circle back, writing his thoughts and observations not as he had them, but as he recalled having them. Periodically he cast back through the pages, prospecting for the glowing seam of a poem, like a miner long accustomed to working in the dark.” Baker is writing here as someone closely familiar with Ginsberg’s poems and archive of letters, manuscripts, notebooks and photographs. But her own narrative is driven as much by the pleasure of fiction as by historical scruple. The back-and-forth method of writing and reading that she is describing here is also a figure for the labyrinthine path she herself unfolds in her book. While reading A Blue Hand, I sometimes found myself losing my way in the curious pathology of wanting to get somewhere and never quite getting anywhere, a self-absorbed swinging between progress and regress, that the book’s subjects often seem to infect their author with. But suddenly, I would come upon a little detail, something as banal as the peculiar noise — “like tidal waves” — Allen and Peter made at night on their air mattresses every time they shifted in their sleep, and it would bring me back to the concreteness of Baker’s story, to its recognition of the truth of extraordinary compulsions and convictions passionately hazarded and lived out.
In the early Sixties, with the sensation caused by Howl and Kaddish already behind him, Ginsberg was beginning to feel not only like an icon, but also like a parody, of whatever he and Jack Kerouac, together with William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, had made ‘Beat’ stand for to the world. Etymologically fusing rhythm, exhaustion and beatitude, the word could refer to anybody from a long-haired bohemian, pacifist or pseudo-philosopher addicted to a range of substances, to a Soviet apologist (if not a downright communist). Ginsberg’s own Blakean epiphany, at 22, had initially left him with an overwhelming sense of being born to realize “the spirit of the universe”. Blake’s two great poems, “Ah! Sun-flower” and “The Sick Rose”, had suddenly yielded their meaning to him, making him notice everywhere around his Harlem apartment “evidences of a living hand”, and the sky had become “the living blue hand itself”, providing Baker the title of her book.
Fear of madness, experimenting with drugs, profound Oedipal grief, sexual rejection and “American idiocy” had reduced this ecstatic vision, over a decade, into a conviction that any quest for “psycho-spiritual sexo-cock jewel fulfilment” in the West would only lead to a dead-end. So, when Allen and Peter met the young Pupul Jayakar in New York, Allen asked her, “Can you help me find a gay guru?” Seeing her perplexity, Peter chipped in, “We are like little children. We need guidance and help.”
India, therefore, becomes the new spiritual terrain that these sun-flowers weary of time begin to seek after. Baker, rightly unfazed by the clichédness of such a vision, builds a marvellous preamble to the actual journey and 15-month stay. The lives and histories of a whole cast of people are deftly interlaced to create the rich web of relationships and circumstances that led to India, the psychic and cultural baggage each person carried to it. Ginsberg and Orlovsky would ultimately leave Corso and Burroughs behind, and meet up with their friends, the poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger in India, whose relationship brings out some of the best writing from Baker. Baker also weaves in the haunting presence, and eventual disappearance, of the alluringly dysfunctional and beautiful Hope Savage, Corso’s great love and a sort of Wagnerian Holly Golightly, who becomes the book’s mysteriously tragic core. Hope and the equally evanescent Manjula Mitra (who does a reverse vanishing act into the West), together with the more intransigent Joanne Kyger, provide a unique glimpse at what it meant to be a woman among the Beats, a perspective with which Baker refuses any facile identification.
A wonderfully depicted panorama of sadhus, swamis, gurus, yogis, bauls, charlatans, poets, intellectuals, socialites, ambassadors, prime ministers, first ladies, radicals, beggars, lepers, refugees, rickshawpullers and sundry other Indians, Tibetans and Americans process through the pages of this book — as if Brueghel’s vast paintings of the Triumph of Death, of Carnival and Lent, and of Christ carrying the cross to Calvary have been merged and then re-painted by an Indian Master (Bhupen Khakhar?). But a few years later, the “spots of time” that stand out for Ginsberg are when the Dalai Lama, after being offered psilocybin, asks, “If you take LSD, can you see what’s in that briefcase?”; when Shri Matakrishnaji of Brindaban tells Allen to take Blake for his guru; when Nabin Das Baul calls them “born Bauls”; when Sri Krishnaji pronounces, “Silence would be good for Americans”; when Devraha Baba listens to Allen’s lament of returning home alone and exclaims, “Oh! How wounded, how wounded!”; and when Swami Shivananda pats his chest and tells him, “The only guru is your own heart.” India gives Allen — cruelly, but tenderly too — the gift of another return: “Come, sweet lonely Spirit, back/ to your bodies, come great God/ back to your only image”.