New York Times Book Review
“Om Sweet Om” — Celia McGee
Discover the Beat – Diya Kohli
The Hindustan Times
Stalking Uncle Gin — Abhijit Majumder
The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)
Swamiesque — Aveek Sen
Sex and drugs and blank verse — Soumitro Das
The Chicago Tribune
Ginsberg’s desire for quick, painless self-improvement is funny, sad and touching all at the same time. It arose, we come to realize, from the same source as his consuming need to be surrounded by friends: He was afraid of dying alone and uncomforted … Many readers will wish Baker had traced this odyssey more coherently, yet it must be admitted that her elliptical, allusive text plunges us intimately into her subjects’ messy lives and disheveled thoughts. Her democratic inclusion of obscure figures like Savage (there are countless others) reminds us that the Beats were not marble statues but flesh-and-blood human beings struggling with their egos and their ambitions as we all do — albeit with considerably more audacity and intensity.
“Passages to India”
Beating a path through the East
In 1961 with the publication of “Howl” and a brief stint in a New York psychiatric ward behind him, the celebrated Beat poet Allen Ginsberg lit out for India. Like that of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and hordes of cultural revolutionaries after him, his journey was a spiritual one. Ginsberg’s pilgrimage to holy sites throughout the country — watching bodies being cremated on ghats beside the Ganges, studying with sages, hiking into the Himalayan foothills — inspired a generation of backpacking hippies, whose trails through India and elsewhere have since become staples of DIY global travel.
Biographer Deborah Baker, wife of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, has plumbed Ginsberg’s poems, letters, journals, and diaries for A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. The result is a dense, exotic, intriguing saga — not just Ginsberg’s, but India’s too: its lunatic saints and rugged landscape, its poverty and unrest. Baker threads in Ginsberg’s search for his friend and muse Hope Savage, an erstwhile southern belle who fled home at age 18 to travel the world alone. “Seems she had been in Aden, Ethiopia, Iran .,. and had abandoned her dream of Bhutan for … Yemen. Ginsberg may have made international soul-trekking fashionable, but Savage elevated it to a performance art.
An enlightening study of the Beat Generation’s quest for enlightenment in India. The most prominent exemplar of the holy-fool searcher was not Jack Kerouac, who proclaimed himself a bodhisattva, or even Gary Snyder, who turned to Japan for guidance, but instead the ecstatic sensualist Allen Ginsberg. Baker (In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, 1993, etc.), a fine storyteller, traces the moment to a New York day on which Ginsberg, gazing out the window of some anonymous apartment, sees God, or at least a god. From that moment on, though famously still interested in more earthly adventures with young men, he sought the presence of the divine. No better place for that quest than India, which, in the early 1960s, was not wholly prepared for Ginsberg’s arrival, nor the attentions of more reluctant beats such as Gregory Corso. Yet Ginsberg soon found sympathetic allies among religious but mostly nonsectarian Indians, who shared some of the American poet’s worldly interests and brought a beat sensibility to their own culture, which was thriving, especially around Bombay and Calcutta. Blessed with the ability to mix and make friends and with a Zelig-like talent for being in the right place at the right time, Ginsberg antedated the Beatles in Rishikesh by a few years. Though in love with much of what he saw — he chided Paul Bowles for having warned him away from cheap lodgings, writing, “I must say, you made it sound as if a westerner would die of rat poison if he stayed anywhere but Taj Mahal Hotel” — he was also a realist enough to see India’s suffering as well. This knowledge came to fill notebooks, and Ginsberg imported many things Indian, notably the Hare Krishna chant, to the Bay Area and Greenwich Village.
Baker evokes strange worlds and distant times in a narrative that never fails to flow and that, in the end, is admirably illuminating.
A dozen years after his 1948 East Harlem vision, in which “the sky was the living blue hand,” poet Allen Ginsberg traveled across India in search of a direct path to God. The Beats’ fascination with Eastern wisdom traditions has been much analyzed, but Baker, author of a seminal biography of Laura Riding, takes a uniquely expansive and richly rewarding approach. She sheds new light on Ginsberg’s spiritual hunger and profound insights into “cold war psychosis” and the atomic nightmare and provides striking profiles of his fellow seekers, especially Gary Snyder and his smart, caustic wife, Joanne Kyger. The most compelling figure, however, is the most elusive: southern belle turned world-wanderer Hope Savage. Baker is the first to meticulously chronicle Ginsberg’s bonds with Bengali poets and holy men and his prescience in predicting the rock-and-roll West’s 1960s fascination with India, the dawn of what is now a many-faceted symbiosis. Baker’s discerning descriptions of the landscapes and traditions of India add dimension to her passionately investigated, dynamically interpreted, and thoroughly compelling work of illuminating literary and spiritual history.
“A passionate account of the Beats at home and in the world. Baker captures the range of their artistic and spiritual passions, as well as their pettiness, their tantrums, their always difficult loves. Her tenderness and finely tuned humor, as well as her ease in both cultures, makes her a perfect recreator of this ornery band of seekers. And of the ways in which India and the United States have understood and misunderstood each other over the ages. A truly vivid, wonderful book.”
— Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
“‘Beat’ was short for ‘beatitude,’ and India was the place to find it. A Blue Hand is a deeply researched, elegantly written account of those days of divine, induced, and congenital madness — the last adventures in American poetry.”
— Eliot Weinberger
“Sympathetic without being sycophantic, Deborah Baker has made an important and vivid contribution to our understanding of the Beats, both as phenomenon and as individuals. More broadly, A Blue Hand is an original and entrancing account of how India expanded the possibilities of western consciousness.”
— Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage
“This is a haunting portrait of a band of poets bravely, if naively, taking on drugs, disease, unbridled passion, and the whole of Indian religious history, in an adventure that never fails to move and often instructs. A fascinating history of the weirdest moment in the long and ongoing European and American search for the answer to it all in India.”
— Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, University of Chicago
“I boarded those third class trains to enlightenment, and befriended the fragile heroes of this book. Deborah Baker’s narrative is concise, rich, unsentimental and shows how, just like India, a spiritual journey is grotesque, sublime, comical, but never sad.”
— Francesco Clemente
“A beautiful book! As deftly woven and fully-realized as a novel, this is a fascinating, original work of scholarship, following the beat poets on their journeys to India in a way that illuminates their inner lives, their poetry and the fantastical nature of pilgrimage itself.”
— Melanie Thernstrom, author of Halfway Heaven