The Hindustan Times
Stalking Uncle Gin
Deborah Baker’s novel traces an iconic Beat poets journey through India and its impact on politics and counterculture of’60s America and the world.
— Abhijit Majumder
In 1962, a man on the run from his celebrity in the US arrived in Bombay with his young lover Peter Orlovsky, looking for god.
In their subsequent months of travel, the dust from which has still not settled in popular imagination, iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Orlovsky were to meet more gods than the Slim Jims they had ever rolled up at tousled Greenwich Village apartments and Paris’s Bohemian cafes.
“Allen found the blue gods, the psychedelic gods, the cannibalistic gods … he was amazed to find that everybody could find a god for himself or herself in India,” said Deborah Baker, author of A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, a book — radiant with anecdotes that range from the profound to comic — which traces Ginsberg’s extraordinary journey through India and its deep impact on politics and counterculture of ’60s America and the world.
As Ginsberg and his gay lover trolled the brothels, opium dens as well as cocktail circuit in search of a smoky spiritual destination in 1962, Baker, then three years old, was learning the alphabet in suburban Massachusetts from her parents, both biology teachers.
It was a little later that she would come to know the Beats.
“I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in college, when everybody reads On The Road,” said Baker, Pulitzer finalist for her biography In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding. “And then I met Beat poet William Burroughs. The conversation dwelt largely on snakes (Burroughs was an expert on snakes), but among other things, the interaction convinced me that the Hippies’ interactions with women were a little more complex than what they were accused of being: misogynists.”
Sitting at a central Mumbai hotel in a green salwar-kameez on Saturday, Baker recalled how she had met Ginsberg about two decades ago at a New York party with her husband and celebrated author Amitav Ghosh, then a young and little-known writer who had just finished his first novel.
“Ginsberg, being the great schmoozer, was chatting up the jet set. But he stopped on Amitav, He took him to a couch and had a fairly long conversation about the Young Turks of literary Bengal — Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chat-topadhyay and others — whom Ginsberg became close to during his stay in Kolkata.”
Baker’s book, which excavates Ginsberg’s notes in Indian Journals, his endless letters to Kerouac and many local sources, talks about how the poet never thought Indian writing in English had a chance. He was disappointed to find the very orthodoxies in local English writing that he was trying to escape in his quest for “Negro English”.
Was Ginsberg engagement with India serious? “He was a very serious traveller. He could talk to a rickshaw-walla in Kolkata, a martini-sipping intellectual in Bombay and a charlatan holy man in Benaras with the same ease.He squatted to pee,” said Baker. “He took back from India the sense of the political theatre … the chants and drama that the world was later to witness.”
The Hippies, who she said had later got foolish and became mass market. however contributed to the “Imaginative relationship” between the India and the US. She sees many Beats among today’s urban Indians. Among Kolkata, Goa and New York — the places Baker and Ghosh call home — she finds Kolkata the most Hippie, with its endless addas and a charming “slackness”.
In her words: “I still think that’s the city Allen would enjoy returning to.”