New York Times Book Review
“Om Sweet Om”
Fifteen months in India in the early 1960’s had a lasting influence on Allen Ginsberg
— Celia McGee
Somewhere along the line, biography picked up a reputation as autobiography’s sober, better behaved, law-abiding sibling. While first-person narrative has had well-publicized dalliances with make-believe, reporting on the lives of others is expected to pay strict attention to historical fact. Deborah Baker is already the author of two biographies, “Making a Farm: The Life of Robert Bly” and “In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. For her new book, “A Blue Hand: The Beats in India,” she had the choice of sticking with the square’s way.
But how could she — or why would she — once she decided to compose a group portrait of Allen Ginsberg and his bliss-seeking crew during the poet’s 15-month spiritual quest (and bodily adventures) in the land of a zillion mystics early in the decade running from Kennedy through Nixon?
Baker’s work is a piece of devoted scholarship and legwork dunked in the screwy, hyper-intelligent, tragicomic essence of everything that drove Ginsberg to take a trip that not only changed his life but helped spawn several generations of hipsters, hippies, writers, artists, rock stars, mental cases and self-annointed medicine men. Such Ginsberg biographers as Barry Miles (“Ginsberg: A Biography”) and Bill Morgan (“I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg”) have given brief accounts of the visit. In new and far greater detail, and with a contagious sense of enjoyment that sometimes pushes her into the present tense and the personal, Baker shows how much the Beats owed their name and their legacy – including some of their politics of protest and a persistent head-shop aesthetic that ultimately benefited the Indian economy – to their embrace of Eastern beatitude. Columbus went looking for India and found America; in 1961 Irwin Allen Ginsberg went looking for India and landed in a whole lot of what would become the American counterculture.
One hilarious stop on the way was Cannes, during the film festival, no less. Another, which turned depressing, was with William Burroughs in Tangier. But Baker dates the intellectual orgins of Ginsberg’s India sojourn, much of it with the beautiful, drugged-out Peter Orlovsky by his side, to the summer of 1948, when, an over-age Columbia undergraduate subletting an East Harlem walk-up filled with theology books, he had his well-known auditory hallucination of “an unearthly voice” reciting the William Blake poem he had been reading. It was followed by a vision of the sky, he would later say, as “the living blue hand itself.” Baker proposes “a divine mood swing.”
Not, however, that she opens the book there. Constructing her narrative more in the spirit of Ginsbergian free flow, with Burroughs’s collage technique thrown in, she begins her story near the Indian journey’s end, onboard a train bound for Benares and its riverside city of funeral pyres. Some months earlier in Calcutta, Ginsberg had learned to use such bonfires for lighting a ganja pipe and dispelling his crippling fear of death. Baker tinkers with standard linearity, delivering a seeming jumble of episodic sketches, character snapshots, historical apercus and religion lessons that nevertheless, arranged chronologically almost on the sly, get the story told, and her essential understanding of unadorned cause and effect comes through.
By the late ’50s Ginsberg had endured his mother’s final institutionalization and ugly death, his own emotional sinkholes, a confounding series of sexual experiments and love affairs, the highs and lows of Greenwich Village and Paris bohemia, and the double-edged triumph of “Howl,” which made him both the most famous and most notorious poet in Eisenhower-era America. He was also experiencing poet’s block. He was more than ready for a global change of scene. He persuaded the poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, then living in Japan, to join him on the subcontinent.
He also had hopes that Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Burroughs and even the communal heartthrob, Neal Cassady, would show up. These were quickly dashed. But Corso (whom Baker reintroduces in old age, still drug addicted, peddling fake journal entries to a fellow addict working in the rare-books section of a Manhattan department store) made a fascinating contribution in the person of Hope Savage, an ex-girlfriend. “She, Allen, is our Rimbaud and more today,” he had written Ginsberg in 1956.
Baker reconstructs Savage’s evolution from rebellious Southern belle to ethereal, bhang-dazed, erudite and enigmatic itinerant, but ultimately has to let her slip away into the thin air of an existence that continued on an increasingly elusive course. For an author who sporadically intimates the misogyny of the group and the period, Baker is less kind to Kyger, sulky in her black drip-dry dress, whom she largely dismisses as wanting “fame on her own laundered terms.” And she misses the implications of Ginsberg, eternally mourning the semi-motherlessness of his upbringing, receiving his most significant advice from “a lady saint.”
Perhaps Baker’s impatience is understandable in light of her longstanding connection to India and firsthand knowledge of the many-splendored, contradictory nation rooted in ancient civilizations with which Ginsberg fell in love. A former book editor, she moved to Calcutta in 1990. She is married to the author Amitav Ghosh, and they divide their time among Brooklyn, Calcutta and Goa. Such grounding pays off as well in whimsical literary license. She blithely describes the high Himalayas as “impassable in winter and, but for the gods and the most hardy tribals, mostly uninhabitable,” and traffic can have a “mantra hum.”
Her on-site perspective also enhances her integration of the motley life stories of the Indian academics, poets, reform politicians and Tibetan exiles with whom her Americans had close, crucial contacts. The travelers meet the Dalai Lama. They overlap with Jackie Kennedy’s state visit. And Baker keeps tabs on a certain Asoke Sarkar, whose genie-like materializing in a saffron robe turns out to be somewhat responsible — or, depending on the viewpoint, to blame — for Ginsberg’s loosing the Hare Krishna chant on the United States. Morgan’s Ginsberg biography wrote off Sarkar as a phony. Baker provides a fuller context.
Similarly, Baker shortchanges neither the monstrous poverty that Ginsberg witnessed and tried to assuage in his peculiar Jewish-holy-man fashion nor his more outlandish sexual adventures, Orlovsky’s partial account of which causes a fancy Indian hostess to faint.
Mysteriously missing from a book that is in some senses a literary exploration, though, is much of any of these writers’ writing. It’s been said, of course, that Ginsberg’s genius, and to a degree that of the Beats in general, was more in the life than in the work. Baker’s book reflects that sentiment.