A Blue Hand – The Beats in India by Deborah Baker

Allen Ginsberg lay in a sweat-drenched puddle of self-pity. He had so wanted to be a saint, but what was he supposed to suffer for? (…) Could anyone hear him? Saints, sadhus, rishis and all compassionate ones, he begged, “What’s to be done with my life which has lost its idea?”

The name Deborah Baker rang vaguely familar until I realized from the dedication that she’s the wife of Amitav Ghosh. I spent the whole of yesterday buried in the book. A Blue Hand – The Beats in India by Deborah Baker follows the events leading up to Ginsberg’s visit to India and his time spent here, trying to find his spiritual connection and get himself a guru; almost as an escape from the rage of the publication of Howl, ‘the epic work that branded him the voice of a generation’, which opens:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, 
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, 
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection 
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night,” 

A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker focuses mainly on Allen Ginsberg, his “wife” Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, and the mystery girl, Hope Savage. Then there are frequent references to William Boroughs, Lucien Carr, Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The people they meet in India include, among others, young Bengali poets Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeb Bose and various swamis and maharshis. Also described is Indian politics of the time, along with opinions about India from Christopher Columbus to Walt Whitman, right up to Jackie Kennedy’s India visit. The Indianisms explored by Ginsberg and his Beat friends include Buddhism, meditation, the idea of Hindus having multiple Gods catered to each character and personality trait, overcoming the fear of death by spending nights alongside funeral pyres and simple spiritual liberation – the accounts both horrific and moving.

The journals and letters condensed down only to the most quotable parts, is of course, what makes the book most accessible and interesting. While I would never have dared to sift through them all myself, I did find myself smiling at bits like: when referring to the God Ganesha and Indian imagination, Ginsberg wrote, “How can da Vinci beat an elephant on a mouse?” At one point, in Dharamshala, while Ginsberg was encouraging a twenty-seven year old Dalai Lama to indulge in psychoactive drugs for heightened visions, Dalai Lama playfully commented, “If you take LSD, can you see what’s in that briefcase?” Baker’s writing is hardly dry, which makes all the drug induced visions and dreams far more interesting and far less delirious than, say, On the Road in its entirety.

What I loved about the book, and what I imagine was its point was the uncensored, and more importantly, non-arrogant and non-cynical look at India through the eyes of an opinionated but fair outsider. The book paints an unexpectedly accurate portrait of India, that is much better than most Indo-Anglian attempts I’ve read, which flit between skeptical and overly exoticized.

It is unclear who the intended reader is. The shifting timelines and the myriad of points of view, which cut up and reassemble the narrative, may prove too confusing as an introduction to the Beats. And, the bits of story stuffed into the thin book could be insufficient for a Beats enthusiast, who’d rather read the actual journals. I suppose it’s a book for someone (not unlike me) who knows enough not to be bogged down by information and just needs an engaging afternoon read. Unlike your everyday biography, the book has a good flow. I would have liked more pictures, though.

Is it a book to go search for? Perhaps not. But if you happen to come across it, I see no harm in picking it up! For anyone who’d like an outsider’s glimpse into India of the sixties, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker would make a nicely tragicomic read.

4 thoughts on “A Blue Hand – The Beats in India by Deborah Baker”

  1. ebooksclassics – So did I, which meant I was already familiar with the people and their writing mentioned. I picked it up randomly at the library, but it is an interesting book, yes.


  2. Interesting book, Pryia. I've been meaning to read Burroughs but somehow never got to buy any of his books. Kerouac, too. Soon, I think.


  3. Delia – I have never read Burroughs either. Maybe I wil now too. As for Kerouac – one book was enough for me! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂


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