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.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett and Dickens by Peter Ackroyd – Dickens in December

Dickens in December (hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia), considering how busy I have been this month, most regrettably turned into Dickens in the last week of December. Dickens, however, did also turn into quite an obsession. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I adored The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities. I am certain the year 2013 will see me read a lot more of Dickens, as much as I can fit into a year! This is the last day of the event and I don’t suppose I’d finish reading either of these two books tonight, so here’s what I think so far:

I’m about halfway through the book, which is saying something since I started reading it about an hour ago. This book by one of my favourite writers stars the Artful Dodger (right out of Oliver Twist) and Charles Dickens himself! The idea of an author meeting one of his own characters is charming and Pratchett has done justice to both. The book is written in a very quintessentially Terry Pratchett style and has at the same time a wonderfully Dickensian vibe about it – I mean, really, what’s not to like?

This massive biography of Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, began interestingly enough, with his death in 1870. The biographer describes in haunting detail the scene of his death and what a stir it caused in the world. Even the prologue talks about his writing style, his social commentary and his influence on the readers as well as his role in the literary history of the world. The author then begins the biography right from his birth, making it a point to mention every little detail. You don’t just read a book about Dickens, you witness his life.
It would probably be the end of February by the time I finish this book but I will definitely finish it. I have heard about Peter Ackroyd being a masterful biographer and this book, whatever I have read of it, justifies the praise.

Dickens in December has been a great event, a perfect ending, really, to the year. If it were to take place next year, I would certainly make it a point to participate!

Do you read biographies?

I never imagined I would like reading biographies. That is why I never really tried. Today, I finished reading a biography of Galileo called Galileo Antichrist : A Biography by Michael White. It’s a wonderful book; which gives you a glimpse not only into the scientist’s life, but also into the society of his time. Along with telling us about his scientific achievements, the book also paints a vivid picture of his character, of the kind of person he was; using letters he wrote and the kind of lectures he gave. It’s a book I’d definitely recommend reading.

Like I said, I haven’t read many biographies. A while back, I read the biography of an Indian dancer, titled Balasaraswati by Douglas M Knight when I got it for review. I also liked it for the very same reasons. What’s ironic, is that I always hated astronomy, ever since I was a kid and I never particularly grasped the beauty of Indian classical dance. If I had sat down to read books about planets or the different styles of dance, I would have fallen asleep within seconds. Yet, I was terribly fascinated by these biographies. I wonder why that is…

Of course, reading about people as amazing, as great in their respective fields is always inspirational; there’s so much to learn. But that’s just one of the reasons. I guess, the thing I loved about reading a biography, was the feeling of actually living history; being present in those times; knowing that once upon a time this actually happened, that it’s not just fiction.

I don’t have much experience with memoirs/autobiographies, either. I have only read those by Mahatma Gandhi and well, Stephen King (odd combination.) What about you? Do you like reading biographies and would you recommend any?

Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogadda.

About the book: According to Wikipedia, Balasaraswati was “a celebrated Indian dancer, and her rendering of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance style, made this style of dancing of south India well known in different parts of India, as also many parts of the world.” She has received numerous national awards for dance as well as music. This book, written by her son-in-law, is her first biography to ever be published. The book contains many rare pictures of the dancer, along with a huge glossary and notes by the author.

Summary: Born in a matrilineal family with a long and rich tradition of dance and music, we might as well say, that Balasaraswati had art in her blood. That won’t be entirely true though, as is the case with any real artist. Along with that inborn talent, it was years of practice that helped Balasaraswati reach her level of perfection. Ever since she was a little child, Bala learned dance and music from the elders in the family. Her childhood was quite different from yours and mine; she was rarely even allowed time to sit still. Various incidents, right from her childhood, display her love for the art, as well as her dedication.

“As a child just old enough to walk to the door of Dhanammal’s home, Bala was fascinated by a beggar who stopped regularly in front of the house on Ramakrishna Street, dancing wildly, chanting rhythmic syllables like those recited by a nattuvanar mirroring a dancer’s footwork. (…) Bala would imitate him, both dancing like monkeys. (…) That was the real starting point for Bala’s dancing mania.”

After her Arangetram (debut performance after years of training) at the mere age of seven, Balasaraswati began to receive growing recognition, in the art world as well as the general public all over India. The tours and performances that followed were her first steps towards becoming a revolutionary Bharatanatyam dancer, a legend.

My Thoughts: Honestly, I have no idea why I decided to review this book. I don’t have much experience with art – apart from a span of five traumatic years spent learning, quite ironically, Bharatanatyam itself. It taught me, if anything, that I can never be a good dancer. I did however learn quite a bit about the dance form. Besides, considering how I failed at it, I realize, respect and appreciate the effort and passion involved in excelling at it.

I loved it as soon as I tore open the package it arrived in. It is hard not to judge the book by its beautiful, glossy black cover. The stunning front-page photo of Balasaraswati, in a way, conveys more about the dancer than the entire book. Another thing I loved (most predictably) was the author’s note on the translations and transliterations from Tamil to English. The preface is pretty much a brief summary of the entire book, and a look at Balasaraswati through the author’s individual perspective (throughout the rest of the book the author stays clear of that personal touch.)

The book is long and the size can be intimidating. If I didn’t have to review it within seven days, I would have spent months reading it at leisure. That being said, it was hard to pull my eyes away from the book. The descriptions, the imagery is so surreal. It almost made me guilty that I wasn’t as informed about the culture and traditions of my own country. The only thing that bothered me was the chronology of events; I had a hard time keeping up with what happened when.

All non-English phrases or concepts are explained in the book wherever they appear – and more information is given in the extensive (and thoroughly fascinating) Glossary at the end. I guess that’s what makes the book so much more special; you don’t have to be a student of Dance to understand it. The language, of course, is wonderful.
The book tells us not only about Balasaraswati’s life but about the political and social conditions in the India of the 1800s and early 1900s, the evolution of Bharatanatyam and other forms of art, and many other renowned artists of her time. The fine detail makes you feel like you’re living history.

It is hardly possible for a biography to get all the facts right, not to mention be completely impartial, especially when it is written by someone closely related to the person. I am hardly qualified to judge whether all the facts are correct. What I do believe, however, is that while this may not by a completely true account, it is a very honest account of the artist’s life. It is difficult to do justice to a legend or fit such a glorious life in only three hundred pages. It is apparent that a lot of effort and research was required to write this book, and frankly, the result is commendable.
I consider myself incredibly lucky, to get to review such a book. I am also glad, that this book wasn’t published years ago, so that now it’d only be lying in some old library, where I would have hardly gotten my hands on it. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the arts, or anyone interested in getting to know one of the reasons India is known to have a ‘rich tradition’! The book has inspired me to read more about India. According to my mother, reading about great people such as these, makes us feel pretty insignificant and thoroughly inspired at the same time; and it’s true. If anything, I am going to make it a point to learn more about the history of Indian dance and music; if you happen to know me, you’d know that that is saying something.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!