Blue Hand [Paperback]
The Tragicomic, Mind-Altering Odyssey of Allen Ginsberg
By the same author
New paperback edition. In 1961, Allen Ginsberg left New York by boat for Bombay, India, where he planned to meet up with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. He left behind not only not only fellow Beats Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs, but also the relentless notoriety that followed the publication of Howl, the epic work that branded him the voice of a generation.
Drawing from extensive research in India, undiscovered letters, journals and memoirs, acclaimed biographer Deborah Baker has woven a many-layered literary mystery out of Ginsberg's odyssey. A Blue Hand follows him as they travel from the ashrams of the Himalayan foothills to Delhi opium dens and the burning pyres of Benares. They encounter an India of charlatans and saints, a country of spectacular beauty and spiritual promise and of devastating poverty and political unease.
In their restless, comic, and oft-times tortured search for meaning, the Beats looked to India for answers while India looked to the West. A Blue Hand is the story of their search for God, for love, and for peace in the shadow of the atomic bomb. It is also the story of India - its gods and its poets, its politics, and its place in the Western imagination.
"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." Eliot Weinberger.
"An original and entrancing account of how India expanded the possibilities of Western consciousness." Geoff Dyer.
"A fabulous book - comic, tragic, and written with great verve and nerve - about the Beats and their passage to India. It is a remarkable saga of various lives and stories all drawn together by Deborah Baker - the biographer as adventurer." Michael Ondaatje.
Read an extract of this title
IT WAS WELL AFTER MIDNIGHT on December 11, 1962, and Allen Ginsberg, a thirty-seven-year-old poet from Newark, New Jersey, had gone off to pee for the umpteenth time. Ginsberg, along with his sometime lover Peter Orlovsky, was hurtling north in a third-class carriage on the Doon Express. The train had started at Howrah station in Calcutta and would deposit the pair sometime the following day in Benares. Ginsberg had been suffering from kidney ailments for years.
In the tiny lavatory mirror, behind the heavy black frames of his spectacles, his eyes held a gaze of curiosity, magnified by the power of his lenses. There was his nimbus of thinning hair. There was the heavy woolen sweater over a lumberjack shirt. There was the familiar and worn expression of loneliness. Back in their compartment, Orlovsky was already fast asleep on his bunk, his dirty blond hair splayed across an innocent face, oblivious to the chill wind that came through the open windows. He was undoubtedly dreaming of the talkative Bengali girl who had come to see them off at the station. They would soon be reunited. Though he had been Ginsberg's companion for eight years, his feelings for him were now more filial than sexual. Orlovsky was twenty-nine.
They had spent the last seven months in Calcutta. In the final days of their stay, Ginsberg had sat on the muddy temple steps below the Howrah bridge, taking leave of the small shrine dedicated to the mother goddess. Above him, the traffic had roared its mantra hum as it rattled across the Hooghly River. As a young man, Ginsberg had formalized an intricate ceremony of leave taking. So from the bridge he had walked north to the burning pyres at Nimtola, where corpses, serene on their flower-bedecked lit-ters, patiently awaited his good-byes. His last evening was spent in a rowdy farewell to the Bengali poets he had come to know. Stumbling out of the toilet and swaying down the corridor as the train clattered away into the night, he returned to his seat to write down his thoughts in his notebook.
For twenty years Ginsberg had relished the ritual of pens and paper, the relief that accompanied the emptying of his thoughts and the satisfaction of notebooks with filled pages. There were the small spiral-bound pocket notebooks that he wrote in on subways and buses, and there were sturdy bedside notebooks for nighttime cris de coeur or an early morning dream. Returning to a notebook after a day's neglect, he would begin in the present and circle back, writing his thoughts and observations not as he had them, but as he recalled having them. Periodically he cast back through the pages, prospecting for the glowing seam of a poem, like a miner long accustomed to working in the dark.
As the years had passed, the notebooks changed. More and more, Allen Ginsberg used them like a blank tape, inviting the world outside and inside his head to inscribe its noisy jive of unlikely juxtapositions. In India he had several notebooks going, and one, designed for schoolwork, now sat open on his lap, interleaved with unanswered letters. On its pages the tracks of his thinking crossed the borders of day and night, past and present, waking and dreaming, poetry and prose. The rhythm of the train itself was inscribed in his handwriting and jagged line breaks.
He made a brief stab at a poem, hut his thoughts scattered, his mind returning to the other figure on the platform at Howrah station, a young woman from South Carolina with the improbable name of Hope Savage. He had kissed her good-bye. Until meeting in India, they had seemed to circle each other in a pas de deux of travel. Ten years younger, she had arrived in Greenwich Village a year after he had left New York City for Cuba, Mexico, and San Francisco. They had come closest to crossing paths in Paris, hut by the time he'd arrived, she embarked on a journey that would take her from the arctic reaches of the Soviet Union to the southernmost tip of Sicily. He had first heard of her in 1956 from his friend and fellow poet Gregory Corso. While working as a merchant seaman on a ship bound for Alaska, he had received a letter from Gregory, announcing: "She, Allen, is our Rimbaud and more today."
Ginsberg sat cross-legged on his bunk, coughing and chain-smoking as he wrote, his knapsack taking up the floor in front of him. Peter's new sarod was tucked under the train seat, as was his own striped umbrella and typewriter. As the lights outside became few and far between, the wheel carriages finally picked up speed and the rhythmic doom doom drummed a roll of finality into his brain. The Doon Express tracked the path of the Ganges backward, shadowing its pulse as it traveled from Dehradun in the Himalayas across the Gangetic Plain to the Bay of Bengal. Soon there was just darkness, broken only by the light of the illuminated windows skipping across the shallow banks of the train bed. The thought of the young woman left behind under the station clock dissolved into a more global anxiety.
According to the newsmagazines he'd bought on the station platform, the world was deeply imperiled, hostage to the cold war between Moscow and Washington and the recent hot one between Delhi and Peking. Scant weeks before, there had been a nuclear face-off over the missiles in Cuba, and nearly simultaneously, a border war between India and China had broken out in the Himalayas. Was democratic communism or a capitalist republic the solution to the distrust afoot in the world? He refused to be paranoid. All over the train, blankets were being pulled up to chins, and reading lights blinked shut. People are afraid to intervene, he wrote busily, drawing up a five-point program for world peace. Point number four was a TV debate between Khrushchev, Kennedy, Mao, and Nehru, to be translated into every language and broadcast globally by the five-month-old Teistar channel, the first communications satellite. His brain teemed with ideas-move the UN to the Himalayas- and questions: Were the stories about the atrocities in Tibet really true? All this made its jumbled way into his notebook.
He returned once more to his last sight of Calcutta, viewed from the seat of a horse-drawn ekka-gharry piled high with luggage, their way eased by the team of water buffalo that parted the crowd before them. He never reflected on the immensity and variety of traffic over the Howrah bridge without recalling the Chaucer pilgrims en route to Canterbury. Each comb seller and watch repairer, each woman with a basket of fish on her head, carried a tale he would never hear. He returned, too, to the thought of the two girls who'd seen them off: the Bengali girl determined to live in the West and the American girl who couldn't leave it far enough behind. Had they stopped to ask, the fortune-tellers and astrologers lining the approach to the bridge might have helped them see their fates more clearly. He now asked himself what Shelley would have done, and his pen hung in the air.
Should he marry Hope Savage?
He'd been down this road before. It was the old shaggy dog story, and in his experience the punch line was more painful than funny. Somewhere on the train, a baby cried as if to remind him just how unlikely a prospect this was. In the end, in his rush to find their reserved third-class carriage, racing after the coolie as their luggage slunk away into the platform crowds, he'd added nothing more to his kiss than a wave good-bye. And as quietly as Hope Savage entered Allen Ginsberg's account of his Indian travels, she now departed. While his lone lit cabin sped along the rails, he put away his journal and picked up his book, Journey to the End of Night.
From this distance, it appears that Allen Ginsberg was in thrall to a tired idea: Disillusioned Westerner goes to mystic East in search of. . . what, exactly? A guru? An unlimited supply of drugs? Young boys? Nirvana? A wife? Or, like every pilgrim, did he simply cherish the belief that beyond the known world there exists a place where ailments are healed, the heart is filled, and demons are vanquished? Whatever he hoped to find in India, Ginsberg retained the faith that on arriving at his next port of call, tiny cheeks from his publishers would be waiting for him in batches of forwarded mail. he had faith that no matter how unwashed, a poet would be welcomed. The discomforts, delays, and illnesses that plagued him from time to time were no deterrent. And perhaps just as the mysteries of train tables, currency exchange, and cheap accommodations were eventually resolved, so might others. Yet despite his passion for the idea of India, there was something improbable about Allen Ginsberg's pilgrimage there. Unlike many of' those who came after him, he neglected to leave much of his past behind. Instead, he brought most of it with him.
SOME TIME LATER, with brakes hissing and whistle blowing, the train slowed as it pulled into the dimly lit station at Burdwan. The only passenger still awake slid his book into his pocket and peered out in puzzlement from the top bunk, his head grazing the ceiling. The man sleeping across from him groaned. The sudden calm, the settling of the rocking carriage, had him looking for a cigarette and his notebook to quiet this new unease, not yet fifty miles from Howrah. "Burdwan??" he wrote.