That Beatsian yearof tantra, drugs, peace and poetry
Sep 22, 2008
It is while reading William Blake and masturbating dreamily that
Allen Ginsberg heard unearthly voices and had a vision of God. After
maturing in the company of Beats like Jack Kerouac, William
Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso, the pope of the poets of
the Beat generation arrived in India, aged 37, in 1962. Perhaps he
came to confirm his divine intoxication without the psychiatrist's
help, or to heal himself of being a poet in Americato
find gurus, salvation, cheap ganja, Kalis and fellow poetsor merely
to roam ancient cities like Benares and burning ghats such as
Neemtola in Calcutta. Or perhaps to be able to return home singing
kirtans on the harmonium in the streets of New York and around City
Light Bookstore in San Francisco, fulfilling Walt Whitman's prophecy:
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,/The true son of God
shall come singing his songs.
But he did return home with a compliment from Naboni Das Baul, who
said of Ginsberg that "he is a born Baul and will spread the Baul
message and, as a result, true peace, friendship and dharma will arrive."
Deborah Baker weaves her story, moving across continents in time and
space, entering into oral histories, journals, asylum records,
poetry, anecdotes, legends, diaries, interviews, archives and
whatever else that allows her to construct and create the story of
the poet's journey. In the process, we get to walk the lanes and
bylanes of poets' lives, and of their families and companions.
The book is written in a manner that resembles a jam session in a
jazz club in Greenwich village. It has a free form, beginning in the
present and circling back and around, improvising as it flows in and
out of episodes and encounters. It mixes inner and outer impulses
with the skilful use of collages. As a result, it does full justice
to the multiple points of view which is how the book is conceived and formed.
Paragraphs have the crispness of John Coltrane-like saxophone notes.
They move between moods, events, journeys, landscapes and family
histories, cutting across politics, poetry and persons. When, for
example, the woman protagonist Hope Savage arrives in Tehran, "spring
had arrived, the roses were in bloom and the air was rife with CIA
Allen Ginsberg's adventures and explorations in India into different
traditions of sadhana included drug-induced peak experiences and
midnight forays into tantric rituals (not to mention his constant gay
companion, Peter Orlowski). The book effectively describes Ginsberg's
meetings and dialogues with the who's who of ashrams, both maharishis
and contemporary masters in the business of spirituality. The book is
full of one-liners that linger in the reader's mind and reveal the
nature of wisdom that the orient has to offer. There is the Dalai
Lama, smiling mischievously, asking Ginsberg: "If you take LSD can
you see what is there in the briefcase?" And then there is Banke
Bihari, a former lawyer and an intimate of Gandhi, Tagore,
Krishnamurthi, Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo, who provides
Ginsberg with what comes nearest to an answer to the Beatnik's search
in India for gurus and gods: "Take Willam Blake as your saint", and
"Know that it is not God you are seeking but the love he inspires."
Ginsberg reports this back home as "the best Oriental wisdom I heard
yet. So I got more or less what I came here to find out."
The book also gives us an insight into the evolving aesthetics of
Beat poetry. Ginsberg writes, "What we are writing in America today
is to create a new prosody, trying to reach out to Red Indians and
Jazz for clues." It informs us of arguments between Ginsberg and
Snyder on the cult of drugs that illuminates the complex question of
poetry and satori.There are stories of self-seeking through
friendship, sex, drugs, meditations and flippant, cultivated and
outrageous critiques of the bhadralok.
Deborah Baker's accounts of encounters between Indian poets (mostly
Bengali) and Ginsberg are useful. We have Arun Kolatkar translating
Ginsberg into Marathi and various manifestos coming out in different
Indian languages which sounded like Ginsberg.
The book is as much about Beatniks as about their women companions.
The nerve centre of the book is the story of Hope Savage, the femme
enfant and saint, forever wandering, roaming the streets of Calcutta
with an air of mystery. She emerges as the unfathomable "other" of
the Beat generation. Unlike Ginsberg, she is "free as birds in the
air". As Baker writes, "The very first articles she set aside in her
packing was any notion of home, unlike Ginsberg who carried his past