A charming novel for anyone remotely interested in cultural and
by Yamini Vijayan
A Blue Hand: The Beats in India,
Penguin Viking, 2008, pp 242, Rs 499
It was on a hot summer afternoon in 1948, at the age of 22 that Allen
Ginsberg heard a voice outside his window while reading a William
Blake poem. "I saw god," he screamed ecstatically and from that
moment on, he wandered in his pursuit of God. Disillusioned and
repulsed by America's materialism and drawn towards the spirituality
of the East, Allen travelled across to a destination where he
believed he would ultimately find God. In India, Allen experimented
with several religious philosophies in his eternal hope of
discovering God and attaining enlightenment, not to forget his belief
that God could be found through drugs and love, under the guidance of
a spiritual guru.
But Allen wanted no long route to attaining 'Nirvana'. He wanted
instant enlightenment. Through Allen's search for an appropriate
spiritual teacher, Deborah Baker introduces different philosophies
that have found its place in India, not just a superficial view of
it, but a well researched account.
From Dalai Lama's philosophy to the modern ashram of the
Theosophical society in Madras to Aurobindo's ideas to Sri Ramana
Maharshi to pseudo babas to tantric practices to J Krishnamurti's
beliefs, she follows the Beats' spiritual journey and exploration.
The title of the book stems from Ginsberg's vision of God, when he
describes it as "the sky was the living blue hand itself," the hand
that had placed the whole universe in front of him.
Writing in a non-linear style, Baker weaves together experiences of
various literary figures from the American beat generation. But
because of the book plunging into the lives of several of these
literary figures besides Allen Ginsberg and his romantic companion
Peter Orlovsky, after a certain point, I found myself turning back
the pages of the book to recall certain characters. Every time the
author brought in a new character, which was a bit too often
although initially welcomed with delight the number of characters
making quick entry and exit at scattered points of the book certainly
tended to confuse the reader. Wait, now who was Ted Wilentz?
In the book, she includes an extract from the Time magazine, an
interesting description of the 'Beats' "they prefer to wear beards
and blue jeans, avoid soap and water, live in dingy tenements or,
weather permitting, take the road as holy hoboes, pilgrims to
nowhere. Most of them adore Negroes, junkies, jazzmen and Zen. The
more extreme profess to smoke pot, eat peyote, sniff heroin and
Drawing a sort of subtle parallel between two sets of poets, the
author also elaborates on the meeting of the American poets with the
Bengali Krittibas poets in Calcutta a set of young intellectuals
"who hoped to break down the meter, rhyme and while they were at it,
conventional morality" of Bengali literature.
A Blue Hand is undoubtedly a charming read for anyone remotely
interested in different cultural and literary movements. Although, it
may evoke a smirk on your face as you read about typical foreign
tourists' superficial interest in India (particularly Ginsberg) its
poverty, culture, easy availability of drugs and so on, the author's
beautiful way with words and subtle sense of humour and mockery (was
I imagining it?) makes it a wonderful read that takes you to places
you almost don't want to come out of.