A Blue Hand: The Beats in India

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A literary exploration of the Beats' encounter with India in the 1960s, a journey that inspired and influenced generations of Americans and Indians alike

In 1961, Allen Ginsberg left New York by boat for Bombay, India. He brought with him his troubled lover, Peter Orlovsky, and a plan to meet up with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. He left behind not only fellow Beats Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs, but also the relentless notoriety that followed his ...

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A Blue Hand: The Tragicomic, Mind-Altering Odyssey of Allen Ginsberg, a Holy Fool, a Lost Muse, a Dharma Bum, and His Prickly Bride in India

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Overview

A literary exploration of the Beats' encounter with India in the 1960s, a journey that inspired and influenced generations of Americans and Indians alike

In 1961, Allen Ginsberg left New York by boat for Bombay, India. He brought with him his troubled lover, Peter Orlovsky, and a plan to meet up with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. He left behind not only fellow Beats Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs, but also the relentless notoriety that followed his 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 and his companions 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 Calcutta, Ginsberg discovers a circle of hungry young writers whose outrageousness and genius are uncannily reminiscent of his own past. Finally, Ginsberg searches for Hope Savage, the mysterious and beautiful girl whose path, before she disappeared, had crossed his own in Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Paris.

In their restless, comic and oftimes 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 a story of India-its gods and its poets, its politics and its place in the American imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

Celia McGee
Baker's work is a piece of devoted scholarship and legwork dunked in the screwy, hyper-intelligent, tragicomic essence of everything that drove Ginsberg to take a trip that not only changed his life but helped spawn several generations of hipsters, hippies, writers, artists, rock stars, mental cases and self-annointed medicine men…In new and far greater detail, and with a contagious sense of enjoyment that sometimes pushes her into the present tense and the personal, Baker shows how much the Beats owed their name and their legacy—including some of their politics of protest and a persistent head-shop aesthetic that ultimately benefited the Indian economy—to their embrace of Eastern beatitude. Columbus went looking for India and found America; in 1961 Irwin Allen Ginsberg went looking for India and landed in a whole lot of what would become the American counterculture.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Drawing on letters, journals, memoirs, and many unpublished sources, Baker (In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding) here traces the journeys of several Beat poets in India, particularly Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and Joanne Kyger. The subtitle may define the book too narrowly, for these poets' quest for enlightenment is not the whole story; a fascinating subplot extends from Baker's search for Hope Savage, a troubled young poet who was once Gregory Corso's lover and muse and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth after crossing paths with Ginsberg in India. In addition to describing the budding poetry scene in Calcutta, Baker provides glimpses of Herbert Huncke, Janine Pommy Vega, and other Beat Generation writers who remained behind, seeking a different path to enlightenment on the drug-drenched streets of New York City's East Village. Beyond what it says about the role of India in the Beat imagination, the book raises larger questions about how travel helps to define one's identity and sense of home. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—William Gargan

Kirkus Reviews
An enlightening study of the Beat Generation's quest for enlightenment in India. The most prominent exemplar of the holy-fool searcher was not Jack Kerouac, who proclaimed himself a bodhisattva, or even Gary Snyder, who turned to Japan for guidance, but instead the ecstatic sensualist Allen Ginsberg. Baker (In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, 1993, etc.), a fine storyteller, traces the moment to a New York day on which Ginsberg, gazing out the window of some anonymous apartment, sees God, or at least a god. From that moment on, though famously still interested in more earthly adventures with young men, he sought the presence of the divine. No better place for that quest than India, which, in the early 1960s, was not wholly prepared for Ginsberg's arrival, nor the attentions of more reluctant beats such as Gregory Corso. Yet Ginsberg soon found sympathetic allies among religious but mostly nonsectarian Indians, who shared some of the American poet's worldly interests and brought a beat sensibility to their own culture, which was thriving, especially around Bombay and Calcutta. Blessed with the ability to mix and make friends and with a Zelig-like talent for being in the right place at the right time, Ginsberg antedated the Beatles in Rishikesh by a few years. Though in love with much of what he saw-he chided Paul Bowles for having warned him away from cheap lodgings, writing, "I must say, you made it sound as if a westerner would die of rat poison if he stayed anywhere but Taj Mahal Hotel"-he was also a realist enough to see India's suffering as well. This knowledge came to fill notebooks, and Ginsberg imported many things Indian, notably the Hare Krishna chant, to the Bay Area andGreenwich Village. Baker evokes strange worlds and distant times in a narrative that never fails to flow and that, in the end, is admirably illuminating.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594201585
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/10/2008
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

In 1990 Deborah Baker moved to Calcutta where she studied Bengali and wrote In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Since then, her essays have appeared in a range of publications from The New York Times to the Calcutta Statesmen. With her husband, the writer Amitav Ghosh, and her two children Lila and Nayan, she now divides her time between Calcutta, Goa and Brooklyn.

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