Saturday, 8 November 2008



Historian and noted biographer Deborah Baker had a wish: it was to write about India as it appears in the American imagination. The late poet Irwin Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beats, who had travelled to India in the early 1960s, seemed to be “perfect vehicles” for Baker to explore India in her latest “quest narrative” A Blue Hand: The Beats in India.

But, why were the Beats in India? Was it only a search for god, love and peace… Baker disagrees: “That seems like a fairly ambitious itinerary for anyone. As often is the case with pilgrimages and journeys of discoveries, what you imagine you are looking for is never what you find.”

But, no matter what, India did change Ginsberg and his companions as it happens with almost everyone who visits this amazing land. “Though I am not very specific in characterising what Ginsberg came away with, I think that India cured him of his obsession with his 1948 vision, it exorcised his demons,” the writer says. And India also gave Ginsberg “a political language in which to launch his various criticisms of American domestic and foreign policies on his return.” In one word: India gave the world Allen Ginsberg as we came to know later.

In the book, Baker often provides the international political context to many of Ginsberg’s interactions, like those on India-China conflict (1962), or the plight of refugees during the Bangladesh War (1971) when India and USA stood at the opposite poles. But, things have changed a lot since then. Baker’s studies allow her to imagine the possible views that Ginsberg might have had about economic liberalisation in India and the growing ties between the two nations, which seems to be much in contrast to India’s non-alignment policies. “I don’t think Allen Ginsberg would be surprised at the path that India has taken,” Baker opines, adding, Ginsberg’s affection for India and his Indian friends “would be undimmed by disappointment.”

In the entire narrative, the character of Hope Savage appears time and again. This American lady leaves her home in South Carolina and travels across different countries before disappearing. For Baker, Hope Savage and the legend of Hope Savage was “something of a grail” as she wrote this book. “My quest to find out what became of her drove me to understand something of my own relationship with India and the idea of leaving one’s homeland permanently,” Baker states, adding, very little has been written about Americans living in self-imposed exile.

In India, Ginsberg had met several writers and poets; Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar being few of them who were then young and pragmatic in their writings. While writing about the Beats’ stay in India, Baker got in touch with many those writers in Kolkata (mentioned as Calcutta in the book) and Mumbai (mentioned as Bombay) who are still living and came across the Beats. Baker affirms that her two year-long research and writing became easier with the “great deal of help” from her friends in these cities and Benaras as well as those associated with the Ginsberg Trust in New York City.

Talking about the writers in India, Baker says, “They remembered Ginsberg’s visit and spoke at great length about his impact on their work. Younger writers also seemed to be very interested in the book, perhaps a little surprised to learn about this chapter in Ginsberg’s life.” Perhaps, it’s time for a young Bengali- or Marathi-language writer to write a book on the American role in the Indian imagination, Baker avers.

The Beats had an enormous impact in the American literary circle with their rebellious approach. Ginsberg’s 1955 poem Howl was banned on charges of obscenity. We ask the historian about Ginsberg’s relevance in today’s American literature. The Beats, she states, doesn’t command much respect there. “The Beats’ reputation has suffered from their notoriety and as a result their work isn’t taken as seriously as the more sober and academic contemporaries.” But for Baker, that “isn’t necessarily a bad thing”; it actually allowed her to discard her preconceptions and discover them as if they were her own.

And as she went about getting into the untold stories, she could not remain impartial. “I was completely besotted with all my characters. I do think that it is important to be ‘understanding’ when you are most tempted to be judgmental,” Baker admits. As a biographer, Baker likes to “tell a good story”, but she also tries to “find the imagination of an artist in the shape of his life and the choices that were made.” That makes a biography an interesting read. “Some biographers have a feel for choosing these, some include too many and the subject gets lost, and some make you wonder why they are writing the book at all,” she adds.

Calling Kolkata as her home, Baker, who is married to novelist Amitav Ghosh, says, “While it might not have the spit and polish of Delhi or the commercial bustle of Bombay, I think Calcutta manages a vibrant cultural scene in theatre, film, writing and thinking.” For her, Bengalees are restless, who may not always be found at home, “but their imagination has a great civilisation to draw inspiration from.”
(The interview was published in
Sakaal Times of Pune on October 26, 2008