allen ginsberg is not only a major american poet, but he was a founding member of the core trio, along with jack kerouac and william burroughs, that essentially created the beat generation. ginsberg traveled from the united states in march, 1961, and eventually reached india in february, 1962. he spent the next 15 months living and travelling throught india, until may, 1963. then ginsberg made his way to japan, where he spent 5 weeks with another major american poet, gary synder, and his then-wife and fellow poet, joanne kyger, before he returned to north america, via vancouver. when ginsberg finally arrive home in july, 1963, he had been abroad continuously for well over two years.
this is the brief ginsberg backstory that i'd like to present before taking a look at deborah baker's book, "a blue hand: the beats in india." indulge me for another minute, i'd also like to mention that in the summer of 1949 ginsberg had what he often referred to as his william blake "vision." the gist of which is allen heard the voice of william blake reciting the poem "ah sunflower." for the next 15 years ginsberg was fixated, almost obessed, with having a similar experience - by whatever means at his disposal. a good part of ginsberg's time in india was spent seeking out spiritual guidance and or a teacher that could assist him in that search.
my initial observation focuses on the author's startling blase' treatment of allen ginsberg! the backbone of this book is, ostensibly, about ginsberg and his time in india. reading this book one could easily come away with the impression that he did nothing productive whatsoever during his entire stay. a second, and more remarkable observation is the author's apparent obsession with gregroy corso and his ex-girlfriend, hope savage.
while a mention of corso could be an interesting footnote because he was a significant part of ginsberg's circle of friends, he hardly deserved the atttention lavished on him (and i daresay, hope savage) found in this book. to put this in context, corso was NEVER in india yet has more coverage in this book than does gary snyder, who was not only in india, but spent actually spent a significant amount of time there travelling with ginsberg! not only was the relationship between ginsberg and synder worth more attention, after he left india allen stayed with snyder in kyoto for 5 weeks before he traveled home!
if the the author's fascination with corso was obessive, then her treatment of hope savage was postivity sycophantic! again, to put this in context, and i will admit to never having heard of hope savage before reading this book, more time and effort is spent covering her (and savage's purposeful - yet unexplained - desire to escape her past) than the author spent on joanne kyger! when she did discuss kyger, a significant poet and photographer in her own right, she was painted as petty, jealous, lonely and perpetually unhappy! hardly a flattering or complete portrait of the woman!
one last point, the conclusion of the book was hardly what one would expect vis' a vis' the impact india had on ginsberg. again, one would almost come away from this book that ginsberg's time in india was unproductive and for naught! the author quotes 4 lines from ginsberg's poem, "the change: kyoto-tokoyo express," and only bothers to point out the title in a FOOTNOTE! this poem was the most important work ginsberg produced since he wrote kaddish, and basically was the breakthrough that ended his 15 year quest to find the meaning of life (pardon the oversimplication).
while it's clear the author did not want this to be a book about allen ginsberg, to shortchange the central character in such a desultory manner is breathtaking. it's not that the author didn't get it - i'm convinced she recognized the significance of "the change." i'm amazed that she didn't spend more time explaining it's significance to the reader! this poem was written on the 7 hour train ride from kyoto to tokyo and reflected ginsberg's realization that he didn't need to look outside himself for acceptance - it was the here and now that mattered.
yet another dimension of how india changed ginsberg's life is chanting and meditation. chanting, which he observed first hand as he watched gary synder, was almost immediately incorporated into his lifestyle. the apex of his chanting was on national display in chicago, during the 1968 democratic convention, where ginsberg chanted for 7 straight hours in an effort to calm the demonstrators. medition took longer to become part of his daily lifestyle. but by the 1970's he was a dedicated practitioner of it.
while the book suffers from the weakness i discussed above, i nevertheless enjoyed it. not as a treatment of ginsberg in india (which would be better served by reading ginsberg's indian journals, or the short chapter of dharma lion that covers ginsberg's travel to india), but rather a panarama of the indian scene in the early 1960's. while i don't know what to make of hope savage, and the author never did find out what became of her, i found the character interesting and appreciated that sidestory.