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The Beats in India
In December of 1998, I spent close to a month in India with my partner at the time and an older friend. This friend had lived in India in the ’70s for a couple years, and worked with peasants in small villages and for a brief period with Mother Theresa in Kolkata. She hadn’t been back, and was treating her visit decades later as a spiritual journey. I was approaching it as I had previous trips of this sort: as a way—I hoped—of increasing experience, knowledge, political awareness, empathy.
A similar set of mixed intentions played out last Saturday at The Beats in India: A Soul of Asia Symposium hosted by the Asia Society in New York City. In reality, it might have just as readily been titled Allen Ginsberg in India, since much of the day’s conversation swirled around Ginsberg’s trip to India in 1962 with Peter Orlovsky, and their meeting up with and subsequent travels there with Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder. All four panels, as well as the short poetry readings sprinkled in between, repeatedly returned to this visit, documented in Deborah Baker’s new book A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, which served as backdrop, provided the title, and may have been the motivating impulse for the symposium itself.
Like Baker’s book, there was plenty of information conveyed about Ginsberg, Kyger, Orlovsky, and Snyder traveling to India for all kinds of reasons: “enlightenment” (a word nearly all of the symposium’s participants seemed to dislike), drugs, boys, religion, material discomfort, expanded consciousness—as Kyger phrased it on the opening panel, “a larger sense of what the world meant.” But like Baker’s book, the day’s events were also about cultural translation: how to take what one encounters in a place like India and transmit it—for oneself or others—to a dramatically different context like the United States? I spent a month in Mexico, with three weeks in Chiapas, in the summer of 1995, ostensibly to learn more about and report on the recent Zapatista uprising. It took me three years before I figured out a way to write about my trip. I never ended up writing about my visit to India. Ginsberg, Kyger, and Snyder each published their diaries from India; Orlovsky wrote one too.
Surprisingly, there was very little talk at the symposium about appropriation or cultural tourism. But, then, Ginsberg needed more than a decade—and an introduction to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—to become less distracted enough to put into sustained practice some of the spiritual teachings that fascinated him in India. As was pointed out during the symposium, Snyder is the poet who did the most in bringing traditions from the East—and specifically Zen Buddhism—to the West. Snyder himself said on the opening panel that his comparison with India wasn’t the United States but Japan, where he spent a decade living and studying. Eliot Weinberger later pointed out that in today’s institutionalized and academic-oriented poetry world, such cultural and geographical dislocation would be career suicide for a younger poet. On the second and third panels respectively, Anne Waldman and John Giorno spoke about their own trips to India in the early ’70s after the floodgates of cultural tourism had opened in the wake of the hippies, Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. Given their subsequent life-long dedication to Buddhism, it’s clear these were important trips for Waldman and Giorno, perhaps even more than for the poets who preceded them in 1962.
On the other hand, the Indian writers who participated in the symposium—Sunil Gangopadhyay, Gita Mehta, and Pankaj Mishra—displayed a healthy skepticism toward Westerners on enlightenment quests in India, as well as toward some Indian spiritual tendencies in general. This, in turn, may itself be a product of their own complex relationships to India’s modernization process. At one point in 1962, Gangopadhyay told Ginsberg that the latter’s new-found guru in Kolkata was something of a quack, to which Ginsberg responded, “Yes, but he’s a beautiful liar.” In this sense, Ginsberg biographer Bill Morgan articulated one of the day’s most useful insights when he said that Ginsberg went to India—repeatedly—not to become enlightened but to become a better human being.