Remembering Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet whose search for life's meaning brought him to India

It was the early 1960s, when India, still in its infancy as a democracy, was feeling its way through the world and finding its feet. It was also the time when the country first encountered the 'Hungryalists' in Bengal — a group of anti-establishment, anti-elite poets, led by writer Malay Roy Choudhury. In 1962, Roy Choudhury hosted American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at his Calcutta residence for a few days — days that have come to define Ginsberg's legacy of fierce independence and battling of oppressive forces with words.

What the Beats were to America, the Hungryalists were to Bengal — an emblem of modern day mutiny, questioning everything that was considered sacrosanct in poetry at the time. For Roy Choudhury, who was charged with obscenity for his poem Stark Electric Jesus, Rabindranath Tagore was too vanilla. His Bengali was "very different", he said. "Very flowery, sophisticated Bengali. There are no sharp edges in his poems, no rawness in his poems, there’s a lack of flesh and blood in his poems, lack of testosterone, I should say, in his poems". Ginsberg was rooted in identical sentiments and ideologies. Clearly, his meeting with his Indian counterpart was only a matter of time.

Born on 3 June, 1926 in the industrial city of New Jersey in America, Ginsberg grew up and lived through the militarised '50s, yearning for spiritual and intellectual stimulation all along. In 1962, the writer landed in Bombay with his partner, Peter Orlovsky, carrying only a dollar in his pocket, and hoping to undertake a deeply personal journey. On reaching Calcutta, he handed over a roll of negatives to Roy Choudhury's father Ranjit, a photographer, to have them developed. Ranjit, however, was unimpressed with his guest. To his sheer disappointment, the photographs focused on lepers, naked sadhus, the poor, and largely unsavoury aspects of India. Oblivious to the poet's international fame, Roy Choudhury's father reprimanded young Ginsberg for his lack of artistic discretion.

The poet, however, never viewed India through an outsider's lens. He immersed himself in the culture of the land, adapting to its food, clothing, and soaking in its myths, ideas, and sensibilities, over the two years that he spent in the country. "I remember one lady who I thought was defenceless and poverty-stricken, so I offered her some coins and she spit on them and threw them back at me,” Ginsberg says in one of his interviews (paywall).

Already an icon of the Beat Generation with the publication of his controversial poem, Howl (which had been charged with, and subsequently acquitted of obscenity), Ginsberg wished to catch his breath after the challenging trials. Coming to India at the time, however, meant unpacking his western prejudices that labelled the country as a land of snake charmers and abject poverty. Even though living in India meant constantly battling ailments, Ginsberg had to follow through his quest for a guiding figure, a teacher.

 Remembering Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet whose search for lifes meaning brought him to India

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky at their rented home in Varanasi. Facebook/@therealallenginsberg

The poet was in search of creative triggers missing in him and his life in the West. He explains about his time in India: “So there was a realisation that the West was impermanent, that the entire Western rationalistic, Aristotelean mind was causing chaos, and I was interested in Eastern thought, all summed up in that gesture — the very Indian gesture — when you ask, “Are you enjoying yourself?” and an Indian will shake his head…It could be either yes or no depending on the context, and I was interested in that context with its subtlety of expression rather than in a Western context."

Among other things, Ginsberg was fascinated by the ease with which Indians understood and accepted death. Instead of it being a deeply philosophical concept, he realised that the country treated death as a part of normal, everyday life. He was charmed by the openness with which Hindus understood it as merely the burning of the body, removing much of the fear of corpses instilled in him back home.

The poet was especially intrigued by the scene of burning funeral pyres and says, “There they just lay it out and burn it and the family watches the dissolution; they see the emptiness in front of them, the emptiness of the body in front of them. So I had the opportunity to see the inside of the human body, to see the face cracked and torn, fallen off, the brains bubbling and burning.” He visited crematories wherever he went, often spending nights watching bodies decompose.

His obsession with death and the Hindu rituals surrounding it finds its way into his poetry, becoming a constant theme in his Indian Journals. “Last nite Tues (puja) nite at Nimtallah Burning Ghat – a few black skulls in the woodpile – Pouring white fat (ghee) into the flames, it burns brighter and sparks shoot out, the body burns faster – an old man wrapped in white carried in on a wood woven-string couch – thin carved-cheek bony forehead – and a little girl lying on the woodpile, her mother wrapped in white collapsed, singing a psalm, on the ground nearby," Ginsberg writes.

His Journals is also testament to his fascination with other aspects of the religion, especially the phenomenon of yogis wearing knee-length hair, walking around covered in ash. The chanting and life witnessed in and around temples captivated him. The poet enjoyed learning of the humanness and folly of gods as depicted in Hindu mythology, imageries and symbols which appealed deeply to his poetic imagination. “Glory, I mean they got great dancing Shivas balanced with ten arms doing cosmic dances of creation 20 feet tall, and fantastic skully Kalis invoking nightmare murders in another yuga, thousands of statues dancing all over huge temple built like Mt Kailash the Himalayan adobe of Shiva – And Ganesha with fat belly and elephant head and snakehead belt and trunk in a bowlful of sweets riding on his Vehicle a mouse – How can Da Vinci beat an elephant on a mouse?”

While in Calcutta, poets Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay introduced Ginsberg to the world of Bauls: a group of Hindu and Muslim travelling minstrels, celebrating love through their search of the divine. On meeting the legendary Baul, Nabani Das, Ginsberg explains his attraction to them: "Well, the idea of the poet dealing with his relationship to God, going beyond the formal imagery to annihilate the notion of self or the notion of God as just different, and all the different ways he could make puns and cover a range from complete aesthetic ignorance and lust all the way over to the other side, to the most complete refinement. There’s also a little ambiguity as to whether the ultimate refinement is a vulgar laugh of the enlightened person or the aesthetic silence of the muni, the holy man, but in that there’s a whole range. And it’s all very human… The poems deal with the mystical life as if it were everyday frustration and confusion and chaos. So it turned me on and I remember I couldn’t sleep.”

He later went on to compose poetry and music in Baul style.

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Ginsberg never found the teacher he was looking for, but he learnt invaluable life lessons that made him surrender himself to India, letting its influence seep deep into his psyche. Perhaps, above all, he was looking for a more intimate understanding of something he already knew — love.

“I think Allen was a natural Buddhist. Very serious person, loving person. He patted me on the arse and said, ‘Ashok you have a nice little arse’. Very loving. I think the poets, all around, have been looking to place love at the centre. Love is the basic connection,” Ashok Sahani, publisher of poet Arun Kolatkar, says about the man and his poetry.

Ginsberg had once famously criticised Indian poets writing in English (some of whom were his ardent admirers), calling their linguistic skills useless, and allegedly saying, "If we were gangster poets, we'd shoot you." His love for the country, however, remains proven beyond all doubt.

The poet took a harmonium back from India, playing it at his future poetry readings. His visit influenced The Beatles – who looked up to the Beat Generation enough to spell their name with an ‘a’ — enough that they visited India themselves in the late '60s.

Allen Ginsberg led the Beat Generation and the following hippie and counterculture movements from the front. His visit to India played an important part in directing the hippie trail. Instead of being an American looking for exoticism, Allen pursued India as a poet in search of spiritualism and deeper poetic understanding of the world, carrying the country back with him in so many words, images, and voices.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 09:51:47 IST