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 and Greenwich Village.
Baker evokes strange worlds and distant times in a narrative that never fails to flow and that, in the end, is admirably illuminating.