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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 87 Birth of the Sixties: When the Beats Became Hippies A BLUE HAND: The Beats in India By Deborah Baker Penguin, 2008; 246 pp., $25.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY STEVE SILBERMAN REVIEWS ONE AFTERNOON IN 1962, the Dalai Lama and his transla- tor chatted for an hour with four young American poets who had arrived in Dharamsala, India, in search of spiritual guid- ance and a world they’d never seen. Two of the travelers—Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder—were already well-known back in the States, propelled to fame by the controversy over Ginsberg’s breakthrough poem “Howl,” and by their appearances in Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novels On The Road and The Dharma Bums. Also in the traveling party were Ginsberg’s life- long companion, Peter Orlovsky, and Snyder’s first wife, Joanne Kyger, a lively and subtle poet in her own right. Even by His Holiness’ standards, it must have been an unusual conversation. The top item on Ginsberg’s agenda seems to have been convincing the 27-year-old head of the Gelugpa lineage to sample psychedelics. “If you take LSD,” the young Dalai Lama asked playfully, “can you see what’s in that briefcase?” He cau- tioned his visitors that while drugs might be useful for obtaining glimpses into hidden areas of mind, it would be better to adopt practices designed to alter the structure of the personality in ac- cord with these insights. He offered, however, that he would be willing to try psilocybin, which Ginsberg promised to send him through a friend at Harvard named Timothy Leary. Snyder, who had already been practicing Zen in Japan for six years, spent the hour asking practical questions about medita- tion. Kyger, who found sitting in full-lotus position uncomfort- able, wondered if it might be possible to develop a more casual posture for Westerners. Snyder was impressed by His Holiness’s answer: “It’s not a matter of national custom.” Dharamsala was just one stop on the four poets’ ambitious itin- erary, which ranged from the cave temples of Ellora to a café in Kolkata that was the gathering place for an inspired group of Ben- gali poets known as the Hungry Generation. The Magical Mystery Tour en masse that would eventually bring throngs of longhaired seekers to India—including the Beatles—was still a few years off. This pregnant moment in cultural history is the subject of a pro- vocative new book by Deborah Baker called A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. India is familiar territory for Baker, who splits her time be- tween Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn, and is married to the author and critic Amitav Ghosh. Her previous book, a biography of the poet and short story writer Laura Riding, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize. To research A Blue Hand, Baker drew on the poets’ published and unpublished journals and correspondence, as well as on inter- views with the surviving contacts the Beats made on their travels. Allen Ginsberg and a Hindu saddhu on the streets of Benares in 1963. STEVE SILBERMAN is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and a former teaching assistant of Allen Ginsberg’s at Naropa University. He lives with his husband in San Francisco. PHOTOBYPETETURNER/GETTYIMAGES SEPT 80-99.indd 87 SEPT 80-99.indd 87 7/3/08 1:34:44 PM 7/3/08 1:34:44 PM