Ginsberg, the orientalist

Ginsberg, the orientalist

By ABHIMANYU SINGH | | 2 January, 2016
In the early 1960s, the legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg made his first visit to India, interacting with a range of Indian poets and artists. Abhimanyu Singh looks at a new documentary that explores the poet’s Eastern sojourn.

Allen Ginsberg came to India for the first time in early ’60s. These were important times for India; most importantly, its long standing dispute with China over Tibet and border areas reached a crescendo in the shape of a war in 1962. Ginsberg was in India when the war was on. However, his travelogue Indian Journals, which documented his time here barely mentioned the war which India lost miserably. (Within two years of the defeat, Pandit Nehru passed away; he and his defence minister V.K.Krishna Menon were heavily blamed for not being able to anticipate China’s aggressive designs. Both Nehru and Menon were considered leftists, the latter more so and their ideological orientation was cited by the critics as the prime reason behind their slip to identify the threat posed by China. The war with China divided the Indian Left also, with one faction of the Communist Party of India deciding to go its own way over the issue of support to the fellow communists on the other side of the Himalayas.)

The silence of a poet like Ginsberg on such matters, whose poetry was always deeply and directly concerned with political developments the world over, can only be called puzzling to say the least, and anyone going through Indian Journals is likely to be intrigued by it.

The recent radio documentary by Jeet Thayil, the Booker-nominated novelist and poet, looks into this and other questions which continue to interest lovers of Beat poetry and literature in general. It deserves praise for at least looking into an aspect of literary history that has largely been forgotten despite its uniqueness and far-reaching consequences.

Take the matter of the Indo-China war. The documentary has the writer Deborah Baker telling us that Ginsberg believed India was turning into a “militaristic” state by warring with China and that he wanted to go on a peace march with “Gandhians” to protest this — her book A Blue Hand: Beats in India has more on this.

Jeet Thayil, who has made a BBC documentary on Ginsberg’s India visit. It can be safely said that Ginsberg’s views on India becoming “militaristic” were either naïve or deliberately cruel. The troubles with China had roots in the colonial period and were chiefly concerned with its occupation of Tibet to which India objected, apart from the delineation of the boundary between the two Asian giants. Dalai Lama was given shelter by India after China invaded his country in an act of naked imperialism, all the more ironic because the aggressor was a communist country. To say that a country was turning “militaristic” when involved in self-defense is utter baloney and even Gandhi would have never agreed with this view; one only needs to remember his support to Britain and allies in the Second World War to understand this simple point. 

Poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote makes no bones in the same documentary about Ginsberg’s attitude towards India in general and terms it as an example of Orientalism. This is further illustrated by the Hungryalist poet Malay Roy Choudhury in the documentary. He mentions that Ginsberg only clicked beggars, lepers and the poor in India, at the exclusion of almost everything else. He narrates that his photographer father had admonished the Beat poet for the same, telling him: “Whether a poet or a tourist, you white people are all the same.”

By choosing to look at India as being  good only for a certain kind of experience and refusing to consider that it was a developing nation coming to terms with its own destiny — not willing to stay encumbered by expectations of foreigners — Ginsberg is certainly guilty of prima facie Orientalism.

It must be noted that Ginsberg also met with tantriks and bauls who are not traditionally upper-caste and it is not this author’s intention to suggest that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Orientalist; rather, there were traces of Orientalism in his attitude.

His love for Benaras, a continually inhabited city, which is how he described it in his last poem too, was a metaphor for his love for the Indian civilization: a continuum existing as it was for millennia, regardless of space and time.  However, it was only an image in Ginsberg’s mind when he came; his fault was to deliberately stick to this image despite contrasting facts, and his sullen refusal to accept the country in all its contradictions. For example, he did not once mention in his book that the burning ghats which fascinated him so much had a caste system of their own and Dalits could not be cremated at the spots marked for the higher-castes.

It is entirely possible that Ginsberg was following the foot-steps of the Transcendentalists, his literary fore-fathers whose debt he always accepted but he did not question their attitudes towards India. The Transcendentalists had also looked towards India for spiritual guidance and glorified the Gita, a text which is abhorred by India’s Dalits for its militaristic and reactionary philosophy that asks people to leave everything in the hands of God and keep perpetuating the system ad infinitum, regardless of the violence inherent in Hinduism’s caste system. Had Ginsberg not heard that B.R. Ambedkar gave a call for the annihilation of caste decades ago? Why was Ginsberg so obsessed with Indian sadhus and their mumbo-jumbo instead, who have, through the centuries, acted as agents of perpetuating Hinduism along with its pernicious caste system which has oppressed and enslaved millions of people for so long?

There is also the slight matter of the Hungryalists. In a lengthy interview to The Sunflower Collective recently, Malay RC said quite categorically that Ginsberg spent close to two years with Bengali poets, including the Hungryalists, whose manifestos he collected and admired. According to Malay RC, it was only after coming in contact with the Hungryalists that the Blake vision departed from Ginsberg, and his poetry adopted a Bengali cadence, so to say, apart from imbibing the Indian attitudes to life and its phenomena in general. The documentary would have been enriched if the context to the Hungryalist movement had been provided in greater detail and the links between Beats and their Bengali counterparts (despite differences) looked into further.

The documentary also cites poets like Adil Jussawalla whom Ginsberg met while in Bombay. We can sense the annoyance Jussawala must have felt with Ginsberg’s patronising attitude; with hardly any inflection in his voice, he tells us that Ginsberg preferred the Urdu poets to the English ones at a reading organised in Bombay and sat at their feet “entranced” although he understood no Urdu. 

All said and done, Ginsberg was a complex man. While his conscious being was that of a white tourist in India, he did allow his poetic sub-conscious to be open to India’s rich and varied influence. 

He had an epiphany about his inclination towards Buddhism in India, leading to his subsequent conversion. (Ambedkar had also converted to Buddhism and maybe in this way, Ginsberg showed his aversion to Hinduism’s caste system.) The poetic influence will always be hard to prove and it was not only a one-way street. Arun Kolatkar, legendary Indian English poet, who met Ginsberg when he had visited Bombay, did acknowledge the Beat poet’s influence on his work. Ginsberg was also quite punctilious in writing to his Indian contacts, including several writers, to solicit their support for Malay RC when he faced an obscenity trial over his poetry and manifestos, along with other Hungryalist writers. 

While it will always be difficult to include everything that went on in the years Ginsberg spent in India, it can be said in conclusion that the documentary should have enquired more into the literary aspects of Ginsberg’s Indian travels and examined his Orientalism. Still, it makes a contribution to a better understanding of Ginsberg and his time here, and must be welcomed for that reason.    

With inputs from Goirick Brahmachari

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