Cities & Architecture

Allen Ginsberg, a Calcutta Story

Deborah Baker writes about her early experience of Calcutta, meeting the poet Tarapada Ray, and learning about the Beat legend Allen Ginsberg’s odyssey in India – a discovery that would unfold as her second book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India

Allen Ginsberg and monkey. Credit: From the cover of Deborah Baker's A Blue Hand

Allen Ginsberg and monkey. Credit: From the cover of Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand

In February 1990 I married my husband before a crowd of strangers on the rooftop of his parents house in Calcutta.  That first year I worked on a book in the back room of a borrowed apartment in Ballygunge while he worked on his book a few kilometers away in his childhood bedroom in Jodhpur Park. Every month or so we would go to the home of a popular and prolific Bengali writer named Tarapada Ray. He lived with his wife on the second floor of a big house near the Astor Hotel closer to the city center.

It seemed we always arrived at Tarapada babu’s in the midst of  loadshedding. We would creep up the large stairway that wound round the inner walls of the house in complete darkness, my husband carrying a bottle of Old Monk while I tried not to trip on my sari. Fluorescent tubes lit up the flat while ceiling fans rotated weakly, both powered by a contraption referred to as an inverter. Unlike a generator that makes a loud roar and can operate as long as it has petrol, the inverter is made from an assemblage of car batteries, wired to switch on when the current failed. If load shedding lasted long enough or returned often enough, the batteries would run down completely.  Every household had one. There was nothing more dispiriting during loadshedding than the sound of a ceiling fan over your bed stopping in the middle of the night.The mosquito net would heave a final sigh before settling on you like a collapsed lung. When the swish of the fan returned, an hour or two or more later, it felt like the wings of angels.

Tarapada babu cut a striking figure. His bloodshot eyes were banded in a darker pigment of skin lending him a distinct raccoon-like appearance. Most prominent was his belly. This preceded him by some distance, particularly when his dhoti’s knot rested atop it, giving his figure a senatorial fullness. He had a bullet head set upon prominent jowls and no discernable neck. Unexpectedly, he vibrated with energy and would periodically explode in barrel chested laughter. In his wild younger days the American poet Allen Ginsberg had christened him Torpedo.

Evenings at Tarapada babu’s were spent smoking Gold Flake cigarettes, and throwing back large tumblers of rum. Both fueled an uninterrupted flow of Bengali stories. From the evidence of my husband’s good humor, these stories were very funny. Tarapada’s wife spoke no English, and Tarapada wasn’t terribly keen on it. My husband would occasionally try to translate for me but it was like trying to describe an orchestra to a deaf person. When Tarapada spoke English, it came out in short, hoarse bursts of glottal noise, not unlike gunfire. The last words were nearly always unintelligible and I would have to ask him to repeat himself which naturally exasperated him. Similarly, if I risked a question I could never tell if Tarapada understood a word of what I was saying. His glare signaled blank incomprehension, if not actual hostility. I really couldn’t tell.  Mostly I just sat there counting my mosquito bites and making minute adjustments to the folds in my sari. At about 11 or 12 at night, Tarapada would send out for kathi rolls from the Astor Hotel. The cylindrical rolls, filled with spiced chicken and tiny green rings of hot peppers, arrived warm, with grease lightly flecking the waxy paper they were wrapped in. Their arrival signaled the close of Tarapada’s evening and the highlight of mine.

Young Indian students had only recently begun to apply for undergraduate admission to American colleges and universities in significant numbers. Where once upon a time an aspiring Bengali academic might choose to pursue advanced studies in the Soviet Union or even Oxford or Cambridge, if they chose an America university they would have to answer for it. In Calcutta there was still something vaguely disloyal about anyone who chose to go to America instead.

A year before the first Gulf war, I felt that the pro Soviet/anti Americanism of the Bengalis was more of a salutary practice than a firm conviction, not unlike choosing low fat milk over whole. To someone’s proposition that the CIA had orchestrated the rise of Solidarity and the more recent fall of the Berlin wall, I once replied “you can’t be serious.” This was a mistake. On occasion some inane remark of mine at what I imagined was a friendly dinner party would end up in the society pages accompanied by a snarky comment. This happened more than once. It took me awhile to catch on that I was a subject of suspicion.

During one of these evenings at Tarapada’s house, he suddenly turned and spoke directly to me. He told me that he had known the American poet Allen Ginsberg, that he and his fellow poets had met him in the famed College Street coffeehouse in North Calcutta. Again, the tail end of the thought was lost in an explosion of incomprehensible and fearful sounds finishing in a deadly quiet. I smiled and Tarapada glared.

I had met Allen Ginsberg just once, several years before. He was smaller than I had imagined; his stature further undermined by the folds and cushions of an off white sectional sofa at an upper west side cocktail party. The once rabbinical beard was then trim and graying and there were suede patches on the elbows of his jacket befitting his new position as a professor at Brooklyn College.  He carried the weight of his legend lightly, with none of the affectations the young are so quick to discover and disparage. He had kind eyes—one slightly drooping from an illness we had all heard about—behind thick spectacles.

Nearly everyone at the party had a claim on him but any direct approach was made somewhat awkward by the arrangement of furniture. The party took place in one of those storied pre-war classic six apartments, with a book lined hallway running its length, the kitchen at one end and a living room and its sofa at the other. Just being in an owner occupied apartment back then gave me an outsider’s sense of belonging, a sense of having cracked New York City in some essential way.

I came with several friends, all in our mid twenties, freelancers and journeyman editors with inchoate aspirations. One, the son of a much married father who had edited a prominent literary magazine, was a beautiful and haunted young poet, with a voice so fast and low you were obliged to lean closer to hear him. As a sulky adolescent he had known writers and intellectuals I had admired for years and he took pleasure in disabusing me of their immortal stature. Yet, even for him, Allen Ginsberg commanded attention. He approached the couch with the same confidence, I recall thinking, a pretty young woman displays in the presence of an older but moneyed man.

Yet what I remember most about that evening was noting that Ginsberg only had eyes for a young man from India who had accompanied us. Unlike my other friends, the man was a relative newcomer to the city and a stranger to the literary lions in the room. Ginsberg’s eyes and voice found him trapped in the doorway and, patting the sofa, drew him in. Knowing from his name that he was a Bengali, he wanted to know which writers he knew in Calcutta.

College Street Coffee House. Credit: Soumyadeep Paul, CC BY 2.0

College Street Coffee House. Credit: Soumyadeep Paul, CC BY 2.0

Three years later, newly married to this young writer, and settled in a city I never once imagined I would even visit, I realized that it was comforting to be reminded by Tarapada that Allen Ginsberg had been here before me. That he had braved the worst suspicions of an entire cadre of skeptical, wary, and fierce Bengali poets and had disarmed them and learned from them. That he was able to prove he was not, as they first imagined, a CIA agent out to destabilize their young country. In the end they decided he was one of them: a poet in a city full of poets. Tarapada babu wouldn’t have said so, but I could tell that even after thirty years, he still considered Allen Ginsberg his friend.  It occurred to me that perhaps he was telling me of this friendship as a way of declaring a truce with me, a suspect American married to a Bengali writer. Perhaps, resigning himself to the fact that I wasn’t scared off, this was his way of being hospitable.

That, at least, was how I chose to see it. It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome, but it was the start of something. Years later, still married and outfitted with two children, seven years after the death of Allen Ginsberg, I was fired from my job as a book editor. Rather than look for another job I decided I wanted to write a book about the place of India in the American imagination. I began my research with the Transcendentalists, proceeding through Walt Whitman’s “A Passage to India” and Martin Luther King’s embrace of Gandhi’s thought, and Hollywood’s discovery of yoga. When it finally occurred to me that Allen Ginsberg 1962 and 1963 travels would be the perfect vehicle to explore this subject, I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to think of it. Tarapada’s mention of Ginsberg on that long ago evening I now decided had granted me permission to write about Allen and the Bengali poets he had come to love.  It was only then, in the course of researching the book, that I heard all the stories of Allen’s stay in Calcutta.

Five days before he died Allen wrote a poem entitled “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgia)” which included memories of his days in Calcutta and Benaras and his travels in India with his lover, Peter Orlovsky.

Nor ever return to Kashi “oldest continuously habited city in the world”
bathe in Ganges & sit again at Manikarnika ghat with Peter,
visit Lord Jagganath again in Puri, never back to Birbhum take
notes tales of Khaki B Baba
Or enter to have Chai with older Sunil & Young coffeehouse poets,
Tie my head on a block in the Chinatown opium den, pass by Moslem
Hotel, its rooftop Tinsmith Street Choudui Chowh Nimtallah

Burning ground nor smoke ganja on the Hooghly

He meant the poem as a goodbye but for the poets he left behind, like Tarapada, it was more than that. Calcutta is Kolkata now and there are fancy malls and a lot less loadshedding.  But Tarapada is gone and the city is emptier without him.

This essay was originally published on TheSunflowerCollective, a site dedicated to the Beats and Hungryalist schools of poetry