The spirit that animates - or at least haunts - Deborah Baker's excellent account of the Beats in India, A Blue Hand, is not the spirit of its main protagonist, the troubled, sweet-natured poet-mystic Allen Ginsberg, but rather an elusive seeker, chanter of Swinburne and one-time girlfriend of poet Gregory Corso, Hope Savage.
Ginsberg left New York for India in the fall of 1961, after months of delay and indecision, propelled by a vision of God he had in a Harlem apartment years earlier. He was met eventually by his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and the pair joined poet Gary Snyder and his then-wife Joanne Kyger for some weeks in exploring India, while Corso (the one truly unlikable figure in this history), remained ambivalently, fearfully at home, and William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac followed other paths. Driven by unknown dreams or demons, Savage had long ago slipped the bonds of her eminent South Carolina family and of Corso and traveled by herself to Iran and Afghanistan. By the time Ginsberg arrived in India, she was already there.
Drawing with marvelous artistry from the papers and archives of Ginsberg and others, Baker presents readers with the manifold textures of the Beats' inner quest - the dreams and nightmares, the drug use (which Ginsberg almost comically hoped would fast-track enlightenment), the personal and artistic rivalries, the poetry and the sometimes-numbing, sometimes-uplifting encounters with India itself. Baker, who was a finalist for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for a biography of poet Laura Riding, wields here a scalpel-like pen: "Allen Ginsberg lay in a sweat-drenched puddle of self-pity," she writes early in the book. "He had so wanted to be a saint, but what was he supposed to suffer for?"
In May of 1963, Ginsberg headed home. According to Baker, "despite his passion for the idea of India, there was something improbable about Allen Ginsberg's pilgrimage there. Unlike many of those who came after him, he neglected to leave much of his past behind. Instead, he brought most of it with him."
Savage, on the other hand, had cut her ties with the past and, it seems, absorbed the Eastern spiritual ideal of self-abnegation. Baker writes that she searched assiduously for Savage but never found her, not even a trace.