By DANICA COTO
It was 1961, and Allen Ginsberg was in search of life’s meaning.
His quest would lead him to the gurus and ashrams of India, to its streets and heady opium dens. It is a journey that Deborah Baker tells through journals, letters, memoirs and other documents collected for A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (Penguin, 243 pages, $25.95).
Ginsberg’s friends in New York insist that he travel to the East and explore the subcontinent with them, but he does not need much encouragement. Ginsberg had already heard the ancient voice of William Blake reciting poetry inside his Harlem apartment. He had looked outside the window and noticed how everything was created by a ‘‘living hand,’’ how the sky itself was ‘‘the living blue hand.’’
‘‘From that moment, Irwin Allen Ginsberg became a divining rod in the headlong and holy pursuit of God,’’ Baker writes.
She weaves an intricate if somewhat tedious description of Ginsberg’s travels through India and his quest for meaning while accompanied by his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and in the company of poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger.
The adventure is slow to start.
We first meet Ginsberg’s fellow Beat poets — Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso — and their stints in jail, mental wards and drug-infested apartments. The anecdotes flit from one character to another, causing confusion. The reader’s mind wanders and wonders when Ginsberg will finally embark on his trip.
He leaves having already received widespread acclaim for his poem, ‘‘Howl.’’
Ginsberg arrives in India to discover that almost everyone has a guru and is on their own spiritual path. Suddenly, he feels out of place, and so do his ideals of remaining loyal to the Harlem vision, of laboring for the working class, of never reading poetry for profit.
He realizes his conundrum: He wants to be a saint, but doesn’t have a cause.
‘‘’What’s to be done with my life which has lost its idea?’ is Jack drunk? Is Neal still aware of me? Gregory yakking? Bill mad at me? Am I even here to myself?’’
We gain insight that Ginsberg wants a quick answer to his search for meaning. Not content with teachings such as, ‘‘The only guru is in your own heart,’’ he asks the Dalai Lama if drugs can help him reach enlightenment.
The account of his travels through India draws heavily on the observations of Snyder and Kyger, and one yearns to hear Ginsberg’s voice more often. The explanation for this lack of insight comes from an unlikely source, a police officer intent on terminating Ginsberg’s visit to India:
‘‘Why do you stay here in India so long? People come, see and they go. What do you DO here? There must be some reason for you to stay so long.’’
Ginsberg admits that he wonders the same thing.