Moving to the Ginsberg Beat in Calcutta

What happened when the blazing Beat poet befriended creative rebels in the 1960s city?  
Ginsberg
The trail started at the iconic Indian Coffee House in College Street, where Ginsberg had sauntered in one fine day with his lover Peter Orlovsky. Photo by: Radiokafka/ shutterstock

Like most non-resident Bengalis, I travel to Calcutta frequently, and every time, I chance upon some unexplored treasure tucked between the drapes of history. But this time was singularly special. I have been researching on the journey of the Beat poets in India during the Sixties for a book, and my last visit to the city of many a literary revolution mirrored this new-found ethos. I walked the streets I have walked a hundred times, lingered in front of book shops and food cabins I’ve frittered away entire afternoons in—this time armed with the borrowed gaze of none other than American Beat Hercules Allen Ginsberg.

It was the summer of 1961 when Allen Ginsberg made a trip to India in search of a spiritual guru. I’d imagine you couldn’t fault the average onlooker for mistaking him to be just another disillusioned Westerner doing the rounds of holy Indian cities, in search of drugs, sex and a vague notion of the exotic Orient. But Ginsberg was a poet of sparkling skill and repute, even though not many Indians knew it at that point. He had already read his legendary poem Howl at San Francisco’s Six Gallery event (1955) and begun to exercise a huge influence on how Americans wrote and reacted to poetry. What distinguished him in his quest for Eastern wisdom, often typical of the Beat generation, was the genuineness of his interaction with the other Indian poets, whom he sought out almost everywhere he went. Ginsberg’s trip took him to Bombay, Benaras, Patna and Calcutta, and a few other places in the Himalayan foothills where he mingled extensively with local poets, musicians and artistes. He even wrote about them in great details in his Indian Journals. But it was Calcutta where he stayed the longest, the city by which he was influenced the most.

On my quest to retrace Ginsberg’s footsteps along the streets where he had taken photographs searing into Calcutta’s 60’s soul, I was accompanied by my friend Arnab, a historian and Calcuttaphile. It seemed appropriate that we start our trail at the iconic Indian Coffee House in College Street where Ginsberg had sauntered into one fine day in 1962 with his lover Peter Orlovsky, keen on meeting Bengali poets like Sunil Ganguly and Shakti Chattopadhyay. The stairway to the Coffee House is time-worn and dimly lit. Terracotta tiles line the last part of the wall leading into double-decked hall has hosted many a stormy adda sessions thronged by cultural greats like Ritwik Ghatak, Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray.

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It is difficult to retrace the footsteps of someone who had explored the city to its core, but embracing the characteristic facets of Calcutta—tramlines, cabin restaurants and riverside crematoriums—gives one a sense of the author’s great enchantment. Photo by: S B Stock/shutterstock

Arnab and I whetted our appetites, literary and literal, over the somewhat cold, signature mutton cutlets. One cannot but feel conscious of the immense cultural history that the place has been a witness too. Rebel poet Shakti Chattopadhyay was known to have stood by these dirty old walls, uproariously drunk, reciting his poems to an awe-struck audience. The time-warp of Coffee House, and Calcutta’s characteristic nostalgia, set stage for our trail, made simple by the fact that much of Ginsberg’s movements across the city had been documented by the poet himself. Ginsberg, I already knew, stayed at the dingiest of places, a small hotel called Amjadia in Chandni Chowk—so seedy that his Indian writer friends refused to visit him there. Our next stop, AllenKitchen, in the traffic-crammed Shobhabazar—is one of Calcutta’s many iconic ‘cabin restaurants’ that Ginsberg and friends frequented.

An early start meant that by the time we negotiated the heavy Pujo traffic and reached, it was still only afternoon. It was obvious that we would have an early lunch at the 131-year-old eatery, famous for its prawn cutlets. I wasn’t quite sure about what to expect from the place. North Calcutta is full of these tiny hole-in-wall joints where you can grab a bite on the go. I just hoped that this place, worthy of Ginsberg’s company and his first name (not named after him) would be distinguished by some compelling character; something that would make it easy to imagine the presence of the man who disarmed the initially suspicious Bengali poets of the time into a warm comradeship. Had he perhaps walked into the establishment, pulled in by the scent of brain chop? To say that Allen Kitchen is small is an understatement—a short walk from Sobhabazar metro station, you could easily miss it if you’re not careful. I stood at the front door imagining a pajama-clad Ginsberg reclining on these chairs, casually thrown around the tiny tables that come into view once you walk past a smallish kitchen. In the kitchen, I spotted a sullen-looking man, rolling out chapattis and luchis rather mechanically. The walls around this part looked renovated. When asking the owner about possible hand-me-down stories about Ginsberg yielded no results, we promptly treated our disappointment with some delectable mutton kobiraji and prawn cutlets.

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When Ginsberg arrived in Calcutta, he had already read his legendary poem Howl at San Francisco’s Six Gallery event. Photo by: ©The Protected Art Archive / Alamy/ IndiaPicture

The rather heavy meal, coupled with the Calcutta humidity, slowed us down on our way to our next stop—the Nimtala crematorium on Beadon Street—so we chose to drive the fifteen minute distance instead of walking it. The burning ghat, which came up in 1827, is fraught with melancholia past and present—possibly what appealed to Ginsberg, who was known to visit the somber haunt by the Hooghly River. The stories from his India Journals recount how Ginsberg and his fellow trailblazers, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay would, come here to smoke up. Ganja in India was easier to come by in those days, and Ginsberg could not get over the fact that it was being sold in shops, while it remained banned in America.  Walking around the banks of the river, I tried to imagine how it might have looked back in the day—the ghats wouldn’t have been cemented, and wooden pyres would have been quietly sitting in the distance. A lot has changed since then, with electric cremation taking over. What has remained unaltered though, I imagined, is the grief that accompanies death, and the gentle breeze, making its way into the crematorium from across the river. Arnab and I sat on the edge of the river, exchanging popular stories about the poets, as women at a distance broke their shankhapola—the red and white bangles considered the mark of a married Hindu Bengali woman—grieving their loss beside seemingly stoned sannyasis. Sunil Ganguly in one of his interviews had mentioned that Allen had wanted to see the exact process by which the flesh was transformed into ash and bone. Ginsberg would often drop into one of the nondescript eateries in Chinatown before reaching the crematorium, sitting where he would make little notes in his diary.

Trying to see a city through someone else’s eyes can be mystifying, but at the tail-end of my trail, I was prepared to believe that when he left India for Vancouver in 1964, Ginsberg took parts of the city with him. In that sense, he was probably a one man who had understood the essence of the City of Joy better than most.

  • Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. Her latest book The Hungryalists is about a poetry revolution in Bengal.

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