When Deborah Baker moved to Calcutta in the 1990s to be with her new husband, novelist Amitav Ghosh, “Americans weren’t very popular,” she recalls. “Everyone was very nice, but there was a lot of suspicion.” One friendly haven she found was in the home of Tarapada Roy, a writer who had known Allen Ginsberg when the poet made his pilgrimage to India thirty years earlier. In a way, Baker reflects, “Ginsberg had made it a little easier for one to be an American in India.”
(Baker and her husband are stiil spending time in Calcutta and Brooklyn, even more so in the years since Baker left her career in book publishing (she was last a nonfiction editor at Little, Brown “four years ago, it might even be five”) and still more as their children approach college age.)
The thought stayed with her, and, years later, she tracked down the history of Ginsberg and other Beat writers’ travels to India and turned those stories into A Blue Hand. After spending six months writing the proposal, Baker says (“that’s the hardest part, trying to figure out how to tell the story”), she submitted it to Penguin Press on a Friday, and had an offer the following Monday. She was given nearly two years to deliver a final manuscript, but wound up handing it in seven months early.
“I knew I didn’t want to write a literary biography,” Baker says of the book, describing her impatience with the genre’s strictly chronological form. Instead, the narrative of A Blue Hand moves forward and backward in time, shifting fluidly from one figure to another, in essence creating a group identity. “[The Beats] were like Bloomsbury,” she explains. “Nothing would pass between them that wasn’t shared with everybody in their circle.” Ginsberg’s voluminous papers, in which he wrote down nearly everything he saw, further enabled her to take on his perspective as the story unfolded.
Although much of the book focuses on the most recognizable Beats, like Ginsberg, some little-seen figures make their way into the spotlight. “Unless you’re a hardcore Beat person, very few people have heard of Hope Savage,” she says of one person I mention as a revelation. Savage had left her family in South Carolina for Greenwich Village, moving on from there to Paris and later India. Gregory Corso met her early on, and “it’s clear he was obsessed with her, that she was the great love of her life.” But little else was known about her, and until Baker found a five-year stretch of letters she had written to someone else from this period, she remained a tantalizing figure of mystery. “She became my quest,” Baker says of her researches into Savage’s past. “I really thought I could find her.”