Allen Ginsberg, a Calcutta Story


Deborah Baker in The Wire:

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.

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