Howling for Rishikesh

Inspired by Ginsberg, a writer visits India’s meditation capital

Rishikesh is many things to many people. It is where the Ganges is, in some sense, the purest—having just slowed its path from the meltwaters of the Gangotri. To Hindus, Rishikesh is a site of pilgrimage. To aspiring yogis, it is the world’s yoga capital. And to some, like me, it is just a small town in the Himalayan foothills where one goes to escape the mindless buzz of the city, to smoke weed, while emphatically not looking to find oneself. To the American Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, Rishikesh was a stop in his year-long trip through India between 1962 and 1963. In 1956, after he’d published “Howl,” the poem that catapulted him to the forefront of the Beat movement, Ginsberg came to India “looking for the sacred … which had disappeared in the US,” posits his biographer Deborah Baker. He and his partner, fellow Beat poet Peter Orlovsky set out via sea, and by the time they reached Bombay, all they had was a dollar between them.

India, said Ginsberg, was “rich and exquisite,” and an “aesthetically attractive culture.” More importantly, though, it was “also least expensive … at that time India was pretty well unknown.”

And when they visited Rishikesh, it truly was a small, unknown town.

Today, though, its small-town infrastructure can barely contain its density of ashrams and yoga centers. Ever since The Beatles visited to learn Transcendental Meditation in 1968, it has been marketed as a spiritual sanctuary. As a result, roadsides are jammed with endless rows of souvenir shops selling overpriced trinkets made elsewhere, while trendy hole-in-the-wall cafes sell espressos and lattes at prices that are shamelessly disproportionate to the lone barista’s wages.

To me, it is just a small town in the Himalayan foothills where one goes to emphatically not look to find oneself.

And with the cows, the heat, the tourists, the flies, and the motorcycles and selfie-takers holding up traffic on pedestrian bridges—I was confused and bothered as to why people had come here to “find” themselves.

“There’s a whole country out there,” I’d blurted out to a Finnish guy I met at The Ganga View Café one evening. When he informed me that he and his partner were only there to learn Reiki, and would be returning home once their course was finished, I couldn’t help think how shallow the world seemed nowadays.

In Ginsberg’s published India Journals, in which everything, from the dreams he had while here to his letters to Jack Kerouac are preserved, Ginsberg describes a “premonition dream.” While still in Haifa, Israel, he writes, “I’m wandering in India, it’s like a new earth – I’m happy – I wake.”

Admittedly, when I initially learned of Ginsberg’s India connection, I was tempted to brush it aside with all the other foreign clichés who’ve come and gone. But his diaries, rather than the sheer amount of time he spent here, prove otherwise. Ginsberg came to India with a genuine sincerity—he didn’t come looking for a guru, or for anything in particular, for that matter. He came looking for a level of genuineness that he thought American society lacked at the time. On the side of a Bombay map, he scribbles a poem, with one line that shines exceptionally well, in all its weirdness: “Eat an orange with your eye.”

Photo credit: Wallace Howe / Flickr

When I first moved to Bombay as a copywriter at an ad agency, the city itself was what drove me: In its quirky street-corner bookshops, heritage buildings and destitution, I found solace and motivation in equal measure. Whenever I’d be Ubering back from work, complaining about traffic, I’d look out of my window and see a man sleeping on the street or a woman bathing her baby near a petrol pump. To live in Bombay is to eat an orange with one’s eye daily.  

Yet, that genuineness is something I think Indian society—and perhaps societies the world over—lack in the age of social media, rising nationalism and faux individualism.

When most people discuss the first time they read “Howl,” they talk about the revelation that goes with it. I can’t relate. For me, it isn’t a poem of the same value as something by Dickinson or Frost or Tagore. I don’t feel moved after reading it; I feel uncomfortable. The sort of uncomfortable that is perhaps best described as an itch that can’t be scratched. The type one revisits periodically to see if anything has changed—either I or it.

To me, “Howl” is an apposite analogy for the world right now. It’s what brought me to Rishikesh, in a sense. I’m envious of “the best minds” who wandered—aimlessly without emphasis on the destination; they thought, and felt, and bled in a world that was still new. “Howl” is what’s missing in our world, with curated Instagram feeds and beige mainstream culture. It’s what we need more of right now. We need more absurdism to make sense of the world we live in; we need to emphasize our values rather than whether we’re right or left or somewhere in the middle. We need to take stands. We need more cries against capitalism, exploitation and repression, to reassess the “Molochs” we deal with today.

I don’t feel moved after reading “Howl”; I feel uncomfortable.

The Indian election was fresh on people’s minds as I walked the streets of Rishikesh. Posters of the incumbent Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), were plastered on walls, telephone poles and on other posters. When I was there, they were favored to win—by a long shot. The “best minds” of my generation—liberal-minded and intellectually open in all other matters (apart from politics)—thought that the BJP’s candidate, current prime minister Narendra Modi, was the “better” choice; the “only” choice. They didn’t see his lack of taking a stand against religion-based crimes to be an issue (he is, after all, a politician). They didn’t see the rising crimes against women as cause for concern (the media, after all, exaggerates too much); they didn’t see the censorship, the plummeting employment rates, the increase in gun violence, the lack of journalistic integrity, the propaganda, the slaughtering of journalists who do speak out against the right, the plight of farmers who have suffered dry summers and debt and chosen death as a means to an end.

They saw the caricature of the other candidate, the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, a son of a son of a son of a politician, whose entire family has been in politics since India gained independence, painted by the media as an oaf of his own making, incapable of stringing a sentence together. His policies weren’t bad, they’d tell you, but the party has a history of corruption—a fact you can’t refute, but is the alternative much better? Is there even an alternative?

Allen Ginsberg greets Bhaktivedanta Swami at the San Francisco Airport, January 17, 1967.

The combination of frustration, confusion and utter futility (of thought) is something “Howl” enshrines perfectly. While Ginsberg snaked his way through the Indian rail lines, drinking sweet, milky tea, stopping in opium dens in Delhi and hanging out with Hungryalist poets in Calcutta, he made sporadic but detailed notes about everything from his meals to his inability to digest them. Yet, Rishikesh only appears thrice in India Diaries—once in poetry, and twice in a letter to Kerouac.

But based on poet Joanne Kyger’s corresponding diaries from the same time, she, Gary Synder, Ginsberg and Orlovsky all stayed in Rishikesh in March 1962.  From an entry dated March 2 that year: “Moved across the Ganges to Swarg Ashram. Two rooms, for Peter & Allen, Gary & I. Afternoon walk down to sand and rock point of Ganges—white glittering sand. A few orange robes spread on rocks to dry.”

My mind went wild at this glimpse of information: Ginsberg and I were both in Rishikesh in March. Both on the other side of the river. Was he in Ganga Vatika? Tapovan? Where in Swarg Ashram? I scoured books and internet forums, hoping to find specific answers, but found none that was verifiable. And, in a lot of ways, I’m thankful I didn’t. By not knowing, possibilities scattered themselves everywhere.

Perhaps it’s the idea that the only thing separating me from Ginsberg is time.

I don’t fully understand what it is about sharing an experience with someone who’s dead, whom you admire. Perhaps it’s the idea that the only thing separating me from Ginsberg is time, and if there were a hole in the fabric of time, we’d have actually crossed paths. It is perhaps especially significant to me since I didn’t really enjoy my time in Rishikesh until Ginsberg was there with me—57 years apart, not looking for anything in particular, but eating oranges with our eyes.

Maybe he walked the length of the Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula. Maybe he saw the Ganga Aarti, a prayer to the river and Goddess Ganga. Maybe he sat by the Ganges, complaining about the new March sun, swatting away flies, and keeping a keen eye out for sadhus who had the “special prasad.”

In his letter to Kerouac, Ginsberg says, describing three holy men sitting cross-legged and in silence with “fixed bloodshot” eyes: “Climbed hill & talked to beautiful Jerry Heiserman … The sitting bloodshot-eye yogis down below on the path–?’ Ah, they’re just poster advertisements for the real holy yogis invisible in the mountains near Gangotri.”

With the Indian general election having just wrapped up and the BJP’s landslide victory (it exceeded exit poll predictions and won a greater share of the vote than the last time around), I can’t help but find “Howl” more relevant. With the changes this country has seen over the last few years—the rise in vigilantism against minority groups, and the witch-hunting of individual expression—I can only wait and see what is to come over the next five years.

As I vacillate between two states of mind—hopeful that people knew what they were voting for, and being bitter with certainty that they probably did—I see Ginsberg’s India. As disappointed as I am by the outcome of this election, I find myself taking solace in those few constants which make India, India.  At the end of the day, regardless of how many “Swachh Bharat” (“Clean India”) campaigns are launched, how many Indians own smartphones, and how many millions more use social media, there will always be railway chai, hole-in-the-wall cafés, and overpriced souvenir shops.


Akanksha Singh

Akanksha Singh is a travel writer and culture journalist based in Bombay, India. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost, The Independent, Parts Unknown, Roads and Kingdoms, and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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