Mostly, they were talking about Allen Ginsberg, the first of the Beats to arrive in India and the one who fell most completely in love with it. For the Indian poets (and not just poets, but journalists, shopkeepers, ricksha-wallahs, and beggars) that he befriended, Ginsberg came to symbolize America. Not many Indians back then had ever met an American, and very few had ever encountered one like Ginsberg, endlessly curious, shamelessly queer, generous, tender, ecstatic. A better good-will ambassador than anyone the State Department had ever sponsored.
In 1971 Giorno came to visit Ginsberg in Calcutta. Gita Mehta was a journalist for the BBC. Just across the border, East Bengal was wrenching itself away from Pakistan preparatory to becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. Pakistan was doing everything it could to avert this, mostly by sending in its army to slaughter as many Bengalis as possible.
Tens of millions of Bengali refugees were flooding along Jessore Road toward Calcutta, with the Pakistani army at their heels. The stragglers were literally being ground under the wheels of troop carriers. Of those who managed to cross the border, thousands-- maybe millions-- starved to death.
This slow-motion holocaust drew both Mehta and Ginsberg to the border. Mehta, of course, was filming the refugees. I haven't yet read all of Deborah Baker's wonderful A Blue Hand, so I don't really know what Allen was doing there. Judging by things he did on other occasions in India, he may have just wanted to help in any way he could.
He recorded what he saw in the poem "September on Jessore Road." (See link above). It's a crude poem, written in the thudding doggerel of a nursery-rhyme:
Millions of babies watching the skies
Bellies swollen, with big round eyes
On Jessore Road-- long bamboo huts
Noplace to shit but sand channel ruts
Millions of fathers in rain
Millions of mothers in pain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of sisters nowhere to go
The effect is not just artless but primitive, as if what Ginsberg saw had shorted out his sophisticated poetry-making mechanism and forced him back to the most basic tools of the art, the ones used by children and the illiterate. By many standards, "September on Jessore Road" is a "bad" poem, or even a bad one, but I suspect that Ginsberg's biographer Bill Morgan may be right when he says it's among his greatest.
At the symposium, John Giorno showed some footage he'd shot of Ginsberg wandering among the refugees. It was rough and grainy, shot with a Super-8. The screen was crowded with emaciated bodies, with white eyes glowing from drawn dark faces. A potbellied child sits splayed in the sand. A man crawls brokenly forward like a corpse animated by nothing more than residual nerve impulses.
What is truly awful is the way some of the subjects smile at the camera. I don't know if they do this out of the reflex that causes most people to smile when a lens is pointed at them or because they recognized the good will of the two Americans, the one pointing his camera and the other stumbling dazedly in their midst.
The soundtrack was Ginsberg chanting or singing "September on Jessore Road." Bob Dylan is said to have played on the backup band. Ginsberg isn't much of a singer-- putting it kindly, he brays-- and the musical accompaniment is similarly crude. The instruments are muddy and out of tune, the rhythm lurches. I thought of someone trying to start a car with a busted engine, turning the ignition and stepping on the accelerator over and over. The engine coughs, gurgles and dies, coughs, gurgles, dies.
I don't mean to write a review of a lost piece of film footage. I want to know whether this artifact-- this conjunction of footage, poem, and music-- is an obscene harvest of other people's mistery or a legitimate response to it. "September on Jessore Road" doesn't read like a formed, aesthetically-poised work of art. It reads like a bystander's cry for help:
Where is America's Air Force of Light?
Causes Peter Trachtenberg Supports
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Mercy Corps, Move On, Oxfam