Holy Dips at Vancouver Sangam

Indian Summer Fest treats local palates to mixed masala of arts, laughs and ideas

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You’d have to buy a whole shelf-full of books to really get the most out of the Indian Summer talk by Iyer’s friend and contemporary, the Bengali/New York “public intellectual” Amitav Ghosh. Not just Ghosh’s latest non-fiction foray, The Great Derangement, which lent its title and topic to his Vancouver appearance. You could usefully delve into his five previous essay collections, as well as his nine published works of fiction and a broad sampling of other contemporary novelists.

Not that any of them, aside from Ghosh’s latest, the just-released Gun Island, adequately deals (by his own reckoning) with what has become his dominant concern: climate change – a challenge of such far-reaching temporal and spatial consequence as to defy the human lifespan-limited confines of the modern novel as it has evolved.

The result is an impoverishment of our culture-wide imaginarium, a “derangement” that breeds our deer-in-the-headlights paralysis in the face of the looming catastrophe. Sci-fi and speculative historiography make a stab at it, but the subject has mostly remained beyond the reach of “bourgeois realistic” fiction.

In Gun Island, Ghosh comes at it with a kind of genre-bending Black Magic realism that places him somewhere between the “trickster” and “oracle” categories of Indian Summer’s tripartite typology – a heading that also embraces The Beats in India, the subjects of the next-day talk by essayist/biographer Deborah Baker. Married to Ghosh, she’s the American partner in a literary power couple that scintillates in salons from Brooklyn to Calcutta to Goa.

So she’s drawn to the theme of India’s influence on the American imagination, tracing a lineage from Henry David Thoreau to Martin Luther King. But, as she recounts in her 2008 compendium, A Blue Hand,  the node that most beguiled her on this through line was bohemian poet Alan Ginsberg, whose seminal 15 month sojourn (1961-63) in Benares and Calcutta cross-fertilized the literary and political cultures of both India and his native U.S.

As described in Baker’s book, Ginsberg arrives in India as an established Literary Lion (if somewhat of an enfant terrible) – presentably dressed and barbered, enough of a star to be sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, the “soft power” arm of the State Department, for public readings.  

But he promptly flies the coop, hobnobbing with scruffy Bengali café bards (thereby anointing them as up-and-coming celebrities in their own right), all the while searching for a Guru to ratchet him, through a judicious blend of pharmacology and meditation, up to his next plane of spiritual evolution.

The Guru failed to materialize, as it turned out, but by the time he left the subcontinent, Ginsberg had morphed into what was to become his lifelong persona: shaggy, starry-eyed, incantatory, a cross between a poetaster and a sadhu with an uncanny instinct (influenced by his encounters with Indian Gandhians) for political theatre. In other words, the self-invented prototype of the hippie/yippie activists and trend-setters of the Flower Power decades to come.

To celebrate this transformation, Baker illuminated her talk with pungent quotes from Ginsberg’s extensive correspondence with fellow-Beats and evocative snapshots (projected onto a backscreen) of his travels and encounters in India.

Indian Summer’s capstone event was meant to have been a world-premiere collaboration, “Strings for Peace,” between Sarod ustaad Amjad Ali Khan and jazz guitar icon Sharon Isbin. But on the day of the concert Isbin fell ill, so the Chan Centre stage was given over entirely to Amjad Ali, his two sons, and a pair of Zakir Hussein disciples, Aditya Kalyanpur and Amit Kavthekar, specially flown in from Boston as (in Sirish Rao’s phrase) “a tabla ambulance corps.”

The recital was electrifying on its own terms, but not quite the fusion milestone we’d hoped.

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