On the Road with Desolation Angels

By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing I mean nothing honey that ain’t free
Feeling good was easy Lord when he sang the blues
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for and my bobby mcgee

From Kentucky coal mines to the California sun
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Through all kinds of weather
Through everything we’ve done
Bobby baby kept me from the cold

– Janis Joplin, Me and Bobby McGee

The other day I bumped into Carlos from California, who asked me,

“Hey, man, how long are you going to be in Bali? Are you going to vegetate here or move on? And did I tell you that this is the 50th year of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?”

This question reminded me of the time in the 70s when I bought Jack’s book for two rupees from a pavement seller on the famous College Street in Calcutta; and how my friend Bina read it to me in one sitting on Digha Beach, which was many hours’ bus ride from the city. We sat on the desolate beach in the monsoon drizzle huddled under a brolly eating peanuts and getting sand in our clothes. With the salt air and the frothing sea, it couldn’t have been a better setting.

I now recall that there were three books that I kept close to me throughout college, a sort of regulator of reality: Salvador Dali’s Diary of Genius, wherein he speaks of abdominal rumblings, discharges and wind elimination by Brass Trumpet; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; and Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. I lost them on the way but not the life they contained within. They have been constant reminders of how people should really live – without façades.

Jack’s On the Road opened my eyes to a brand new world of structure-less living: no rules, no barricades, nothing but the sheer delight of travelling without a care. It kept me from settling down, from committing myself to a formal relationship either in love or work. No complaints. Down the road I have desperately searched out the feeling that I once had, nothing … just the wind in my gut.

To read a book is one thing. But to live it is another. One of Jack’s novels, if this is the apt term, that intrigued me was Desolation Angels. Today I see its reflection in the people that congregate in Bali: the lost souls that arrive for succour and often lose themselves in a menagerie of people and fusion of cultures all jostling to find a place on this isle.

So why talk about a dead beatnik who is probably considered by many as the founding father of the Beat Generation?

Let me ask you one question. What if you had the opportunity to travel across countries with a bag containing few belongings slung over your shoulder, the wind as your friend, the comforting feeling of not knowing when your next meal would be and no credit card, cellphone or identity papers? You wouldn’t follow this daft suggestion, I know. What with the world getting smaller and more violent by the day. I suppose the yesteryears of flower power, free love and Woodstock means nothing to the dandies one sees hanging out at the malls. But can we judge these youngsters by the standards that we lived by not too long ago? And who decides what is right or wrong?

What if we can bring back the days before the idiot box became the massage of the medium, when sitting with a book and actually reading it cover to cover and then discussing it with a friend was a meaningful experience?

Being a child of mixed parentage, Indian-Irish-English-Spanish, I was made to read Shakespearian works, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Alexander Solzhenitsyn etc. Some I delighted in; others drove me to despair. Every book I received was inscribed. And many have been my travelling companions.

What did intrigue me were the magazines at The American University Centre situated on Chowringhee. It was like an oasis in a desert as India then was a socialist state and publications from the USSR crowded the shelves in all the bookshops. I would go there after school to “read” LIFE Magazine. Pictures of the Vietnam War were quietly torn out and later pasted on the wall at home. The anthem then was Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind and Janis Joplin’s Cry Baby. The local Marxists hoodlums would often picket the centre, shouting slogans and abuse, calling it a Centre for the CIA.

We liked to talk of Western imperialism but couldn’t do without our LIFE, Coke or Levi’s. So too most of our self-proclaimed Maoists and Marxists. Those were the days of hypocrisy, hype and heartburn. Of Western music and national angst. We were a f.k.d-up generation fiddling with whatever we had. Not really belonging to the present, but to the future.

Nevertheless Jack’s writing and Ginsberg’s shenanigans when he arrived unannounced in Calcutta all added up to a curious mix that helped us bridge the gap we felt floating rudderless in between their generation and the emerging pop culture. And to truly comprehend the essence of living life with a purpose, even though there appeared to be no apparent sense of direction. Our elders could not see the coherency in the madness nor tune in to the rhythms of our minds. Writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Sam Sheppard and Eugene Ionesco, to name a few, gave us a sense of proportion to the world outside India.

Dylan’s “Times there are a changing” refrain curdled the milk and left one searching for answers that were not there. Dylan was the bard of the 20th century, the Pied Piper of lost souls.

All these visionaries and storytellers guided us through the heady days of teenage puberty and cross-cultural fertilisations.

Many from my generation may be guilty of memory loss with regard to keeping a singular identity. Technology has played havoc with our senses. The web has become a many-headed monster that has castrated our minds. We are more likely to Google then make the effort of searching in libraries or bookshops for the references we need. Even if we do go to bookshops or libraries, they will in all likelihood not have the wide range of titles that used to be available in our time.

Who knows that maybe if this trend continues, one day we will forget the words that we have read. Then (hopefully) another stream of consciousness will give rise to new age, enlightened writers who will come up through the floorboards to emulate the literary revolutionaries of the past and pinion the minds of the readers. With a bit of luck it will give birth to another Beat Generation. I am looking forward to seeing the avatar of Ginsberg walking down Chowringhee in his lungi oblivious to the bemused onlookers.

Let us teach our children well and show them the way through books, which to our minds is the only vehicle we have used to enrich our lives. Visions in words by writers have moulded generations and have brought together convergent points of view.

Let us hope that in a world gone mad with hatred, the printed word will be our new saviour.

And in the words of the Bard:


Beyond the horizon

Behind the sun

At the end of the rainbow

Life has already begun


In the long hours of twilight

Beneath the stardust above

Beyond the horizon

It’s easy to love

– Bob Dylan, Modern Times


Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

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