Hippies in the time of Covid-19

GAUTAM KUMAR BORDOLOI

Covid-19 pandemic has ruined everyone’s life worldwide – India being no exception – through forced confinement and killing for more than four months now and grave uncertainties about the future. It has destabilised mental equilibrium of one and all like never before cutting across geographical regions, races, and social and economic positions. The woes of the marginalized section in a country like India, where poverty is still an untameable monster, can be felt only with compassion, but not described vividly in words. Yes, life is in turmoil and we feel terribly depressed observing the fact that ‘social distancing’ has not brought much positivity to our social existence. Anyway, hope never dies……it springs eternal. The constant quest for an oasis by a traveller through an unending desert sums up the undying human spirits!

Transcending the gloom around, I have been trying my best to keep myself occupied with creative thoughts and deeds – well, mostly within the confines of my home. All along I have been thinking more than doing something productive, which in the current phase of my life obviously happens to be reading and writing for most part of the day. For some strange reasons, thoughts about the almost defunct ‘hippie culture’ have crossed my mind too often in the last few days. I tried to imagine as to how these nomadic nonconformists – the soldiers of peace and love – would have reacted to the enforced hibernation during these Covid-19 days. What would have been the strategies of these promiscuous ‘flower children’ on their trail seeking ‘nirvana’ primarily through hallucinogenic drugs, to escape from the onslaught of this pandemic?

Wikipedia rightly mentions that a hippie is a member of the ‘counterculture of the 1960s’, originally a youth movement that began in the United States during the mid-1960s and gradually spread to other countries in the world. This countercultural movement that rejected the mainstream American life, arose in part as opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War (1955 – 75). Looking back, August 1969 can be considered as a watershed in the hippie movement. The Woodstock Music and Art Festival held for three days in Bethel, New York was a landmark event. In the festival where Swami Satchidananda from India gave the opening talk, over 500,000 people gathered to hear “some of the most notable musicians and bands of the era” – among them were Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and others which helped the spread of hippie ideals of love and human fellowship throughout America and in some other countries too. Both ‘folk’ and ‘rock’ music became an integral part of the hippie culture – and gradually highly popular singers like Bob Dylan and groups, such as, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came to be very closely identified with the movement. The people who have fair knowledge of the ‘hippie trail’ know well that the movement eventually expanded to other countries, extending as far as the United Kingdom and Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and even to some parts of India like Goa, Kerala, Varanasi and Manali, and the capital city of Nepal – i.e. Kathmandu. By the end of the 1970s, the movement started waning and then got merged with other forms of social movements to continue with the protests against the conventional mores of society.

Well, about all the major components of hippie culture, such as, their philosophy and beliefs heavily drawn from Bohemianism and other eastern religions; their rebellion against war and other forms of political repression; the shocking concepts of their fashion; their nomadic lifestyle induced by psychedelic music and wanton use of drugs; their communal living in most unhealthy condition and their gradual degeneration into a social nuisance – have been extensively written and documented. The people of our generation, who are in their early sixties or so, can very well recall the tremendously popular film – ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ made by Dev Anand in 1971 on the decadence of the hippie culture in which Zeenat Aman in her debut role as a hippie made a solid impact on the viewers. A chain of historic events concerning the hippie movement played out in front of my eyes during these unplanned and languid Covid-19 days. However, I check myself from giving the details.

I just want to cite the example of two books which deal with ‘matters’ pertaining to the hippie movement. One book I had read years ago and the other I could read just a couple of days back as propelled by my renewed interest in the subject. I had bought a second-hand copy of a slim book titled “Hippie Dharma” written by one Captain Colaabavala more than two decades ago from a nondescript bookstore at College Street, Kolkata. It’s a no-holds-barred account of a journalist of the “bizarre subculture” of these social drop-outs and habitual drug addicts called hippies – who claimed to preach altruism, mysticism, honesty and non-violence – through his direct association with them in Nepal, in Bombay(now Mumbai) and in Goa. Apart from mentioning about the overland hippie trail from America to Nepal, their unfailing source of information through the “Invisible Post” – I can still remember that the book presented graphic details of aspirations and agonies of these ‘flower children’ drifting rootlessly from place to place in the 1970s. The book had evoked mixed feelings in me for these hobos by choice:  a sense of goodwill for their fight against the authoritarian state forces with non-violent means and at the same time disdain for their rampant use of drugs and indulgence in ‘free love’ in the name of personal freedom. 

My dallying with the hippie culture on and off amid the Covid blues recently goaded me into reading the novel – “HIPPIE” by the celebrated author Paulo Coelho that was lying on my shelf for quite a few months. My curiosity was boundless when I learnt it was part memoir and part fiction. In Coelho’s own words: “The stories that follow came from my personal experiences. I’ve altered the order, names, and details of the people here, I was forced to condense some scenes, but everything that follows truly happened to me.” Some of you may have read the book and formed your own opinion. Like some other reviewers, I too haven’t found it as gripping as his universally admired ‘The Alchemist’ or ‘Eleven Minutes’, but nonetheless the unique autobiographical elements have made it an inspiring read. The book interweaves atrocities of the state power, philosophical exploration, dreams of a lost generation, the spirit of adventure inherent in human hearts, and even the incident of disillusionment of the seekers like famous Mia Farrow and the Beatles with the ‘enlightened’ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – in a bid to find out the true meaning of life and living in a fast changing social order. In the book Coelho relives with sympathy the dreams of a generation clubbed as ‘hippies’, who advocated for ‘Make Peace Not War’ and challenged the harsh social norms of the time. In ‘Hippie’, Coelho tells the story of Paulo – a young, skinny Brazilian, sporting long, flowing hair and a goatee with strong aspiration to become an established writer one day – learning about himself by exploring the world. For his bohemian lifestyle, Paulo was incarcerated in his own country Brazil, being victim to both left-wing and right-wing guerrillas, before travelling on the ‘Death Train’ to Bolivia and then to Peru. Paulo hitchhiked through Chile and Argentina to finally reach Amsterdam, Holland. There he met and befriended Karla – a beautiful, young Dutch girl in her twenties at the famous Dam Square, who was waiting to meet the ideal companion to accompany her on the fabled hippie trail to Nepal. Together with their fellow passengers, each one of whom had an interesting story to tell – both embarked on a trip aboard the Magic Bus that charged a fare of approximately a hundred dollars each – which would take them through a number of pretty interesting countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a part of India to reach their final destination – Kathmandu (Nepal) over a period of three weeks. Proximity and exploration during the journey helped Paulo and Karla to increase mutual understanding and love. However, despite that Paulo broke the journey in the middle, getting stuck in Istanbul to learn the practices of Sufism with great devotion and Karla proceeded to Nepal to continue with her search for enlightenment, making a declaration that she would keep loving Paulo all her life. It was destined that they would not meet again in their lifetime. The readers may find out for themselves as to why a personal adventure with its ups and downs is inevitable to arrive at the final destination – i.e., to attain the power to realise the deeper meaning of life through the wisdom acquired.

All this happened to the advocates of peace and love—the hippies and the people closely drawn towards their philosophy and modes of protest 50 years ago. However, the aura of that time still lingers. Just the other day I wondered how these ‘flower children’–the practitioners of communal living –would have reacted to the most essential self-isolation during the present Covid-19 situation. Although I do not have a definite answer my gut feeling says that instead of being cowed down straightaway, they would have still loved to sing and believe in those lines of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore that found a place of prominence in the very beginning of the book ‘HIPPIE’:

And when old words die out on the tongue,

new melodies break forth from the heart;

and where the old tracks are lost,

new country is revealed with its wonders”.

(Gautam Kumar Bordoloi, a Guwahati-based freelance journalist, can be reached at gkbordoloi11@gmail.com)