Supervisor: Mary Storm, Ph.D.
Subimal Basak, Hungryalist Poet
SIT: Study Abroad
India: National Identity and the Arts, New Delhi
It has been such a privilege working with the following people, all of whom I admire immensely. I owe the results of this project to them.
To Dr. Storm and the staff of SIT: National Identity and the Arts—Katherine Ernst Mehta, Arjun Singh Chauhan, Yogesh Wadhwa, Savita Borges, Prahlad-ji: For not only doing their best in their professional roles, but also in their roles as mentors and friends.
To my ISP advisor Subimal Basak: For being incredibly avuncular to me from the day he received my letter in the mail. I greatly thank him and his wife Gayatri for their love, support, and patience as they stay over for days—just so I could sift through all of Subimal-da’s primary materials.
To Malay Roy Choudhury: For constantly checking in with me, for keeping me apprised of all Hungry-related news. For encouraging me, through Skype, to pursue further research.
To Samir Roy Choudhury: For his wisdom, support, and anecdotes that gave me greater insight into the movement.
To Devarshi Roy Choudhury, Sandip Dutta, and Jyotsna Chattopadhyay: For their time, and for equipping me with background knowledge about the Hungryalists.
To my homestay mother Sree, many times over: For giving me the gumption and encouragement to keep questioning, always.
To my family—Mimi, Papa, Sharina: For rooting me on and allowing me to be here for this experience, for sending their love, support, and warmth from New York.
To Lisa Cohen, my English-major advisor at Wesleyan: For raising questions about biographies, many of which I encountered in portraying the Hungryalists.
To Carolyn Sorkin and Gail Winter at the Office of International Studies at Wesleyan: For their encouragement and assistance with my SIT application.
To the Olin Fellowship from the Department of English at Wesleyan University: For supporting me and enabling me to continue research on the Hungryalists come Summer 2012.
To all the Hungryalists I have not met: For pursuing the authentic, then going after it with all their hearts.
Table of Contents
The Trajectory of Kolkata as India’s Literary Sphere……………………………….7
Bengali Language and Literature in Early Kolkatan History…………………….7
Hungryalist Grievances Against Kolkata’s Litterati………………………………8
Literary Influences: Indian Writers………………………………………………10
Working in a Destructive/Regenerative Space…………………………………..10
Literary Influences: A Visit from the West………………………………………11
Philosophy on Conceptual Space………………………………………………………12
Employing Public Space………………………………………………………………..13
Methods of Distribution………………………………………………………….14
Methods of Employing Space on the Page…………………………………………….16
Malay’s Infamous Poem…………………………………………………………17
Subimal’s Writing Style………………………………………………………….18
Establishment language (Diction and Syntax)……………………………………19
Repercussions of Hungryalist Writings
The Post-Trial Space
Cross-Pollination with the West…………………………………………………22
Retrospective Views of the Movement in Periodicals……………………………23
Suggestions for Further Research……………………………………………………..27
The object of Hungryalism (hungrealisme)……………………………………………30
In 1962, Malay Roy Choudhury launched Hungryalism, a Bengali avant-garde socio-literary movement that his elder brother Samir and a few others joined in Kolkata. They called themselves the Hungryalists, or Hunger Generation, and responded to the rapid changes in 1959 post-partition Bangla polity, when displaced people flowed into Kolkata and politicians reigned over dominating spheres of influence. These Anti-Establishment writers wrote against conventional, mainstream Indian literary genres and focused on hybrid, experimental forms—many of which were considered anti-Indian, controversial, and landed some of them in jail for obscenity and subversive conspiracy, such as Malay’s poem “Stark Electric Jesus.” The Hungryalists’ writings reached beyond Kolkata—to Bombay, New Delhi, and eventually across to Europe and the Americas—after the infamous trial. The trial caused many to stray away from the movement and deny involvement, which caused many fractions within the group and its eventual demise. I have compiled portions from interviews and correspondence with the Hungryalists in a set of polyvocal prose-poems that follow this paper. This is only the beginning of a longer collection that I will complete this summer when I continue researching the Hungryalists thanks to a fellowship I have received from Wesleyan University.
“I’ll go on defending Obscenity,” poet Malay Roy Choudhury wrote, “until I’ve forced the society to embrace the total vocabulary of MAN.” (See Appendix 1). This declaration encapsulates the earnest and raucous spirit of the countercultural “Hungry Generation” writers and poets of 1960s Kolkata, India; they were also known as the Hungryalists, Hungrealists, Hungry Gs, or simply, The Hungries. Their journey commenced in 1961 from founder Malay’s house in Patna, Bihar, bringing in co-founders Samir (Malay’s elder brother), Shakti Chattopadhyay, and Debi Roy (real name Haradhon Dhara); thirty-five more poets, writers, and artists joined in the next few years. Other prominent Hungryalists include Subimal Basak, Basudeb Das Gupta, Falguni Roy, Pradip Choudhuri, Subhash Ghosh, wife and husband Tridib and Alo Mitra, and painters Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay (See Appendices 2-5).
The Hungryalists yearned to shake up the stagnant literary environment in Kolkata by revolutionizing the way a group of writers could occupy a post-partition, postcolonial sphere structurally, syntactically, and ideologically. They griped about the Indian cultural establishment and the sorts of literature it delivered. They critiqued the decadence and dislocations of modern Indian life, and sought to examine these issues through writing poetry, prose, manifestos, and distributing different forms of ephemera. Co-authorship and collaboration with each other—both in public space and on the page—was a critical part of the Hungryalist identity-formation process.
How do you approach a literary movement backed by a glaring paucity of reliable, secondary material regarding it? What gets lost when limiting one’s self to reserves of the little “hard history,” or secondary material, that does exist? Many Hungryalists are alive and reside in India, and there’s an urgency to hear what these writers have to say, if only to grasp the nuances, sensibilities, and micrographic history of their lives, that movement, and the role of the movement in India’s literary history.
This paper draws from secondary sources, primary sources, and a frustration in determining which one certain materials would qualify as. Which might a retrospective essay on the movement by a Hungryalist poet be? What about a literary compilation that published a collection of Hungryalist correspondences, manuscripts, and experimental works? I realized that their versions of the movement were going to be inherently biased, so part of my research felt like a careful process of gleaning facts and knowing how to weigh in nuanced responses about “history.”
The primary sources include interviews with three Hungryalist poets (Subimal Basak, Samir Roy Choudhury, Malay Roy Choudhury); Jyotsna Chattopadhyay, the head of the Bengali department at Rabindra Bharati University; Sandip Sutta, owner and founder of the Little Magazine Library and Research Center; and Devarshi Roy Choudhury, joint secretary and spokesperson for the Sabarna Roy Choudhury archives. I also examined the poets’ possessions as related to this research: old correspondences, their poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, and literary periodicals. Oral history is a vital area of historiography, and should not be considered to be peripheral in the scholarly sphere. The fragments and anecdotes from these interviews have implications beyond the context in which they were said; they are a testament to these still-vociferous poets. A shared space enables the form of a collage—an assemblage of different forms to create a new whole. The collage medium enables the existence of a third space. The collage’s cut-up medium is emblematic of the mental and political chaos the Hungryalists felt in a post-partition and postcolonial environment where voices like theirs were actively suppressed in the public realm.
The Trajectory of Kolkata as India’s Literary Sphere
Bengali Language and Literature in Early Kolkatan History
From the time the English established themselves in Bengal to the end of Kolkata as the capital of British India in 1912, western education and English spread between the local elites and led to an outpour of Bengali literature that made Kolkata intellectually rich. The Indian literati and European teachers were in conversation with one another, and the creation of textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries for Indian languages allowed the British East India Company’s European employees to learn these languages in order to communicate better with Indians. In 1778, one could easily access Bengali medieval literary works and new books due to the completion of the first Bengali typeset for printing. With this typeset, a distinctive type of Bengali literary prose, poetry, and journalism was much more accessible than before, garnering more interest in their writings, which led to a greater readership. What we think of as “modern” Bengali writings developed soon after.
Hungryalist Grievances Against Kolkata’s Litterati
“Modern Bengali writing is either trash or is a lump of academic bullshit,” writes Debi Roy in conjunction with a few other Hungryalists. “It is text-book writings, good for teaching or carrying on as a subsidiary business.” Hungryalists re-assessed these writings and decided that they were tired of the typical subject matters and manners of bourgeoisie expression; they would take the literary situation into their own hands and start publishing their own anti-Establishment works.
Roy’s lament about modern Bengali writing, in reference to the mechanical hand of the publishing industry in Kolkata in the 1960s, is echoed in an essay Malay wrote about the literary aristocracy in Kolkata—a city that was—and still is, some would argue—the locus of the Indian literary world. In a letter to Howard McCord he wrote, “Calcutta is actually the nest of Indian avant-garde. The reason that Hungrealist shrieks of libertad [sic] started from Calcutta itself is that Calcutta, the capital city of Bengal, the city of squalor, filth, speed, cruelty, politics, refugees etc. gives physical evidence of India’s cultural collapse.” Here, Malay is indirectly referencing events leading up to Partition, such as the horrific famine of 1943 that caused millions to perish, and the Second World War that soon followed. He is also referencing millions of displaced middle-class refugees who were deemed homeless almost over night when they poured into West Bengal after partition in 1947. With this flood of refugees, unemployment was ludicrously high and it was near-impossible to find housing as well; some stayed in suburbs while other slept on Kolkatan sidewalks. The Indian economy did not develop thoroughly enough to account for these refugees, and as a result, it was hard to come upon any semblance of a solid Bengali community among the fractured households and neighborhoods. Even amidst the chaos of displaced refugees, Malay complained, certain Bengalis rose and called themselves the “elites” of the new India. Though the ideas of their influences are echoed in their own writings, unlike their predecessors, the Hungryalists had inherited a post-partition, postcolonial space in which to write.
Literary Influences: Indian writers
Early prominent Kolkatan writers drew on romantic trends and a kind of humanistic idealism that the Hungryalists were quick to criticize, such as that of poet and dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt who was inspired by European literary genres such as the ode, sonnet, and blank verse, and wrote epics with help from Greek and Latin classics. Before the Independence era, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) wrote romantic poems about patriotism and his inclination towards social revolution, as well as songs praising the goddess Kali and the Islamic culture of his parents. Dutt’s readership grew quickly, and his popularity—alongside that of Islam, Tekchand Thakur, and Bankim Chandra Chatterji—is indicative of the many prominent Bengali writers working from the first half of the twentieth century until the end of British rule.
Rabindranath Tagore, known for his poetry, novels, essays, plays, songs, and paintings, was admired in mainstream culture for his humanistic messages, metric form, and imagery. In addition to writing with literary Bengali, sadhu bhasha, Tagore was also one of the first writers to use spoken language in his writings, known as chalet chasha.
Subsequent generations like the Hungryalists, as well as those on far ends of the social spectrum such as orthodox Hindus and radical progressives, critiqued Tagore’s romantic and philosophical idealism borne out of the Upanishads and his upper-class aristocratic background. Malay found him to be “A traitor not because he has turned Bengal into a Tagore-family lavatory & corrupted Bengali literature to an extent that nobody from Shantiniketan can utter a single word correctly. It is he for whom this multitude if castrated ninnies overflows Calcutta’s streets. It is he for whom the Critic Syndicate of Calcutta Establishment fattens.” The Hungryalists looked up to the writing styles of Jibanananda Das and novelist Manik Bandyopadhyay as well. Although the Hungryalists criticized Tagore and other writers for writing with a homogenous, pretentious, and inaccessible language, they acknowledged that their space was an inherited one and that they were products of the Bengali writers who preceded them.
Working in a Destructive/Regenerative Space
In response to Karl Marx’s comment, “British rule in India had two effects: one destructive, the other regenerative,” Samir Roy Choudhury wrote, “All movements are born against some system of domination—be it social, cultural, economic, ethical, aesthetic, religious, literary, artistic, or institutional. The intent, aspiration or destiny of a movement is to dismantle that system and expand that realm. The chief aim of the postcolonial phase is to emerge out of colonial modernity…the colonial power-structure.” The Hungryalists were influenced by earlier movements from the 1920s onward, when literary magazines such as Kallol, which also critiqued Tagore’s easy optimism and considered it unrealistic and unresponsive to the effects of the first World War; they believed poetry was inextricable from society and life, and they did not feel that Tagore, with his upper-class background, could represent the trials and tribulations or the values and prejudices of the middle class. Yet, as Marx points out, the space that Kallol writers were in—as well as the Hungryalists—was a regenerative, inherited space. The Hungryalists questioned it with razor-sharp attention and attempted to make it their own.
Literary Influences: A Visit from the West
The Hungryalists are overarchingly compared to the post-World War II Beat Generation writers in the United States, countercultural figures who also wrote about non-conformity, spontaneous writing, sex, and experimentation with drugs. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, as well as Gary Snyder and Peter Orlovsky, stayed with Malay and Samir and became interested in the Hungryalists and their philosophy. He took news about them back to the States where many writers and publishers associated with the Beat Generation wished to publish Hungryalist writings. Much debate exists over the extent to which the Hungryalists were influenced by Beat writings and other Western writers such as Artaud, Genet, Michaux, Burroughs, Miller, and Celine. In an co-written essay by a few Hungryalists, Roy writes, “Hunger describes a state of existence from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it. The Hungries can’t addord the luxury of being Beats, ours isn’t an affluent society. The single similarity that a Beat has with a Hungry is in their revolt of the personal, in the discovery of individual feeling.” Also acknowledging the comparisons that are made between the Beats and the Hungryalists, American writer Howard McCord defended the Hungryalist writings’ “autochthonous” singular qualities, which he believes created “…an indigenous response” to the disillusionment with Indian life that was also indicative of the “strong Bengali avant-garde tradition.” Yet with Ginsberg’s visit, it is certain that Malay, Samir, and a few other Hungryalists were inspired to keep writing and to keep the movement alive.
Philosophy on Conceptual Space
The Hungryalists were united under their ideas about conceptual and physical space, and applied their philosophy through their actions in the physical sphere—both public space and white space on the page. Conceptually, they wished to redefine the literary space that they had inherited from the Establishment Bengali writers (Sahitya Jagat) by exploring uncharted subjects and unemployed language. They had a space-oriented, rather than time-oriented, approach to thinking of their place in the history of Bengali writers. Drawing from Oswald Spengler’s notion of “nonlinear time” in Decline of the West (1917), Malay was taken by the following:
“…all great creations and forms in religion, art, politics, social life, economy and science appear, fulfill themselves and die down contemporaneously in all the Cultures; that the inner structure of one corresponds strictly with that of all the others; that there is not a single phenomenon of deep physiognomic importance in the record of one for which we could not find a counterpart in the record of every other; and that this counterpart is to be found under a characteristic form and in a perfectly definite chronological position.”
Spengler argues that history does not occur in a linear but cyclical progression in which one inevitably finds “birth, growth, maturity, and decay.” Hegel and Marx theorized that that history moves in one direction but Spengler disagreed, declaring that it moves in innumerable ways. One culture is not better than the last, since each one flourishes within its own self-containment with its own characteristics and notions of space. When speaking about a culture’s ascendancy, Spengler argues that it will inevitably face a decline when it can no longer rely on its own resources and becomes “hungry,” looking for inspiration from “alien” cultures, at which point that group is no longer indigenous.
Employing Public Space
Hungryalist Joints for Addas
In terms of physical space, they aimed to decentralize the locus of Establishment Bengali literature and disseminate their own poetics and politics into public space through innovative means. Together, the Hungryalists identified with one another through their disidentification with the writers in Kolkata’s literary aristocracy.
Unlike “modernist” Bengali poets who wrote in their own spaces and within the confines of their own notebooks, claiming single authorship of their own texts, the Hungryalists would meet at the College Street Coffee House to re-assemble and dis-assemble their works with input from other members of the movement. Meet-ups were referred to as addas, the Bengali term for a prolonged, extemporaneous intellectual exchange.
One newspaper article from 1963 recounted the Hungryalists’ celebration of Jibanananda Das’ birthday by paying homage to him in the area around the country-liquor shop Khalisitola, a “…complete departure from the usual pattern of anniversaries…not one of [the] city’s cultural sadans but a popular and rambunctious pub in central Calcutta,” where Das himself was inspired and wrote. At this spectacle, the Hungryalists did theatrical readings of poetry, spoke of a variety of topics such as creation and culinary art, and broke dozens of bottles and glasses at the end of the celebration. One poet rose up to say, “we are broke, our works remain unpublished; and out comrades are constantly shadowed by Special Branch men for reasons unknown…We damn those poets who think that we can’t write. WE have freedom. Our minds can think everything and our pens can write anything…Our works will be read by the whole Bengali community one day.”
Methods of Distribution
The Hungryalists’ methods for distributing their writings were fresh and quirky, aiming to not simply surprise and shock, but provoke reassessments of the current literary situation in Kolkata as well. Hungry bulletins were published irregularly on short sheets of paper in the form of handbills and taken out of metropolitan areas where Kolkatans were accustomed to purchasing literature. The Hungryalists handed out their bulletins in public spaces like university halls, the College Street Coffee House, editors’ parlors, and living rooms across Kolkata. This sort of action was unthinkable at the time since there had not been any “…cultural precedence to this kind of literary behavior for people to relate to.” Other Hungryalist antics included sending empty shoeboxes and blank sheets of paper to publishing houses and asking them if the objects could be reviewed. This symbolic gesture was the Hungryalists’ way of saying publishing houses were printing rubbish: “safe,” pro-Establishment works that upheld the status quo. The Hungryalists thought these works were just as substantial as blank and empty objects since they maintained the social order that had been in place for so long.
The influence of poet and dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt is evident in the following instance: Hungryalist poets, Tridib and Alo Mitra, handed out invitations to the public for a Hungry poetry reading scheduled to be at Dutt’s tombstone—an unthinkable and, some argued, distasteful setting for such an event at the time. But it was all in fitting with the Hungryalists’ antics to bring poetry out into uncharted space, and better if it paired with some degree of provocation.
Poetry sessions amongst the Hungryalists, as well as out in the public realm—on street corners, at the oft-crowded Howrah Railway Station, in suburbs, on the outskirts of cities—indicate that they considered poetry an oral tradition just as much as a written one. They would not be the first group of Bengalis to think in such an aural fashion, nor were they the first to bring awareness to conditions of those in lower social strata. Bengali literature entered the Indian literary scene in the eleventh century, when a Mahayana Buddhist sect began educating its disciples through a corpus of chants in ancient Bengali called Caryagiti (Chants of practice). These songs alluded to life in the lower classes of society and decried the overarching importance allotted to cults and priesthood. Evidence of Bengali literary writings from the next three centuries cease to exist, though we see written manuscripts from the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata beginning in the fifteenth century. The aforementioned example indicates that certain Hungryalistic actions, such as making poetry an oral tradition, were not innovative since they had some precedence, even it was in the far past.
Methods of Employing Space on the Page
The Hungryalists explored unconventional and traditionally taboo topics, which had been conventionally considered inappropriate and/or rarely portrayed in modern Bengali writing, such as sex and the grotesque, sickness, despair, sinful acts, village life, and experiences with drugs, to name a few. The Bengali language does not have the equivalent of many English phrases and scientific terms, but the Hungryalists tried their best to “…expand the horizon.” In the original Hungryalist manifesto on poetry, Malay remarks that younger poets have strayed away from “the satanism, the vomitous horror, the self-elected crucifixion of the artist that makes a man a poet.” He continued:
“It should convey the brutal sound of breaking values and startling tremors of the rebellious soul of the artist himself, with words stripped of their usual meanings and used contraptually [sic]. It must invent a new language which would incorporate everything at once, speak to all sense in one. Poetry should be able to follow music in the power it possess [sic] of evoking a state of mind, and to pr [sic] present images not as wrappers, but as ravishograms.”
Samir and Malay also wrote plenty about Imlitala, a local area in Patna where the “marginal and subalterns” were scattered. “Life makes the ism,” Samir says when speaking of how instinctual it was for the Hungryalists to depict human life as it existed, exclusive of any framework or theory. Writings were more extemporaneous and free-flowing than methodical as Malay explained in 1962: “The day of dipping pen in the cerebral cortex is past. Today poetry is written spontaneously, like an orgasm.”
Malay’s Infamous Poem
Malay’s poem “Stark Electric Jesus” explores the frustration and alienation that comes with disillusionment and feelings of helplessness within one’s own society, sexual hunger, and the will to live and die simultaneously because of all of these. His powerlessness is emphasized by the following uses of repetition and sounds, “Oh I’ll die I’ll die I’ll die…aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” which illustrates a break form any kind of rigid, controlled form. Throughout the poem, Malay continues:
“I’ve forgotten women during copulation and returned to Muse/into the sun-colored bladder…I haven’t had to learn copulation and dying/I haven’t had to learn the responsibility of shedding last drops after urination…Shubha let me sleep for a few moments in your violent silvery uterus…let me see the earth through your cellophane [sic] hymen…the surroundings of your clitoris were being embellished with coon that time/fine rib-smashing roots were descending into your bosom…let me enter into the immemorial incontinence of your labia majora…why wasn’t I driven away in my father’s urine after his self-coition/why wasn’t I mixed in the ovum-flux or in the phlegm…
This sexual and vivid imagery from snippets of “Stark Electric Jesus” offended many conservative Kolkatans who were unreceptive of this combination of frankness, provocation, and pessimism. However, not all Hungryalists wrote about the same topics and oftentimes found their own niche for writing about the issues that they found to be underrepresented in modern Kolkatan literature.
Subimal’s Writing Style
Subimal Basak enjoyed writing about or from the point of view of middle-class workers, some of which is based off of personal experience in that area or industry. In one tale he follows the life of a goldsmith. In another tale that takes place in the slums of Patna, he writes about a man experiencing the intoxicating effects of arrack or toddy (palm wine), which someone from the low-caste Pashi might sell. A friend of Subimal’s offered to translate the story into English, but did a poor job translating it word for word; regardless, the reader understands the nature of intoxication from the repeated references to toddy’s dizzying effects. In the early seventies, he set out with his tape recorder to compile a collection of Bengali ritual songs sung at different stages of a wedding procession and called it Biyar Git. Another collection of his, Chakai Chhora, explores common Bengali rhymes and superstitions. Subimal’s fascination with lower-class occupations and narrating in the voice of someone else is also coupled with a witty sense of humor at times. His pseudo-anthropological approach to writing about his characters, their situation, and their language, falls directly under the Hungryalist credo: to represent those who had mostly been excluded from Modernist literary plots and situations because of their social, economic, or political status.
Establishment language (Diction and Syntax)
The Hungryalists interrogated the authenticity of the language employed in popular Indian literature and felt as though the language of Indians from lower castes and classes were not being adequately represented at all. They also revolutionized the nomenclature of little magazines with English titles such as Zebra, Wastepaper, and Concentration Camp, which were very different from the elitist Bengali names of Establishment magazines that preceded them, such as Kabita, Dhrupadi, Krittibas, Agrani, Shotobisha, and Uttarsuri. The editors of the Establishment magazines were exclusive and rarely published writers who did not share the same bourgeoisie values as them; they saw history linearly and believed themselves to be at the forefront of the literary scene, whereas those from subordinate sections of the society were “backwards.”
Literary Symbiotic Space:
Much of Hungryalist writings and events were carried out in collaboration with each other, a far cry from “one-man-happenings.” Events narrated by the Hungryalists, as well as correspondence between them and American poets and publishers indicate processes of co-editing and co-promoting each others’ work in a kind of literary symbiotic space. Malay was instrumental in promoting Subimal’s work through his own writings, such as in his essay “Subimal Basak – Victim & Spirit,” where he discusses the seemingly mythical circumstances under which he met Subimal. With his better grasp on English than Subimal, Malay also translated Subimal’s work into English and proofread it as well. In a way, that manuscript becomes a collage of Subimal’s Bengali writings, Malay’s English translations, then Malay’s proofreading. These instances of sharing space indicate that though the Hungryalists were eager to be recognized in their own right, they also had to work together to form a kind of group ideology as a foundation first. Afterwards, they could branch out write about their own personal projects and work on strengthening the Hungryalist identity as a whole as well.
Repercussions of Hungryalist Writings
The chief minister and Kolkata Police Commissioner started receiving written and verbal complaints about Hungryalist writings with presses charged for obscenity, conspiracy against the Establishment, and corrupting the youth. “Stark Electric Jesus” caused the most fury overall. In 1964 eleven Hungryalists had arrest warrants issued against them on charges of “conspiring against the Establishment” (Section 120 of Indian Penal Code) and for “obscenity in literature” (Section 292 of Indian Penal Code). A few were arrested (Malay, Samir, Subhas Ghosh, Shaileshwar Ghosh, Debi Ray, Pradip Choudhuri) and others lost their jobs (Pradip Choudhuri at Visva Bharati University, Malay and Samir from their service jobs, Subimal and Debi by their employees). The infamous Hungryalist trial raises critical questions about the dissemination of the “obscene” in public space and the ownership of words: Who gets to deem a word or thought “obscene”? The Hungryalists believed that the concept of the obscene was a social construct that dated back to the colonial period when Indian natives’ language, manners, and lifestyles were deemed inappropriate and ill-mannered by their colonizers.
Malay and Samir were taken aside in Patna and Chaibasa, respectively, by a special “Investigating Board” that interrogated them even further. These police arrests are examples of the public invading the private sphere, incidents of protest against another kind of “alien” language and vocabulary. When Samir was arrested, he was shocked to see an entire police team encircle his house; there was an extra charge personally against him for “corrupting” youth. He was placed in a Chaibasa jail for four days (Malay was in a Patna jail for three to four days as well), where his jailmates ranged from murderers to prostitutes and strippers, but he said he mostly kept to himself and wrote. In his collection of poems Aamar Vietnam (My Vietnam), he describes this experience in the first untitled poem which he wrote in his cell: “…haunches noosed with a rope & handcuffed/I was dragged afoot from police lock-up to court-cage/on the way I’ve been deciding whether/I’d walk stooping down or walk straight/I’ve been questioned a hundred thousand times/I’d ultimately have to account for to [sic] my culture & tradition.” Samir’s impulse to record his thoughts and describe his situation is an example of an unconventional employment of public space. The scope of items in the poem—from the rope and handcuffs to the all-encompassing “culture” and “tradition,” indicate an awareness of not only one’s immediate surroundings, but the greater implications of his situation as well. Just by having to explain “his” culture and tradition, in other words, the language employed in his writings, such as the vocabulary and expressions of Imitola, Samir points to how problematic it was that the police could deem which words were “obscene.” Both Samir and Malay’s quandaries, however, were fodder for some American writers and publishers who were shocked and simultaneously amused by the governmental actions taken against the Hungryalists.
The Post-Trial Space
Cross-Pollination with the West
Though there were many shortcomings and hardships associated with the trial, it was instrumental in publicizing Malay’s troubles, as well increasing exposure and recognition to the Hungryalists all over the world, especially in Europe and America. Many writers and publishers gestured on Malay’s behalf, and their letters to him indicate a kind of symbiotic co-promotion of each others’ literary situations (See Appendix 6). “Benefits” were held in American coffee houses and little reviews of Hungryalist writings were published to raise modest amounts of money for Malay’s bail money. In 1966, a year after the trial, the American poet Dick Bakken devoted a double-edition of the Salted Feathers literary magazine to the Hungryalists and titled it HUNGRY! It quickly grew to a 124-page “collage document” of Hungryalist writings, including essays, criticism, and poetry that Bakken considered a “publishing event” in and of itself. It also included correspondence between the Hungryalists and Western writers and publishers, such as Ginsberg, Carol Bergé, Howard McCord, and Gary Snyder.
News of the Hungryalists spread even further when Time magazine published an article about them one week after the trial in 1964, calling them “…young Bengalis with tigers in their tanks.” The writer did not have a take on the actual poetry itself but rather the way that the Indian government had responded to the poem. The Hungryalists’ pluralistic presence illustrates the potency of co-advertising each others’ work and choosing to share the quandaries of their postcolonial space with those in the West.
Retrospective Views of the Movement in Periodicals
Decades after the trial, periodicals were declaring that the Hungryalists had retreated to a kind of invisible space. In a 1987 article, a little over twenty years after the trial, we learn that besides Debi Roy who broke away from the group quite early, none of the Hungryalists were included nor invited to take part in regional—let alone national—radio programs, official workshops, seminars, recitals, or readings. In 1988, Society magazine called the movement “barely alive after a quarteryear of ‘fasting’…now defunct.” In the same year one bookstall, at the entrance of the College Street Coffee House, was willing to sell Malay’s writing. This seeming dissipation of the movement did not stop many of the Hungryalists from writing, though some of the writers took issue, or no longer chose to identify as being a Hungryalist writer, but rather simply—though not reductively—a writer.
To study the Hungry Generation is to negotiate “truth” and myth-creation from both primary and secondary materials about a relatively young literary movement that attempted to revolutionize the literary output in Kolkata. The Hungryalists are examples of young countercultural figures that questioned the systematic production of literature in Kolkata, its origins, and the topics the impermeable and exclusive literary aristocracy focused on. They wished to incorporate new alienated and disillusioned voices in an existing canon of romantic and pro-Establishment writings that was afraid to talk about the messiness of being a human in a messier society. They utilized public space to not only make poetry more of an oral tradition, but to disseminate their writings in ways that would reach masses of students, professors, government officials, and everyone in between. It does a disservice to the Hungryalists to narrowly consider them in the context of Ginsberg’s visit to Kolkata from 1962-1963 or even as reactionaries to the Krittibas poets and writers or other movements, when they were indigenous writers responding critically to own, singular conditions.
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( Marina Reza with friend in New York )