Record Keepers of the Ugly

Thus begins Malay Roy Choudhury’s Bengali poem Prachanda Boidyutik Chhutar (Stark Electric Jesus).

Published: 10th February 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th February 2019 10:55 PM   |  A+A-

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The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution
By: Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Pages: 272; Price: `599

Oh, I’ll die! I’ll die! I’ll die!
My skin is in blazing furore
I do not know what I’ll do, where I’ll go, Oh I’m sick
I’ll kick all Arts in the butt and go away, Shubha.
Thus begins Malay Roy Choudhury’s Bengali poem Prachanda Boidyutik Chhutar (Stark Electric Jesus). Appearing in a pamphlet in 1964, its publication resulted in arrest warrants being issued against the poet and 11 others, members of a Kolkata-based poets’ collective—the Hungry Generation. And the charges? Conspiracy against the state and literary obscenity.

Who were these radicals, where did they come from and what happened to them is the substance of Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s non-fiction book, The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution. Well-researched, it draws on  journals, memoirs,  photographs, interviews and personal conversations with brothers Malay and Samir, part of  movement’s founding quartet (the other two being Shakti Chatterjee and the Dalit poet Haradhan Dhara aka Debi Roy). 

Following a loose timeline, the author dispenses with the notion of unity: anecdotes, sketches and generalisations abound, sometimes befuddling the reader by their randomness. However, the mood music of the age—intense, rebellious, raucous—comes through clearly.

Though homegrown, the Hungryalists were part of a global wave of insurrectionist poetry that had earlier seen the rise of Beatdom in the United States. Calling the Beats and the Hungryalists ‘co-travellers’, the author writes, ‘These poets/ writers rejected standards of literature, introduced new societal norms, shunned mercenaries of culture and even spawned a new drug subculture’. Solidarity between the movements was enabled when prominent Beat poets such as Gary Snyder and his wife Joanne Kyger, Allen ‘Howl’ Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky travelled to India and associated with the Hungryalists.

Though the two movements had similarities as sociocultural forces, the book elucidates the completely different circumstances that fashioned the Hungryalists’ poetics. The post-Partition decade of the 50s saw rapid changes in Bengali society: a flood of refugees, homelessness, food shortages, rising unemployment, the stench and anger of rampant poverty. It was an all-encompassing rootlessness unrepresented in the prosaic literary writing of the period—what Malay Roy Choudhury called ‘the blankety-blank school of modern poetry’. 

The Hungryalists wanted more: a new lexis, a new literary space, a wider audience. Above all, a shake-up. Their agenda was to ‘introduce chaos and a disintegration in writing that rendered it conventionally meaningless, and take advantage of the shock it created, thereby introducing the ideas they wanted to talk about’. Raw emotions needed raw language: obscenity became a moral weapon. Viewing poetry as an oral tradition, they held public readings in Howrah railway station, College Street Coffee House, Khalasitola bar and the grave of the long-dead Michael Madhusudan Dutt—whom the Hungryalists idolised. 

Co-authorship and collaboration being a feature of their identity, they met regularly at ‘addas’. Another commonality was penury: public loos, empty offices and renting space on terraces with other homeless formed their sleeping arrangements. Despite their travails they persisted with their poetry. The literati were unamused; repercussions followed in the form of police raids, handcuffs, a trial and betrayals. Nevertheless, the subaltern had found a voice that has lasted. While the Beats are well-documented, the Hungryalists are not. This book is a worthy attempt to fill the gap.

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