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WORLD POETRY DAY

The hungry and the restless

Torsa Ghosal | Updated on March 15, 2019 Published on March 15, 2019

Outside the lines: Refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan flee the 1971 war. Binoy Majumdar, a prominent member of the Hungryalists, was also a refugee who was often overlooked by the literary establishment in Bengal   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A new book chronicles the Hungryalist poets, who revitalised Bengali literature during the turbulent 1960s

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked A Revolution offers a compelling portrait of poets such as Malay Roy Choudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury, Haradhan Dhara and Binoy Majumdar, who initiated the “Hungry Movement” to revitalise Bengali literature during the 1960s.

It was a turbulent period marked by the influx of refugees from East Bengal, the Indo-China War, the Vietnam war, and the Naxalite uprising. The Hungry Generation of poets responded to the on-going national and international turmoil, though as a group they were never quite a cohesive entity. Chattopadhyay, for instance, left the group in the mid-sixties.

Around the same time, Roy Choudhury and Dhara, along with several other Hungryalists, were held for writing “obscene” poetry. Chattopadhyay accepted a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983. Roy Choudhury was conferred the same honour in 2003 but he refused to accept it.

 

 

Given their anti-establishment sensibilities, the Hungryalists had befriended the iconic post-war American poets, the Beats, including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who were touring India at the time. The most striking feature of The Hungryalists is that though it records this significant chapter of literary history, it does so by tracing the rich internal lives of the poets — their motivations, dreams, and disappointments.

Excerpts from an interview with the author:

What drew you to the Hungry Generation?

About four years ago I read Deborah Baker’s book A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, where I found a fleeting mention of the Hungryalists. Like me, many in Bengal had heard of the Hungry Andolan and read them in Bangla but no substantial work had been done on them in English. This was when I began my research on them.

Early into the writing, I felt that narrating their dreams and disappointments was necessary because poetry wasn’t only a way of life; for them, it was life.

Since you are a poet, was it challenging for you to focus on the poets’ biographies rather than on their poetry?

As a poet and non-fiction writer, this was in fact the perfect combination. Being a poet probably made me understand their choices in life and revolt better. The Hungryalists’ fight was against elitism, casteism and authoritarianism. The sixties were a time during which any kind of sensuality in poetry or other writing was looked down upon. Buddhadeb Bose’s book Raat Bhor Brishti which released around this time was banned, copies were burnt and he was put on trial standing in a wired cage. While such a response might have been shocking in the’60s, these subjects resonate with writers such as myself too.

Why made you draw parallels between the Beats and the Hungryalists?

There have been too many comparisons between the Beats and the Hungryalists, as a result of which the Hungryalists are somewhat defensive about acknowledging the influence of the Beats. The fact remains, however, that the two groups shared a tremendous love for a new kind of poetry which joined them at the hip, in a manner of speaking. Also, the Hungryalists did mingle with the Beats, read their work, and accepted their help when necessary. While the parallels make for a great narrative and situate the Hungryalists’ revolt in an international context, there is also no doubt that the Hungryalists were poor Bengali writers with no great financial support, which is why their rebellion against elitism, classism, casteism and negation of sensuality in literature was crushed so easily.

The Hungryalists identified as outsiders, and you consider their condition as analogous to those of the refugees from East Bengal and Dalits. Could you elaborate on the analogies?

The Hungryalists came about because some of them, such as Haradhan Dhara, were Dalit writers ignored by the literati, others like Binoy Majumdar were refugees and still others like Malay were probasi Bengali writers — they were already social misfits. Coming together as a group was the only way they would get any attention of the so-called ‘cultured society’.

The Hungryalists understood the consequences of shunning mainstream dictums and had, in many ways, begun feeling the heat of being socially shunned. They formally named themselves, inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s line, “In the sowre hungry tyme”. But they were, perhaps, unprepared for facing legal consequences. But they were, perhaps, unprepared for facing legal consequences.

While researching how the Hungryalists were tried for writing “obscene” poetry, did you feel an event like that would pan out any differently today?

While writing about sexuality might be more acceptable today than it was in the ’60s, people are still wary of reading or reacting to anything outside their comfort zone. As far as tolerating another’s thought process is concerned, I feel people are still not as accepting. Where poetry and poets are concerned, I feel that people had more love for poets and poetry before. There was a certain sense of awe associated with poets because they presented the world from an altogether different perspective. The fact that Malay had been arrested created a huge stir internationally, but when poet Binoy Majumdar died in poverty and mental trauma in 2006, how many people were aware of it?

 

 

The need for deep poetic introspection seems mostly lost, the realm of subtlety no longer exists, and though poetry is still popular, the magic of finding value in something that doesn’t have much monetary consequence is redundant.

Torsa Ghosal is the author of Open Couplets, and professor of English at California State University, Sacramento

Published on March 15, 2019
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