The bleak post-Partition era in Bengal gave rise to a new literature of dissent. Malay Roychoudhury helped found the Hungryalist movement, and 50 years on he tells Nayanima Basu about its beginnings and its downfall.
When a civilisation falls, people tend to eat every thing that comes their way,” says a pensive Malay Roychoudhury, sitting in his one-bedroom flat in Kandivli, Mumbai. “Today when I look at West Bengal, the Hungryalist premonition appears prophetic.”
Roychoudhury, now 72, was a dissenter who launched the avant-garde Hungryalist movement in Bengal in November 1961. The movement shook the region and drew sharp criticism from the bhadralok and political class. It also challenged the basic tenets of Bengali literature.
At that time, Kolkata, then called Calcutta, was undergoing change at a blistering pace. Partition had unleashed a catastrophic inflow of displaced people, which was changing the social fabric of border towns as well as the city of Calcutta. Migration began before Partition and continued into the 1960s and beyond. By late 1959 there were processions of hungry migrants; many died or were killed.
A section of the youth of that era felt that it could not tolerate these rapid changes. This group felt that the dream of Independence floated by the Indian National Congress leaders had turned into a nightmare. In order to give vent to their anger, a handful of poets and writers launched the so-called Hungryalist movement. They were later known as the Hungry generation.
“In 1959-60, post-Partition Bangla polity was definitely in a sour time of putrefaction,” says Roychoudhury. “Youngsters of my age were very angry. This was the period when intellectuals were being eased out of the sphere of influence, which was by then captured by politicians, most of whom were blind-alley individuals. A post-Partition turmoil had overtaken West Bengal. My mental turmoil was interfering with my intention of writing poetry. Hence, we decided to launch the Hungryalist movement.”
Roychoudhury started the movement with his elder brother, Samir Roychoudhury, and two other poets, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Ray. He coined the term “Hungryalist”, having picked the word “hungry” out of “the sowre hungry tyme”, a phrase by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Together, the four Bengali poets published handbills carrying their ideas, manifestos and poems, and distributed them freely through Calcutta’s famous Coffee House as well as through government departments, universities and newspapers .
The movement was funded by the Roychoudhury brothers. It did not have an office, headquarters or politburo, and its members were free to write and publish anything that challenged the state. “There had been no such socio-literary movement prior to the Hungryalists,” says Roychoudhury. “Moreover, we spoke against the concept of modern literature. More writers and painters started joining, and by the time the West Bengal government initiated its crackdown on the movement we had more than 30 participants.”
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Roychoudhury was a postgraduate in economics from Patna University. His interest in Bengali literature is owed to his brother Samir, who had moved to Calcutta from the ancestral home in suburban Uttarpara in order to study literature.
The administration’s ire towards the Hungryalists reached its peak when the poets started a campaign to personally deliver paper masks of jokers, monsters, gods, cartoon characters and animals to Bengali politicians, bureaucrats, newspaper editors and other powerful people. The slogan was, “Please remove your mask”.
On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The main charge against Roychoudhury was that of “obscenity” in his poem “Prachanda Boidyutik Chhutar” (translated as “Stark Electric Jesus”).
The court case went on for years. News of the persecution appeared in the November 4, 1964, issue of Time magazine, which brought the Hungryalist movement worldwide coverage. Poets like Octavio Paz and Ernesto Cardenal, and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Roychoudhury. This produced the misconception that the Hungryalists were inspired by the Beat poets.
“Some of them carried the news to Europe and I started getting translated for the little magazines there,” says Roychoudhury. “My poems were read at New York’s St Mark’s Church to raise funds to help me. It would have been impossible to fight the case up to the High Court without this help. I was poor, all my friends who were part of the movement deserted me, I lost my job with the Reserve Bank of India during the case, my grandmother died hearing the news of my imprisonment, and thus I stopped writing.”
He says the Hungryalists were also displaced by the upsurge of ultra-leftist students and youth that came to be known as the Naxalite movement, though the Naxalites did not venture much into literary activities.
Eventually, with help from his family and writer-friends, Roychoudhury was released. But the movement was already dying. Except in literary circles in West Bengal and Bangladesh, and university Hindi departments (where it is called Bhookhi Peedi, or “Hungry generation”), very few people today are aware of and understand the Hungryalist movement.
“But I do not agree that the movement failed,” he says. “It was snuffed out. It was gradually spreading to other cities when state intervention crippled it. Shakti Chattopadhyay [a fellow poet], our de facto leader, left us in 1963 and joined the forces against us. A few participants who came from refugee families got scared when the press started reporting that government action is imminent. Some were enticed by the newly formed CPI(M) and other Left parties.”
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In 1968 Roychoudhury married Shalila, who was once a state-level field hockey player. The next year he won his court case, moved to Lucknow and got his RBI job back. The Roychoudhurys now live in surburban Mumbai. He has written over 70 books, all for small publishers — big publishers stay away despite an assured readership of over a thousand, he says. After two heart attacks, angioplasty and arthritis, holding a pen has become difficult, but he types with one finger on a computer.
“I am quite often approached by young poets and writers,” Roychoudhury says, “to guide them so that they may relaunch the Hungryalist movement. I tell them to understand their own space and time and thereafter devise their own platform to express themselves.”