Open Wounds

The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation

Sanchayan Ghosh’s installation featured a tablet bearing lines from a poem by Malay Roychoudhury. COURTESY EXPERIMENTER GALLERY
01 October, 2018

In Labour Reconciled, an installation for an exhibition that ran earlier this year at Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery, the artist Sanchayan Ghosh brought together different elements of labour practices around the intellectual project of envisioning a possible utopia.

Many counterculture figures from the West, such as the American hippie poet David Garcia, sought out the Hungryalists during the 1960s. COURTESY TRIDIB MITRA / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

At the centre of the room was a large mortar slab, the sort made by the roof makers of Birbhum district in West Bengal. It was surrounded by pictures of those roof makers, the first edition of a Bengali literary journal and two editions of the journal Labour Law. By putting on headphones that hung from a wall, one could hear the songs of the mostly Dalit women who used to practise this occupation—which disappeared during the 1980s—songs that have often entered poetic traditions largely curated by male poets. The mortar slab bore a looming tablet, as if out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which were displayed lines from “Jokhom”—Wound—a poem by Malay Roychoudhury:

Chadowaye agun lagiy
Tar neeche shuye aakasher udonto neel dekhchhi ekhon
Dukkho koshter shunani multobi rekhe

Ami amar shomosto shondehoke jera kore nichhi

Having set the canopy ablaze

I lie watching the blue sky fly away above me.

Having adjourned the hearing of my sorrow

I interrogate every doubt I have ever had.

This stark vision, of a possible future in perpetual retreat and its dependence on creative destruction by a beleaguered modern subject, is integral to understanding the angry millenarianism of the Hungry Generation, a literary movement that captured the cultural imagination of West Bengal in the early 1960s. Along with the poets Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy, Malay Roychoudhury was a founder of the “Hungryalist” movement, which frequently found itself in opposition to literary and legal establishments of West Bengal, which in turn combined to denounce and persecute its members, eventually disbanding the group itself. Nevertheless, its influence was diffused into Bengali, as well as Hindi, literature. The Hungry Generation is frequently cited as an example of the impact an underground literary culture—largely confined to the dedicated readers of alternative “little magazines”—can have on an entire body of a vernacular literature.

The Hungryalists sought to popularise their work by publishing a number of manifestos and literary magazines courtesy tridib mitra / wikimedia commons

Self-doubt and hope often coexisted in the work of the Hungryalists, even if no compromise with the status quo was brooked. Unlike the sanitised everyday experiences in the work of modernists such as Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeva Bose, social transgression—aberrant sexual practices, excessive alcohol and drug abuse, converging Hindu religious rituals with sexual taboos—was frequently posed by them as an end in itself for literary expression. A conception of authenticity was strongly enforced through the rhetorical use of condescension and righteous anger.

“Poetry is an activity of the narcissistic spirit,” the Hungryalists wrote in their first manifesto, published in November 1961. “Naturally, we have discarded the blanketyblank school of modern poetry, the darling of the press, where poetry does not resurrect itself in an orgasmic flow, but words come out bubbling in an artificial muddle. In the prosed-rhyme of those born-old half-literates, you must fail to find that scream of desperation of a thing wanting to be man, the man wanting to be spirit.”

The Hungry Generation published over a hundred manifestos in the five years of its existence as a literary movement. Its membership grew to over forty poets and artists, who brought out new journals and literary magazines. In 1964, however, the West Bengal government issued arrest warrants against 11 members on charges of conspiracy and obscenity. Many former members, including Shakti Chattopadhyay, came forward to denounce the Hungryalists and testify against Malay Roychoudhury during his obscenity trial. As a result, the movement withered away.

There have been many attempts in later years to rehabilitate the Hungry Generation. Such efforts were largely confined to literary conferences and occasional academic intervention converging around figures such as Malay Roychoudhury or the painter Anil Karanjai, whose dreamlike, sexualised landscapes are significant within the Hungryalist tradition.

The most prominent depiction of a Hungryalist figure in Bengali popular culture was seen in Srijit Mukherji’s 2011 film Baishe Srabon, in which the arthouse director Goutam Ghose plays a disgruntled, transgressive poet surviving in the margins of Kolkata. A more academic revival was attempted by Hungry Sahitya Andolan: Tatwa, Tathya, Itihas—The Hungry Literary Movement: Theory, Texts, History—a 2015 anthology featuring the defining voices of the movement and their most prominent critics. It serves to both cement the canon of Hungryalist literature and frame its intervention in its historical context.

Much like Ghosh’s installation, both projects are sympathetic to this movement, but their engagement in this revivalist project reveals several tensions at the heart of Hungryalism that do not find easy resolution. Examining these allows us to look more closely at the politics of its revival.

Ghosh’s use of the music of the Dalit women of Birbhum sets up the first problem that the installation tries to signal and overcome: deeply gendered ideas and texts, which form the movement’s core tenets of emancipation and frequently slide into unrestrained misogyny. Masculinity was seen by the Hungryalists as an endangered intellectual and material resource.

In Baishe Srabon, the figure of attenuated masculinity is split between the dissolute, dark hero of the film—an ex-cop called Prabir, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee—and his shadowy double, Ghose’s aspiring Hungryalist poet Nibaron, who may also be a serial killer. Caught between these two men is the figure of a younger, more acceptable man. Parambrata Chatterjee plays Pakrashi, a police officer who fails to solve a series of grisly murders, whose marginalised victims include beggars and sex workers.

Pakrashi is threatened by a posse of cops who cannot believe that someone who looks like him could be a police officer. He angrily challenges the stereotype of the action-hero cop by wondering if he must resemble a meat shop in order to be taken seriously. In contrast with this well-turned-out bhadralok, Prabir is a haunting presence in the police department. Previously forced to retire due to his frequent use of enhanced interrogation, he is brought back in to complement Pakrashi’s textbook approach with his unorthodox, and often illegal, tactics.

Ranged against this uneasy combination of older and emergent masculine forms is the lonely figure of Nibaron, an unpublished poet who revels in prurient imagery and frequently refers to the obscenity trials of the Hungryalists. While Prabir lives in a decrepit mansion, Nibaron is destitute and hovers on the verge of madness because of the cruel promises of recognition and fame of a shadowy presence rather unsubtly named Rabindranath.

As the thriller advances its dreary plot twists, working out the conflict over masculinity assumes greater importance. The depiction of Prabir’s arbitrarily violent masculinity is shown to contribute towards an understanding of the Bengali male psyche in turbulence. In the final twist, Prabir’s fantasy of authority is shown to be a façade. He simply relies on manipulating stereotypes about the dangers of transgressive poetry to the social fabric. His death at the end of the film is portrayed as tragic—it is too politically incorrect, the film implies, to let him live and appear victorious, but his dubious sacrifice is too essential for the survival of the status quo to not be mourned. The Hungry Generation, meanwhile, is left to fend for itself, its legacy left open for misinterpretation by a more innocent generation that either cannot find a coherent political vision of transformation behind its social transgression, or is simply too well-adjusted to care.

Pranabkumar Chattopadhyay’s anthology frames the history of the Hungry Generation in more complicated terms than Mukherji’s film. Instead of painting them as self-generating rebels, its historical essays try to place the Hungryalists in relation to older economic, political and literary establishments. Samir Roychoudhury—Malay’s brother—begins his contribution with a brief history of Jawaharlal Nehru’s first two five-year plans. The second plan, which emphasised industrial development, resulted in steel plants coming up in non-metropolitan regional peripheries. They took on cultural and social significance as their populations grew through labour migration.

The central significance of places such as Patna—where the Roychoudhury brothers came of age and founded the movement—Munger, Daltonganj, Dhanbad, Purnea, Chaibasa and even those as far-flung as Varanasi and Tripura is highlighted. The Hungryalists freely assimilated dialects, literary representations, local communities and political histories from these regions in their texts as they struggled to accommodate the unique and rarely depicted experience of destitute Bengali lives in these interstitial regions. Samir writes about growing up in working-class neighbourhoods, being subjected to class condescension and exclusion from established literary and academic institutions.

It is a bit unfortunate, though, that he feels the need to challenge this condescension by claiming that their group knew more about Tagore and the Ramcharitmanas than their class tormentors. The claim is in ironic contrast with the work of Satinath Bhaduri, who inhabited the same region and wrote the famous Dhorai Charita Manas, a subversive retelling of Tulsidas’s epic set among the oppressed-caste weaver community of Bihar and written in their spoken dialects. Similar local influences include the Hindi writers Phanishwarnath Renu and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. These experiments with rejecting or reformulating caste were influential, if unresolved, ones for the Hungryalists, who were almost uniformly drawn from the dominant castes.

When Samir turns to the question of reception, a lone critical voice is marshalled—that of Dipti Tripathi, who pointed out a certain tendency for prolixity and lack of reason among the Hungryalists. He takes this criticism, oddly enough, to be a prudish reaction to his sexually charged work. He is also happy to admit that they did not care much about linear narratives or the “artificial” rigours of plot and narrative.

Both Samir and Pranabkumar Chattopadhyay remain ambivalent about a more precise definition of the ideological aims of the Hungry Generation. This means that they are unable to separate Hungryalist works from some of their modernist antics, such as sending shoeboxes and paper masks to critics for review. They also emphasise a continuity with the anti-establishment poets published in Krittibas, a major literary journal of the time that fostered a metropolitan and modernist poetic aesthetic. Edited by the poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, Krittibas foundered during the early 1960s, but was eventually revived as a respectable cultural commodity for middle-class Bengalis.

The anthology’s emphasis on the importance of these peripheral zones to the development of a radical modernism is an important intervention in the safe imaginary of a literary habitation, one that is often defined by regional power struggles for uniformity—Bengali for West Bengal, Odia for Odisha, Hindi or Maithili for Bihar—and ignores large swathes of working-class migration across these borders. The Hungry Generation challenged readers to transform their relationship with their own “standardised” languages.

This is also true of the mixed-up lyrics sung by the roof-beating women in Ghosh’s installation. The singers from the Bauri community used a dialect that ignores the standard vocabulary of high literary Bengali. In a tradition where dominant-caste male taste determines both established language and acceptable anti-establishment discourse, practices that do not belong to this niche are allowed to simply disappear. Ghosh’s installation tries to advocate for a more reconciliatory gender politics by understanding the reception of literary labour as a deeply gendered process in Bengali culture.

Such mixing and mismatching, creating impurities out of linguistic collisions, is arguably a greater social and literary transgression than the puerile sexual images, filtered through notions of caste purity, in Malay Roychoudhury’s famous poem “Stark Electric Jesus”:

Let my sin-driven skeleton be washed anew in your seasonal bloodstream
Let me create myself in your womb with my own sperm
Would I have been like this if I had different parents?