In the 1960s, India had completed more than a decade of its Independence Eve. However, there still existed two factions of people – the one with power and the one without power. The ones in power, the ones seeped in wealth, the ones sheltered in ivory towers and golden palaces were the ones producing the dominant political, sociological and literary works as well as ideologies.
In Bengal of the 1960s, the other faction – the one without the power, suffered in silence, lived in poverty, and run errands for a nominal job with a PhD in their hands. No one told their story. No one wrote their words. They were forced to bite their tongues and chew their resentment down their throats. But then, there came of group of writers and poets who shouted from the rooftops, bled ink onto simple pages of paper, and spat words onto the faces of those who turned their backs on the stark reality of suffering. They were known as the hungry generation in Bengali literature – also known as the Hungryalist poets.
Hungryalist movement – The one which produced poetic rebels
Malay Roychoudhury, his elder sibling, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhay, and Debi Roy were the four founding pillars of this form of poetry called the Hungryalist poetry. Not only through their words, but also through their nomadic lifestyle, these four poets, among many others in Calcutta, usurped the foundation of the then dominant, ignorant, and elite literature that turned a blind eye to the plight and suffering of the majority of Bengal, which was still lying on the streets, starved with hunger and fed of trauma the Partition left behind.
Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the earliest writers and poets of English literature used the phrase “the sowre hungry tyme” in one of his works. The hungry generation of Bengali literature got its name from this phrase. Malay Roychoudhury strongly believed that when a culture is ailing from a lack of social, physical or literary elements, it feeds on anything that is brought to it externally. This means, when Bengali culture had exhausted its essence by writing about everything that it could write about, or microscopically analyzing every social element that existed, it began to feed off the culture that the British brought along with them.
Bengali literature of the 1960s was limited or accessible only to the elites. The content and perspective was also limited to only the rich and the condescending. The Hungryalist movement aimed at breaking this limitation and creating a new literary space. The Hungryalist poets did this by breaking apart the literary forms and structure that dominated the Bengali literature till then. The way the Hungryalist poetry was written and the way the Hungryalist poets lived was an act of rebellion in itself – which threatened the very basis of Bengali culture of the 1960s.
The hungry generation in Bengali literature – a unsung story of cultural rebellion
The Hungryalist movement did away with the polite, cultured, and civilized language of the elite literary figures of the 1960s. To express their constant and unending struggles with the sting of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness, the Hungryalist poetry was filled with disruptive, relatable, and raw – bordering on the ‘vulgar and obscene’ realities of life.
The Hungryalist manifesto was distributed every week on simple paper sheets that the poets collected from cafes, streets, colleges, and offices. The Hungryalist movement reached its zenith when apart from producing literary outcry of poverty and hunger, the poets also went to the doorsteps of politicians, newspaper editors, bureaucrats and others in power; they handed each one a paper mask of jokers, cartoon characters, monsters and animals. The message was loud, clear and simple: Take off your masks.
In 1964, Malay Roychoudhury wrote a poem in Bengali titled Prachanda BoidyutikChuutar (known in English as Stark Electric Jesus). The poem, writing without restraint of form or content, is like a snap of fingers, which brings the reader back to the reality of those who suffer without a fault of their own. The poet’s contemplation of life and death, his desire to be born once again, his questioning of the fate, his stark imagery of the womb and of coition, everything from the beginning to the end is a struggle to understand the nature of existence – presented in a ‘vulgar’ language.
This poem, one of the best gems produced by the hungry generation in Bengali literature, could not be digested well by the elites and powerful people in Bengal at the time. This resulted in the arrest of Roychoudhury. Once he came out of jail, the leader and founder of the Hungryalist manifesto and movement saw the group dwindle and shatter in front of his own eyes. However, his works were read and appreciated in the churches of New York, and translated and published in magazines across Europe. Allen Ginsberg, one of the founding faces of the Beat generation in America, even wrote a letter in Roychoudhury’s support.
Why does Hungryalist poetry resonate with the India of the 21st century?
The Hungryalist poets, through their poetry, took a departure from the preconceived notions of colonialism, where we and our literature was still inferior to, and influenced by the white men’s perception of us. The poets of this movement wrote about India as they saw it – without the rose colored glasses of a European person, or without the ignorance of the Indian elite figure.
They wrote about millions of people who are yet to find a shelter that dissolved under torrents of rain, or a loaf of bread that doesn’t have shades of fungus or algae stuck on it. They wrote of people who labor day in and day out, and sleep for only a couple of hours every night; but don’t have two square meals a day or a clean mattress to sleep on.
The Hungryalist poetry reveals the figure of a common man, struggling to survive day after day after day, and yet, he finds himself lost in the narrative of those he works. His voice is smashed within the four walls of the house he built for the rich. His pain is vaporized in the cool air swishing at it from the vents of an air conditioner he just repaired at the house of some elite businessman. The common man remains unnamed and invisible even today. But not in the poetry of the hungry generation in Bengali literature. And that’s why, when you will read it today, your eyes will pop, your jaw will drop and you will say, “Oh! I can relate to it!”