Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Hungryalist Movement in India

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists-The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution is the never-before-told true story of the Hungry Generation (or ‘the Hungryalists’)-a group of barnstorming, anti-establishment poets, writers and artists in Bengal in the 1960s. Braving social boycott, ridicule and arrests, the Hungryalists changed the literary landscape of Bengal (and many South Asian countries) forever. Along the way, they also influenced iconic poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, who struck up a lifelong friendship with the Hungryalists.

Read on for ten things you didn’t know about the Hungryalist movement in India:

The Uprooted Generation that Fired a Literary Revolution

“The feeling of being uprooted was everywhere. Political leaders decided that the second phase of the five-year planning needed to see the growth of heavy industries. The land required for such industries necessitated the evacuation of farmers. Devoid of their ancestral land and in the absence of a proper rehabilitation plan, those evicted wandered aimlessly around the cities—refugees by another name….In a few years, Naxalbari would become a reality, but not yet. Like an infant Kali with bohemian fantasies, Calcutta and its literature sprouted a new tongue—that of the Hungry Generation. Malay, like Samir and many others, found himself at the helm of this madness, and poetry seemed to lick his body and soul in strange colours.”

 Allen Ginsberg’s Meeting with the Hungryalists

“Samir had recalled to Malay: He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer.”

 The Hungryalists’ Forays into Anti-Establishment Publishing

“The need to present poetry differently from how it had been presented and perceived so far resulted in a number of experiments. Subimal decided to edit and publish a periodical called Pratidwandi. The name signified revolutionaries. The Hungryalists were enthusiastic about writing for it. It would be the first time a collective like this was being published, showcasing anti-establishment writing. Subimal wanted it to be released at Khalasitola on Poila Boishakh (the Bengali New Year). The cover was a woodcut print, designed by poet Sandipan, who was a firebrand Hungryalist himself. He had done it very cleverly; it looked like a vase but was actually a boy and a girl in an intimate pose.”

 The Clash Between the Bangla Literary Establishment and the Hungryalists

“By this time, it was a bit obvious that the Hungryalists had been attracting some negative vibes, especially from writers and poets who had already established themselves in the Bangla literary scene. The poetry that the Hungryalists advocated was looked down upon since it boldly and openly spoke of sensuality. In this regard, the differences, especially between the Krittibhash poets and the Hungryalists, soon became apparent. It was obvious that the subjects on which the Hungry poets had begun writing shocked a lot of people. Poetry, which was considered a more refined form of expression till now, was being experimented with and being written in street dialects and on tabooed subjects.”


The Varying Attitudes of the Beats and the Hungryalists Towards Religion in India

“Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.”


The Hungryalists Turned the ‘Starving Artist’ Stereotype into a Harsh Reality

“Some of the poets used the public loos in railway stations because they had no homes. Writing poems during the day and finding empty offices of Marwari businessmen to sleep in at Burrabazar became a fine juggle that they soon mastered. Marwari businessmen usually left mattresses in the verandas of their offices for their outstation customers. The poets cleverly made use of these whenever they found them lying empty. On most days, they would pool in money, put all their resources together and eat in small, shady restaurants in Shyambazar or on College Street. The job of being a poet had become a severe adventure.”

Malay Roy Chaudhury’s Protests Against his Own Poetry-Within his Own Poetry

“As Malay’s poems were devoid of lyricism, when read out, they sounded like staccato sentences. The language was colloquial. But during the process of publishing, he realized that there were certain poems he was no longer comfortable with as they were clearly influenced by the poets of the thirties, forties and fifties. He was seized by the desire to make it apparent that he no longer considered them to be adequate. So he stamped ‘cancelled’ on ten of his poems in the collection. When the book was published, other poets considered this decision to be a sacrilege. They thought the act was defiant and done intentionally to generate shock. The fact that a poet might want to exercise his choice did not convince them.”


The Hungryalists and the Beats Revolutionized the Very Language of Poetry

“Like other Hungryalists, and even the Beats, Malay knew for certain that obscenity was a construct. His poem proved, beyond a point, what the Hungryalists had been trying to say for a while— that language and its refinement wasn’t the aim of Hungryalist writings. Their emotions were raw, many a time unrefined, and it was all right for the world to see that. In that the poem itself was as much a cry against the conspirators of language as it was the longing for a woman.”


 The Arrests of the Leaders of the Hungryalists for ‘Perversion and Obscenity’

“In a sudden and swift move, the establishment had accused the movement of not only attempting to promote perversion and obscenity in society but also of hurting sentiments that warranted up to two years of rigorous imprisonment. Arrest warrants were issued against Malay, Samir, Debi, Pradip, Subhash, Subimal, Utpal, Saileshwar, Ramananda, Basudeb and Shubho. Samir’s strained voice added, ‘You are the main accused, Malay, because of the obscenity they found in your poem “Prachanda Baidyutik Chhutar”.”


The Outpouring of International Support Protesting the Arrests of the Hungryalists

“But before they left for Kathmandu, a letter arrived from New York. It was from a poet friend, Carol Berge, who had written to tell Malay about a poetry reading that had been arranged in honour of the Hungryalists at St Marks Church in New York. Reading the letter was an emotional moment for Malay as he basked in the warmth and support of poets who had never met him but had found a common link through poetry. This was a streak of hope in the midst of all that was going on, and it reinforced the larger connection with poetry despite differences in geography and individuality of the poets.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *