Review: The Hungryalists by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury

A study of the Hungry Generation Poets, who took the Bengali literary establishment in Kolkata by storm in the early 1960s, The Hungryalists also presents a portrait of the city
A protest march against hunger in Calcutta in August 1967.(Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
A protest march against hunger in Calcutta in August 1967.(Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Updated on Jul 12, 2019 07:38 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Ray
272pp, ₹599; Penguin
272pp, ₹599; Penguin

I often think about ways of writing about the city. There aren’t any easy resolutions. Cities have defied norms and stereotypes, and writing about them ought to enable newer insights into unknown aspects, the seamier underbellies that lie far removed from the many accounts that bring to life the pavements and its many activities amongst other issues that remain peripheral. But how does one do it? Should it be a plain city narrative with some historical quirks and sociological data? Or could we locate such writing in the politics of the city and an associated movement? Every writer has her politics and writing is often an extension or embodiment of her political will.

I don’t want to sound prescriptive but Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s illuminating book The Hungryalists – The Poets Who Sparked A Revolution is in that vein. Besides being a combination of a biography and analytical study of the poetry and poets of The Hungryalist or Hungry Generation Poets who took the genteel Bengali bhadralok literary establishment in Kolkata by storm in the early 1960s, it also presents a portrait of the city like few other contemporary attempts. The 1960s was a period of great turmoil. Kolkata grappled with a saga of unending problems – the refugee crisis, growing disillusionment of the youth, unemployment and a complete dissonance with an effete political system. The poetry of The Hungry Generation expressed this widespread anguish. It was written in the language spoken on the streets devoid of poetic embellishments. They rejected the European modernist sensibility, which had influenced many Bengali poets of the time and shaped a counter aesthetic which shocked and greatly offended the intelligentsia of the city who branded their poetry as ‘crass’, ‘mediocre’ and ‘sensationalist’. Hungryalist poetry was a conscious attempt to offend the custodians of culture. In her introduction, the author writes, “By the time they were done, the world recognized them as the most politically trenchant, culturally influential and innovative artists, whose lives spanned an extraordinary frame, thus changing the larger picture for many. These poets were eccentric, contingent rebels, and these movements were not alternative lifestyles, but life itself.”

Author Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury (Courtesy Penguin)
Author Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury (Courtesy Penguin)

The Hungryalist rivalry with the famous Krittibash group lead by the noted poet and writer Sunil Gangopadhyay is captured in vivid detail in the book. Gangopadhyay, who was initially supportive of the poetry of the Hungryalists, turned hostile. Their differences seemed unbridgeable though Gangopadhyay was the publisher of Hungryalist proponent Malay Roy Choudhury’s debut book of poems. Other noted names such as Sandipan Chattopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay eventually left the movement. Some of them were lured by jobs and others wanted to avoid political rivalries that the movement brewed for itself and its members. Allegations apart, the verse of the Hungryalists feels even more relevant in the current bleak political scenario of the country. Benoy Majumdar’s Phire Esho Chaka or Bhaskar Chakraborty’s poems speak to us more now than ever. Shakti Chattopadhyay is never dated. Malay Roy Choudhury’s sense of dejection is even more palpable now.

The book also discusses Allen Ginsberg’s visit to India in 1961 with his lover Peter Orlovsky. They soon became friends with the Hungryalist poets and travelled with them to rural Bengal and spots in Kolkata city. When Malay Roy Choudhury and other Hungryalist poets were arrested by the Police in 1964 on charges of obscenity and subterfuge, Ginsberg organized support for them and wrote to several others asking for their immediate release.

I am often asked, “What can poetry resist? Can poetry change anything?” There are no easy answers but poetry is a living archive, a memorial to life. Isn’t that good enough? Poetry lends us a vision in a way only it can. And what is poetry without people? Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury locates this poetry and the poets amongst the people of the time, which helps us ascertain their anti-establishment views. It also forces me to wonder what Hungryalists would do if they had to write poetry today. What would their imaginings of the city be? And how would the powers that govern us react to their verse?

This is an important book. Read it!

Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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Friday, January 21, 2022