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Biting more than they could chew? Problems of being too Hungry

By Titas De Sarkar

It shouldn’t surprise the readers that the Hungryalists indulged in a ‘narcissistic spirit’ right from the second paragraph of the first Bulletin they published, in the early sixties. The very beginning of their existence was a self-declared one. It was possibly the only way that they could have come into their own. This was a backlash against the marginalised status of these poets in the society, in the cultural field. Their lives were the result of the tumultuous decades post the Partition of Bengal in 1947, when there was intense displacement from both the sides of the border, an acute shortage of space, along with a consistent rise in unemployment. The founder members, finding no representation of these daily challenges in the literary texts, took it upon themselves to bring the written language up-to-date as it were, in both its form and content. It came out as a response to a literary scene that was hijacked by middle-class ethics, codes, and so-called pretensions. The status-quo was sought to be maintained because of the degradation of such a lifestyle in the real world, where joint families were replaced by nuclear ones on one hand, and women were going out and finding their feet in the job market like never before – more often than not against the wishes of their husbands and fathers. Regular political rallies were organised against government inaction and inefficiency as more and more people were becoming disillusioned with the promises of the newly formed nation-state. It was a time when the middle class found their cultural capital to be vastly at odds with their unenviable economic standing. It is out of such an asynchronous existence, that the politics of the Hungry poets emerged. It was not only self-representational, but without the Self, the very movement had neither an origin nor a justification. What could it be, after all, if not being narcissistic?

A Bulletin for your thought

Representing the oppressed Self, however, has the tendency of going overboard. A few (seven, to be specific) of the Hungry Bulletins are going to be examined here to see if that was indeed the case, and if so, how were they crossing such boundaries. The fact that these specific bulletins were part of the anthology on the Hungry Generation that was published only in 2015 is itself an indication of how they want to project themselves, after all these years. A manifesto is in itself a propaganda of one’s own ideas about the world, its politics and the ideology held dear by the author, regarding contemporary problems and the ways to counter them. Four Hungry manifestoes out of the seven that are under consideration were written in a point-by-point structure, presenting the agenda in the simplest of formats. The reason for mentioning this is to point out that the poets resorted to different tactics for letting their principles known to the masses, rather than letting their writing speak for itself. Does this betray their lack of confidence in the readers, who they might have thought to be so used to the conventional reading structures and ways of thinking, that they would be unable to grasp the politics behind the ‘obscenities’ that these young poets were introducing to the pages of their magazines? In any case, they were letting know of their reasons and approaches to dissent through art in a way which was all too familiar in the political domain, but not very much so in the artistic circles. And that was arguably another aspect of this Hungry movement – if the personal is political, they were bringing to the Bengali literature, that intimate aspect of politics of the educated middle class youth with his sexual desires, political anxieties, conflicts of the everyday, and ways of articulation, which was not addressed till then.

Manifestoes of the marginalised

Let us briefly look into the contents of the manifestoes. The first bulletin credits Malay Roychoudhury as the ‘creator’, Shakti Chattopadhyay as the ‘leader’, with Debi Roy editing and Haradhan Dhara publishing it. Interestingly, the manifesto is in English. The poets prefer poetry to resemble a ‘holocaust’ rather than ‘a civilizing manoeuvre’. They are trying to overcome the ‘artificial muddle’ which is devoid of the ‘scream of desperation’. To them, most of the poems of that time were all too glamorous, logical, and ‘unsexed’, written by individuals, who were more concerned with self-preservation than self-doubt.

About the objectives of the Hungry movement, it is stated in the tenth bulletin that they would put words to make silence (or, what was silenced till then) speak. They dream of going back to the pre-civilizational chaos and start a new world, through their creations. This will be done by coming to terms with every sense-perception which the author possesses, going beyond the world of comprehension. When this leads to the self-discovery of the skeptic and vulnerable poet, he’ll cease to create anymore.

Another bulletin, simply titled as ‘The Manifesto of the Hungry Movement’, speaks in first person and with itself about how to write poetry. The poet wishes to inspect himself and every aspect of his lived experience, and question those before accepting them or otherwise. The poems should betray precisely those moments when he was most vulnerable, so as to get an insight into his inner self. About the linguistic signs of poetry, the poet wishes to do away with the rhyming scheme and adopt such colloquial words which would immediately resound with the readers. The commonsensical placing of one word after the other would be replaced to break the existing politics behind language, which is ‘meaningful’, even if that leads to ‘meaninglessness’ in their creations, to begin with.

In bulletin number fifteen, declared as the ‘Political Manifesto of the Hungry Movement’, the authors claim that they would liberate the very soul of the masses from politics, because the latter is only self-serving, irresponsible and ultimately, a fraud. No respect will be shown to a politician of any colour. They will transform the very notion of political faith.

Bulletin numbered sixty-five is the one related to the Hungryalist’s notion of religion. The first point only has two words in Bengali – ‘God is garbage’. According to them, religion makes people lose their sense of reason; it is the institution which condones every sinful act like ‘murder, rape, suicide, addiction’, and leads to ‘insanity’ and ‘sleeplessness’. Religion is a tool to acquire the tangibles and intangibles of the world, and only the best of human beings could resist the temptation of mindlessly submitting themselves to it. It is a law unto itself, which has a parasitical existence. It prospers only in the hearts of the faithful. Religion is only self-glorifying.

The forty-eighth bulletin is interesting as it talks about the role of the painter in the society, written by two painters – Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay. In true Hungry spirit, they wanted to paint those aspects of people’s lives which aren’t highlighted due to their poor socio-economic condition. They rue the fact that many painters let go of this principle as their patrons belong to the elite class. Their objective would then be to come out of this easy co-existence and spread their creation to the masses, staying true to their ideologies. Hungry painters are free of materialistic concerns and they consider themselves to be the conscience of the society and ‘destroyer of evil’. To them, any pretension in art is unforgivable.

The last bulletin to be discussed here, titled Hungry Generation’, encapsulates the meaning that poetry holds for them. Poems written by their contemporaries do not resemble life in any way, they regret. Moving beyond meaning-making, poems should try to explore the chaotic, what society considers as disorder. Poems sustain these authors despite the psychological and physical ‘hunger’ they suffer from. Disillusioned with ‘men, god, democracy and science’, poems have become their last resort. For them, poetry and existence have become synonymous. However, poetry is not the escape route from the world that has rejected them. Rather, poets could truly be liberated by giving into their savage spontaneity. Freedom from conventional form could only be found in the orgasmic outburst of emotions. It is therefore a call to a culture-war against high-brow art, which is consciously made aesthetically pleasurable, lyrically articulated, and pursued merely as a pastime – a frivolous exercise. In contrast, poems exist to satiate the soul of the Hungry.

Too Hungry to resist

The above claims betray certain anxieties of the Hungry activists. There was a constant desperation to prove that they were different from the rest, and that they were better. A possible reaction to the judgmental society, they countered it by examining their colleagues in turn and found them wanting, according to their set standards. However, bringing out manifestoes and justifying their actions is also a way of seeking validation from the masses, a hope that they’ll be understood on some levels. Because misunderstood they were, and the readers often looked past the politics and the intellect behind the usage of words, which were summarily discounted as obscene and derogatory. Yet, they believed that those very people, who according to them were already structured by the State, societal conventions, and ritualistic behaviour, could be capable of empathy, and would be able to appreciate their project.

Publishing manifestoes also indicate an expectation of winning over a section of the society in a short span of time. Making their objectives clear would assist others to support their cause sooner than having a prolonged investigation into their writings and then arriving at an understanding about their work. The Hungryalists were so few in number, that reaching out to the readers in such a straightforward manner was probably a way to find like-minded souls.

The hyperbole which is noticed often in these manifestoes is probably because of the huge vacuum that these poets were trying to fill, both in the literary as well as personal context. Taking on the entire society and its conventions is a monumental task. When that is taken up from a marginalised position, the articulation could cross the limits of what is humanly achievable, as has happened here. The over-ambitious politics was also due to the youthfulness of the authors, which has been referred to as a phase of high optimism, a time when the protagonists are old enough to form ideologies but young enough not to have all the responsibilities of an adult, which gives them that impetus to see their politics through.

An interesting possibility would have been to witness these artists doing what they did best – write or paint – without having to justify their positions, by publishing manifestoes and such like. But herein lies the paradox: the reason for that justification – their poverty, lack of societal acceptance, and cultural representation – is the very reason why the Hungry movement had come into existence in the first place. If there was no need for any justification, then that would have meant that the society had already reconciled itself with their art and politics.

While the motive for coming out with manifestoes is understandable, what remains unclear is the way of executing the claims that the movement had committed itself to. How were they actually going to overcome the ‘artificial muddle’? What are the kinds of introspection that would make the poet connect with his unconscious?  Why are his words outside the conspiracy of the structures after all, even if it breaks the known form? – all these issues require serious engagement. Merely putting it down on paper without a definite framework of execution only makes the words hollow. Making declarations about liberating the soul from politics sounds rather amateurish, if not downright problematic. One of the Hungry tactics was to consciously make exaggerated statements through their manifestoes, poems or even certain activities like sending masks of animals to individuals holding important positions in the government, but such shock and awe effects are only momentary. A detailed discussion about themes such as uncontrolled flow of emotions or spontaneous writing could have given one a better understanding of their ideas vis-à-vis other poets of the world at that time. Moreover, any reader of the Bengali language would know that quite often the words that the manifestoes had were a far cry from the commonly spoken language of the masses. Such a convoluted way of writing only distanced them from others.

The manifestoes show that the Hungryalists did have the intent of trying to transform the literary scene and in the process, the society. They did possess a few progressive ideas, and their hearts were in the right place when they propounded a culture for the masses, free from the trappings of elite cultural tropes. However, the feeling one gets from the bulletins is that they had hit above their weight. They did so knowingly, but a spoonful of restraint, an ounce of elucidation of their propositions and a generous helping of a vision about their long-term prospects could have given more strength to their struggle and made it more popular. Or maybe, they just wanted to remain Hungry forever.

Titas De Sarkar
is currently pursuing his Doctoral research from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is working on Youth Cultures and Post-Colonial Politics of Representation.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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