Reading Hungryalists as One Who Came After: A Feminist Critique
By Nandini Dhar
The term ‘Hungry Generation’ came to me in the same way its other temporal counterpart – the Naxalbari rebellion – made its way into my consciousness. As a legend, as lived memories, stories, broken promises, fragments. In other words, as indirect references. There is also the other, seemingly obvious connection. In everyday Bengali middle-class intellectual consciousness, both Naxalbari and Hungryalist poetics have come to be associated with notions of unsullied rebellious spirits, youthful dissent, experimentation with forms, denial of received forms and rejection in general. To put it simply, radicalism. More specifically, myths of radicalism. This is what it means to come after. For those of us who came of age in the Kolkata of late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, life was a series of aftermaths. The aftermath of Naxalbari, the aftermath of Hungryalism, the aftermath of IPTA, the aftermath of the betrayal of electoral left, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Aftermaths, by definition, are also the fertile grounds for the births of the myths. Precisely because, the events themselves are gone, over.
And that kind of aftermathness, often lived through myths and the memories of others, brings with it its own challenges. Removed from the headiness that inevitably accompanies events such as Naxalbari or the state-sponsored censure of Hungryalist poetics, these aftermaths demand new evaluations. The aftermath transforms yesterday’s rebel into today’s pitiable icon. The aftermath transforms yesterday’s icon into today’s tired office-goer. The aftermath tears off the mask, the veil, leaving most things naked and open, demanding new analyses and new interpretations.
It is, therefore, not surprising that what provided the Hungryalist poets their critical edge – the unabashed and repetitive writing of middle-class male alienation and rage – becomes the most institutionalized voice of Bengali poetry in the period following 1977. By the time I came to any conscious reading of contemporary Bengali poetry, as an overtly nerdy, overtly politicized, and unapologetically feminist teenager, growing up in a home where neither Naxalbari nor Hungryalism was out of bounds for adult discussion, the Hungryalist alienated voice, often expressed through an unmediated, unreflexive ‘I’, was the normative voice of Bengali poetry. To be a Bengali poet was to write about the inability to find oneself in one’s social environment. To be a Bengali poet was to mourn about the inability to love and be loved, a feeling often expressed through the much fetishized Bengali word ‘oprem.’ To be a Bengali poet was to be lost in a world of default middle-classness. To be a Bengali poet was to reiterate again and again the inability to rebel against one’s middle-classness. A gendered script, expressed most often through a neatly distinguished binary between men and women, masculinity and femininity, would round up this dominant script of alienation through which most Bengali poets have written themselves, and are still writing themselves. There is nothing ‘anti-establishment’ about this voice. In fact, it is so thoroughly entrenched in post-1970s Bengali poetry that it is difficult to find any other mode of expression. A mode of expression that would not make documentation of middle-class alienation its mainstay.
Of Alienation and Alienationism
From the vantage point of hindsight, it is indeed interesting to witness the genesis of this alienation-poetics within Hungryalism, and thus also to historicize it. Here, in these Hungryalist poems, most of them somewhat co-terminous with Naxalbari, alienation is its own political category. Alienation is not a beginning point, alienation is not a means to an end. Rather, alienation is the ‘real’ thing in itself. Consequently, the poems themselves are converted into textual and symbolic spaces wherein this political category is given concrete linguistic form, reiterated again and again. The obsessive repetition of the writing of this alienation becomes a celebration of alienation. And this celebration of alienation becomes a form of rebellion in itself. Think of this poem by Shubho Acharya:
Thrice I’ve exchanged glances with a dog with no duties
Noting at the base of every lamppost on the street
A distinctive self-contradiction I advance it can also
Be called retreating there’s no fear of being ambushed
All movements are unrestrained and using the alphabet
Words like ‘love’ and ‘death’ are utilised for sport
Every day on the beach just this instant I have put
A hand prone to criminal acts in my empty pocket
With the other I chuck the featureless chin
Of the world, saying, ‘dance little lady dance’ –
(“The Sound of A Dog With No Duties”, Translated by Arunava Sinha)
A close reading of the poem reveals a strange stasis, the kind of stasis which is constitutive of most alienationist poetics. There are images from the everyday social life we know – the dog, the lamppost on the street, the narrator on the beach, the empty pocket. These are signifiers of a lower middle-class existence, which bring memories of post-Independence disillusionment and social crises into the body of the poem – memories that provided the materialist foundation for much of the radical social and cultural movements of the era, including Naxalbari. But the poem is hardly a mere list of images. There is an attempt at an ideological reading of the time of its origin – “Words like ‘love’ and ‘death’ are utilised for sport.” This line almost crumbles under the pressure of its own moralism. Because it is so invested in a kind of trite, commonsensical moralism, it also misses out on the chance to put any ideological, sociological or imaginative pressure on its language. Although like most literary, cultural or political collectives, the Hungryalists did not speak in a homogenous or monolithic voice, and deeper readings of the movement’s archives would reveal certain internal fractures, if one could make a quick generalization about the dominant tone of the Hungryalist social critique, it is this: Hungryalist poems often predicate themselves on easy moralisms, operating under the guise of ideological and political critique. Because the default effect of the Hungryalist poems is constituted by rage – and youthful rage at that – and poking fun at the more dominant bhadralok moralism, their own moralisms appear as cloaked terrain. In other words, what has often been described as a form of rebellious aesthetics in Hungryalist poetics is based on an extremely weak sociological eye.
Indeed, Acharya’s poem provides its own understanding of rebellion – “A distinctive self-contradiction I advance it can also / Be called retreating there is no fear of being ambushed.” Coupled with the two concluding lines – “With the other I chuck the fearless chin/ Of the world, saying, ‘dance little lady dance’–.” The self-contradiction does not explode under its own pressure. It does not move forward, it does not create any desire for change. If there is any transformation that happens in this poem, it is one of retreat. Almost in the same way, the ‘chucking’ hinted at in the closing lines of the poem, although an assault on existing reality, does not produce anything other than the narrator retreating into his own inwardness – the role of a privileged spectator. Maybe it is even an irony-conscious spectator, one whose being is constituted by a social environment of both the failures of liberalisms and left philosophies. Yet it is a retreat nonetheless, the consciousness of which the poem records in strange ways.
Thus, there is the word ‘ambush’, residing within the poem as a double-sequitur. On the one hand, it operates as a grave reminder of the time of the emergence of the Hungryalist poetics, when incidences of ‘ambush’ – a term that brings into the poem’s body the realities of state violence – had reconstituted the lives of the Bengali middle class to a certain extent. Precisely because of that ambush-ridden everyday, the temporality which Hungryalists share with Naxalbari, the word ‘ambush’ exists in the poem as a reminder of its own fucked-up politics of retreating. A deeper examination of the archives of both movements would show the relationship between Hungryalist poetics and Naxalbari politics to be ambiguous. While this is an issue which demands more in-depth close readings, analyses and reinterpretations of the cultural productions that emerged from both movements, Hungryalist poetics nonetheless brings up an unresolved issue: what are the limits of the category of alienation during times of social and political turbulence? Can alienation ever exist as an autonomous political entity, and what are the responsibilities – social, political and aesthetic – of the alienated?
But I Want More
Yes, I am that reader who is never satisfied by mere alienation. In a way, I take the idea of alienation seriously. Too seriously, almost. Consequently, I see alienation as the beginning point of something bigger, but never an end in itself. As a result, most of the Hungryalist poems appear too status-quoist to me. Too tame. Yes, I repeat: tame and status-quoist. As an individual who has tried to stay involved with activisms of some kind for most of my life, I am politically and emotionally familiar with the terrain that the Hungryalists are marking for themselves. A radical-left student organizer during the mid-1990s – an inconvenient time globally to call oneself leftist – I understand the critique of both the electoral left and the radical left that the Hungryalists are relaying. Yet the critique they present remains the critique of those who have moved away from the messy terrain of everyday organizing of any kind. In other words, Hungryalism remains the aesthetics of the shirkers.
No, I do not expect their poems to change the world. But I do expect their poems to provide me with new ways of seeing the world. This is precisely where the Hungryalists have failed. Hungryalists did not provide me with a language to understand the specter of the privatization of education that faced most of my generation. Hungryalists did not provide me with a language to understand neoliberal economic violence or for that matter the violence of its liberal forebear. Hungryalists did not provide me with a language to understand more deeply the complex histories of oppression and identities in this world. Hungryalists did not provide me with a language to engage more deeply with the multi-faceted realities of human resistance to oppression. Hungryalists did not provide me with a language to understand the global failures of the left.
At most, the Hungryalists provided me with a language to complain. At most, the Hungryalists provided me with a language to document symptoms. At most, the Hungryalists provided me with a language to trivialize everything considered sacred by mainstream society. But that has never been enough for me. I didn’t need any Hungryalist to teach me that poverty is dehumanizing, or that the state is capable of breaking and killing. I didn’t need Hungryalists to figure out the loopholes and contradictions of bhadralok morality.
Yes, I want poems to do more. I want art to do more. I want literature to do more than become a list of gripes and remonstrations. Consequently, the Hungryalists represent to me a profound failure of the Bengali radical imagination, a profound failure of the Bengali middle class to fashion a radical poetics. It is not difficult to understand why the linchpin of the movement, the alienated lyrical ‘I’, alternately angry and sad, stands within the contemporary archives of Bengali literature as a thoroughly appropriated category. After all, we middle class Bongs love us some good alienation. It makes us feel edgy. It makes us feel sensitive, while leaving the central pillars of our structural existence untouched.
But Where Am I?
At the same time, there is something in these poems that would mark them as different from the lyricization of alienation in contemporary Bengali. A certain sense of urgency, a certain breathlessness that is difficult to quantify. A certain sense that this world is a disaster, and nothing but disaster. A certain intuitive understanding that the bhadralok morality, which has dominated the social and creative life of post-independence Bengal, needs to be torn apart. A form of raw rebellion against authoritarianism and social hypocrisy pervades these poems, in their formal experimentation with lines, white spaces, and punctuation. Yes, there are moments when I am moved by them. Yet this emotional appeal never lasts long. My relationship to Hungryalist poetics is one of profound alienation. And that alienation stems from something profoundly simple: my own efforts to find myself within the poems of the Hungry archives.
In other words, I am asking, what place has been accorded to women within the Hungryalist texts. I will begin with a generalization. Women appear in Hungryalist poems as bodies – sexual bodies – and nothing but bodies on which desire is projected. In other words, if my alienation from the Hungryalism was, to a certain extent, prompted by the fact that much of my political and aesthetic quests remained outside of the boundaries of a Hungryalist aesthetics, it is also true that the Hungryalist poets could not really imagine that someone like me might be their implied audience.
Any sign of female sexual agency is vilified, mocked and ultimately turned into a site of male sexual violation. One can’t really say that the Hungryalists write female sexual identity in terms of the virgin-whore dichotomy, because to be a woman with an independent sexual will is to be permanently reduced to the status of a whore within Hungryalist poetics. Like most of its social analysis, this particular way of reading women reeks of bhadralok moralism, cloaked in the language of male alienationist radicalism. What is absent is any political understanding of marriage as a social institution, of patriarchy as a socio-political category, and of sexuality as socio-cultural constructs of masculinity and femininity. Any consciousness other than the sexual kind is automatically denied to women.
Interestingly, there are quite a few poems set within the actual space of red light areas and brothels, in the rooms of the actual sex workers. Characteristically, there is no effort to read and write the myriad intersections between capital, commodified sexuality, semi-feudal economies and patriarchy that produce and keep alive the very institution of sex work. Instead, the brothels and the bodies of the sex workers are turned into spaces where the narrators of the poems can project their own fantasies – sexual and otherwise. In so doing, they attempt to stage their own rebellion against bhadralok sexual morality. In other words, the Hungryalist poetic persona – which is almost always male – enacts its anti-authoritarianism on the bodies of poor women. Yes, there are moments when sex workers are glorified or turned into positive stereotypes. But even then, there is no actual engagement with gender, with class, or with sexual violence beyond a few platitudes.
In this essay, I propose we read the Hungryalists differently than we usually do. For a moment, let’s just forget rebellion. Forget being anti-establishment. Forget youth. Forget alienation. Instead, underline every single reference to women that appear in these poems. Underline every single reference to sexuality in these poems. Keep gender and sexuality at the center. Remove male pain and alienation to the margins. Once you have done that, tell me how lines such as “My uncomfortable gaze shifts from my sister’s breasts/ On the ritual day of sisterly love I wander around whorehouses” (Phalguni Roy) occur? What kind of anti-establishment ideas are these lines propagating? Yes, there is a de-construction of the ritual of bhai-phota as the socially accepted day of exhibiting ‘sisterly love’. Yes, there is a tacit reference to the sexual politics that lies at the basis of any ritual that seeks to solidify the brother’s protection of the sister. But then? An aggressive male sexuality, uncomfortable and repressed in its essence, but still aggressive. Aggressive in a way that borderlines predation. Again, there is no understanding of the patriarchal nature of the family or the sister’s place in it. Neither there is any understanding of the politics that invariably follows the juxtaposition of the sister’s figure with the whore’s. What overtakes everything else, is the narrator’s own voice, full of self-pity. A more forgiving reading would probably want to read this voice as an exposure of the inefficacy of middle-class male identity, its inherent hypocrisies and sexual dishonesties. Even if I accept that kind of reading, let me state this very, very clearly: I don’t need to read any Phalguni Roy (or any other poet) to know families are not exactly safe spaces for women. That a lot of sexual violence takes place within the family by men we are taught to think of as ‘relatives.’ In the same way, I want poems to do more than alienation, I also demand more than exposure from poems. A mere exposure, then, stands as a marker of artistic and political failure, a symptom of that same failure of radical imagination that plagues Hungryalism as a literary movement.
But, let’s take Malay Raychaudhuri’s much-celebrated poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’. Let’s concentrate on these lines: ‘dhorshonkale narike bhule giye shilpe phirechhi kotodin’, which has been mysteriously translated into English as “I’ve forgotten women during copulation and returned to the Muse.” But the Bengali word dhorshon does not translate as mere copulation in English. It translates as rape. Let’s move further into the poem. Let’s read these lines which come almost immediately after: ‘Shubhake hichre uthiye niye jabo kshudhay/ ditei hobe Shubhake’. Again, very mysteriously they have been translated as ‘Draw and elevate Shubha into my hunger/ Shubha will have to be given.’ A more accurate translation would be: ‘I will drag and pull Shubha into my hunger/ Shubha will have to be given.’ It’s important to remember the Bengali phrase ‘uthiye neoya’ can also signify abduction. In other words, the poem’s writing of male pain and alienation, for which hunger provides the central metaphor, also rests upon imagery which is profoundly gendered and sexualized. More importantly, it is one of rape and sexual violence. This legitimization of rape and sexual violence through repetitive articulations of male pain and alienation is not at all anomalous, but is the norm in Hungryalism.
Needless to say, the Hungryalist version of anti-establishment scares me. I am completely unable to identify with any anti-establishment rhetoric predicated upon the imagery of rape. I am not at all ashamed of this inability. To Malay Raychaudhuri and his buddies, to replace ‘Muse’ with ‘labia mejora’ might look like tearing down the establishment. To me, it just looks like patriarchy. I am neither ‘muse’ nor ‘labia mejora.’ When I sit down to write my own poems, I do so with the knowledge that I am treading in places where the Hungryalists have not dared to go. So are many other poets, many of whom are young women. As have many who came before us. Yes, as I am concluding this piece, I’m wiping my ass with a copy of ‘Stark Electric Jesus.’
Postscript: Given the very nature of the archives of the Hungryalist movement, it is almost impossible to write this essay in English. Poetry as a form demands close reading, an attention to language and details, in a way it’s almost impossible to accomplish in translation. Consequently, I have chosen to write in more details only about poems that are available online – in English translations. At the same time, I have tried to bear in mind poems that exist solely in Bengali. Thanks to Goirick Brahmachari for directing me towards the translated archives at The Sunflower Collective. Readers who read Bengali might also benefit from trying to get hold of a copy of one of recent issues of the Bengali little magazine Chandragrohon, devoted to Phalguni Roy. For readers interested in probing further into the gender politics of the poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’, please read Debaprasad Bandopadhyay’s essay in the first book-fair issue of the little magazine, Aainanagar. I am profoundly grateful to Debaprasad-da for articulating in writing what I and some of my friends have discussed in private for ages. And, in doing so, Debaprasad-da’s essay has contributed immensely to the developments of my own arguments on the gender politics of the Hungryalists.
Nandini Dhar is the author of the chapbook, Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (Two of Cups Press, 2015). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, New South, Rhino and elsewhere. Nandini co-edits two online journals, Elsewhere (www.elsewherelit.org) and Aainanagar (www.aainanagar.com).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
Oh Nandini Dhar, what a glorious rant … nothing “middle-class Bong” about this at all. Thank you for this fabulosity.