Talking Poetry, Ginsberg and the Hungryalists: Samir Roychoudhury, a retrospective
By Maitreyee B Chowdhury
On one of my recent visits to the city of Kolkata, I had been strolling down College Street, where I picked up an old issue of Krittibas (a renowned poetry journal from Bengal). An entire generation of names tumbled out. Not far from where I stood, a group of students, probably from Presidency College, sat on the side of the road with little cups of tea. One of them read out in a distinct voice. As I stood and listened, poetry seemed to drown everything else. A precursor of sorts I thought, to my meeting next day with Hungry Generation co-founder, Samir Roychoudhury.
I had been carefully instructed to take a rickshaw or a taxi as I might lose my way. I chose to walk instead, meandering through some of the rather neat and obscure lanes inside Tollygunge, where dirty ducks in small ponds appeared terribly busy, talkative rickshaw-pullers forged conversations with unsuspecting housewives, and young men played football in obscure little fields oblivious to a busy world outside. Soon, I found myself in front of the Roychoudhury residence. Samir stood in welcome in front of the gate, chitchatting with the person manning a grocery shop next door.
I reflect on how it seems perfectly normal to be reading and discussing poetry on a weekday morning with the man who had co-launched a poetry movement in Bengali literature in the early sixties – a movement that was lauded by their friend and supporter Allen Ginsberg. Samir Roychoudhury is elder brother to Malay Roychoudhury, the more widely known face of the Hungryalists. He has been behind the bars on account of the poetry that he and his fellow poets had written, and yet in his own words, there was nothing he would have done differently.
I am ushered into the house and given a tour of the space from which much of his writing is done. Lying around the living room are sepia-tinted manuscripts, issues of Haowa 49 (that he publishes), copies of Krittibas magazines, edited by him, magazines where his poetry has been published, his books and much more.
While talking to him, it is easy to forget that Samir is an important part of a movement that gave a new vocabulary to Bengali literature, taught new reading habits and made the stench of the road, among other such ‘un-poetic’ things, poetic. But being word-drunk is an equalizer. Like an indulgent guide, he takes me through the memory lanes of Patna and Chaibasa, places that nurtured and gave wings to the Hungry Generation movement. Once in a while, he wanders away from the objective of the movement, and instead shares personal anecdotes that are more telling in fact: how one writes a particular poem, deletes another, curls around a friend’s verse and finds a different middle to start off with. Samir is slow in his movements now; he keeps drifting off into the past, coming back to the present with some hesitation and picking up a poem that he has recently started on. There is evident joy, pride and some amusement in such sharing. He dwells briefly on the fact that the work of the Hungryalists was different both in content and style, and then goes on to elaborate how the movement became an expression for those frustrated with the culture and ethics of those times. In that sense, the Hungryalists perhaps spoke for an entire city affected by post-Partition poverty politics. New conversations and a new language became the need of the day – a language that would cast aside elitist aspirations and speak of angst, instead.
Oh, Sir, nobody uses the Jadavpur subway for a road crossing
During night aristocrat lunatics sleep there
A passenger queried – is the taximeter OK?
I delivered a counter – is the Country OK?
In front of Tollygunj Metro both flyover and subway are being constructed
That does not mean pedestrians will not come under the wheels
How will then media-files dailies-files run?
On the topic of language, I ask Samir about the accusations of sensationalism that have been levelled against the Hungryalists. As a reply, Samir refers to lines from younger brother Malay’s poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ – “Shubha, ah, Shubha/Let me see the earth through your cellophane hymen.” “Read our poems to know the language that life speaks naturally, not one that is manufactured.”
I am reminded obliquely of Ginsberg when he writes, in the ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’:
The war is language,
The Language used
Like magic for power on the planet
(Collected Poems 401)
By the time Ginsberg was in Kolkata in the early sixties, Howl had already taken the world by storm. Samir tells me, however, that he and his brother hadn’t been aware of Howl, until much later. During this visit, Ginsberg met a lot of Indian poets; the visit has of course been documented in various forms, prominent amongst which are Ginsberg’s own journals and Deborah Baker’s book, A Blue Hand, (a somewhat fictionalized account of Allen’s stay and influences from India). While touring India, Ginsberg was well-received by the brothers Malay and Samir, both at their Patna home and at Samir’s house in Chaibasa. Many anecdotes about Ginsberg account about his rickshaw rides in Patna, his learning to make chapattis in the Roychoudhury household, the fascination for the harmonium and clicking pictures of the poor.
The elderly RoyChoudhury smiles indulgently when I ask him why people outside Bengal seem to remember the Hungryalists, mostly in context of Ginsberg. In reply, he reads out a poem of his to me, Nijoshhyo Roder Jonno where he talks about each person’s space under the sun. For the Hungryalists, who had famously said that Tagore’s poetry lacked testosterone, finding Ginsberg would have been a resonance of all that they had already written about. And yet their relation with Ginsberg seems a strange flip-flop. Samir seems to be amused with Ginsberg at times – a famous white poet, obviously influenced by his Indian counterparts, and one who used these influences without seemingly crediting them to the source. At other times, Ginsberg has been that friend who did much more for them than many of their Indian counterparts, when some of the Hungryalists were arrested.
The conversation veers towards fellow poets, Sunil Ganguly and Shakti Chattopadhay. “I had brought Shakti into the movement, he was a good friend,” says Samir with a nostalgic smile. “He fell in love but couldn’t get married to his lady love, she belonged to my family. This led to bitterness. Do you know that Shakti wrote He Prem He Noishobdo while he was at our Chaibasa house?’’ In the same vein he adds softly, “Sunil toh aar shonge roilona.” He drifts off, asking me whether I would like some tea, the afternoon sun is strong in the Kolkata winter, a cat makes its presence felt suddenly, sits on some of the Haowa 49 issues lying around, licks itself and lazily walks away. Samir picks up a book again and reads out to me, even as a maid brings in a tray full of food and a refill of tea. This time I record him while he reads two of his poems. My camera picks up the afternoon sounds; I understand suddenly that the poem is about the sounds that surround him – a hawker somewhere, birds and cats giving birth, the honk of a rickshaw, the vegetable seller. After the reading is over, he suddenly tells me, “We were accused of obscene language. But what is obscene language? If you ask me, colonialism brought (the concept of) obscenity to our language. Was Ganja a derogatory word before the English came in? It was openly sold; Ginsberg also knew this about our country. But if this surprised him he didn’t mention it, not to me at least.”
Like a winter’s shawl on a sunny winter afternoon, Ginsberg flits in and out of the conversation. Samir laughs at a distant memory, “Do you know, Ginsberg would often use the word happening. For him everything was either happening or not happening. He would say sometimes, Samir this is so not happening. At first this confused us, later we were amused. So one night, I took him to a paan shop and asked the shopkeeper to prepare a paan for Allen. I gave him the paan and told him, this is truly happening. Allen liked the zarda a lot.”
So what do you think brought Allen to India, I ask. Pupul Jayakar, was the surprising reply. ‘‘Jayakar was scouting for an ambassador for Indian handloom in America. She met Allen in New York and when she was told about his wish to visit India, she convinced him to wear Indian handloom, while he was in the country – without which you won’t be able to blend in India, she apparently told him.” Samir adds, laughing, “But Allen was very much the American, so while Peter Orlovsky played the flute and the harmonium, Allen was often found bathing without clothes in our house. This of course led to hilarious situations.”
I had read about Bombay poet, Nissim Ezekiel’s support to the Hungryalists during their arrest in 1964. What about the other Bhasha (language) poets in India – were the Hungryalists in touch with them, did they receive their support as well? Samir picks up an issue of Krittibas that had been edited by him. The cover is a beautiful yellow and dark maroon; Bangla calligraphy features as a backdrop to the face of celebrated Hindi poet Phanishwarnath Renu, whose work the issue celebrates. Phanishwarnath was a friend of the Hungryalists and like many other language poets the Hungryalists acknowledge his support for their poetry and the movement in general. And what was the common factor that brought together these poets, in terms of what they wrote and spoke about, I asked. Samir ponders over my query and says, “I think the movement and our work as such was dedicated to bringing change in the way poetry was written and looked at, at the way life itself was looked at – from a non-bookish point of view, that is.”
It is difficult to look at the soft-spoken Samir today and conceptualize the firebrand young man he must have been, a man whose poetry has over the years fired the imagination of many. So how did his family react to his poetry, I ask in jest. All around the world poets are considered crazy, it’s no different here, he concludes laughingly. Ginsberg or not, the surviving Hungryalists continue to publish – their work might no longer seem rebellious, but the poets are far from being satiated. “Notun kichu likhchen?” (Are you writing anything new?), I ask. “Onek, aroonek ( More, much more),” I’m told. Clearly, the hunger is not over.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore-based poet and writer. She is the author of Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras and Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen-Bengali Cinema’s First Couple. She can be found at: http://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.