TSC Interview with Malay Roychoudhury
By The Sunflower Collective
Malay Roychoudhury is an Indian Bengali poet and novelist who founded the Hungryalist Movement in the 1960s. He was awarded a Sahitya Akademy award for translating Dharamvir Bharati’s Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda in 2003 but he refused to accept it. He spoke to The Sunflower Collective at length about his work, Hungryalist Movement, Allen Ginsberg, other writers associated with the Movement, politics and rifts with other poets, publishers, and the establishment during the Movement.
The Sunflower Collective: Young poets are calling themselves Hungryalists in West Bengal again, as you said in a recent interview. Jeet Thayil is making a BBC documentary on Ginsberg’s time in India for which he met you. Deborah Baker wrote a book about the same not so long ago. Internationally, several films about the Beats hit the screens in quick succession in recent years. Do you see it as a revival of the two movements that were linked willy-nilly?
Malay Roychoudhury: I don’t think so. Saileswar Ghose, Subhas Ghose, Basudeb Dasgupta had been editing Hungryalist magazines, Kshudharta and Kshudharta Khabor, before they died a few years back. Pradip Choudhuri is still publishing Phoo and Swakal. Rasaraj Nath and Selim Mustafa are still publishing Anarya Sahitya. Ratnamoy Dey is still publishing Hungryalist Folder. Aloke Goswami had published Concentration Camp before he concentrated on writing novels and short stories. Arunesh Ghose continued publishing Giraffe before he died a couple of years back. Since these magazines are in Bengali and they are not active on social media, you don’t hear about them. Pradip Choudhuri has done a lot of translation of Hungryalist work in French.
Prior to Jo Wheeler and Jeet Thayil, another producer, Dominic Byrne, had come and made a radio programme exclusively on our movement. Marina Reza had come from Weslyan University for research on our movement. Daniella Limonella had come from Italy for the same purpose. University of Exeter has published an interview of mine in their Exeposé online newspaper. Mrigankasekhar Ganguly has made a film based on my poem, ‘Stark Electric Jesus.’ A debate is going on for a decade, for and against this poem on a Bangladeshi news portal.
Deborah Baker neither met any Hungryalist nor consulted any written material available at Kolkata’s Little Magazine Library Research Centre. Most of the information is wrong and concocted, though she claims to read and write Bengali. This Research Centre has an exclusive section on Hungryalist periodicals, bulletins, manifesto, and books.
Students at IIT, Kharagpur, Jadavpur University, Rabindra Bharati University, Visva Bharati University, Calcutta University, and Assam University have been doing PhD and M Phil, etc. on our work for more than a decade as a matter of academic routine.
Academic interest in the Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg, continues. He had himself established a Trust to look after the interest of all the Beats and his own work with the million dollars he got from Stanford University by selling his collections. Bill Morgan, one of the Trustees, had visited me when I used to reside at Kolkata.
We, the Hungryalists, have not even been able to bring out an anthology of our work in English and Hindi, as there is no commercial interest in our work from the publishers. And none of us are well to do. Hindi being the prime Indian language, the Sahitya Academy should have evinced interest in bringing out an anthology.
TSC: Ginsberg was concerned that the Beats did not receive the amount of academic attention in America they deserved. Do you feel the same about the Hungryalists, as far as the Indian academia is concerned? In the case of the painter Karanajai, it appears even the critics abandoned him after a while leading to a very embittered existence. What are your thoughts on this?
MRC: Yes, he was worried during his lifetime that the American Establishment is not ready to award them with governmental and academic recognition. However, presently a lot of academic work is being done on the Beats due to the next generation of poets, who took an interest in them. Even if the Beats were anti-Establishment, they were typical products of the American capitalist world. Ginsberg created his trust with a huge fund to carry on his legacy. Kerouac’s manuscript roll was sold for 2.40 million dollars, enough to carry on his legacy by his Trustees for eternity. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore on West Front in order to regularly publish the Beats. In Greenwich Village, they had Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, James Laughlin’s New Directions and the Village Voice newspaper for support. They regularly interacted with the digital companies and brought out their recitations and films, etc. They appointed secretaries to enable them to get paid invitations for poetry readings from various European and American cities.
As I told you just now, there has been continuous academic work on Hungryalist poets and writers. Sahitya Academy has awarded prizes to Utpalkumar Basu, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Saileswar Ghosh, and Subimal Basak. Since I do not accept literary and cultural prizes, I had refused their award. The point is we do not get publishers like Ferlinghetti or James Laughlin in Kolkata to bring out our works and arrange for distribution. And we do not get translators who would translate and publish our works in Indian periodicals. There is still a strong lobby against us at Kolkata, though it has weakened after Sunil Gangopadhyay’s demise; nevertheless Sunil’s trained disciples are still active.
After receiving the Lalit Kala Academy prize at a young age in 1972, Anil Karanjai started sympathizing with the Naxalite Movement; his studio at Benaras was ransacked by police. To avoid the repression, he married an American lady and went to Wahington DC to live there. He was soon disillusioned with the Western world and came back a few years later after divorcing the lady. He got involved in social activities and avoided the dirty machinations that painters had started resorting to at that time. Karuna Nidhan also fled from Benaras and went to Patna, where my elder brother Samir opened a coloured fishes shop for him. When Anil returned to Delhi, Karuna joined him. Anil married Juliet Reynolds and settled at Dehradun to avoid the Delhi painters’ circus. Anti-Establishment writers and artists in that circuit are rare these days.
TSC: What are your views on Shakti Chattopadhyay leaving the movement?
MRC: Shakti Chattopadhyay testified against me because Shakti had fallen in love with Samir’s sister-in-law, Sheela, at Chaibasa. He felt that he could not marry Sheela because of Samir, who did not want her to get married to an unemployed drunkard. That Sheela was living at our Patna residence at that time for post graduate study at Patna University added fuel to Shakti’s fire.
This, along with instructions from a newspaper group which was against us, and which offered Shakti a sub-editor’s job, forced him to leave the movement. Now, after Sunil Gangopadhyay’s death, when Sunil’s letters to his friends are being published, it is found that Sunil was goading his friends to leave Hungryalist Movement, as Sunil thought that my sole motive in launching the Hungryalist Movement was to destroy his ‘Krittibas’ group. Almost all of these letters spew venom against me. In these letters, Sunil wrote that to be an anti-establishment writer, you have to join the Establishment and work from within.
TSC: Is there something akin to an anxiety of influence which informs the relationship between the two movements? In his Indian Journals, Ginsberg continues to profess adherence to the Blake vision. He mentions the harmonium but there is no indication he first learnt about it through the Hungryalists. At what point do you think he discarded the Blake vision and allowed the Indian influences to play out? Could you give some specific examples? I understand that his use of breath as a measuring unit for verse might be one?
MRC: I don’t think we were bothered about influencing each others’ movements. In an interview to LIFE magazine, Ginsberg had said that the Blake vision departed from him when he was traveling in a train while returning from India and started weeping.
When he had visited Bodhgaya, he had chanced upon a piece of stone wherein small replicas of Buddha were inscribed. He had told me that seated on two stones he was shitting, as at that time the Japanese had not developed Bodhgaya and it was almost a village. He said it was a divine direction from Buddha; thus he became interested in Buddhism and departed from mysticism. Due to archaeological restrictions, he could not carry the stone to USA. He had cleaned that stone with his tooth brush at our Patna residence.
Bill Morgan, one of Ginsberg’s trustees, who visited me, had said that there were more than fifty copies from which edited pages were included in his Indian Journals. Ginsberg was spied upon by the Indian agents and a few of his copies were picked out of his shoulder sling-bag by some of these agents to find out what he was recording. Ginsberg himself told me about it. The harmonium story might have been in one of the fifty copies.
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who was in the USA at the time of editing Indian Journals, tried his best to shut out the Hungryalist Movement from this book. Bill Morgan had told me that Ginsberg regularly mailed packets to his step-mother in New Jersey so that she could arrange the papers in the almirahs of their basement. Ginsberg had country-wise almirahs. He collected most of our manifestos and they are available in Stanford University.
TSC: In his Indian Journals, Ginsberg does not allude to your movement, although he knew about it and took a deep interest. Do you think it was deliberate? Do you think he appropriated your techniques and attitudes regarding poetry and art in general?
MRC: I think I have answered your question just now.
TSC: Ginsberg met poets in Bombay also, including Kolatkar and others. How can then it be said that he was principally influenced by the Hungryalists?
MRC: He met poets of other Indian languages for a day or two ; but he stayed in Kolkata for about two years, attended Bengali poetry readings, went to country liquor den Khalasitola, visited by Bengali poets, Sonagachhi visited by Bengali poets, and smoking joints, visited by Bengali poets.
TSC: You have criticised Ginsberg for clicking pictures of beggars while he was here. Is that part of a larger disenchantment with your old friend? Do you think at the end of the day, he was as superficial as other white tourists?
MRC: Yes, when Ferlinghetti sent me a copy of Indian Journals I felt quite ashamed. I did not show the book to my dad, who had admonished Ginsberg for taking photographs of beggars, lepers, lame men, naked sadhus, etc. I have visited other countries and never thought of making a mockery of poverty of certain people. In his Indian Journal, there is a photograph of Ginsberg himself in the guise of a beggar seated beside a beggar.
Ginsberg had several photo exhibitions in USA, which highlighted Indian beggars, lepers, destitutes, almost naked sadhus, cows on the streets, stray dogs, goats, etc. Cards to these exhibitions were sold to patrons. When he revisited India during the Bangladesh War (1971), he shot photos of refugees fleeing the war zone.
He did have the typical white tourist in him.
Probably my childhood in Imlitala slum taught me to respect the poorest man.
TSC: Could you tell us about the politics of the Hungryalists? Were there direct links back then between the Naxals and the Hungryalists?
MRC: Hungryalist Movement had started in 1961; the Naxalite Movement started in the Seventies. I have already told you about the plight of Anil Karanjai and Karuna Nidhan. My first book was on Marxism. Saileswar Ghose, Subhas Ghose, Aloke Goswami had joined the CPI (M) for literary gains. I was disillusioned with Marxism after I started reading about the activities of the Soviet establishment as well as the activities of the lumpens of CPI (M). Strangely CPI (M) resorted to the same murderous activities of the earlier Bengal governments. Now the new Bengal government has co-opted the same lumpens and are resorting to same murderous activities.
TSC: The Beats were criticised for their lack of gender awareness. How do the Hungryalists fare in your opinion on that count? Were there female hungry gen writers and artists? Also, did the movement display consciousness of caste issues?
MRC: Young bold women writers were rare at that time. We had one lady member, Alo Mitra, who later married Tridib Mitra. They together used to edit two Hungryalist magazines, one in Bengali, named, UNMARGA, another in English named, WASTE PAPER.
We were the first to bring lower and backward class writers and poets in literature. Prior to us, there was not a single poet to be seen on the pages of poetry magazines. Debi Roy, Subimal Basak, Abani Dhar, Rasaraj Nath belong to lower or backward class.
TSC: Tell us a little about your poetic process? What influences and inspires you? Is the process of writing poems that deal with stark reality harder than facing the wrath of audience and editors?
MRC: I was initiated into poetry in a strange way. Being a Brahmin family, at our Imlitala house we were not allowed to eat chicken eggs. I was sent to fetch duck eggs from our Shia Muslim neighbour quite frequently. I was ten. The elder girl of their house whom I called Kulsum Apa was fifteen-years-old. She used to recite Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to me, whom I did not understand; but she explained those poems to me. She indirectly, through those poems, told me that she loves me. One day when I asked for the meat being cooked in their house because of the scent, she induced me into a sexual relation. The meat was wonderful and she licked clean my lips with her tongue. After a few days, due to painful scratches on my penis, I got scared and stopped going to Kulsum Apa’s house. However, the impact of the poems remained. I had told about this sexual relation to my grandmother, who told me to never talk about it to anyone in my life. I still miss Kulsum Apa. When I last visited Imlitala, I enquired of the family and was told that they had sold their house and left Imlitala.
My next influence was again a girl of higher class named Namita Chakroborty at the Ram Mohun Roy Seminary, who doubled up as Librarian for the Bengali section. I had a great crush on her. She initiated me into Marxism and introduced me to works of Brahmo writers and poets, including Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. One day I had kept a chit on her table in which I had written ‘I love you’. She had preserved the chit and showed it to one of my aunts after several years, when my name started appearing in magazines and papers. Both Kulsum Apa and Namitadi had dimples.
At Imlitala house, we had two servants, Shivnanni and Ram Khelawan, who were paid in kind, that is food, dresses, and shelter. Since they were servants, they could not reprimand us children directly. Shivnanni knew Ramcharitmanas by heart. Ramkhelawan knew dohas of Kabir, Rahim, and Dadu. Both of them reprimanded through quotations and explained the lines as well. Shivnanni used to play a game called, Ramshalaka, that is a metal stick. You have to close your eyes, open a page and put the Ramshalaka on a line. Shivnanni explained how our day will pass based on the line.
Imlitala was considered a bad influence by Dad as we were exposed to free sex, toddy, cannabis, country liquor, etc. He constructed a house in Dariapur and we shifted there. My elder brother Samir was packed off to Kolkata for post-school studies. It helped me. He joined groups of poets and brought lots of poetry collections and periodicals for me. Ginsberg had come to our Dariapur residence. Prior to that Ginsberg and Orlovsky had visited Samir at Chaibasa, Singhbhum and experienced Mahua drink.
I am not bothered about editors in my life. Only when I am requested, do I send my poems and novels to them. Most of the editors are younger to me and they respect me. Yes, dealing with reality is harder. Earlier I used to maintain a bank of images, words, lines, sentences when I wrote with pen on paper, Now, because of arthritis of fingers, especially the thumb, the process has become difficult with the computer. Since I take a lot of medicines, including sleeping pills, I tend to forget these days.
TSC: What is your opinion of the current writing scene in Bangla and English in India? Are there any writers you like in particular?
MRC: I do not have much idea about what is happening in Indian Writing in English. As far as Bengali writing is concerned, lot of exciting things are happening in the little magazine world. Every year a Little Magazine Fair is held apart from the Kolkata Book Fair. Book Fairs are also held at the district headquarters. This gives us a glimpse into a wide range of creative writing.
The poets whom I have noticed recently writing in a new way are Raka Dasgupta, Sridarshini Chakraborty, Mitul Dutta, Barin Ghoshal, Dhiman Chakraborty, Anupam Mukhopadhyay and Bahata Anshumali, to name a few.
TSC: Are you concerned about the general rise of right-wing and other intolerant forces in India and elsewhere?
MRC: Yes, I am very much disturbed by the latest events taking place all over India. It appears that a worthless government run by cheaters was better than one influenced by fundamentalist criminals baying for blood of the meek and helpless. I wonder how this country had once given us Khajuraho, Puri temple, Meenakshi temple, Konarak, Ajanta, Ellora; how kings enjoyed meat and wine after the Ashwamedh Yajna.
TSC: Is Neera in Sunil’s poems and the one whose name appears in your poem, “Please Don’t tell my grandmother”, the same person? Was she real? Was she a writer/publisher who could be associated with the Generation? Is Mala in Debi Roy’s Malar Jonne real? Was she, too, a poet associated with the Generation?
MRC: Yes, she is the same Neera. Sunil Gangopadhyay never asked for a poem from me for his magazine, Krittibas. After his death, his wife Swati Gangopadhyay became the editor of Krittibas, which Sunil used to edit. Krittibas asked me to contribute a poem. I had sent this poem but they were scared to publish it in Krittibas. They did not publish it and told me to replace it. Obviously I had to decline. But the fact became known to the little magazine circle of poets and writers in Kolkata.
No, Debi Roy’s wife Mala was not a poet; she was a housewife. She died recently.
The interview was first published in The Sunflower Collective on 10/11/15
Malay Roy Choudhury is a Bengali poet and novelist, who founded the Hungryalist Movement that took the poetry scene in Bengal by storm in the 1960s. The Hungry Generation was a literary/art movement that Malay Roy Choudhury, along with Shakti Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy, had started.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.