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The Hungry Luminaries— Malay Roy Choudhury (Episode 1)

Feb 9, 2023 | Non Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Sraman Sircar

 

The Hungry Luminary by Malay Roy Choudhury

Image used for representation

 

1

By the time I noticed my sandal was torn, we had barely set foot outside the College Street Coffee House after wrapping up one of our usual intellectual chats that always began at 8 on Saturday evenings. The loop that held my hallux had come off, and while holding it between my middle toes, I had somehow scraped my way onto the street and was wondering if I should simply carry the sandal in my hands after all, since repairing it meant I would then have to walk all the way to Sealdah . I was with Subimal Basak. He immediately quipped that the realists among us would have argued it would have been wiser to leave the torn sandal behind at the Coffee House itself for those lacking such a possession.

Suddenly, a group of six to seven men leaped out of the darkness of the street and surrounded us. I recognized some of the faces in the dim light—they had left the café an hour earlier—and instinctively realized that we could save ourselves only by fighting them together. One of the men ran up to Ismail’s cigarette store beneath the staircase of the Coffee House, picked up the iron rod that had been resting there, and struck at us. Subimal blocked the blow, grabbed the rod with both his hands, and yanked with all his might—the man clad in dhoti and a shirt flew off his feet and smashed into the shuttered bookshop on the pavement. A dog groaned at the commotion in its sleep.

Now armed with the iron rod, Subimal let out a full-throated roar that shattered the silence of the night—Come out, you swines of Suresh Samajpati!and landed a sickening blow on one of the attackers. Even in the shadows, I could see the sinews on his muscles had flared up like snakes raising their heads to strike. The men decided they had seen enough and all of them fled along Bankim Chatterjee Street and College Street. It was all over within a minute or so. With the rod on our shoulders and both my sandals hanging from it, we marched our way back home.

If Subimal Basak hadn’t been there with me that night, I would have been brutally thrashed for sure. In any case, I wasn’t well-versed in the Japanese techniques of martial arts. Subimal, however, had an appearance that was thoroughly unlike any poet—he was dark and burly with equally black curly hair and lacked all signs of nobility and sophistication. Originally from East Bengal, he would come across as an archetypical tough and obstinate proletariat. Back then he used to work at the Income Tax House in Chowringhee and resided in his paternal uncle’s tiny jewelry store in the Baithakkhana Bazaar near Sealdah. The year was 1963. I had visited Kolkata for about a fortnight and put up in his den.

The jewelry store used to bear a spartan look, was entirely windowless, and lacked even a ceiling fan; the two of us had to sleep on mattresses strewn on the floor. Answering nature’s call every morning meant going all the way to Sealdah station to make use of the trains idling along the platforms. Breakfast consisted of puffed rice and tea in cheap, earthen cups. For baths, we only needed towels and water taps on the adjacent street. The taps were often set so low that we had to crawl on all fours before we could sit under them. After drying ourselves, we would set off from Sealdah and travel through Bowbazaar till we reached Subimal’s office. While he would report to his department, I would venture to the roof of the Income Tax House and take a seat, with my towel serving as a cushion. Falguni Roy, a resident of Baranagar, and Tridib Mitra, who worked in the Writers’ Building at the time, would join us later in the afternoon for poetry sessions under the open sky, along with weed rolled into cheap cigarettes. When we felt hungry, Subimal would take us to his office canteen for lunch.

The nights were spent being a witness to Subimal’s literary experiments with the Bengali prosaic text called Chhaata Maatha. Lying on the mattress with a pillow under his stomach, he would spend hours deconstructing the narrative of the book, only to recompose it in the typical Dhakaiya Kutti style that had been characteristic of the old Bengali dialect once popular in East Bengal. I could never offer any help in this regard since the dialect was not known to me. As Subimal scribbled new words and phrases from his diary onto a piece of paper, the dim light of the lone lamp would cast a shadow of his head on the wall, its oily smell soon wafting all over the store. The idle yawns of old men would occasionally float in from the street outside. Every now and then, Subimal would blurt out, “Hey Malay, there’s someone in my ears again, I can clearly hear them speak!” and then wait for this supposed angel in his ears to offer him a novel word or an interesting turn of phrase, almost jumping in excitement whenever the angel would so oblige. His literary struggles would last late into the night, while I would fall asleep with an arm over my eyes and a dull pain in my calves from all the miles walked in the day.

We had been attacked with an iron rod the other night in retaliation for the masks we had gifted earlier. Subimal Basak, Debi Roy, and I had once chanced upon an enormous stockpile of masks being sold really cheap at wholesale rates in the Bagri Market of Burra Bazaar. We immediately bought two hundred of them—masks that depicted everything from animals, birds, and vermin to jesters, idiots, and monks. We even got a local job press to stamp the following message on them— 

Kindly Take Off Your Masks
Hungry Generation

Over the next few days, we began sending them off by post. Several were also directly placed in the letterboxes of the homes of prominent individuals. We spared no one: poets, authors, politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, professors, journalists, and businessmen were all at the receiving end. Soon afterward, gales of fury and indignation began raging throughout the city. Such a reaction was expected, but the brutal attack was not. The litterateurs of the day who had sent the goons after us are now lost in time, I don’t even come across their names or works anymore. It seems they have been utterly crushed under the weight of the literary establishment and turned into excellent manure for the fields! Back then, however, they were outraged by our masks and had deemed such an act totally unbecoming of poets and writers.

Before the advent of the Hungry Movement within Bengali literature, authors and poets here would go around looking unperturbed and unkempt, proudly flaunting their indifference to all worldly matters. Dressed mainly in a khadi kurta-pajama with a bag on their shoulder, they would judge the world through their languid, half-closed eyes like the typical frail matinee hero of the cinema of yesteryear. Interested only in the elitist Bengali favored in bourgeois circles, they relished ranting about how good they were and how bad was the rest of the world. They were so blindly obsessed with the vocabulary popularised by Rabindranath Tagore that, more often than not, their work read little better than literary fodder for the high-income groups. And when it came to portraying the lives of the lower classes in society, except the writers of the Kallol Movement, everyone else was busy putting vapid, petty bourgeois idealism on paper.

Despite the literary uproar brought in the wake of the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, by the beginning of the 1960s, the social duty of authors was entirely limited to merely influencing the tropes and motifs prevalent in the literature of the time, rather than using language to create a better society for posterity. As a result, there was a glaring absence of literary works that could radically alter the very intellectual framework of Bengali society. Literature was deemed to be primarily a so-called fine art that was excessively reliant on Tagore’s vocabulary, and elitist Bengali litterateurs entirely lacked the courage to incorporate the syntax and diction of the marginalized groups into their work. Subimal Basak and Subhash Ghosh, two of the poets actively involved with the Hungry Movement, were actually the first to do so within their own writings. Like the authors of the Kallol Movement, they were able to expand the horizon of literature by focusing on the experiences of the marginalized and interpreting them within the right social context. However, unlike the Kallol writers, the authors of the Hungry Movement themselves came from the lower classes, and naturally, their work evolved into a subaltern shockwave within the Bengali literature of the era. 

2

The Hungry Movement had originally been my brainchild. After the final exam of my MA in Economics at Patna University, there was ample time on my hands. The various threads of Marxist ideology were all tangled up in my mind back then, and I would relish sorting them out, only to entwine them once again. Meanwhile, my diary would keep getting heavier with more and more poems. I would also travel a lot with my friend Tarun Sur; sometimes we would go to Allahabad or take a steamer to Shonpur, a truck to Kolkata, or a bus to Ranchi. My elder brother worked for the Fisheries Department in Chaibasa at the time, and his friends from Kolkata—some of whom were well-known poets of the 1950s—often visited him to enjoy the region’s country liquor. Chaibasa was steeped in the sights and sounds of traditional tribal society, and I would go there too every now and then. Roaming all alone in the forests of the place, I would often explore the different villages of the Santhal tribe , observing the customary bloody cockfights where the birds would have knives tied around their feet. Upon returning to Patna, I would always be scolded by my father for my aimless wanderings.

Mother would fret over me as well since my paternal grandfather had a similarly restless disposition, and he refused to settle down anywhere despite roaming almost the entirety of South Asia all the way from Rangoon to Rawalpindi . He worked as a professional painter during the colonial era creating watercolor portraits of royal women from the various feudal kingdoms of the subcontinent. My father picked up some of his skills and later opened a photography studio in Patna. At the same time, my uncle was also hired as an artist by the Patna Museum. That’s why after the demise of my grandfather, our family put down roots in the city of Patna itself. My paternal grandmother Apurbomoyi, on the other hand, used to reside in our ancestral home in Uttarpara. A highly orthodox Brahmin lady, she would roam all over the home muttering to herself with just a red towel around her otherwise bare body. She spoke Bengali with a thick, colloquial accent, pronouncing words like ‘Brahmin’, ‘Kayastha’, or ‘motorman’ as ‘Bemmo’, ‘Kayet’, or ‘mochorman’ respectively. I was always afraid that she would raise a furor over my habit of eating beef and pork despite being a Hindu, and that’s the reason why I preferred putting up with Subimal in his uncle’s jewelry store in Kolkata.

Then came the year 1961. After the results of the MA final exam were out, my father began coaxing me to apply for higher studies at the Delhi School of Economics. But by then, I had already become captivated by the world of poems. Only twenty-two years old at the time, I was totally obsessed with poetry and Marxism. One day, I suddenly came across an interesting expression by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer that completely turned my world upside down: In the sowre hungry tyme. Hungry time, and that too a sour, hungry time! It made me realize that even in Bengali, the verb ‘eat’ has been subtly used to convey a plethora of meanings—we eat a kiss, as opposed to giving one; we eat a beating, rather than receiving one; if you’re corrupt, you might eat a bribe; you could eat your head off when annoyed, or eat the wind while going for a stroll. The word ‘hungry’ by then had a firm grip on my mind, and I decided to appropriate Chaucer’s hungry time for our own Indian literary traditions.

The elitist poems of Buddhadeb Basu , Amiya Chakrabarty , Bishnu Dey , and Sudhindranath Dutta were all the rage back then. The leftist journals were dominated by Subhash Mukhopadhyay , Dinesh Das , and Birendra Chattopadhyay , while the little magazines were obsessed with Shankha Ghosh , Alokeranjan Dasgupta , Alok Sarkar , and Sunil Gangopadhyay . The intellectual essence of their poems was based entirely on the world of privileged society. Their language was the mollycoddled tongue of the upper classes, with 90% of their vocabulary borrowed from Rabindranath, and they were particularly proud of their ability to dig up the most arcane and complicated words from the dictionary. The upcoming poets of that era were meanwhile mesmerized by their literary hero Buddhadeb Basu, who was known for being the Casanova editor of the Kabita magazine and could often be seen in a nightgown drinking tea with sugar cubes. Teeming with hatred, malice, fury, envy, inebriety, debauchery, and cynicism, their poems amounted to little more than philosophical sacrilege. They also used a host of bookish prosodies just to keep the reader distracted. Being mired in the petty-bourgeois environment, they could not even dream of challenging the reader through their poetic rhythm. Even their translations did not do justice to the work of foreign poets, since they were often marked by their own voice and style in Bengali. And when it came to the eventual poetic quality of their work, it always turned out to be utterly timid and effeminate.  


The above has been excerpted from the book titled Hungry Kingbadanti: History of a Literary Revolution written by Malay Roy Choudhury , and first published in July 1994. This is the first in the series of writings from the book that will be published eventually on the magazine’s website. To read the second episode, visit the following link: 

The Hungry Luminaries— Malay Roy Choudhury (Episode 2)


Also, read two Hindi poems by Anamika, translated into English by Moulinath Goswami, and published in The Antonym:

Two Hindi Poems— Anamika


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Malay Roy Choudhury (born 29 October 1939) is an Indian Bengali poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and novelist who founded the Hungryalist movement in the 1960s.

Sraman Sircar is currently a Ph.D. researcher at the Department of Geography and Environment of the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has half a decade of work experience as an interdisciplinary researcher in India and Hungary. Born and brought up in Kolkata, India, he has always been passionate about Bengali literature and the history of Bengal, along with his other interests. Fluent in Bengali, English, Hindi, and Urdu, he hopes to contribute more to the translation of South Asian literature to make it more accessible to a global audience. 

1 Comment

  1. Malay Roychoudhury

    Thanks Sraman. I suddenly came across your essay. Have you written the second part ?

    Reply

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