Nickie Shobeiry continues the interesting conversation with the founding member of The Hungry Generation…
As you mentioned, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg came to stay in your Dariapur home in 1963. Could you share any favourite memories of the time? How did the two of you influence each other?
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had first gone to Samir’s place at Chaibasa, a tribal region, in 1962, where Samir was working in the Fisheries Department. Ginsberg had started collecting Hungryalist bulletins, and was sending them to his mother in the USA for preservation. This information I came to know from Bill Morgan of the Allen Ginsberg Trust who visited me in Kolkata. Ginsberg was familiar with our names. On his way to Rajgir from Bodhgaya, Ginsberg visited me and stayed in our house, using Samir’s room. Neither me nor Samir had read ‘HOWL’ before Ginsberg visited us – in fact, we were not aware of the poem. The book was sent to us by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in December 1964. Ferlinghetti had later sent me a gramophone record of Ginsberg’s reading of ‘Kaddish’.
Ginsberg had a wooden Krishna in his sling-bag which he used to worship, chanting “Hare Krishna”. Subsequently he showed me a piece of stone on which a series of small Buddhas were sculpted. He felt it was a divine call from Buddha. He said he got the stone while he was shitting on a paddy field in Bodhgaya and found the stone. At that time, Bodhgaya was not as developed as it is now with Japanese help – it was almost a far-away village surrounded by paddy fields. Instead of Hare Krishna he started reciting “Buddham sharanam gachchami”. I learnt from Bill Morgan that Ginsberg was not able to carry it to USA because of archaeological restrictions.
Conveyance at Patna at that time was a hand-pulled rickshaw. We hired one for our daily trip. Ginsberg said that the rickshaw puller was of his father’s age and made the rickshaw puller sit by my side and he himself started pulling it. Midway a police constable intervened as one is required to have a licence for plying a rickshaw. Ginsberg with folded hands said “sorry” to the police constable.
One day we went to Golghar, a huge stupa-style dome which is used for storing grains and has 144 circular stairs. Its height is 29 meters, and diameter is 125 meters. Inside the dome, if one shouts, there would be twenty one echoes, one after another. Ginsberg recited his ‘Sun Flower Sutra’ inside the dome and enjoyed the echo. I also recited a few lines from ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ which had not been published then.
I don’t think we influenced each other, but nevertheless, Bengali poetry did influence him.
One day I took him to a government-approved shop to purchase cannabis, hashish and opium. He was startled to see that things were so cheap at a government outlet. In 1985, these shops were closed after the government banned them due to pressure from the USA. However, for usage by Hindu Sadhus, the government did not seem bothered.
Another day I took him to my elder cousin sister’s bungalow, where Ginsberg saw my nieces practising songs in tune with a harmonium. He was fascinated with the musical instrument being played by small kids, and decided to purchase one when he reached Benaras.
In one incident, my photographer Dad was quite angry with Allen Ginsberg when Ginsberg gave a him film reel for development, and Dad found out that Ginsberg had shot beggars, lepers, destitutes, famishing men, mutilated paupers, half naked sadhus etc. Dad told him, “You foreigners are all the same, whether you are a poet or a tourist, you visit India to glamourize and sell our poverty.”
Thereafter I advised Ginsberg to get the film developed in some other shop. I thanked myself that I did not take him to Imlitala!
I don’t think we influenced each other, but nevertheless, Bengali poetry did influence him. If you see his ‘India Journals’, you will find that he was trying to write poems with breathing lines similar to ‘HOWL’ and ‘Kaddish’ – however, he fails to regain the tempo even after resorting to drugs. This was because he was continuously listening to Bengali poetry at the Kolkata Coffee House, and at other functions.
Ginsberg also picked up the ‘three fishes one head’ symbol from the floor of the tomb of Emperor Akbar. Akbar wanted to assimilate the major Indian religions in his treatise ‘Deen-E-Ilahi’. Strangely, some writers in USA have called this symbol to be Buddha’s foot mark! It would be an insult to Buddha to think that a living form was beneath his feet.
How would you describe the spirit of the Hungry Generation?
During the Freedom movement, Gandhi had given a call to ‘Quit India’ to the British rulers. The Hungryalist movement gave a call of ‘Quit Colonial Canons’. This was the spirit of rebellion which presaged the Naxalite Marxist upheaval of 1970s when an entire teenage generation stood up against the establishment and was eliminated mercilessly. Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay, two painters of the Hungryalist movement, had sympathised with the Naxalites in writing and painting, for which their studios were raided and ransacked by police, and they had to go underground for more than two years.
The Hungryalist spirit embodied the boundless faith in change of a postcolonial society through anger, frustration, a sense of defeat, and social putrefaction within the confines of post-partition agony of social and political crisis in Bengali life. It would seem contradictory, but the hordes of displaced families from the then-East Bengal displaced West Bengali families as well, and the new state of West Bengal in India was in great turmoil.
Publication of my poem ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ marked a turning point in Hungryalist literature. For that particular issue of the bulletin, warrants of arrest were issued against eleven Hungryalists. I was handcuffed, and with a rope tied to my waist, I was paraded with six other criminals through the street. Samir was arrested in Chaibasa and suspended from his job. Utpalkumar Basu was dismissed from his job of a lecturer in Jogmayadevi College. Pradip Choudhuri was rusticated from Tagore’s Visva Bharati. Subimal Basak and Debi Roy were transferred out of Kolkata at the instructions of the establishment.
The ten others arrested with me were freed after charges against them were withdrawn, whereas my trial went on for 35 months. I was sentenced for one month’s jail by lower court. I appealed to Kolkata High Court and was exonerated.
The movement spread to other languages such as Assamese, Nepali, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi during the Sixties.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Stark Electric Jesus’?
I mainly wanted to work on the oral speed of a poem of love, and innovate my own style. Bengali poems of love were and are still quite slow and soft. I wanted to use explicit imageries and words which had never been used in Bengali poetry earlier. There had been a thought lingering in me as to who I am and whether there were alternatives. I wanted to use exclamations as well, which had been a taboo earlier. I do not have the several handwritten drafts of the poem as they were seized by Kolkata Police, and never returned to me. In fact none of the books, manuscript, typewriters or letters were ever returned despite our efforts. I would like to make it clear that I never resorted to drugs while writing poems or fictions – I avoid drinks as well when I write.
So to say the least, ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ shocked many. You have spoken about the use of obscenity and its necessity. Do you think it is possible to begin a revolution without these ‘obscenities’?
Strangely, the original Bengali version of ‘Stark Electric Jesus’ is no more considered obscene. The poem has been reprinted umpteenth time in leading newspapers and periodicals of Kolkata. Several websites have it. Bloggers put it on their blog every now and then. Except for pornography, nothing seem to be considered obscene in Bengali literature at present. Times have changed. Woman poets are also using abusive street lingo, foul language and slangs relating to coitus in their poems and fictions. The revolution started by us has reached a complete cycle, and there is no further scope for a literary revolution. In fact, I had tested the limit in an almost pornographic novel of mine titled ‘Arup Tomar Entokanta’ (2012), without inviting the same type of attacks as we used to face during the Sixties. The fiction has rather been academically appreciated.
It is well known that you politely decline literary awards. Why is this?
All literary and cultural awards carry with them the muck of the institution or individual. If you accept any, you are bestowed with the values of dirt that they are involved in, whether political or pecuniary underground. If it is given by the government, it is much dirtier, and you willingly associate yourself with the ideology of the ruling establishment.
Looking at Kolkata today, do you feel the spirit of Hungryalism goes on?
Sure. The movement has caught the fancy of the younger generation of today, and animated a group of Kolkata poets in their twenties comprising of promising poets such as Sayani Sinha Roy, Rajdeep Datta, Rifat Khan Anik, Sayan Ghosh, Ayan Ghosh, Arghya Dasgupta, Supratim Bandyopadhyay, Sanyal Kabir Siddiqui and others who are claiming themselves as members of the Hungry Generation, and publishing their works under the Hungry Generation banner.
They have not approached me or Samir. They appear quite aggressive and untamed in the use of the language. They are more vocal in attacking the current Indian/Bengali establishment. This is happening after more than fifty years of our movement.
What advice would you give to young aspiring poets today?
Young poets do approach me for advice. I tell them to follow their own gut feelings, and draw from personal experience in order to blaze their own trail. If possible, they should mix with the people on the streets, and pick up their unrefined non-literary diction and explore literary limits.
What’s next for you ?
Presently I am working on a mash-up of my own poems with a novella I am writing about a man and a lady who both suffer from bipolar disorders, and meet accidentally in a park, and try to entice into each other’s nefarious world of dirty politics and crime. However, their bipolar positions never match. I have just started, and it will take some time to come to initial shape. I want to try a bipolar text as well.
Thank you for your time, Malay.
Thanks Nickie for evincing interest in the Bengali language, which remains neglected at the world stage.
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