FEBRUARY 19, 2020
WHEN I FIRST MOVED to Mumbai (which I still call Bombay), I learned that Allen Ginsberg had once passed through in the 1960s. The details of how I learned this — who told me, where, when — escaped my memory immediately. The fact that I lived in the neighborhood where Ginsberg had stayed when he visited was, and still is, worth more than the why.
Ginsberg, I’d soon find out, made two trips to India. The first was in 1962 when he and his partner, Peter Orlovsky, arrived in Bombay by ship. He was fresh off the heels of his 1957 obscenity trial following the success of Howl, and India was the old land for a new story. Unbeknownst to him or Orlovsky, he’d go on to spend a year in India and record his days there in his 1970 Indian Journals.
In November 1961, a few months before Ginsberg arrived in India, though, a group of Bengali poets would found something called “The Hungry Movement”: brothers Malay and Samir Roy Choudhury, Haradhan Dhara (who would later go by “Debi Rai” to avoid casteism), and Shakti Chatterjee. The group would grow larger and change dramatically with time, but the first three co-founders would remain with the Hungryalists, as they called themselves, until the end.
Their name is in reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of “hungry” in “in the sowre hungry tyme” in his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. At the time, India, having become an independent nation just over 20 years prior, was indeed hungry. Independence came at the cost of the Indo-Pakistan War: Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in the name of religion; Pakistan became an Islamic republic, India a secular one, and what is now Bangladesh would, in 1955, be established as “East Pakistan.”
The change in borders brought an influx of refugees, and as thousands of displaced souls walked in search of their new homes, setting up camps in railway stations and street corners, the people — especially the people of Calcutta, West Bengal — were hungry.
“Counterculture has a penchant for the eccentric,” writes Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury in the introduction to her book, The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution. The Hungryalists, like the Beats, were rebellious.
Reader, it is perhaps important to note here that the Beats and Hungryalists did not know of (or care for) each other’s existence until Ginsberg would meet a few of them through his travels in India. It’s tempting to put this down to ignorance on both sides, but the worlds they were each born into were all-consuming. On the one hand, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War, facing off with the Soviets and averting nuclear conflict in Cuba; on the other, Delhi and Peking had their own cold war brewing on account of a border dispute, India’s recognition of Tibet as a sovereign state, and India’s safeguarding of the Dalai Lama.
So just as Ginsberg came east to search for something (a quintessential white man looking for his Eat, Pray, Love moment, I would argue), for he was in search of his “guru,” Malay Roy Choudhury moved east to Calcutta hoping to steal away from the “bad influence” that his father thought Patna was. (And their childhood home in Patna, in the shady neighborhood of Imlitala, was indeed, “[p]retty early on in life, the place [that] had exposed them to free sex, toddy, ganja, and much more,” as Bhattacharjee Chowdhury points out.)
In Malay’s case, coming to Calcutta would bring the Hungryalists to life with the publication of their first manifesto — a formal renouncing of the Bengali literati, who were all yet to grow out of the colonial blanket they clung to. The manifesto — printed on a single page to save money and reach as many people as possible — read:
Poetry is no more a civilizing manoeuvre, a replanting of the bamboozled gardens; it is a holocaust, a violent and somnambulistic jazzing of the hymning five, a sowing of the tempestual Hunger. […] [W]e have discarded the blankety-blank school of modern poetry, the darling of the Press […] In the prosed-rhyme of those born-old half-literates, you must fail to find that scream of desperation of a thing wanting to be man, the man wanting to be spirit.
The Hungryalists were just that — wanting to be men, wanting to be spirit. This was a time when the Indo-China border conflict had led to a war that India lost — the elders liked what they could trust and know, and the youngsters wanted to be able to trust and know newer, better things. Bengali literati (and indeed the Bengali upper middle class, in general) praised the fuddy-duddy, the Oxbridge-educated (studying in the United States was still seen as the “lesser” option), and the Tagores and Jibananandas (the former being India’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature in addition to a Bengali poet). The Hungryalists spoke to issues of the man on the streets. They embraced the unembraceable; where the academic and literary aristocracy repudiated work written by lower castes (so much so that your caste decided whether or not you would be published), the Hungryalists accepted these poets and their words. Most importantly, in denouncing religion and promoting sexual expression in art, the Hungryalists were labeled uncouth attention-seekers.
And one could argue they were: they went to great lengths to distribute their pamphlets, reciting evocative verses in railway stations, leaving masks in literati mailboxes with instructions to “please remove your mask,” spoofing wedding invitations with critiques of acclaimed poets, performing “obscene” sketches, and pranking literary magazines with blank submissions. They were desperate to get the word out at whatever cost they saw fit, and it worked.
It worked so well, in fact, that it eventually led to an obscenity trial in 1964.
Apart from Ginsberg and Orlovsky, Gary Snyder and his wife, Joanne Kyger, were also traveling through India. Kyger documented her trip in a journal, which was first published in 1981 as part of The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964 before being reprinted in 2016.
In it, she talks (rather amusedly) of how Ginsberg, on his quest to find a guru, would ask the Dalai Lama about drugs and their repetitive hallucinations.
By the time Orlovsky and Ginsberg met the Hungryalists in Calcutta, none of this curiosity — about religion, mysticism, and drug use — had faded.
In The Hungryalists, Samir recalled their first meeting to Malay:
He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes — they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties — they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets — but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer.
Ginsberg’s acquaintance with Malay Roy Choudhury was yet to happen, but one can only assume the bond he developed with the elder Roy Choudhury, Samir, was strong enough for Ginsberg and Orlovsky to stay at Roy Choudhury’s parents’ house in Patna (scandalizing the women of the Bengali family not through their homosexuality but through Ginsberg’s inability to wrap a towel around himself after bathing).
In Patna, when Malay would eventually take Ginsberg to the Golghar (“round house”), a colonial-era granary, Ginsberg would recite “Sunflower Sutra,” enamored by the acoustics of the space. Ginsberg would later go on to write about the visit in his journal:
The Prakritic echo of the Golghar
circling round the concrete dome
as I recited the sun flower
hearing my own voice sadly
echo, tired thousand miles.
Later, the Beats and the Hungryalists would travel and stay together on and off while he continued his search for a guru and understood the mechanics of smoking ganja from a chillum like a sadhu.
Trivial though it may seem, ganja was a purposeful choice of drug for the Hungryalists. “Ganja was the poor man’s drug, mostly taken by factory workers and rickshaw pullers who couldn’t afford anything else,” Bhattacharjee Chowdhury writes.
For the poets, it was a double-edged sword […] breaking not only class and caste barriers, but also the intricate hierarchy of who took the drug […] the pundits or propagators of casteism who advocated their genteel opinions about literature.
Yet the fact that it was legal in a country as tightly wound as India — and a path to moksha, release from the endless cycle of reincarnation, according to Hinduism and Buddhism — baffled Ginsberg.
It feels nonsensical to point all this out, but the poets were bonded over this need to escape: Malay from the chaos that sprung from organized religion, and Ginsberg from what he believed to be some version of the endless cycle.
When the Hungryalists were rounded up on an obscenity charge in 1964, Malay was listed as the main accused. The Calcutta Police cuffed Malay in his parents’ home in Patna, and what would become a three-year court case went to trial.
I’ll admit that until this point in the narrative of The Hungryalists, I wasn’t convinced of the Bengalis and the Beats forming any sort of bond. What follows, however, diminished most of my doubts.
Ginsberg would write to Malay upon hearing the news of the arrest. Having been through an obscenity trial himself, Ginsberg’s words meant something to Malay — comfort, advice, success?
In his first letter, Ginsberg would go as far as to say, “As soon as I read about it, I racked my brain what I could do to help, and so today wrote a bunch of letters to the following”: he went on to list several editors of international and local magazines and newspapers, a novelist, and members of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He had made phone calls and met with literary VIPs in New York, his letter went on to say, ending with:
If there is anything you want me to do let me know. […] Write me and let me know what the situation is[.] […] I suspected jealous ideological Marxists or something. Are you ruined at the bank?? […] Regard to your family. […] If the [Congress for Cultural Freedom] doesn’t cooperate, let me know, we’ll explain to the European office.
He signs this letter off with “Jai Ram, Allen Ginsberg.”
Ginsberg and Malay would continue corresponding while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to thwart the “petty bourgeoisie.” Time would feature the poets and their cause. City Lights Journal, Salted Feathers, San Francisco Earthquake, Kulchur, and Los Angeles Free Press would publish the work of Hungryalists and announce their solidarity.
At home in India, Malay would continue to face ridicule from the upper crust of literary society — the nerve of international press meddling in domestic affairs; don’t they know these youths and their delinquent plans?
The charges against Malay would eventually be dropped in 1967, and the vastness of India would absorb aspects of their movement into its day-to-day life. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Hungryalists was this — the fact that the battle of caste and class was no longer up for intellectual debate.
Later that year, the Marxists would take to the streets violently, and a few frustrated Hungryalists would join them; the Naxalbari uprising — an armed peasant revolt in 1967 West Bengal — was around the corner.
Of the Beats who visited India, it is indubitably Ginsberg who reflected the impact his time here had on him. Not just in his understanding of the complexities of life, which he’d later attribute to practicing Buddhism, but in his art, too. When he’d revisit India a decade later to see refugees flood in from Bangladesh, liberated from Pakistan, he’d come to write “September on Jessore Road.” Ginsberg would pay tribute to
Millions of souls Nineteenseventyone
homeless on Jessore under gray sun
A million are dead, the millions who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan.
In his last poem, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)” — written a week shy of his imminent death on April 5, 1997 — he reminisces one last time:
Nor ever return to Kashi “oldest continuously habited city in the world” bathe in Ganges & sit again at Manikarnika ghat with Peter, visit Lord Jagganath again in Puri, never back to Birbhum take notes tales of Khaki Baba
Or hear music festivals in Madras with Philip
Or return to have Chai with older Sunil & the young coffeeshop poets,
Tie my head on a block in the Chinatown opium den, pass by Moslem Hotel, its rooftop Tinsmith Street Choudui Chowh Nimtallah Burning ground nor smoke ganja on the Hooghly
In The Hungryalists, Bhattacharjee Chowdhury points out that it is perhaps unfair to compare the Beats to the Hungryalists. While both were largely male-dominated, the former would be imbibed in American culture in the decades that followed.
The Hungry Movement lost steam slowly and abruptly, with those associated with it wanting to distance themselves from the violence many thought they fueled. Though its members went on to live successful literary lives, its story seems to have been lost in history until recent years. Some attribute this to the First World-Third World divide; I’d argue it was lost because India sought to emulate the West.
Much like the poets who sought after and fought for the Hungry Movement, India was a young nation, with much to learn about its own intricacies.
Beyond caste and religion, India had and continues to have many dimensions — ethnic groups, tribes, socioeconomic and political classes — there is no end to the chaos.
“The Beats and the Hungryalists were co-travellers in their own ways,” writes Bhattacharjee Chowdhury. The Hungryalists, who traveled through India, East Pakistan, Nepal, and Burma, interacted with local poets, artists, and thinkers much like the Beats had when they moved through India. As they each traveled east, for that short breadth of time, connections — however fleeting — were made, and their roars against the establishment were the key to their respective impacts on the world in which we live today.
Malay would reason,
Post-WWII, the world had seen a rise in possible correlation between nationalism and religion, allied with the suppression of women and government-sponsored oppression of so-called sexual and political deviants, leading to a culture of constant containment foisted upon freethinkers.
It is sad, then, to think of how little has changed. In India, certainly, but globally, too.
Conventional wisdom tells us that art thrives in uncertain times. War, famine, floods, fires, bloodshed, and blockades. The India I currently live in grows increasingly different from the one I moved to. As people here protest citizenship laws, the lockdown in Kashmir, the detention camps, and attacks on free speech, I find myself looking for answers in the art being created today, wondering where the next Howl, the next Wichita Vortex Sutra, the next Hungry generation is.