Hungry poets & Ginsberg

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  • Published 6.10.12

Dan “Harry Potter” Radcliffe playing Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings and Sam Riley portraying Sal Paradise in the screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road has sparked recent interest in the Beats — arguably the most influential American writers post World War II. But neither film explores their travels to India.

American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived at Bombay (Mumbai) on February 15, 1962, following the footsteps of Gary Snyder and wife Joanne Kyger. While wandering all over north India, he stayed for a while in Patna, at the home of two poets — Malay Roychowdhury and Samir Roychowdhury.

Malay — offered a Sahitya Akademi award in 2003 — is one of India’s iconic contemporary writers. In November 1961, he had launched the Hungry Generation literary and artistic movement from Patna with Samir and poets Shakti Chattopadhyay and Haradhan Dhara. The group soon expanded to include artists, writers and intellectuals from all over India.

Malay now stays in Mumbai and Samir shifted to Calcutta in 1991. He now edits a magazine, Haowa 49.

Recalling his Patna days, Samir (79) said: “I had a friend who was a phaeton-driver. I used to drink tharra (country liquor) with him. During one of our drinking bouts, he told me the secret of how he became rich.”

The estate of Darbhanga Maharaja was auctioning goods of the palace. The phaeton-driver turned up and bought an old carriage for a pittance. But while dismantling it, he discovered precious stones hidden in the cushion of the seats. The phaeton driver quickly sold off the gems and spread the rumour that he had won a lottery.

Samir recalls his first meeting with Ginsberg at Chaibasa in Jharkhand, a small village then. “In my room, the American poet spotted a copy of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West,” said Samir. “He asked me: ‘Have you read this book?’ I said: ‘Of course, I have. You see the margin notes? Malay and I made those.’”

Malay was inspired by the Spengler’s philosophy to frame the working plan for his movement. The term “hungry” was adopted from Geoffery Chaucer’s Boece ( sowre hungry tyme...).

While visiting different sites of Buddhist pilgrimage in Bihar, Ginsberg stopped over in Patna in April 1963, and stayed at the home of Roychowdhurys in Dariyapur.

“One morning, my mother (Amita Roychowdhury) discovered him bathing without wearing anything at a tank in the courtyard of our house,” said Samir.

“‘Why is he doing so?’ she asked me. ‘That’s how they bathe in their country,’ I replied. She did not like it. From the balcony, she dropped two towels and told Ginsberg: ‘My boy, cover yourself with one and use the other to dry yourself.’”

The Hungry Generation poets and authors tried to explore how far their contemporary society would allow them to subvert the limits of established culture.

At the height of the movement in 1963, they delivered masks of animals, demons, clowns and cartoon characters to the homes famous and influential people. On the masks were printed: “Please take off your mask — the Hungry Generation”.

All hell broke! On September 2, 1964, Malay, Samir, Debi Roy, and associates Subhash Ghosh and Saileshwar Ghosh were arrested on charges of obscenity and criminal conspiracy. Malay was convicted and fined for his poem Stark Electric Jesus. It was only on July 26, 1967, that the Calcutta High Court exonerated him.

But he is still rebelling. Asked the reason for refusing the Sahitya Akademi Award, Malay said: “I do not accept any literary awards or prizes as they reflect the value judgments of the dispensation which bestows them.”

There has been much hair-splitting about the influence Ginsberg had on the Hungryalists and vice versa. Malay and Samir claim that the Hungryalists introduced Ginsberg to the symbol of three fish with one head that became his personal motif and appears on all works from the Indian Journals (1970). “It was brought to his notice by the Hungryalists when they had gone to Emperor Akbar’s tomb (at Sikandra, on the outskirts of Agra). ...Ginsberg came across a Persian book in Patna Khudabaksh Library (Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library), the leather-bound cover of which depicted the three-fish and one-head design in silver colours,” said Malay.

Ginsberg did not write about it in Indian Journals. But his journey to India sparked an unprecedented curiosity among Europeans and Americans, millions of whom started to come, beginning with none other than the Beatles.