Samir Roychoudhury, co-founder of Hungry Generation, dead
Uttaran Das Gupta

Photo Credits : Subimal Basak

Bengali poet Samir Roychoudhury, one of the four founders of the Hungry Generation literary and artistic movement, died yesterday in Kolkata. He was 86.

The death was confirmed by his brother — and co-founder of the movement — Malay Roychoudhury. Samir was admitted to the Rabindranath Tagore Hospital on 17 June.

In 1961, along with Malay and poets Shakti Chattopadhyay and Haradhan Dhara (who later changed his name to Debi Rai/Roy), Samir published the first Hungry Generation, or Hungryalist, manifesto from Patna.

On one hand, the “hysterical” works of the group attracted the friendship of American poets Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti as well as Nobel laureate and then Mexican ambassador to India, Octavio Paz. On the other, some Indian intellectuals branded their poetry as “obscene” and “sexist” — a trend that continues to this day, led mostly by those who have read little of Hungry poetry.

In 1964, Malay, Samir and a few others were arrested on charges of obscenity and sedition. They were suspended from their government jobs and some of their writer colleagues, including Shakti, testified against them in court. The trial and suppression of their works made them a sort of cause célèbre. Their poetry and manifestoes were published in a number of American magazines such as City Lights Journal, Kulchur, Salted Feathers, Intrepid and San Francisco Earthquake. The Time magazine published an article on them in their November 1964 edition.

When, I first met Samir in 2012, he lived at Bansdroni, on the southern fringes of Kolkata, with his wife Belarani. Besides writing stories, poems and essays on different subjects, he also edited a magazine, Haowa 49. I was a sub-editor with the Bihar desk of The Telegraph, and researching a piece on Ginsberg’s travels in Patna, about which I had read in Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand: “before returning to Benaras, he stayed a night at the Patna home of Malay Roy Choudhury, the firebrand of the Hungry Generation.”

It was a wet September morning when I arrived at Samir’s house in a cycle rickshaw. The house had a large garden in front and a soothing pond adjacent to it. Ramrod straight, Samir had an impeccable memory from which he fished out anecdotes of Ginsberg’s visit.
“Ginsberg stayed at the house of my parents in Dariyapur. One morning, my mother (Amita Roychowdhury) discovered him bathing in the nude at a tank in the courtyard of our house. ‘What’s he doing? Why is he naked?’ she asked me. ‘That’s how they bathe in their country,’ I replied. ‘But that’s not how they bathe in our country,’ she declared. Then, from the first-floor balcony she dropped two towels and told Ginsberg: ‘My boy, cover yourself with one and use the other to dry your body.’”

Ginsberg and he had met earlier at Chaibhasa, a small tribal village in West Singbhum district of Jharkhand, where he was posted as an employee of the fisheries department.
“A friend of mine, Kamal Chakraborty, the editor of Kourab magazine, brought Ginsberg to Chaibhasa,” recalled Samir. “In my room, the American poet spotted a copy of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. He asked me: ‘Have you read this book?’ I said: ‘Of course, I have. My brother, Malay, gave it to me. You see the margin notes in pencil? Malay made those. The ones in ballpoint pen are mine.’”

He was also not too happy with Baker’s book, where Malay was pointedly referred to as a bank clerk. The book has only passing references to the Hungry Generation and almost all of them are supercilious in tone: “Patna bank clerk Malay Roy Choudhury, whose intense grievances against the establishment were only partially masked by his grandiose estimation of his own genius.”

He blamed Sunil Gangopadhyay for influencing Baker. Sunil and Samir were great friends as young men. Samir had edited an edition of Krittibas — the legendary little magazine published by the young poets of the 1950s — on Phaneshwarnath Renu, and had also helped publish Gangopadhyay’s first book of poems, Eka Ebonj Koyekjon.

Acknowledging it in his autobiography, Ardhek Jibon, Gangopadhyay wrote: “Samir was my friend from City College (in Kolkata), he met Shakti through me… After graduating, I remained unemployed for many days; then, Samir suggested a business. We would be partners; Samir would provide the capital and I would take care of the work. As I had already learnt to operate a press, we decided to publish books. We opened an office at my house on Shyampukur Street, and gave it an easy name: ‘Sahitya Prakashak’. Samir enthusiastically published my first book, Eka Ebonj Koyekjon.”

They also published two of Samir’s poetry collections: Jhornar Paashey Shuye Achi and Aamar Vietnam.

The endeavour didn’t last too long; nor the friendship. During the obscenity trial against the Hungry Generation poets, Gangopadhyay had testified in their favour in court, but both Malay and Samir told me that the Krittibas gang had plotted against their Hungry counterparts.

Gangopadhyay died that October (2012). Samir called me up to ask if I would be interested to publish letters they had written each other. But, I did not take him up on the offer, and soon after, I moved to New Delhi, and lost all contact with him.

Note: Translations from Bengali are all by the author.