Street Messiahs

“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…I can’t stand my own mind.”

– Allen Ginsberg

Space is being occupied. What does that space stand for? What does its occupation convey? There are questions being asked about how non-violence can sustain such protest when it is sought to be quashed even in America. Can people from disparate cities with different needs find a common ground besides the one they sit in?

Robert J. Shapiro, former U.S. Under-Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs, wrote: “For the United States it means a middle-class warfare. When middle-class Americans turn to Washington, they see the resounding success of the government’s efforts to stabilise the financial markets – where the top 1% derive most of their wealth. The rich are back to becoming even richer. That’s the way America has operated for at least the last generation. What grates on middle-class Americans this time is that they’ve been getting poorer. And Washington has done little to stabilise the market from which they derive most of their wealth, which is housing.”

Would the middle-class be enthusiastic about the homeless? Can such protests be equalisers? Shapiro demystifies the American fairytale when he says, “There is little controversy among economists that the fabled US ‘land of opportunity’ has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. Using the standard measure (the ‘Gini Coefficient’), America now ranks 93rd in the world in terms of economic equality. That puts us behind places such as Iran, Russia and China.”

Thomas Friedman, after attending a literary festival in India, concluded: “What has brought millions of Indians into the streets to support the India Against Corruption movement and what seems to have triggered not only the Occupy Wall Street movement but also initiatives like — a centrist group planning to use the Internet to nominate an independent presidential candidate — is a sense that both countries have democratically elected governments that are so beholden to special interests that they can no longer deliver reform. Therefore, they both need shock therapy from outside.”

The comparison does not quite work. India, the upstart Big Brother, is trying to clean up the system. It appears to be more organised. But when dissent is systematised it is in danger of a limited transition. Or, rather, a transmigration of sole interests. The “outside” is rarely the philosophical outsider anymore.  It might be noted that recently when the Mumbai stock exchange at Dalal Street attempted to mimic OWS, it fizzled out within hours. As for shock therapy, was that not the ‘change’ mantra? Does change alter fossilised political dynamics?

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“Sir, yesterday sunrise. He was lynched by a mob.” The poet would not sit in a colour-coordinated rally, or fast, or give a call to fill up the prisons.  He would not get a stamp of approval from the big powers. He was not a neo-Gandhi, yet they called him a violent Gandhian.

Remonstration then was not prefixed with words like “peaceful”. They did not give interviews to news channels or have the support of industrialists. They would spit out with disgust at the very thought. Real expectoration. As the world witnesses India playing to the gallery to fight corruption and prop up the ‘humble’ hero Anna Hazare, I think about the time when dissent was not pretence. Honest protest fuels creativity; it does not live off sound bytes. The current people’s movement is creatively hollow, inspired to protect money garbed as hope.

“I think man has harmed society by first theorising and then putting it to practice. Take the Dandi March, theorise it and start marching again. Everybody knows it is a farce. Culture cannot be theorised; it has to evolve.” These are words from 20 years ago. I was in a middle-class home in Mumbai’s suburbs to meet the pivot of the Hungryalist Movement, Malay Roy Chowdhury, the man who wrote lines that belched out rancid breath from genuinely hungry stomachs.

There was no dichotomy as the smell and sounds of cooking oil spluttering reached us in the modest living room – a sofa, chair, dining table. Was there a dining table? This man did not do the forests of the tribals, wrote no tomes, no sedititious words as precious as Swarovski lisped through elocution English. He did not smile benignly as meetings were disrupted by rightwing groups that throw pamphlets in the air like tinsel on Christmas tree Christs. There was no rightwing enemy then. Just as there was no rubbing of shoulders with the powerful. Everything was the Other.

He could have become a Naxalite and packed bombs with a dynamite cause. He could have packaged himself as an idealist with a full head and sore feet and pole-vaulted his way into the land of the never-say-die dead. He didn’t. He continued to write verse about blood, gore, the nether regions, the lesser regions. But he also worked in a bank. And he was not hungry anymore, even though his past was tied up with the entrails of impotent anger. A past whose hypodermic needle was rusting, but was a reminder of those high, high days, the withdrawal symptoms, the cold turkey.

Around the time when the 50s were being buried, and Allan Ginsberg was shedding his clothes to become a benchmark of sorts, a group of young men in Kolkata (Calcutta then) who wrote poetry in Bengali and rubbed their hands in the mud, formed the Hungryalist Movement. It shocked the lyrically-sanctioned lethargy. The Hungries were about a counter-gluttony culture, but the name had a deeper meaning meshing Chaucer’s “the sower hungry times” from the Canterbury Tales and Spengler’s theory that every culture is a wheel that goes up on its own but on its way down degenerates and starts eating up other cultures. “1 saw this as the hungry element. A realism based on hunger for a culture, by a culture,” said Malay.

Hungryalist poetry was considered hysterical, but then it was striving for complete freedom even from the technicalities of poetry. So it was that he wrote, “I’ll kick all Arts in the back and go away.” It wasn’t vacuous bravado. The group got involved in what appeared as bizarre activities. They wanted to do away with politesse; the fart and barf were publicly emanated. Even Time magazine in its issue of November 20, 1964, could not help commenting, “To let loose a creative furore the Hungries last summer sent every leading Calcutta citizen — from police commissioner to wealthy spinsters — engraved, four-letter worded invitations for a topless bathing suit contest.” It might seem that the motive was to strip hypocrisy. Malay, however, recalls it differently. “None of us thought of protesting, of trying to improve society, but our writings were like that We got branded as anti-establishment and that was the first good thing that happened to Bengali poetry!”

But not too good for him. The whole lot of them were arrested for conspiracy against the state, against society, for corrupting minors, and Malay had a special charge against him — for obscenity. While the others were released, some of them even testified against him. He had to wait for the High Court to acquit him. It could cause a flutter in the household of anyone. Malay, then single, went through the ache of watching his father stand by him helplessly as the police broke open his mother’s steel trunk. His parents had never been to school. “All of us in the Hungry Movement were first-generation literates, from the lower income group.” Discovery of culture came by eating what others spread before him. Hereditary link went back to a grandfather who painted kings and queens.

That other grandfather of every Bengali did not influence him at all. “You cannot think of us in terms of Tagore because he was a billionaire… Our ethos and empathies were completely different not only from Tagore but from the later poets. When we came, we brought things from ourselves. which were different from both Bengali culture and western culture. So we were not immediately acceptable.” For all its rawness, the poetry bled purposefully: “Spread out your matrix. Give me peace.”

Was it fear of the self more than a fight that they knew would never be finished? “Today the images and words are violent, reflecting the situation, things which are not acceptable to human decency. But, yes, there was a tendency at that time to please the reader. But when we started we began questioning ourselves: why should we please the reader, why not shock him? He’ll remember you.”

The authorities then could also have seen a devious purpose — political uprising — in all that the Hungries wrote. A literary critic had said of Malay that even his love poems were political. “Everything in life can be interpreted in every way. See. You may not be a believer in god, but your sense of fear, your longing for something could be interpreted as a belief. Some critics are more inclined to interpret things for political purposes. Anyway, nobody does anything internationally apolitical.” Yet, he did not call himself political, living in the “cloaked melon” of an ideology. “We were cultural outsiders. We brought to Calcutta certain things that we got from outside.”

The Hungryalist Movement was not to set up something on the fringes. but to fight for a place within the culture that was nibbling away at anything that met its gaze. Therefore, the sidetracking was not exactly palatable. He was not invited to official functions. “I missed out on a large audience. After I was convicted all my friends left me. It became very difficult to get my poems printed and I also gave up writing. Meanwhile, I did not think of literature at all and kept busy playing with my children.” The revolution had come full circle. The man who used to roam the interiors of the country, staying with farmers and sleeping on the hard floor when “living was more important than poetry”, found it increasingly difficult to do so. He realised that he had to guzzle bottled fizz because drinking tap water gave him an upset stomach.

It was the candour of someone who had experienced “Million glasspanes are breaking in my cortex”. What changed? Ennui? Apprehension?  “The establishment made me like that – now I feel I am a confused man.” It was a confusion generated by what was between the lines, “The third person influencing you without allowing you to think. It is impossible to decide after a point what should he done within the structure itself.”

Did the comfort of a suburban home and time spent with family bring a sense of peace or was there regret? “A lot of my friends became Naxalites but I did not join them because that sort of revolution was not acceptable to me. As for the establishment, it is also part of culture and its degeneration.” In the process of growing are painful moments when you have to shed a few things, disown others. Do you swallow the venom? Was Hungryalism still relevant to him? “I know I have changed, my poems have changed. Now it will be a fraud to call myself a revolutionary.”

There are people walking down the streets, sitting around campfires. People remember the flaky words of quivering voices, immortalised by cocooned dissent. Malay did not take that road and preferred to ask in a poem, “Shall I put on the shirt? Gulp few morsels? Slip off through the terrace?”

Rebellion is a robot now as the system and the counter-system peek into dark crannies and pull out those who can be taken in. Malay’s words seem apt, “The metropolis burn/ A naked priest elopes with Shiva’s phallus.”

Take your pick. Today’s mutiny will not leave you empty-handed.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections