TSC Interviews| Debi Roy

The Hungry under-caste: A Conversation with Debi Roy (DR) by Debayudh Chatterjee (DC)

Poet Debi Roy was born in 1938 as Haradhon Dhara to an impoverished under-caste household residing in a slum in Howrah. He had to discard his real name to survive in a literary establishment dominated and hegemonized by the upper-class elite. Roy was one of the four founder members of the Hungryalist movement. He was the editor of the first manifesto of the Hungry movement that came out from Patna in 1961. His slum address was used for official correspondence during the movement. Pitching an under-caste in the forefront was a conscious effort to lodge an attack on the Brahminical arena of Bengali poetry in the sixties. Roy passed his school final in 1958 and Intermediate Arts in 1960 before enrolling himself in a course on library science at the University of Calcutta. His first anthology Kolkata o Ami (Kolkata and I) came out in 1965. He was arrested later on the ground of obscenity along with other members of the Hungry generation. While he was suspended from his government job, the lower court soon acquitted him. After 1965, as the movement fizzled out and splintered into different groups, Roy continued writing. Till date, he has authored more than ten titles in poetry, translated extensively from Hindi into Bengali, and written three books of non-fictional prose.

Photo Credit : Debayudh Chatterjee 

Debayudh Chatterjee: Let me begin by asking why you changed your name to Debi Roy.

Debi Roy: There wasn’t any other way apart from adopting that name. No way whatsoever. There was so much of Brahminism around me, so much of humiliation. When they cannot topple you over in any other way, they seek resort in caste. This is just a way of suppressing you. Some of my own friends can be accused of that crime. Some very close friends who used to frequent my slum once upon a time. But they were the ones to humiliate me first. They still do it though their powers have ceased to exist.

DC: How did you meet Roychoudhury brothers, Shakti Chattopadhay, and Subimal Basak in those early days of the Hungry movement. What was it like to be a part of it?

DR: The “Hungry Generation” was mostly conceived by Malay. He was the one who wrote to me. Later on, we met face to face in Subarno Upadhyay’s* rented apartment. Subsequently, I was introduced to the other members of the movement. In 1962, in the month of April, Malay brought out the first Hungryalist bulletin and mailed it to me. It was published in English. Creator: Malay Roychoudhury, Leader: Shakti Chattopadhyay, Editor: Debi Ray. It’s natural to protest against convention, social evils, and injustice when you’re young, quite natural to be a non-conformist. Someone who accepts everything is a person who cannot question. That’s certainly not the trait of youth.

DC: Could you help us understand the Hungry aesthetic better?

DR: Immersed in youthful folly, the Hungry Generation dared to challenge the norms and ethics with whatever cultural capital it had. The movement opened up a lot of windows in our minds. There was no hesitation, but pride. I used to read a lot, at times, a lot of random stuff at that age. John Keats made me thinking, “Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generation tread thee down”. Malay told me how he was influenced by the English poet Chaucer’s phrase, “In sowre hungry tyme”. (Oswald) Spenglar’s theory of cultural degradation (in the West) provided the philosophical axis of the Hungry generation. Uttam Das^ has researched on the theoretical and philosophical implications of the movement.

DC: Can the hungry aesthetic of breaking the state of art exist without the classical dictums?

DR: Poetry or literature in general, is not a boxing ring that you need to knock somebody out to gain fame. I write by myself, for myself. Alone. Surrounded by stalwarts on all sides, I live a low-profile life. I do not have any sense of inferiority because of that. I ask myself, am I educated? I have never been educated in the institutional sense. I did not have the opportunity to. I prefer not to overload my writings with postmodernism and other theoretical back-scratching. My liaison with poetry is like my long conjugal life. I am still enamoured (by it). I will be until I die. Is there an end to knowing one’s self? There is a need to bridge the gap between life and death. That is why you need poetry. It’s another name of delving deep into life. I have to leave this world someday even if I don’t want to. Death is inevitable, life ephemeral. But does that tamper with its charm? I find these ideas of ‘classic’ and ‘eternal’ quite problematic, though. My real work is with poetry.

DC: Do you think the Beats and the Hungry generation had anything in common and if they have inspired each other? Tell us about your interactions with the Beat poets and publishers.

DR: When the first bulletin came out, I went to the editorial office of Janasebak to hand a copy over to Sunil Gangopadhyay. He quickly went through it once and remarked, “So you’re bringing out all this?” Later on, we got to know that he believed that our movement was completely influenced by Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. The Beats and the Hungryalists were similar only (to the extent) of being anti-establishment. But one stemmed from the soil of a wealthy nation while another thrived in the dust of poverty.

DC: The Left often views the movement as a middle-class reaction that celebrates urban alienation and male sexual frustration. They accuse the movement was politically wrong. They say you bring in a new order of morality while trying to tackle the classical Bengali bhodrotta with obscenity and rage of alienation.  What is your opinion on that?

DR: I’m not into politics. That’s not my cup of tea. Why don’t political leaders across party lines teach us to love people irrespective of differences? Aren’t the ones in opposition human beings too? Some of them travel enveloped in security, in bulletproof cars, instigate the common masses from a distance, and go back to their ivory towers. There are exceptions that must be respected. But why are there so many commandos around the leader of an impoverished backward country? Why can’t the peasants avail the irrigation and manure they deserve? Why do unemployed workers stare depressingly at the gates of factories that have been shut down? Why do trade unions end up being centres of other profitable trades? Why are the youth still unemployed? Why are they forced to choose such despicable ways of life? But, in the middle of all this, I know of a communist leader who refused to take more than a piece of fish on his platter. There was another one who did his own laundry. You cannot imagine such a brand of politics in our times.

Debi Roy (1963)
Source : http://www.kaurab.com/

DC: Could you please run us through a timeline of major events that led to Shakti’s parting ways with the movement, and the various fractures within the group until the arrest of the poets when the movement ended?

DR: Shakti fell for one of Malay’s relatives. Apart from that, there were personal clashes between Malay and Shakti. Shakti was also offered a job ( by a newspaper group which made him drift away). But, at the end of the day, I believe he is a great poet with a timeless appeal.

DC: Describe the last days of your time with Hungry generation. How was it to live with the threat of arrest and other threats that you all faced during the last phase?

DR: I was suspended for a year from my job—I was working at the head post office in Burdwan then—for being involved in the Hungryalist movement. Some custodians of Bengali literature weren’t happy with us. I was arrested and put behind bars. I was acquitted at last after a lot of storm. My friend Samir Ray arranged for my bail. Our friendship is still intact. During the trials, Gourkishore Ghosh#, Jyotirmoy Dutta@, and Sunil Gangopadhyay, among others, stood by us. By then, the famous Time magazine brought us into limelight. Almost all the major magazines and newspapers across the nation started publishing gossip and news about us. Dharamveer Bharti, Khushwant Singh, Pupul Jayakar, all of them came out in our support, collected funds for us, and pulled strings to secure our freedom. Pranab Kumar Sen, who was the police commissioner of Kolkata back then, also admitted later on that arresting the Hungryalists was wrong.

DC: Let me get back to the sixties again. The time in which you took up writing was just a few years after Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death. Jogendranath Mondal was back in India and was trying to consolidate his political career. He failed though…

DR: Hasn’t Debesh Roy written a novel on him?

DC: Yes, Barishal-er Jogen Mandal [Jogen Mandal of Barishal]. It got published from Dey’s (a publishing house). Anyway, it was during that time, in the sixties, when you were forced to adopt a different name. I completely empathize with that. But weren’t you ever drawn to their anti-caste ideologies? Didn’t they inspire you to fight back? What’s your take on Ambedkar?

DR: I immensely respect them. The kind of struggle they put up against this system gave a  voice to thousands who were silenced for centuries. But I got to know of them much later in my life. At that time, in the sixties, I was hardly familiar with their names. I was far from being exposed to their life and works.

DC: I can understand. The middle class intelligentsia of Bengal after partition has always been very hostile to identity politics. As I just told you, Jogen Mandal fought a lost battle of reinforcing caste politics in the public sphere of West Bengal. With Congress on the one hand, and the Communist Party or the Hindu Mahasabha on the other, all the mainstream political forces tried to bring the scheduled castes into their fold. This was carefully done by appropriating, if not shrouding, Ambedkar from the common masses.

DR: Very true. That’s the reason. Maybe that’s why we never thought so intricately about caste assertion in our times. There’s another reason. In an impoverished land like ours, livelihood becomes an important matter to take care of. As you know, I come from  very humble origins. In the sixties, in the prime of my youth, I was desperately trying to make ends meet. I began my career by working as an errand boy who delivered water and tea. I wanted to get out of the muck at any cost. I didn’t have much time to delve into other things. Whatever leisure I had, I devoted it to literature.  

DC: Ginsberg once wrote in an article that marijuana brings about an aesthetic experience that a writer requires…

DR: I don’t believe in that. Literature has no connection with the use and abuse of substances. You can write without excess. I don’t think Tagore needed any drug to write. But Sarat Chandra was completely different. Michael Madhusudan had a life of excess. It varies from person to person. It’s a matter of individual choice. Besides, it doesn’t mean that all of us have to have a similar lifestyle for belonging to the same movement. You can go to Khalasitola and have a blast, but writing itself is a solitary exercise.

DC: Let’s go back in time. You were telling me about your humble origins, the immense hard work you had to put in to fulfil your aspirations. In the middle of all that, how did poetry happen?

DR: There was a library near our place. I went there to while away my time or forget the pangs of hunger. I started reading, I read as much as I could. I still remember the librarian. He used to smirk and enquire whether I had no other work. There was another library near the Howrah Girls’ College. I spent hours there reading authors like Bankim Chandra. Not that I understood all of what I read but I realized that literature is my poison. I also loved music. But once literature takes over someone, his life and afterlife are perpetually destroyed. (laughs)

DC: Do you have any regrets?

DR: Once a friend told me that I made a major mistake in my life. He argued that had I passed my masters, I would have gotten a far better job and a lot more time to read and write. But people do make mistakes. One’s life is defined by his mistakes. There’s no point regretting them. Another mistake that I made was not to secure a medical insurance. I still haven’t been reimbursed for the heart surgery I had to undergo. This is the condition of a central government officer in an independent nation.  

DC: Thank you Debida! That’s all for now. It was beautiful getting to know you.

* Subarno Uadhyay is a mutual friend of Debi Roy and Malay Roychoudhury
^ Uttam Das is an associate professor at the Department of Bengali, Calcutta University. His dissertation, titled 'Hungry Shruti and Shastravirodhi Andolan, is an extensive study of the Hungryalist Movement in comparison with the other countercultural trends in Bengali poetry of the sixties.
# Gourkishore Ghosh (1923-2000), more popularly known by his pseudonym Roopdarshi, is a Bengali writer and journalist. Sagina Mahato (adapted into a film by Tapan Sinha) is his most popular work of fiction.
@ Jyotirmoy Dutta (b 1936) is a Bengali poet, writer, and a journalist. Apart from working with The Statesman, he has authored two books of verse, several novels, and collections of essays and short stories. Dutta was a defense witness in Malay Roychoudhury’s trial although he did not subscribe to the Hungryalist Movement. Buddhadev Bose, the doyen of modern Bengali literature, is his father-in-law.

1 comment:

  1. Great work Debayudh! I didn't know about the shackles of Brahminism in Bangla Kobita, nor was I aware of the crushing struggle. A real eye-opener! I wish all the very best with your work. And lastly, is Prof Uttam Das still alive? Is he the one who wrote a great book on sonnets in Bengali poetry? - Uttaran