TSC Interviews| Pradip Choudhuri

The Hungry Vagabond
Uttaran Das Gupta

On my way to meet Hungry poet and writer Pradip Choudhuri, my friend and fellow The Sunflower Collective editor Goirick informed me that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Much water had flowed down the river since then. Dylan, unprecedentedly and in true rockstar style refused to even acknowledge the prize for a while before accepting it, and then the pompous gatekeepers of literature started crying foul over the award But for us, the event has a different significance. It is recognition of the entire counter-culture of the 1960s and the Beat philosophy that is so important to us. One of the first things I told Pradip-da was Dylan winning the prize. It seemed to delight him, and he said: “That’s wonderful; shall listen to his songs all through night.”

Pradip-da lives with his family at a flat in a multi-storied building in the upscale Regent Estate locality of south Calcutta. It was almost evening when I arrived at his house on October 13. He took me to his bedroom and the two-hour-long interview was conducted there. While I sat on a chair near his computer table, he sat crossed-legged on his bed, recounting the adventures of his youth with his contemporary iconoclastic poets from the 1960s. On his computer table was an electric kettle, which was used repeatedly by us to boil water and make coffee with instant coffee powder. Pradip-da also punctuated his recollections by showing me his books: Ginsberg and Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Burroughs; Harold Norse and his favourite, Dostoyevsky; Manik Bandopadhyay and Jibanananda Das, and also his European avant-garde friends: Carl Weissner and Claude Pélieu. He also showed me copies of Revue Pphoo, a literary and artistic that he has edited and published for five decades.  

Uttaran Das Gupta (UDG): Tell me about your life before the Hungry Generation. Where were you born? Where did you study? What were your literary influences?

Pradip Choudhuri (PC): I was born in a remote village of Bengal on February 5, 1943, and stayed in my native place (in east Bengal, now Bangladesh) till I was three. My mother and I then joined my father in Calcutta, where he had got a job as a teacher.

When I think of my native village, I have glimpses of an idyllic natural haven, comparable with the villages of France, between Libourne and Bergerac along the Dordogne river. The population comprised mainly of Hindu landowners and Muslim cultivators. I remember vast paddy fields on three sides of our house (which had a tin roof), fruit trees, and a big pond.

My grandfather died when he was only 29 years old, and my father was six. So, my grandmother took charge of managing our property. She managed pretty well, and my father graduated from Victoria College in Comilla (Now in Bangladesh).

By the time I was born, Independence — and Partition — were approaching very fast. There was commotion in the air, and even at that age, I could not avoid feeling ill at ease.

After moving to Calcutta in 1946, I hardly returned to the village.
After Independence, Calcutta was a sort a dreamland — particularly the writers, who benefitted from the vibrant print culture of the metropolis. The letter press was the only possible means of expression, and suffering of Hindu refugees was the main topic of writing then.

I left West Bengal for Tripura when my father joined the education department in the state.

UDG: When did you return to Calcutta?

PC: In early 1963, when I was 20 years old. I went straight to Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, and joined as an MA student in the philosophy department. As I had already published poems in a number of places, so I was elected the secretary of Sahityika, the leading literary and cultural body of the university. While at Santiniketan, I also brought out the first issue of Swakal, a magazine I started. When the second issue of the magazine came out a few months later, I was asked to leave the university, as some of the poems were considered “obscene” and “against the interest of the institution”. The eviction notice called my poem “Contemporary” “semi-obscene”.

One of my teachers at Visva-Bharati, Kenneth S Woodrooffe, who was visiting faculty at the English department, was unhappy with the expulsion. He was a great lover of poetry and a friend of the American poet, Kenneth Patchen. Professor Woodroffe used to teach us Milton. 
So, after I was expelled, he wrote a lengthy recommendation to Subodh Chandra Sengupta, the famous Shakespearian then in charge of the English department at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, where I was accepted as a student of MA final year.  

UDG: So you went and joined the English department at Jadavpur University?

PC: Buddhadeb Basu, himself an avant-garde poet and a significant figure of Kallol movement of Bengali literature wanted me to join the comparative literature department he had founded. Basu had translated Charles Baudelaire, Holderlin and Rilke, accelerating the evolution of modern Bengali poetry,

But, the English department stood on firmer grounds and was very famous too. Also, that was the year Bose left for the US. I thought there would be no poetry when he left. On the other hand, Dr Sengupta insisted that the English department was abuzz with distinguished scholars and eminent littérateurs. So I chose English but I did not like the social culture here. As a result, my academic interests dwindled. I think I attended classes only for about two months, and then my life on the road started.

UDG: Why did you not like the social culture at Jadavpur University?

PC: It was very strange there. I was accustomed to much freer gender relations at Shantiniketan. When I was the secretary of Sahityika, my assistant secretary was Srila Ray, the daughter of Kshitish Ray, once the personal secretary of Tagore. I was very good friends with Srila and her elder sister, Ruchira. I had also been intimate with some other girls. 
But, at Jadavpur, things were different. The boys in my class did not even sit together with the girls. As soon as a class ended, the guys would go out and wait in the balcony until the next class started.
UDG: Tell us about your life on the road.

PC: There is a common toilet between the English and comparative literature departments on the first floor of the Arts Faculty building of Jadavpur University. That’s where I met Subo Acharya. He said: “There’s a poem I have written which everyone else has rejected. Will you publish it?” I said: “Yes, I will.” It must have been towards the end of 1963. That very day, he and another student of the comparative literature department, Ramananda Chattopadhyay, and I went out of the university. We went straight to Free School Street (one of the red light districts).

Subo’s teachers at the comparative literature department had told him that if he concentrated on his studies, they would ensure he went abroad. But that never happened.

Coffee House on College Street and the famous country liquor shop Khalasitola became our permanent meeting places. We continued visiting different red light districts in the city. Senior poets also went there. We weren’t really looking for sex. I mean, that’s always there, but we would mostly sit around, drink and talk. 

UDG: So you never returned to the university?

PC: No, Subo and I lived on the pavements, at railway stations, at times in empty trains that were in the hanger or empty vessels docked at Howrah. We wouldn’t shave, so our beards grew wildly, like Sufi singers. Hunger and suffering were constant companions. Suppose we are sleeping under the balcony of a house, people would pour water on us even on winter nights to make us go away. We would go for days without food. Once, we were so hungry, we went to an eatery near College Street and after we had eaten, I kept Subo waiting as I went in search of people who could lend some money to pay the bill. 

UDG: But why did you choose this life — from decent university students to vagabonds?

PC:  Yes, “celestial vagabonds”, if you please. Europeans used to call me “the savage spirit”. What else were we supposed to do? Our destiny was framed like this. You can call it a symbolic protest against the academic and self-serving middle-class values.

UDG: Okay, so what happened after that?

PC: From the pavements, we moved into a hotel, Panthanivas, on the south-east end of Harrison Road. I went there recently, after nearly five decades. All the other buildings along the road have been torn down and new ones have come up, but the hotel still stands. It’s dark and dreary. Subo and I had a room on the south-east corner of the roof. Poets of all hues used to come there.

UDG: Can we call that the ‘Hungry Hotel’?

PC: By all means. Everyone used to come there. Our friend, the journalist Bhupendra was heartbroken after my niece rejected his amorous approaches. He would come and shed copious tears and finally started staying with us. 

Shakti Cattopadhyay would come almost every evening. He would get two bottles of rum and a packet of beef kebabs. He would get drunk and pretend that he wanted to jump off the building and fly away. One evening, suddenly recovering from a drunken haze, he said: “Is this a dream or am I awake?”

UDG: How did you meet Shakti?

PC: He used to hang out at the office of publisher Debkumar Basu, near the Mahabodhi Society, along with the others of the Krittibas group: Sunil Gangopadhyay and Utpal Basu. They all came at Debu-da’s his book shop Grantha Jagat. Shakti’s first collection of poems, Hey Prem, Hey Noishobdo, was published from there; Binay Mazumder’s Firey Esho Chaka followed. Debu-da was an associate of my father and had published a number of my poems besides helping with the distribution of the first edition of my magazine, Swakal. The cover of the magazine was done by Debabrata Mukherjee.
UDG: You didn’t meet Shakti at Jadavpur University?

PC: No. He was senior to me by at least seven or eight years. I guess universities in our country don’t quite support poets. He hardly went to the university but had an attraction for a conventional education, as I heard. He would often come to the office of Basu’s publishing house and declare the names of new books he had read, such as Areopagitica

UDG: Shakti introduced you to Shaileshwar Ghosh and Subhas Ghosh, isn’t it?

PC: Yes, it was sometime in August 1963. I remember it was a cloudy evening when Shakti introduced me to them and said they were members of the Hungry Generation at the Coffee House. Shakti claimed it was “just fun”. Both Shaileshwar and Subhas were wearing dhoti-panjabi. They shared rented accommodation at Naren Sen Square. After the initial introduction, we went to Khalashitola, the legendary country liquor den- a poet’s pub, as I mentioned earlier.
At midnight, both Shaileshwar and Subhas came to my hotel and we spent the whole night talking about new concepts and ideas. This was the first of many insomniac nights we spent together, talking endlessly, and so the Hungry Generation was formed.

UDG: Why do you say that? Wasn’t the first manifesto of the movement published in Patna in 1961, by Malay and Samir, Shakti and Debi?

PC: Yes, that’s perhaps how the movement started. It is, to my mind, a theoretical exercise: the Patna chapter of Hungry Generation. But the Hungry Generation that brought along controversies at home and fame abroad, culminating in police intervention and arrest was entirely different. I never claimed to have the sole copyright of either. By the time I met Shaileshwar and Subhas, they had already gathered material for a bulletin we would later publish and get into trouble.

I think there were two distinct phases of the movement: In 1961, Malay launched the first phase of the movement. Those who joined him were mostly Samir-da's friends. Samir-da used to work at Chaibasa and that was a picnic spot for his friends and the Krittibas group. He was a great host — I have never seen one better. To begin with, Samir-da wasn’t a part of the movement, but later, he wrote me a five-page letter at the end of which he reiterated: “I am Hungry! I am Hungry! I am Hungry!”

Anyway, even if the movement did start in 1961, I’d like to know this: What literature did it produce till 1963 that could be compared with, say Howl or Kaddish

What was the reason for Malay and Shakti and Debi to start the movement? That is my question.

UDG: Correct me if I am wrong, but as Samir writes, the Hungry generation was a reaction to the failure of the Second Five-Year Plan.

PC: I am not really aware of it.

UDG: Okay, let us return to Panthanivas on Harrison Road. So, you and your friends were collecting the material to publish the bulletin that would get you in trouble.

PC: Yes, much of the material had already been collected by the time I came in. Along with Shaileshwar and Subhas, Malay, too, had collected manuscripts. I added a few names, such as Subo.

UDG: How did you meet Malay?

PC: Through Shaileshwar and Subhas. During one of our nocturnal addas they told me that they wanted to publish the Hungry booklet and money wouldn’t be a problem as Malay and Samir would sponsor it. 

There was great camaraderie among all of us. I hadn’t met Samir-da, but Malay would come to Calcutta frequently and must have come to Panthanivas. And, sometimes at the brothels.

UDG: What was Malay doing then? Was he already working?

PC: I have no idea. Everyone was fucking around somewhere. We didn’t ask each other such questions. Our primary concern, call it obsession, was poetry.

UDG: Okay, so finally the manuscript was ready?

PC: None of the College Street printers wanted to publish it. So, I took the MS to the printer of Swakal — Dhananjay Samanta of Mahendra Press on Kailash Bose Street. He agreed to print 300 copies. We gave him the MS and the advance. I’m not sure where the money came from. 
When they were ready, I took the booklets to Panthanivas. That evening Shaileshwar and Subhas came to the hotel and we took a few copies and went to the Coffee House, where we started distributing them for free. We distributed copies at Calcutta and Jadavpur universities, including a few media houses. We also sent one to Samir-da at Chaibasa. Most of the remaining copies were sent to Malay.

Then, in July 1964, I left Calcutta and went back to Tripura where my father was the inspector of schools.

UDG: Why did you suddenly go back to Tripura?

PC: My MA final exams were going on, and my father was very scared that I would stop going to take them. That’s exactly what happened. 

The evening before my final test, the Hungry gang turned up at my hotel. (I had moved out of Panthanivas then, and was putting up at Moonlight Hotel, right behind Jyoti Cinema on Dharmatala Street, which got burnt down a few years back.) They told me that there had been a fight between Subimal and Shakti outside the Coffee House. I also learnt that Malay had acquired a sword. Though, of course, I have never seen him with one. Anyway, so we got out of the hotel and started walking towards the Coffee House. I can’t really remember how the evening ended but we must have gone and got drunk somewhere. Anyway, I never took the final exam. You know, Malay is, undoubtedly, the true hero of the Hungry Generation.

UDG: So what happened after you missed your exam?

PC: My father was, naturally, very worried about me. He was making frequent trips to Calcutta. It was quite expensive then as one had to take a flight from Agartala. There was no other means of travelling. When Subo and I were vagabonds, sleeping in the open at Howrah and Shibpur, my father put together a team of his students at Presidency College to track me down. After I missed my exam, they sent me packing back home.

UDG: You didn’t realise the troubles had started in Calcutta?

PC: To begin with, it was just propaganda against us. I was interviewed a number of times by The Statesman. There was a sort of a backlash in the media, but we never thought the police would get involved. By the time the arrests started, I was back in Tripura.

UDG: There was something else I wanted to know. The Hungry Generation members were doing a number of other things, such as delivering masks to powerful and influential people in Calcutta. Were you a part of it?

PC: No, not at all. I heard of all this, but I wasn’t really interested in it. What was the purpose of all this, except to gain notoriety? These were all Malay’s ideas. But, whatever he did, he did honestly, I think. My only objection was: Where is the writing? 

UDG: So, your first book came out in Agartala?

PC: Yes, it was called Ananya Tatparata o Ami (1964). Malay was kind enough to write an introduction to the English version of the selected texts from the bigger book — My Rapid Activities, and even sent a few copies to writers in the US.
He was undoubtedly the person who expanded the framework of the Patna chapter.

UDG: Tell me about your arrests. I know you were taken into custody in Agartala.

PC: A couple of months after I returned home — my father was then posted at a hilly place called Kulai — Subo joined me. Where else would he go? My father got him a job in a school, but he hardly went to work. All day he would lay on the bed and keep day dreaming. He got paid regularly, as the salary was disbursed from my father’s office.

Then, one day we read in the newspaper that Shaileshwar and Subhas had been arrested in Calcutta. Debi was the second to be arrested; Malay and Samir followed.
When I heard of the arrests, I was scared. I also suspected I had syphilis, as I used to frequent all these places in Calcutta. Like Strindberg, I feared something was wrong in my head. When I told my father, he took me to a doctor, who couldn’t determine whether I had syphilis or not, but prescribed three courses of tetradox.

Anyway, I decided to go on the lam. Subo gave a slip to his earlier abode in Hindustan Cables by road.

UDG: Where did you go?

PC: Somewhere near Karimganj in Assam. There, I stayed for a couple of months with my father’s cousin and worked on my book Charmarog (1965). Then, I returned to the Kulai valley and was promptly arrested.

UDG: Did a police team from Calcutta go there?

PC: Yes, one afternoon, I suddenly realised that my house had been surrounded by the police. An assistant commissioner of police, K K Das, and his team, had turned up to apprehend me. He told me that the case had been stalled because I was absconding. I was taken into police custody in Kamalpur.

My father used his influence to get me bail that very evening. So I didn’t have to go back with the police team immediately. By the way, K K Das, who had taken the trouble of making the trip to Tripura to arrest me, was immediately promoted to higher position.

I returned to Calcutta about a month later for the hearing of the case. It was also time for me to take my MA final exam.

UDG: Tell me about the trial.

PC: It was an absolutely Kafkaesque affair. Right outside Bankshall Court (City Sessions Court, Calcutta), mercenary witnesses were offering their services like pimps. One would shout: “Witness for murder, rupees seventeen!” 

When the judge saw me, he started laughing: “This is the man who was absconding?” He had thought I was a hardened criminal.

All of us, except Malay, were acquitted. His case continued in the high court. Since then, he has always complained that I wasn’t around when his trial happened. Had I been in Calcutta, I would have surely been around to help him but it was not possible to keep coming from Tripura to Calcutta very often.

Anyway, his father had hired good lawyers for him.

UDG: He, too, was acquitted in the high court.

PC: Yes, he was, and sometime in 1965, he declared that the Hungry Generation was dead. 

UDG: And he stopped writing…

PC: Really? Can anyone stop writing?

UDG: He told me that for nearly 20 years — from 1966 to 1986 — he had a severe writers’ block.

PC: Okay. I don’t know about that. 

UDG: The great camaraderie among the old friends also got eroded and was replaced by great bitterness between Malay and Shaileshwar.

PC: Yes, there was tug-of-war over who the true leader of the Hungry Generation was. Malay published a book called Hungry Kimbadanti, which was pure fiction. Shaileswar, in his turn, also published a book, Hungry Generation Andolan by countering Samir-da and Malay. I think Shaileshwar’s approach was wrong as well, as he denied Malay and Samir of any credit, even though it was a fact that Malay did play an instrumental role in the formation of the Hungry Generation.
To uplift Hungry Generation from this ignominious low, I brought out the second edition of my book, Kabita Dharma. It was published by Samir-da from his Haowa 49 publication. This acted as an antidote against land-grabbing fight between Saileswar and Malay.

UDG: Where were you then?

PC: After my results came out in 1965, I got a teaching job in Agartala, and after two years, I went to Hyderabad at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, where I met many celebrated poets and groups of south India, including the poets of Diganvara Kavalus who later joined The Revolutionary Writers Association (RWA) of Andhra Pradesh. Among the new wave writers I remember meeting are Sukrita Paul of Aurangabad, R S Ramachandran of Madras, Khalid Qadri of Lucknow and Veena Yelbargi of Bangalore.

UDG: By then the Naxalbari movement had started?

PC: Yes. Many of the RWA poets were killed by the police, I heard years later. 

UDG: After that?

PC: Well, I got married; continued publishing my magazine Swakal that later became Swakal/Pphoo and finally, Pphoo. I devoted myself entirely to literature. I started visiting Europe and making friends with poets and artists on all four corners of the world. Thus, life went on, and I kept writing.

By 1970, I had published Kabita Dharma, and my single mantra was: “Make your life a poem”. I have been jotting down notes my autobiography, Dance of Atoms, for my American publisher Theo Green.

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