City of Imagination

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The author on Calcutta’s elusive connection with its literary tradition and the anarchy caused by the Hungry Generation

As I begin to write this piece for a magazine which, to all purposes, doesn’t exist (at least at the moment of writing), I wonder how I got myself into this position. There’s some consolation in the fact that most ambitious people, including my old friend CP Surendran (who threatened me into undertaking this task), are reflecting on why and how they got where they are (I am thinking of CP in his new job): an inadvertent ‘yes’, a considered and reluctant decision, equally situate you in a place quite unlike the one you were in before—one would find that most people wished they were elsewhere or doing something else. I’m experiencing that yearning as I write. Probably a very tiny percentage of people deliberately paint themselves into a corner in the knowledge that, occasionally, good things emerge from being in a position of duress or resistance: ‘phanta basher cheepa’ is, as my mother reminds me, the proverbial Sylheti definition of the problem: ‘trapped in the thin wedge of the cracked bamboo’. But a study of the history of vocation and location suggests that, anyway, one never ended up elsewhere simply because one wanted to. It’s in the light of these thoughts that I relate a small, not entirely insignificant episode in Bengali literary history. It concerns how Utpal Basu lost his job.

Before you ask, ‘Who is Utpal Basu?’, or a similarly fatuous question, let me relate, quickly, what CP said to me. He asked me, “Can you write about Calcutta as a city of the imagination?” I had some difficulty in following him, and not because of his Malayali accent. Did he mean that I write about Calcutta on the lines that Calvino had written about Venice? “How Calcutta lives in the imagination,” CP said. “CP, I am tired,” I replied. “I have so much to do. Besides, I have been writing about Calcutta for years, and can’t think of what to say on this subject. I’ve just finished editing an anthology that covers the theme. I could have given you the introduction if I’d known earlier.” CP, however, hadn’t finished his sentence. “For instance, the Beats visited Calcutta in the 1960s—you could write about the way the city was part of their imagination too.” Here, my inner ear pricked up. “I’m visiting Utpal Basu this evening. He hung out with the Beats,” I said. “Let me see if I can get anything out of him.”
Utpal Basu lives in Megh Malhar on Gariahat, on the 10th floor. He is an amazing poet; compressed, allusive, humorous, sensuous, high serious; one of the most considerable of living Bengali poets. Someone must have called the building Megh Malhar because it is a fairly tall one (12 storeys, I think) in a city that still has few skyscrapers; and it came up around the same time that the building in which I live in (10 storeys high) did, and when there were even fewer high-rises in Calcutta. Perhaps the builder imagined his construction, Megh Malhar, might be proximate with the clouds? Although both of us live in the south, the city seems to boil below Megh Malhar; from my flat, it is a genteel, distant metropolis; it has a deceptive sense of bourgeois prosperity, like Greater Kailash or Malabar Hill.
Beneath Megh Malhar, the city shudders and spasms pass through it, radiating outward of the great bazaars in the area; it is alive; on the 10th floor, discussing Bengali writers, American literature, contemporary theory, we may hover over the world like angels, but still feel,occasionally, the great press of humanity.
“When did you buy this flat, Utpalda?”
“Oh it must have been when the building came up—in 1978,” says Utpalda, wearing his characteristic white short kurta and slightly ungainly pyjamas. “Of course,” he says with a modicum of surprise, “we got this flat for a relatively small sum at the time.” We are having this conversation, in unknowing innocence, just a few days before the dissolution of Lehman Brothers.
“A little more than a lakh?” I ask. “Because my father bought the flat I live in for about that figure, a little more, in 1980.”
“About that figure,” concurs Utpalda, still reminiscent. Perhaps a cloud goes past the balcony at the back; there is a hubbub in the city; it is preparing for a shower.
Utpalda returned to India after 14 years in London, and moved, more or less straightaway, into Megh Malhar. He’d never thought of coming back to Calcutta; but his wife wanted to.
What was he doing in London? Did he have a local audience (London was full of Bengali students then, come, often with spouses, to take professional exams), a local readership, or was he sending off poems to the Calcutta journals?
“Oh no!” he says, as if he wants to put this idea to rest once and for all. “During that time I didn’t write poetry at all. I’d given up poetry altogether. I was a teacher. We were both teachers,” he adds, thinking of his wife. “In fact,” and here comes the subversive chuckle, which breaks out from time to time, “I was quite involved in trade union activity—member of the NUT (National Union of Teachers) and all that.”
Yes, the 1960s and the early to mid-1970s were a time of rampant trade unionism in Britain, until Margaret Thatcher — with her slow, emphatic enunciation, her patient, logical ideas of annihilation—arrived and changed the landscape. But it is odd to think of a Bengali poet in the midst of all that English trade union oppositionality; odder, for instance, than the fairly canonical image of Rimbaud in Africa. And to think that Utpalda had not only given up Calcutta (always understandable) but also poetry without a piercing anxiety; to think that much of the verse by which his readers admire him today was contingent upon his reluctant return to this city, prodded by his wife. Or was this another story? Literary history is part falsification, after all.
But why did he go to Britain in the first place?
“Ah that’s a story,” says Utpalda, eyes gleaming with memory. “In 1963, I think it was, I and some other poets, Samir Ray Chaudhury, Baby Ray, the ‘Hungry Generation’ lot (of which Shakti Chattopadhyay was a part), were returning southward from north Calcutta, a bit…we may have had a bit too much to drink. We stopped at an art gallery which was where the Apeejay School is now, looked at the paintings, and made some rude remarks: ‘Is this a horse or a man?’, etc. Then we poets got into a tussle with the painters”—‘hata hati’ is the term Utpalda uses, literally, wrestling with your arms. It all sounds a bit like the Bajrang Dal, except the poets, unlike the Dal, seemed to have no higher moral purpose than to create a disturbance. This might be one of the traits of anarchism, distinguishing it from vigilantism: to create disturbances without an identifiable moral cause.
The ‘Hungry Generation’ poets seem, in retrospect, like anarchists who emerged with the fizzling out and diffusion of the Left movements in the 1950s and in the early 1960s. The main occupation of one of their prime movers, the poet Malay Ray Chaudhury, was to compose manifestos at regular intervals; manifestos which were translated into other Indian languages, and even transported by Ginsberg into America and published in little magazines (they’d been written, originally, in English), but unavailable and uncollected today. These were, in Utpalda’s account, largely invectives—against everything the Hungry Generation would replace with themselves, including, naturally, the distinguished 1930s poets who came after Rabindranath, such as Buddhadeva Bose and Bishnu Dey (no matter, then, what the political persuasion, liberal or left).
The term ‘Hungry Generation’, imbuing the aggression with a charming melancholy particular to literature, is borrowed from Keats’ envious-adoring ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!/ No hungry generations tread thee down…’ In fact, the portrayal of humanity, and, by suggestion, of England in the poem is not unlike the post-Independence 1960s Calcutta (with its high influx of impoverished migrants, its trickling outward of capital, its joblessness) we have learnt of from books and films: ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;/…. Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’. These are vexations that the nightingale knows nothing about. To Calcutta, they would bring in the utopian vision of Naxalbari. Yet, unlike Keats, who was luxuriantly sounding his own death-knell in the poem, the Bengali poets were sounding the death-knell for everything else; a ‘new Renaissance’ was then at hand in the city, says Utpalda: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ravi Shankar, the football player Sailen Manna.
But the ‘hata-hati’ episode with the painters I referred to earlier was reported by the Ananda Bazar Patrika; and, in the intriguing, unexpected way of the global dissemination of the time (preceding by so many decades faxes, courier services, the internet and satellite television), a Time magazine correspondent in Asia picked up the story and came to investigate the poets himself in Calcutta. He invited them to the Grand Hotel; he plied them with Scotch; and he had a group photograph of the anarchists taken by the large fountain in the Grand.
“At that time, I was teaching at the Jogomaya Devi College,” says Utpalda. “Not literature: geology. I am a Bhowanipore boy”—Bhowanipore is in South Calcutta—“and I never wanted to travel too far from it. My friends were recruited by ongc and went to different parts of the country. Not me.”
The photograph came to the notice of the worthies on the college board. Utpalda had been self-effacing about his other career; the college knew nothing about his two books of poems. Now they saw him by the fountain in the Grand with these other poets. The ‘Hungry Generation’ was looked upon with wariness. He found himself summoned to one of the fortnightly meetings of the board, and quizzed by the worthies; their names still raise a mordant chuckle in the interviewee. After that first session, Utpalda was suspended. At the second session, he was asked for a copy of his book of poems. Utpalda informed the board members he couldn’t supply them with one, that they might procure it themselves. There was an icy silence. But apparently the board did get itself a copy. This explained the letter of dismissal that followed, telling Utpalda that his writing was “unbecoming of a teacher of the college”, and settling all outstanding dues.
At around this time, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were travelling through India; in Calcutta, they found kindred spirits in the Bengali poets, especially those who were associated with the Krittibas magazine, including Sunil Ganguly, Shakti and Utpalda. Ginsberg translated some of them and published them in City Lights; not Shakti and Utpalda, whom he both found untranslatable because of the density of local references in their language.
Here, as if the Time magazine picture were not enough, there is an incursion of the absurd into the narrative: an absurdity entirely of its time, shaped as it was by new national ambitions, Cold War suspicions and the barely-healed animosities of the colonial age. Ginsberg and Orlovsky must have been under police surveillance in India; as they would have been back home, under the watchful eye of the FBI in that age of ‘unAmerican activities’. The Bengali poets were also being observed, for consorting and exchanging notes with the Americans. India itself had just experienced humiliation afresh with China. And there was now a police case in Calcutta against the Hungry Generation, in the wake of this fraternising with the Beats, for ‘anti-national conspiracy’. Ah, the silliness of those days, their strange sublimity, the wild imagination, the most challenging and loveliest of words and forms in the stupidest of situations, the sacred in the idiotic, the wrong choice inevitably becoming the right one, and the other way round! ‘Anti-national conspiracy’: something like our own age, yet only in the loosest and most misleading way. Not even with hindsight does it begin to make sense; we must only study and wonder. Even those great ‘senior’ writers, some of whom the manifestoes had poured scorn on, evidently still not quite dinosaurs, Buddhadeva Bose and Tarashankar Banerjee, came forward to give witness on behalf of the poets, on behalf of the Hungry Generation and the sovereignty of writing itself.

Probably fed up, Utpalda took a ‘job voucher’ from the British Deputy High Commission and applied for a job — it was possible, then, to travel to and work in Britain without a work permit or a visa. Fortuitously, and to his surprise, he got an offer in a week: Britain must have been as short of teachers then as it almost always has been. At this point, there is an urgent call on my mobile. I am not immediately aware of the urgency: “Yes, yes, I am in Utpal Basu’s house—Utpal Basu, the poet.” The caller is flummoxed; it seems I have an important appointment elsewhere; indeed, an awards ceremony, in which I, with three others, will be felicitated. Embarrassingly, it had completely slipped my mind. I rush out to look for a taxi. The conversation is incomplete. I have forgotten to ask Utpalda about Calcutta’s literary history.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and has edited the anthology Memory’s Gold: Writings on Calcutta