Pure or Profane? Roddur Roy’s Arrest Can Be a Defining Moment for Bengal’s Social Grammar

Kolkata: “They are not understanding art! I am not a terrorist, I am an artiste!,” Roddur Roy shouted as the government vehicle carrying him left the Bankshall court premises on Tuesday, June 14.

YouTuber Roddur Roy was charged under 12 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including ‘promoting enmity’ and ‘provoking riots,’ in a case registered at Kolkata’s Hare Street police station for allegedly making derogatory remarks against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

But Roy had a surprise waiting for him when he was produced before the court on Tuesday after six days in police custody. He learned that a fresh case against him had been taken up for hearing by another court at the same complex. 

The latest case is in connection with a complaint that had been lodged against him by a private tutor at Burtolla police station in June 2020 on the basis of remarks he made during a Facebook live broadcast in May 2020. In it, Roy had allegedly insulted the Indian Army and Union home minister Amit Shah. While the court hearing the case lodged at Hare Street police station sent him to judicial custody, the court hearing the Burtolla police station case sent him to police custody till June 20. 

The arrest has triggered intense debates among Bengalis on social media, with human rights organisations like the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) condemning it and demanding Roy’s unconditional release, while there are others who have expressed wishes to see him rot in jail. 

Malay Roychoudhury. Photo: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Malay Roy Choudhury, who was a key member of the Hungry Generation literary movement and faced an “obscenity trial” for his infamous poem Stark Electric Jesus, knows a little about this experience. He was jailed for a month in 1964.

“I think that after he is released (from jail), Roddur Roy should stand up on a table in the Coffee House and proudly speak the language of the uncivilised. It is not enough to hurt the (conservative) sentiments of West Bengal. All those who have ruined Indian politics must also be seriously hurt…I have no regrets about the obscenity trial I faced. That is why I can live proudly even as an octogenarian. I wrote what I felt like then, and write that way even now. My writings are my weapons,” Roy Choudhury says.

The Indian Coffee House in College Street is famous as one of Kolkata’s most popular cultural hubs and was once known to attract luminaries.

Roy is a smooth-talking, marijuana-smoking, guitar-strumming vlogger with 3.28 lakh subscribers on YouTube and 4.91 lakh followers on Facebook. His image is that of a dystopian prophet – he has founded his own religion, Moxa, and his growing fan base is fond of his expletive-ridden rants and off-key singing. They call it “true freedom of speech” and thank him for being “the child to point out to the emperor that he is wearing no clothes”.

Hours before Roddur Roy was arrested from his Goa residence on June 7 for allegedly using indecent remarks to describe Banerjee, and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, a Lok Sabha MP of the Trinamool Congress, he took to YouTube to airily address the issue.

“This language is not meant to insult you. This is completely apolitical – I am not part of your dirty politics,” he said, passionately defending his use of profanity.

“Obscenity is everywhere, it is part of humanity – there is nothing unnatural about it. Am I raising communal violence or threatening to kill someone? Then understand my motive first! The motivation is the commoner’s right to peace. Can’t I speak for peace?…What is so offensive about my language? And who are you to correct my language? Is this a grammar class?…Is your language perfect? Is the perfect language spoken in this state? Do you know there are spelling errors in Government advertisements?”

The use of words deemed ‘obscene’ to express frustration against the socio-political scene is not new.

Bengal experienced a torrid affair with profanity when the Hungryalist movement burst into its horizon in the 1960s. As a true corollary to the Beats in America, this movement concentrated on creating a new idiom of countercultural expression meant to disturb oppressive social hegemony.

In 1964, Kolkata police conducted a spree of arrests, rounding up 11 Hungry writers, including Pradip Chaudhuri, Saileshwar Ghosh, Subhash Ghose, Samir Roy Chowdhury, Malay Roy Choudhury and Haradhon Dhara (alias Debi Roy).

Some writers of the Hungry generation. From top left, clockwise: Saileswar Ghose, Malay Roy Choudhury and Subhas Ghose Basudeb Dasgupta, David Garcia and Subimal Basak. Photo: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Filmmaker Q – who has directed Gandu, a film perceived as obscene – and liberally uses profane expressions to attack the status quo, thinks that Roy has become the ‘art of profanity’ or the ‘character itself’, and has therefore lost the need to be the ‘civilised artist’ with social responsibilities. 

Referring to Bengal’s trysts with obscenity, Q said, “If I chart a line from Nabarun (Bhattacharya) to me and then to Roddur, then he becomes the character and loses the need to appear civil to be taken seriously. And that’s a huge progress, that he, in the times of social media, could fully embrace the character and become a Gopal Bhand or Birbal (court jesters famous in Indian literature) type of character who is a constant nuisance but who the king has to pay so that there is a continuous stream of consciousness from the other end.”

However, as expected, not all Bengali intellectuals are on board with Roddur’s generous use of cuss words.

Roddur Roy’s antics had pushed him into the limelight of controversy in 2019, when he punctuated a famous Tagore song with expletives. What riled up the Bengali bhadralok society the most was when students from Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University sang Roy’s version of the song during Basanta Utsav or the spring festival in March 2020. 

Speaking on Roddur Roy’s reckless use of swear words, Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, film and literary critic said, “Roddur Roy’s problem is that he is not philosophising his language. The poems that were banned from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal had returned with full glory in the post-War period as treasures of French literature. Same with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn – once banned and now regarded as literary gems. This is only because we have been able to place them in a larger philosophical context in the present day, and therefore they are successful subversions.”

DH Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore, Henry Miller and Charles Baudelaire. Photos: Public domain.

However, he also presents the debate in an alternative light when he cites an example from Tagore who in a romantic song asks, ‘Why didn’t you wake me up before dawn? My day has passed in shame’. The song is heard in almost every Bengali household. However, the sidewalks of north Kolkata’s Chitpur area, full of volumes of erotic literature, have this song under the collection titled Beshya Geeti (songs of the prostitutes).

“Even eminent poet and playwright Dwijendralal Ray accused Tagore of penning obscene music. He wondered how Bengalis would protect their civility if these songs are sung in civilised society. The question today is, how do we determine what is obscene and what is not?” Mukhopadhyay said. 

Q thinks that to seek philosophy or higher meaning is a standard ‘upper’ class reaction.

“In the 1920s Kolkata, the common language that was used was fairly profane, which is today looked at as an extremely downgraded language. This happened due to the huge pressure from the Tagore family and other Brahmo Samaj members who wanted to clean up the language so they could appear civilised and belong to the genteel society. And what happened as a result is that we completely lost how coolly a different strata of the society could use language at that time,” said the filmmaker. 

Howard McCord, a renowned American academic, poet, and educationist, came to India on a Fulbright scholarship and worked in close proximity with the Hungry Generation writers while pursuing passionate studies of Indian literature of the 1960s. When approached on the subject of using profanity in literature, he said “While I swear in my private speech, I do not swear at work (in class or office, nor in my lectures). My writing is largely poetry, or responses to literature.”

As Bengal stands divided on his persona and his language, Roy himself seemed to shrug it off in the last video he uploaded just before police arrested him from his Goa residence, “You can corner me, you can put me in jail. But that will not make a positive history with your name.” 

Addressing Banerjee, he had added: “If the people have elected you as the chief minister, then it is your duty to let the ordinary man speak, pick whatever is positive out of it, and use it to make a change.”

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.