A few weeks after I first landed in Raipur in August 2011, having already covered a Maoist ambush in Bastar and the rape and encounter killing of a teenage girl in Surguja, I called Vinod Kumar Shukla. He immediately invited me over. When I asked for the address, he told me the directions and said: “Safed champe ke phool wala ghar (The house with the white frangipani flowers).”
“Kaha na, safed champe ke phul wala ghar.”
The question and answer was repeated a few times until I asked: “Sir, postal address?”
Returning home that evening, after my first meeting with him, I felt embarrassed at my question, but I had found answers to questions that have perplexed his readers. From where does Shukla draw such unassuming, yet intense, characters for his short stories and novels? What helped him rupture Hindi syntax and introduce a new idiom in poetry and fiction? It seemed to me that Shukla poured his self into his writings.
I was not the first to learn so. When Mani Kaul met Shukla before making a movie on his first novel Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1979), the filmmaker was convinced that the novel’s protagonist, Santu Babu, was Shukla himself. The novel revolves around the drudgery inflicted on the lowly government clerk, Santu, and his wife by his boss and landlord — the title alludes to Santu being forced to wear the shirt his boss’s servant has left behind.
Later, I asked him about the experience of watching his novel being turned into a movie. His reply: “It seemed to me that I wrote some chapters after watching the movie.”
Before his first novel, Shukla was already an accomplished poet known for his inventiveness. But his novels, featuring characters living in small towns of Chhattisgarh, surprised even master storytellers. There is a complete absence of plot in his novels; quotidian incidents propel the narrative. In his second novel, Khilega To Dekhenge (1996, later translated into English by Satti Khanna as Once It Flowers, HarperCollins), a teacher arrives to live in an abandoned police station outside a village after his school is blown away in a gale. His children dream of touching the Tropic of Cancer that passes not far from their home. The village watchman believes that his toy gun could kill anyone if he took aim and said, “Bang!” The third novel, Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (1997, translated by Khanna as A Window Lived in the Wall, Westland), is about the idyllic love of a young couple.
There are no reminiscences or ruminations over the larger questions of life and death in his work; no confrontations with the interior world, or the one at large. His guileless characters form a jovial bond with grief and laugh away their penury. They live each day without hope, complaint or anticipation, and in their ordinariness is revealed the vast, unrealised cosmos they carry within; a cosmos Shukla creates by linguistic devices. He twists verbs and introduces astonishing metaphors and images: “The nightingale sang while the sparrow was visible. Using playback technology, the sparrow sang the nightingale’s song.”
His novels are peppered with poetry. “We are a society of poets. Our epics and scriptures are in verse. It’s innate to me,” he says. They can be read from any page, paragraph or sentence — a spiralling journey, which a traveller can enter at any juncture. His endings are not logical conclusions. Instead, he says, “When I feel that I have written enough, I get up.”
Once, struggling with my first novel, I asked him for suggestions. “Very simple. You write short stories. You end a story at some point. Take it further, it will become a novel. I don’t find much difference between a short story and a novel,” he replied.
From any other writer, this could be blasphemy: a short story, when stretched, doesn’t become a novel. But it is precisely this disregard for literary norms that makes Shukla original and exceptional. He lives away from literary centres, never participates in debates and, though his stylistic devices have been adopted by several successors, has not written a single essay, or even an explanatory paragraph about his craft. To my question about his favourite authors, he had said, “You know I’ve read very little. You tell me your favourite authors. If they are mine too, I will say yes.” Compared to his vast output, his bookshelf is surprisingly sparse. Perhaps, this distance from the world has helped him retain his innate gift.
I often visited Shukla during my four-year stint in Chhattisgarh. He, too, visited my home. I played movies for him. Once it was Abbas Kiarostami’s Five (2003). On his first visit, taking note of my home that contained a mattress, book shelves, a TV, three chairs and a computer table, he said: “Ye grahasthi rahne ke liye nahin, chhor kar chale jaane ke liye hai (This home is not to be lived in, but to be left behind).”
Shukla insisted that “most of his works are autobiographical” and that he is essentially a writer from Chhattisgarh, who writes in Hindi. Why doesn’t his entire writing have a single bitter chord, or a complaint against the world? He replied: “Even when I portray someone with apparent bad traits, there is a hope, a hint that he might not actually be so.”
“You don’t see evil at all?”
“I won’t say that but my writing is a prayer to become a better human.”
Like with many artists, his art is strongly rooted in childhood memories. On the day he was born, January 1, 1937, a movie theatre was inaugurated just across his Rajnandgaon home. Thus began his early initiation into visuals. He watched many movies at Krishna Talkies, sitting in his mother’s lap. From his early childhood, his imagination was nourished by cinema, nacha theatre and the Ramlila. When Habib Tanvir came to perform a play near Rajnandgaon, Shukla, then a teenager, took a train to catch the performance and was fascinated by the men applying make-up. The nacha is a peculiar form in which actors, mostly people from “lower” castes and of very limited means, mock their own sorrow. It birthed Shukla’s fascination for people who find humour in their grief.
When he was a child, he recalls people from the “lower castes” greeting him jocularly: “Maharaj paay lagi (Sir, on your feet.)”. “To which I would also greet, ‘Paay laagi’. They teased me that a Brahmin boy is also saying paay lagi,” Shukla says. He soon realised that life contains an inherent natkiyata (drama). He thought in images, and writing became an act of “merely copying the visuals in language”. A vivid imaginative world came to constitute his reality.
In 1958, he failed his Class XII Hindi exam, due to which he couldn’t continue with science and had to enroll in an agriculture college, where there was no Hindi. “If I had not failed in Hindi, I would be a doctor or engineer,” he says, adding with a smile that his teachers thought his “Hindi was very poor”. The same year, the great Hindi poet, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, came to live in Rajnandgaon. Shukla showed him his early poems, the master found a spark and soon the agriculture student was on his way to becoming a poet.
The writer, who has barely stepped out of Chhattisgarh’s towns, has a long list of admirers. Krishna Baldev Vaid and Nirmal Verma were among the two most erudite and widely travelled Indian writers. Their praise was always sparse. Long ago, during a conversation with Verma, I had asked him to recommend a few works. He named only two novels; one was Naukar Ki Kameez.
In the several volumes of Vaid’s published diaries, not many Indian writers appear with a tinge of envy. Here’s a page from his 1985 diary: “I am extremely impressed by Naukar Ki Kameez. An excellent book, excellent mind. First-rate humour. A subtle pain. Simple expression. I can write such a book, but will not. Perhaps I cannot. I don’t have such simplicity about relations. Not even in my gaze and expression. There is some similarity in humour.”
Poet and novelist Sumana Roy, a jury member of the first Matrubhoomi Book of the Year award, which recently went to Shukla’s Blue is Like Blue (HarperCollins, translated into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai), noted in her recommendation: “I have no doubt that Shukla, had he been European, would have been one of the most well-known writers in the world…An aesthetic such as his, reliant on the synecdoche and the fragmentary, is a reminder that it was once possible to see India differently, and not as the homogeneous whole that the current political regime wants us to imagine.”
Naukar Ki Kameez has a fortuitous history. It was written for the Muktibodh Fellowship (1976-77) awarded by the Madhya Pradesh government. Shukla took a sabbatical from his teaching job for the fellowship. He had, by then, heard that famous writers use the typewriter. This being a great opportunity, he joined the Durga Typing Institute in Raipur’s Gol Bazar. For the first six months, he regularly attended the typing classes. He did not write a single word but couldn’t learn typing either, perhaps because he had decided to simultaneously join another set of classes to pursue another long-cherished dream — how to fix the radio. He couldn’t master that either.
Dejected, he wrote a letter to the poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who, as a senior bureaucrat, looked after the fellowship. “I have not written anything in the last six months. Please suspend the fellowship,” he wrote. Vajpeyi wrote back, “We had to award you the fellowship. Now it is up to you.”
“I thought that when Vajpeyi has so much trust in me, why can’t I write?” he says. The novel was completed in the next six months.
He is now past 83 but still writes daily. For the last few years, he has also begun writing for children, which he enjoys a lot. Recently, the editor of a journal called him: “Would you like to write a letter to the river, and to the mountain?” He immediately agreed.
He lives with his wife Sudha, son Shashwat Gopal, daughter-in-law Deepa and granddaughter Tarush Shashwati. “Our family lives in his creative world. He always recites his poetry to us. I was born around the time Naukar Ki Kameez was written. My birth is entwined with its creative process,” Shashwat says.
Shukla had a heart attack eight years ago. The family couldn’t believe when he asked for pen and the paper in the ICU. When he found the pen unwieldy, he wrote with a pencil.
He finally learnt typing at the age of 62, after retirement, but has been unable to type for the last few years due to cataract. He now dictates his writing to his wife and Shashwat later types it on the computer.
The poet is disappointed that instead of writing letters, readers these days pick up the phone. He is particularly annoyed by a recurring instance. His short story, Machhli (The Fish), is in the syllabus of a certain Bihar university. In it, a woman character pulls a sheet over herself and tosses like a fish. Students call him often to ask the meaning of this image. “I am tired of their questions,” he says, and, yet, he is courteous enough to always take the call.
Shashwat shares his mantra of life: “He doesn’t respond when someone criticises him on a wrong note, not because there is no answer but because replying is not a creative act.”
Chhattisgarh has been the capital of Naxalism for the last four decades. His home district is among the most Left-wing-extremism-affected districts in the country. But Shukla has maintained an absolute distance from these disturbing events. The state’s civil society and the Hindi literary world believe that a writer of his stature could have made a significant political intervention in this pressing issue. His silence hurts, they say.
But there is another truth. “Dada has always remained away from the spotlight. He sits at the back, perhaps that’s how he comes closest to others,” Shashwat says, underlining a crucial bond between him and his father: “I have received many things from Dada — memories, trees, books, paintings. There’s something he, perhaps, did not want to bequeath but still I received — hesitation.” Even the string of awards and mementos Shukla has received are not on the shelves or the walls, but locked away in boxes or stored in the attic.
The reclusive writer doesn’t come on the streets but is perturbed by ongoing incidents. Speaking to me on my last visit in December 2019, he raised pertinent questions about contemporary politics: “Have they decided the final limits of vikas?” He also made a distinction between the public and the mob: “The public is not prejudiced. People are united by a shared bond, they gather for a collective cause. But these days, the mob is being termed as the public. A mob never assembles on its own. They are managed and herded in vehicles.”
As the mob takes centrestage, the public gets pushed behind. “The citizen has never felt so lonely since independence,” he said. He also cautioned: “Democracy may also help in creating a dictatorship. A majority government may transform into a dictatorship.” And, yet, he insists that even in such times writers must not abandon their aesthetic. “News can be converted into a poem, but a poem need not strive to become news.”
An introvert for others, his curiosity knows few bounds. When his children were young, he brought them a telescope. Last year, he watched Chandrayaan-2’s journey late into the night, and woke up Shashwat to witness the final moments. He didn’t wake up Shashwati because he felt she was in “a far richer world of dreams and imagination”, but narrated the entire episode to her in the morning.
He is also forgetful, which, Shashwat says, “is his uniqueness as well as a mannerism”. Earlier, the father and the son would go to the market on the scooter. Shukla returned home with grocery, the son was often left behind. Last December, he told me that he often forgot his novels. When he begins talking about one, he suddenly realises that he has begun describing the other. And then Shukla turns wistful: “When I find myself forgetting things, I consider myself to be in ruin. When I am able to retrieve a lost and forgotten day, I come alive for many months.”
In the end, I will also admit that his world is not mine. As a journalist and writer, my universe is infinitely more violent, treacherous, anguished and uncertain than his. Neither his craft nor his characters throw any discernible shadow on me or my work; and yet I go to him because he teaches me that a home in a city can still be recognised by a flower, and the world is perhaps not as much to be lived in as to be left behind.
(Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a journalist and writer. His forthcoming book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency)
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