Vinod Kumar Shukla’s literary universe is nuanced to the hum of everyday life — to the struggle of a junior clerk at a government job, trying to do his best to keep his chin up against a subjugating system, to the words of a village schoolmaster who has lost his home and school to a gale and is teaching the children to prepare for hunger. It moves seamlessly between reality and half-formed dreams, making his work come alive with the endless possibilities of the human imagination, much in the same way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez did. But Shukla, 78, will have you know that magic realism was not something that he has ever aspired for. “I believe, and it is only my personal view, that my imagination is also my reality. Sometimes, in the face of relentless reality, that imagination seems truer. So often, in times of distress, we tell each other, ‘Sab theek ho jayega (Everything will be alright).’ Can anything be further from truth? Everything will never be alright. But it seems, at that moment, to be possible,” he says, when we meet him in Jaipur last month.
Startlingly original, Shukla, who lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, is a seminal writer and poet of his generation, tracing the story of modern India through its invisible citizens. Having spent a lifetime away from the bustling metropolises, his works — several volumes of poetry and three novels (Naukar ki Kameez, 1979, which was later made into a film by director Mani Kaul; Khilega To Dekhenge, 1996, and Deewar Mein Ek Khirki Rehti Thi, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award for the best Hindi novel in 1999) — are marked by his gentle humour and deep compassion for the disenfranchised and the forgotten. But it is his ability to mould language to blur the thin line between possibility and actuality, between the quotidian and the surreal that makes him such a towering presence in Hindi literature. “His prose is read-out-loud simple and, from it, emerge irony, poetry and magic realism. You could say he is like Marquez or Jose Saramago, and yet, he is so different from them, so unique and rare,” says Minakshi Thakur, senior commissioning editor, Harper Collins India, which recently published a translation of Khilega to Dekhenge (Once It Flowers) and will bring out a translation of his novella Hari Ghaas ki Chappad aur Bauna Pahad next year.
The chasm between fantasy and reality had been bridged in Shukla’s life much earlier, even before he began writing. In 1937, the year he was born, Rajnandgaon, a village in then-Madhya Pradesh where he grew up, got its first theatre, Krishna Talkies, right opposite their house. His family had a stake in it and watching films was almost a ritual. Shukla remembers his utter absorption in that universe since his childhood. “My mother possibly took a month’s break after my birth from watching films, so I always consider that I have had a month more of life and a month less of films. Watching films was not considered such a bad thing then, so it was not uncommon to find someone at home humming a movie tune, or standing at the window to catch strains of the dialogues. The posters were a huge novelty though. We would beg the men who came to paste them on walls to put up some on our walls too, even though that was not nearly as respectable. But by then, we were quite adept at this double life, at how quickly we could slip out from the fantastic worlds of Sitara Devi and Fearless Nadia into the mundane everydayness of our homes. In fact, I think that is one of the reasons that I don’t think in linguistic terms. My work comes to me visually,” he says.
If films were a crucial part of his childhood, so was literature. His mother was the daughter of a sugar mill owner in undivided Bengal, but Partition had been unkind to her. Her father had been killed in the violence and the family had moved to Kanpur before she got married. Shukla remembers her reading out works of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and other Bengali greats and encouraging them to read a wide variety of literature. In his sprawling joint family, poetry was a common love. It was usual practice among cousins to try their hand at writing. Evenings would be spent reading each other’s works, or reading the works of stalwarts like Suryakant Tripathi Nirala and Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. In 1958, when Muktibodh came to Rajnandgaon, Shukla’s elder brother coaxed him to meet the poet and show him a sample of his poems. “I went to him with great trepidation. He read my poetry, but did not say anything indicative. All he told me was to study well and write when I’d become capable of earning,” he says. Not much later, he received a call from Shrikant Verma of the well-known literary magazine Pustak Kriti with an offer to publish his poetry. A popular magazine, Pustak Kriti was then known for its high standards of poetry and for publishing the works of cutting-edge writers like Naresh Mehta, Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan Agyeya and others.
When he moved to Jabalpur for his mater’s degree in agriculture at the Jabalpur Agriculture College, Shukla would discover the work of another poet, Bhawani Prasad Mishra. But one day, when his cousin pointed out how a phrase by the poet had found its way into his verse, Shukla was dismayed. “I told amma about it. She was making tea then, and when she finished, she held up the strainer and said, what you need is one of these. Good poetry should leave its imprint on your consciousness, but it should never influence your thoughts,” he says.
It was an important lesson and would go on to shape the way he would use language in his writing. “It is possible that I have created a few words of my own, but by and large, I have got my words from others. The question is, how do we use language? How can one prove that one has fulfilled the language one has got? All I have ever tried to do, is to use words with care, in a way that it maximises the emotions contained in them,” he says.
In Shukla’s writing, language morphs itself to the cadences of ordinary life, at once capricious and reassuring. It makes the form elusive — a poem teeters on the brink of becoming prose, while a novel wraps around itself delicate wisps of poetry. “I have never known anyone else to have used bolchal ki Hindi (Hindi of everyday use) like this,” says Dr Satti Khanna, professor of Indian cinema and Hindi literature at Duke University, USA, who has translated some of Shukla’s works, including Khilega To Dekhenge. In that novel, for instance — which Shukla says is both his favourite and his most incompletely finished one — several stories run parallel to each other almost like short stories. “I believe that there should not be a fixed format. Written literature is the beginning of creation, but never a completion. Just as one never stops experiencing, the process of its becoming continues in the next work and the next. In my understanding, a writer’s entire body of work should be considered as one work, because it’s a continuous process of becoming,” he says.
His own endeavour, he says, has been to never make writing a work of labour. “Maine yojana banakar kabhi nahin likha (I have never made writing a project). I write when I find an occasion to. The first paragraph dictates the next and that’s how I progress. There must be a trigger, but I have never been able to pinpoint a motive — neither when I begin writing, nor when I am done with a work. Perhaps, it’s not so important to find out why one writes after all,” he says.