August 3, 2019 12:40:41 am
Every book is a stranger, or was meant to be. We came to it accidentally — on a relative’s bedside table, in a library, in second-hand bookstores, and, occasionally, in book reviews, the imagination drawn to an unusual title. I speak of a time that no longer exists, goaded as we are by the deus ex machina of publishing today, where what is outside the text, in print and social media, is meant to drag our attention to what is inside it. Vinod Kumar Shukla is, therefore, a lovely anachronism — he belongs to a culture of slowness and shyness, of both the writer and the way his works journey, travelling on foot instead of the brokered and artificial speed of immediate canonisation that is now commonplace. It is slightly wrong that I should begin with the writer and not his writing — for here is a man who rejects, and indeed subverts, the personality cult of the artist.
Here I must share an anecdote about Shukla that his translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra narrated to an audience at a symposium last year. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, Shukla asked translator Sara Rai why were there so many people standing in line, each clutching a book. Told that they were all waiting to have their books signed by JM Coetzee, he looked puzzled. Hindi writers sign books, but privately, and seldom is there a line of people waiting for them. Moreover, the name Coetzee meant nothing to him, nor did the names of the other world writers present on the occasion.
I was in the audience, and I turned to look at the faces around me. What I saw on those faces was an odd mix of relief, confusion and embarrassment. Most of us in the audience had signed up for the surgical strike of the book promotion, even if involuntarily, and now, suddenly reminded of the first impulses that had brought us to writing and reading, we were ashamed of where we’d come to be. Why do I say all this about the writer Shukla when I should be talking about his book? It is because Shukla’s writing is as untouched by the fads of what passes for literature today.
The space of his writing, untouched by the noise of literary movements, is therefore as fresh as the drawings in the Altamira caves. Shukla’s translators say that these are stories of ‘modest, smaller-than-life people’. I’ve been struggling to find a suitable phrase with which to describe the experience of reading them. Yes, this is a literature of experience, but all categories seem insufficient. And I realise that the truly original writer will always challenge the existing vocabulary of criticism.
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Shukla’s writing is almost devoid of similes and metaphors. These figures of speech enable the existence of two diverse, even disparate, worlds in the same frame. His rejection of the comparative does not really make him belong to a tradition of minimalism, say of Raymond Carver and Hemingway, still resident gods of MFA programmes, but of a culture that, perhaps, comes from closer home, of naming, of the mantra and scriptures. Tagore, for instance, invokes the same tradition when he says ‘Amari chetonar rangey panna holo shobuj (It is the colour of my consciousness that has made emerald green)’. Or, as Shukla would say, ‘Blue is like blue’. The poetry that comes from the act of naming, whether in ‘Call me Ishmael’ or a list of food items in an Arun Kolatkar poem, is one that Shukla uses beautifully, but the things he names are almost inevitably common nouns. This is because his world is of the common noun: by mentioning them he makes them come alive. His eye records things that are usually rejected by a tradition of writing that is ‘serious’ and driven by authorial intentions to substitute news with stories.
Shukla’s stories challenge the idea of narrative, and so it seems natural that Mani Kaul should make a film on his first novel, Naukar ki Kameez. Like Shukla, Kaul’s investment is in the ‘poetic’ — it is a literature of a ‘leaf in the pocket’, of strangeness. ‘This is a story but there is no meaning in it. And it will go on like this, if a child is narrating it,’ says Kaul. So, we don’t ask why, for instance, numbers keep appearing in almost every Shukla story — it is a tic of that universe, a world where there’s always little money, and the imagination creates a literature of frugality, the stories as light and necessary as the money in them, which keeps appearing and disappearing, so that not people but currency notes become the object of interest in these gentle-paced thrillers. It is only right that the translators give us the dates of publication of these stories, for it is a reminder that we don’t have to go to the historical novel and science fiction to experience time — and the times — in fiction.
“I had time on my hands,” declares the protagonist of the extraordinary story ‘Man in the Blue Shirt’. It is an amazing (and anachronistic) declaration, particularly in our era, where time is as difficult to earn and keep as money in Shukla’s stories. The people in them usually live in single room habitats, almost in contrast to the ‘world’ writers that the translators mention semi-ironically in their introduction. These stories remind us of a time when the explosion of money hadn’t hijacked our affection for life, for its intimate strangeness. When I close the book, I feel sad – I long for the world where Didi “held his chin with her left hand when she combed his hair.”
Sumana Roy is a poet and writer
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