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Why Vinod Kumar Shukla's work deserves global recognition

The PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature recognises the writer as ’a daydreamer struck occasionally by wonder’

Vinod Kumar Shukla has written for decades without the recognition he deserves.
Vinod Kumar Shukla has written for decades without the recognition he deserves. (Shashwat Gopal)

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After last year’s International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s novel-in-translation, Tomb Of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell), followers of Hindi literature have another reason to rejoice. On 2 March, the 86-year-old Hindi poet, novelist and short story writer Vinod Kumar Shukla was awarded the 2023 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. According to Amit Chaudhuri, Roya Hakakian and Maaza Mengiste, the panel of judges that picked him: “Shukla’s prose and poetry are marked by acute, often defamiliarizing, observation. The voice that emerges is that of a deeply intelligent onlooker; a daydreamer struck occasionally by wonder. Writing for decades without the recognition he deserves, Shukla has created literature that changes how we understand the modern. With this award, the 2023 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature acknowledges a writer as well as a tradition, or traditions, of anomalousness in literature without which we cannot fully grasp our history or inhabit our present.”

There are two key elements to Shukla’s writing that the judges’ citation captured quite accurately—the “daydreamer struck occasionally by wonder” tonality and the fact that Shukla is an anomaly in Hindi (or indeed, any) literature. For most contemporary writers, there are certain broadly identifiable precursors, either in form or content. But such a forbear doesn’t really exist for Shukla; he sounds like nobody and nobody has sounded anything like him. He did write a short story dramatising his first meeting with the Hindi writer Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh (1917-64) but the influence of the older man certainly does not extend to their styles.

Shukla’s books of poetry, like Lagbhag Jai Hind (1971), Sab Kuch Honaa Bachaa Rahegaa (1992) and Kabhi Ke Baad Abhi (2012), are case studies in what Chaudhuri and co. called “defamiliarisation”—literature telling us that something we took for granted (or overlooked) all our lives is, in fact, quite remarkable. Or that certain “stock characters” in our lives are more complex than we ever gave them credit for. Or that our ideas of what make an object or a person or a situation “mundane” are, in fact, deeply informed by the whims of the moneyed. Shukla is not interested in telling us that the hitherto blue sky has turned dark or that this is due to large, ominous-looking clouds called “cumulonimbus”—he’s telling us why this perturbs us so, he’s trying to pin down the “illogic”, the method behind our collective madness.

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And while Shukla is an extraordinary poet-of-the-ordinary, his short stories sometimes involve a more straightforward surrealism, à la Belgian painter René Magritte. A respectful heron enters a classroom, only to exit swiftly when he realises a lecture is under way. An everyman narrator-protagonist stops his bicycle because a leaf has fallen into his shirt pocket and it feels like a burden, philosophically speaking. A recently deceased man passes on a dubious gift to his children—his old dentures. Some of these unique, atmospheric short stories can be read in the collection Blue Is Like Blue (2019), translated into English by Sara Rai and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra—including College, the translated version of Mahavidyalaya, one of Shukla’s best-known stories.

In a phone interview, Rai speaks about Shukla’s work and her experience translating it. “He has a very modern outlook,” says Rai, “and the way he looks at the world is quite unique, it’s like he is looking at everything for the first time. His way of using metaphors is unlike anything I have read in Hindi or English. It’s like he wills things into being through the sheer force and simplicity of his words. So the reader would accept things like a man walking about with two noses, for example.”

The simplicity in this case can be a challenge to translate adequately, Rai confirms. While his language is relatively simple, his syntax and usage are often highly atypical; punctuation in poems can be used in service of a pun, for example.

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At the end of the novella-in-translation, Moonrise From The Green Grass Roof (2017), there’s a bonus section where the book’s translator, Satti Khanna, translates 10 very short poems by Shukla. One of these, less than 50 words long, is reproduced here in its entirety: The little choo-choo engine / Of Siya dozing off / The single household wagon/ Heavy with sleep./ An elephant crossed the tracks/ Siya started from her dream/ Someone pulled the chain/ The train lurched to a stop./ ‘What happened to Siya?’ / ‘What’s gone wrong?’

Look at the gently humorous way Shukla has presented the experience of a little girl dreaming (and the implication that the dream was unpleasant). In keeping with the train metaphor, Siya’s house becomes the “single household wagon” that “lurched to a stop” because its youngest member had been woken up rudely. Nimble-footed, Shukla’s writing collapses the difference between what adults would call a “dream-world” and the way a small child processes the very real world.

Broadly speaking, his protagonists are working-class men who already have or gradually acquire a certain dream-logic to their musings. They are the kind of whimsical men who stop and stare at the flowers on a hilly roadside. Their choices, though sometimes guided by fear, are apt reflections of their intellects, fears and insecurities. We meet a character called Bhaira, for example, in the second chapter of Moonrise From The Green Grass Roof. We are told that his deafness comes and goes according to the situation, that he is simply “choosy about what he heard”.

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“Bhaira was afraid of speaking to his father in words, but he felt safe using signs. Bajrang Maharaj knew that Bhaira would ignore his words so he, too, used signs. Bajrang Maharaj had the foulest temper. He would get angry at any little thing. People discovered by and by that he never got angry at messages conveyed by signs. So, they began talking to him in signs.”

Shukla’s debut novel, Naukar Ki Kameez (1979), was adapted by Mani Kaul into an eponymous film in 1999. In this book, a young clerk puts on an escapee servant’s shirt at his boss’ bungalow—soon, he finds his boss, his landlord and landlord’s wife start treating him as though he were the escapee servant. A Kafkaesque story, to be sure, but one written by a humanist in the vein of Russian writer Maxim Gorky or Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Other Shukla novels include Khilega Toh Dekhenge (1996) and Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (1997); the last was translated by Satti Khanna as A Window Lived In The Wall (2019).

In the introductory essay in Blue Is Like Blue, Rai and Mehrotra write that Shukla reads only in Hindi and has no conception of the works of European literature his novels are sometimes compared to. At the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival, Shukla confessed to Rai that he was puzzled as to why people were standing in line to get their books signed by J.M. Coetzee, the South African-Australian Nobel laureate and double Booker winner.

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“(…) the name Coetzee meant nothing to him, nor did the names of the other world writers present on the occasion. One explanation could be that he reads only in Hindi, which perhaps has more speakers than Mandarin Chinese but in which little gets translated.... Recently, when asked in an email if he was familiar with any European writers, for it is they who often come to mind when you read him, Shukla did not evade the question. He simply ignored it.”

This really speaks to the heart of the “anomaly” argument for Shukla’s writing. Here’s a man who will now be read across the world, thanks to the PEN/Nabokov award. And yet, he is untouched by the influences of the wider literary world. I can think of no other writer quite like this, a bona-fide original to this degree. The British writer Magnus Mills comes close. He drives a bus for a living, and, in the past, has made high-tensile fences. He has written inimitable, darkly funny novels set in both worlds.

That Shukla’s PEN/Nabokov recognition has come with a $50,000 (in the region of 40 lakh) prize is also cause for celebration—and perhaps a small measure of relief. It’s no secret that royalties in the Hindi publishing world are low, thanks to the small print runs. And Shukla’s novels-in-translation have only recently been acquired by English-language trade publishers. With this award, Shukla has at least received the kind of financial reward he deserved decades ago.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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