The PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature for 2023 was recently awarded to the Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla, an honour given to the entirety of a writer’s creative output. In its commendation of Shukla’s originality and craftsmanship, the committee particularly mentioned Ek Chuppi Jagah. This work has been translated as A Silent Place by noted documentarian and translator Satti Khanna, who has translated many of Shukla’s novels into English.
A Silent Place is an unusual novel – if it is a novel at all. It is dedicated to children, and on the surface, does have many of the qualities of a children’s tale. The primary plot-motor is the fairy-tale glide of a small group of children (primarily Bolu and Koona, but also at various points Dekhoo, Bhaira, Chandu, Premu, Subodh and so on) as they move through forests and mountain-trails, seeing rapidly blinking bushy-browed sadhus, hotels that turn invisible as soon as they close, mail that travels through rabbit warrens, whole falling cities tucked under pygmy mountains.
Much of the book is thus gentle, dreamily unspooling fantasy. Shukla seems to let the narrative take the reader wherever it may sail. Yet, his touch is sure – for within the whim of that movement, there are many identifiable strands. One of those strands is a concern with the degradation of those very forests and mountains. It is thus the genius of the work to mix environmental concerns within a fiction that has children as keen protagonists – and yet it does not seem to primarily address children. The themes remain adult, yet a childlike wonder pervades saving the novel from didacticism.
For example, there is a silent forest that is central to the story – “Why did sound die then? There was no sound even when there were speakers and listeners visiting from the inhabited side. Birds still built nests in the silent woods but they felt caged by soundlessness. They called out to their babies and couldn’t hear cheeps in response.” There are tiny poems will continue the sentiment: “To make the silence light,/ There’s something we can do./Save a little left unsaid….They were patient/That drop by drop/The sound would fill the pot/The pot explode with sound.”
The children wonder if even bees may not hum as they gather nectar. Such an achievement – to mix environmental concern with a sense of spontaneous, delight-ridden fantasy, and melancholia is enough. There is no need to insist – as the blurb does – that this is the “deepest human philosophy”. Such an insistence overstates, and thus diminishes.
There are further loose linkages – the work invokes other Shukla novels such as Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof, which too had featured similar adventures. By scrambling the geography of earth and heaven, the world of the children is forever new and surprising: “The hotel was not where it had been before. They could not see it. Which meant the hotel had been closed for the day. They looked to see if it might be in the sky. Bolu wondered if what had changed was not the hotel’s site but the arrangement of houses surrounding it…His home might now lie adjacent to the hotel while Koona’s home might lie at a great distance.”
The hotel is a place where you cannot pay for lodges but if you happen to lose money, then the coins would be able to navigate their way to the cashbox – and if you have lost rather too much, they would find ways to crawl back into your purse! Even money finds ways to abstain from corrupting this world.
Instead, it is world of happy camaraderie in work – the tailor seeks the help of the mynah who precisely counts the sunbird’s wingbeats as it flies up and down the human to be measured. It is Shukla’s craft to thus be able to keep us indefinitely atop a magic carpet of a never-ending, inventive narrative. Numerous black and white illustrations also help ease the reading by providing playful visual referents.
The genre of commercial fantasy is easy to read and consume – Shukla’s brand does not conform to this pattern. By forcing a slower pace, the reader absorbs more, lingers longer on the illustrations, and allows the charm of the work to wash over one ever more slowly. Thus, there is a deeper reach into one’s psyche of the images, and one’s sense of wonder is more bewitchingly stoked.
Shukla writes, “Time in the hut moves to the rhythm of my work. Day and night are hard to tell apart”. There is a sense of how innate artistry is to human nature – an elder sculptor (Sculptor Baba) in a small hut reveals himself to be made out of stone itself, eking out art shard by shard, each chisel stroke a heart-beat, each beat of the chisel carving out the day, the movement of the stars across the inner courtyard the only stamp of time. This is an apt image of the great originality and craftsmanship that the PEN award commended Shukla for – an artist forever seeking to be one with his conscientious creation.
Nikhil Govind is the author of Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature.