In one of his poems, the Hindi fiction writer and poet Vinod Kumar Shukla compares the flight of a bird to that of a butterfly:
Leaving the earth,
mounting the air,
does the bird know
that it’s the earth it is leaving?
To fly above it,
you really have to go high.
And when it returns
to settle on a tree
does the bird know
that it’s the earth it’s returned to?
I don’t have wings.
There’s a small yellow butterfly
flying above the earth.
If the poem can be read as a metaphor for two kinds of writers, the bird writer and the butterfly writer, then Shukla clearly belongs to the latter species. The bird in Shukla’s poem doesn’t know what it is distant or cut off from, or what it is returning to. Shukla’s vision, by contrast, operates at ground level. The people he observes and writes about are the kind who, when they step out of the house, carry with them a tattered shopping bag, into which go the haggled down vegetables they buy. An early poem of his, from 1960, is about just this:
A street in the bazaar,
a busy shopper,
carrying a soiled
slightly torn bag
in each hand,
one empty, one full.
Inside it, potatoes, leafy
vegetables, a packet
of garam masala, and chillies,
red or green.
How I wish I could’ve been
a ten-rupee note
and found shelter
in his bag.
But I was holed up
inside my own.
These busy shoppers are modest people, and Shukla is a modest storyteller. Making do with very little, or rather making with very little, he uses materials that are of the simplest: a man, a bicycle, the falling leaf of a neem tree, dry and yellow and brittle, yet substantial enough to bear the weight of narrative. I say weight, though what I want to suggest is lightness. “I have tried to remove weight,” said Calvino in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, “sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” We could say the same about Shukla’s work, both his poetry and fiction.
He’d had his breakfast and was back home. No sooner was he back than he changed into his office clothes and put on his shoes. He oiled and combed his hair. He picked up the bicycle keys and the lock to put on the door. The cycle was on the veranda, from where he took it out and started for office. This was his daily routine; he went through it without thinking about it twice.
He was going at a good speed even though he had plenty of time. The road ran along Phoolbagh. It took him roughly twenty minutes to reach his office. It was summer and the dry leaves of the neem trees that lined either side of the road were constantly falling. One of the leaves got lodged in his pocket. He found this odd. He continued to pedal, and as he did so he put his left hand inside the pocket and tried to take out the leaf, but it crumbled and stuck to the cloth. He stopped the bike and turned out the pocket to clean it. The leaf fragments in his pocket could hardly be called heavy and neither did he have to stop the bike to remove them, but he stopped all the same.
He had reached Phoolbagh when it struck him that he might have forgotten to lock his room. He tried hard to remember but a nagging doubt still remained. Yesterday the same thing had happened. He’d come halfway when he’d had to turn back. He wanted to check the lock, if it was secure. He pulled at it and found that it was. Having made certain, he went to office with an easy mind.
He’d been paid two days ago. He had just one bed in his room and a trunk that he never locked, though he often thought that he should get one for it. He had kept his salary in the trunk, inside the pocket of a freshly washed shirt. He’d then placed a handkerchief over the pocket to keep the money from falling out if the clothes were moved around. Perhaps he also thought that the handkerchief will conceal the money, make it less noticeable.
He lived in a rented room behind Lashkar Hotel. Bhagwat who worked for the hotel would come round to sweep the rooms, starting with the ones on the left. He didn’t think twice before entering a room even if no one was there. Several times it happened that Bhagwat had come to sweep the room while he was bathing in the common facility. He’d hurried through the bath and returned quickly to the room. He didn’t want Bhagwat to be there in his absence. He didn’t trust these hotel employees one bit, though so far he’d had no complaints.
He thought he had probably locked his room, but what if he hadn’t? He felt annoyed with himself for being unsure. He could still go back and check. This time he felt certain that he’d forgotten to lock it. His entire salary was in the trunk and he did not want to take a chance. If he went back, the extra pedalling might tire him out but at least the money would be safe. In any case, he was early for office. Even if he went back to the room to make sure, he wouldn’t get late. Should he or should he not, he asked himself. Without being aware of what he was doing, he slowed down. He went round the traffic island at the same slow speed, and then, pedalling furiously, returned to his room. He almost collided with a cart loaded with a slab of ice but managed to avoid it at the last minute.
He saw Bhagwat standing on the veranda as he approached the hotel. He didn’t like this at all. He locked the bike and went up to his room. From the expression on his face and by his walk, he wanted to convey to Bhagwat that he was in a hurry and had forgotten something. While climbing the stairs he turned round to look. Bhagwat was watching him. Oh shit! Hope the bastard hasn’t caught on, he thought. On reaching the room he paused and looked behind him again. Bhagwat wasn’t there. He pulled at the lock and found that it was fastened. He came down whistling and there was a bounce in his step. He asked the pandit who was the hotel cook for a glass of water and then for another; he was thirsty. He left for office after drinking two glasses of water.
He felt light-hearted. He stopped the bike at a restaurant that he passed and looked at the clock on the wall. It was not yet eleven; he still had plenty of time. He’d been wise, he thought, to go back to his room and reassure himself about the lock. If he hadn’t, he’d have been thinking about it all the time he was at work. These things do happen. After all, anyone can make a mistake, and the same mistake can be repeated. He could have lost the hundred and fifty rupees, his entire salary. How then would he have paid last month’s bills and met this month’s expenses? He may even have had to give up his room. He’d done the right thing, he told himself.
In fact what he had feared had happened once before. The lock he had at the time was a press lock. He’d gone out for a stroll in the evening and half an hour later when he returned he found the lock hanging open. He’d forgotten to press the shank. It had got him worried but his things were safe.
He worked with a relaxed mind and came home in the evening. He unlocked the door. He was extremely tired. The moment he lay down he felt sleepy. He closed his eyes and turned over on his side. It felt good to stretch his arms and legs. His daily round to the office and back required a lot of cycling and his legs felt heavy, as though he’d climbed several flights of stairs to reach his room. After a while he got up and opened the trunk. He took out all the money that was in the shirt pocket and went down to pay off his debts. He paid for the previous month’s food and the rent. Then he handed Bhagwat a fiver to give to the dhobi. He was out of oil, soap and toothpaste, which he bought from the corner store. He possessed just two handkerchiefs and purchased another. For the past month he’d been wondering if he should buy two more banians and this time he thought he’d buy them. He needed to buy chappals too, for he had just the one pair of shoes, but with only eight rupees and a few annas left to last him the whole month, he decided not to. He’d have bought them if he had some more money. He carried the stuff back to his room.
The next morning, before setting out for office, he wore his new banian, changed the set of clothes he was wearing, and equipped himself with the new handkerchief. He combed his hair and put on his shoes, then picked up the bicycle keys and the lock.
He’d only gone a short distance when the faint misgiving obscurely entered his mind that he’d forgotten to lock the room. He smiled and shook his head, then continued to go along at the same speed. If someone had then seen him smiling to himself they’d have been surprised. There were neem trees on either side of the road. It was summer and hundreds of dry leaves were falling, but not one found its way into his pocket. He carried on cycling, without stopping or slowing down.— "The Burden", translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra with Sara Rai
The leaf did not find its way into the man’s pocket, but we know where Shukla found his story. He found it in a moment we are all familiar with, it’s when we realise that we may have left something unlocked (a house, a car, a piece of luggage), or left something on, like the gas burner. Once we have made sure that the house is locked, the burner turned off, we don’t think of it again. It’s this dead, unbreathing moment that Shukla revives, before edging it away. “He carried on cycling, without stopping or slowing down.” You begin to wonder if you are ever alive except when you discover yourself in the pages of a book.
Anxiety is followed by a sense of relief. When he finds that the lock is fastened and his fear was unfounded, the man comes “down whistling and there [is] a bounce in his step.” At one point, a little earlier in the story, he covers the money in the shirt pocket with a handkerchief. This is something that a coyote or a woodpecker, creatures that hide their food cache, would have recognised. It’s an act as avian or animal as it is human. We all hide our purses, our house keys, and even, if there are predatory servants around, our food.
Shukla’s storytelling turns on small everyday acts. Often on the things that flicker and vanish in the mind’s peripheral vision before we can quite see them.
This is what poems also do: they try and grasp a disappearing thought or impression and bring it into hard focus. As the title poem of Shukla’s first full length collection has it, “That man put on a new woollen coat and went away like a thought”:
That man put on a new woollen coat and went away like a thought.
In rubber flip-flops I struggled behind.
The time was six in the morning, the time of hand-me-downs, and it was freezing cold.
Six in the morning was like six in the morning.
There was a man standing under a tree.
In the mist it looked like he was standing inside his own blurred shape.
The blurred tree looked exactly like a tree.
To its right was a blurred horse of inferior stock,
looking like a horse of inferior stock.
The horse was hungry, the mist like a grassy field to him.
There were other houses, trees, roads, but no other horse.
There was only one horse. I wasn’t that horse,
but my breath when I panted was indistinguishable from the mist.
If the man standing at that one spot under the tree was the boss,
then to him I was a horse at a gallop, horseshoes nailed to my boot soles.
There are, in the poem, two thoughts. The first is the thought of the disappearing man in the new woollen coat, which we can call the tenor; the second is the thought with which the first thought (the man in the woollen coat) is compared. This we can call the vehicle. While he diverts our attention with metaphor and lingusitc play (“Six in the morning was like six in the morning”), Shukla surreptitiously introduces his moral vision. The play is deadly serious.
We recall Calvino’s idea of lightness, where lightness does not mean light weight. “There was only one horse. I wasn’t that horse,” protests the speaker of the poem, the man in rubber flip flops. But in the eyes of the boss, he is “a horse at a gallop, horseshoes nailed to [his] boot soles.” The working man has changed places with the workhorse. The boss remains what he is, an unattainable idea of wealth, someone snug in the woollen coat of his thoughts. Shukla, in the poem, identifies with the man in flip flops, just as he does with the man who lacks money to buy, after meeting the month’s expenses, a new pair of chappals. To change the butterfly metaphor, Shukla could be described in similar terms, the writer in cheap footwear. Against storytelling segues into against writing, against a certain idea of writing, of writer.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, Vinod Kumar Shukla asked Sara Rai why so many people were 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 to do so. Moreover, the name Coetzee meant nothing to him, nor did the names of the other world writers present on the occasion. And this, despite the fact that his own books have been translated into French, Italian, and English. One explanation for it could be that he reads only in Hindi, which perhaps has more speakers than Mandarin Chinese but in which little gets translated. Even if it were, you doubt whether Shukla would be interested.
Recently, when he was 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. The question did not deserve an answer.
“There is nothing of me except what is here”, Shukla says in one poem. Shukla’s “here” is a specific place – Raipur and, before that, Rajnandgaon, both cities in the tribal belt of India. Rajnandgaon is where he was born in 1937 into a family of Saryuparin Brahmins who hailed from Uttar Pradesh, and Raipur is where he taught agricultural extension at the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University. It meant travelling to the surrounding villages and acquainting farmers with new agricultural techniques. He retired as associate professor in 1996. This is not your usual trajectory of a great writer, but therein lies the paradox of Vinod Kumar Shukla.
Though there was until the 1960s little to distinguish Rajnandgaon and Raipur from the other wayside stations on the Howrah-Bombay rail line, in Shukla’s eyes they encompass the known world. Were it left to him, he would still be living in the house of his childhood that he writes about in his autobiographical essay “Old Veranda”:
Ours was a family of four brothers living under one roof. The roof’s shadow belonged to my youngest uncle, who was called Chachaji. He was called this at home and also outside, but wherever he was he largely kept to himself. Everyone was in awe of him. If he stepped out of the house more than he usually did, he came up against the world as if against a wall. He came up against it even when he was at home.
As happens in joint families, there would be quarrels. Guns would come out but were never fired. The women never quarrelled. Perhaps this was because of Amma, who continued to work quietly despite the chaos of marriages, births, and deaths. I don’t know how, but her quiet would have a calming effect on those who were grieving, and those who were full of joy would find the space around them expand to accommodate their laughter.
Amma would be up when it was still dark and would be the last to sleep. You could hear her in the kitchen putting things away, the clattering sounds like a lullaby for the night, sending it to sleep. Even the plants listened to her. As soon as it was twilight, the guava, the drumstick tree, and the tulsi in the courtyard would doze off, as would the soft grass in the corner and the two tomato plants that had appeared on the rubbish heap. The tall peepul tree to the east of the house would look in, and seeing the other plants asleep, go to sleep itself.
If she saw an ant in the fire crawling on a dung-cake she would pull out the dung-cake and save the ant. In the same way, she would save us from small everyday fires and hope that they wouldn’t recur. The burn on her hand would not have healed before she burned herself again. Her daily routine was like a thread going through the different things she did, stringing them together. She never felt the needle’s prick, but I did. In the papers I read about a man who was hospitalised and discovered to have hundreds of needles in his body. Was my condition similar to that man’s?
The large family living under “one roof” is an idea that he returns to also in a poem. By the time the poem ends, though, the family has become the human family, and the “one roof” is not of a house in Rajnandgaon but the sky. A particular childhood memory has here opened out into a feeling that is not dissimilar to what WH Auden called “a vision of Agape”, a vision of shared unerotic love. Going a step further, Shukla shares the feeling with all of creation, including the earth:
Had we all lived together
under one roof
without separate kitchens –
grandfather, great aunt,
father, uncle, siblings –
and remained in
the same neighbourhood.
Grass lives next to grass,
mud next to mud,
and in the wind live
and scent-laden gusts.
Unbroken, without knots,
the earth’s wind is one
with our breathing.
Shukla, who seldom travels and has been outside India perhaps only three or four times on literary junkets, would agree with Hazlitt that “Foreign travel especially makes men pedants, not artists. What we seek, we must find at home or nowhere.”
Shukla must be among the few writers alive whose work has appeared in journals where world literature is published or discussed – Granta, Modern Poetry in Translation, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, The Baffler, n+1 – but who has heard neither of these journals nor of world lit. In contrast to his unawareness of the term and his indifference to the subjects that keep the assembly line of global fiction moving (historical trauma, acts of terrorism, personal turmoil), is the attention he lavishes on the fleeting observations, thoughts, memories, and gestures that for most of us, regardless of where we live, constitute our lives. To read him is to read not a fictionalised version of what is already known, but what is constantly being inscribed in and erased from the margins of our consciousness.
“I Don’t Have Wings: Vinod Kumar Shukla” was delivered as a talk at the 4th Annual International Symposium: Against Storytelling, organised by Ashoka University in partnership with The University of East Anglia.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is translating (with Sara Rai) the stories of Vinod Kumar Shukla. A new collection of his essays Translating the Indian Past: Essays on Poets and Poetry will be published by Permanent Black later in 2018. He lives in Dehradun.