Vinod Kumar Shukla is a writer of great and rare courage. He dares to be with what is. Through that he enters, or rather hovers, around the human soul manifested in its strange dailyness.
“Jainath had stretched out his arms on the lawn and clutched the grass in his fists as though he was mercilessly pulling his son’s hair. But he did not have a son. He was staring at the sky without blinking.”
Small gestures and actions are revelations in a Shukla story. But the revelations open only up to a point. They never reach a centre – rather, they disperse again, always elusive. Yet they are never consciously mysterious, they are unspeakably honest to life.
No questions asked
In India where the context of social change or its opposite of mythology and the larger-than-life seem to dominate, Shukla walks away from both these inheritances and reaches his own place of the utterly ordinary. Standing there he creates the isness of his small town people without idealising them. They are, simply, human in very human circumstances.
What this also means is that Shukla’s stories are almost anti-psychological. Rarely is it possible to fully comprehend what motivates the actions or gestures of his characters. People do not ask questions they can ask, or act as they want to, even when there is nothing in their circumstances to prevent them from doing so.
The inexplicable lies deep inside the human being and therefore also in human encounters, however brief or inconsequential. The consequence is a rare ambiguity and paradox that can never be resolved. A kind of insistent disturbance remains. Yet nothing tips over. Things continue in a state of tension through a story and after its conclusion.
Shukla’s language is singularly sparse and almost never metaphorical. Nor is he concerned with plot and narrative, with leading up to anything. However much we may try to understand it, the essential mystery at the heart of his craft remains this – he approaches the human from the outside and, with apparently the simplest tools, reaches an inside that simply will not be revealed in any other way.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai have translated these stories with an extremely deft hand. Any extra weight would destroy Shukla’s remarkable lightness of touch. A dramatic word, that extra flourish in a sentence, would throw Shukla’s world off its axis.
In a very insightful introduction, Mehrotra and Rai note: “In keeping with the frugal ways of those he writes about, Shukla is a frugal storyteller. He can make, and make do, with very little.” They have left undisturbed the great quietness at the heart of Shukla’s work.
These stories are all set in very small towns where there is no glamour and where things most often revolve around the basic necessities of life. They are early stories, but they seem to contain a lifetime of mature melancholy. A young man finds what seems to be a piece of gold on the road and wants to sell it to pay for the many things he needs. Instead he goes to the police and gives it back, but the police, too, throw it away. All these actions somehow make for a deep sadness at the end of the story.
In spite of the melancholy Shukla has a very keen sense of the comic and the everyday, almost repetitive, surroundings give his humour ample play.
“‘Let’s go home,’ I said.
‘You go to yours and I’ll go to mine,’ I said.”
The men in these stories live alone in rented rooms away from home. They seem to have the bonds that make for family and community but without any evidence of the joy that may bring. Loyalty and loneliness, grit and resignation exist together. These are not things that are opposites but they grate against each other in a soundless way.
Shukla’s characters work and save their meagre earnings somehow and count out their money with great care when buying anything. From the mud on the roads, the bars on the windows, the tin trunks in which their belongings are kept, an old ashtray in a drawer, a very concrete physical world is created. Shukla uses these quotidian elements and textures as they are but brings them through a special gaze to meet another world very close to this one, like its own trembling reflection in water.
Gennady Aygi, the little known but great Chuvash poet said: “I wanted the small to be elevated to the Great, I wanted to give it universal significance. And in fact this has always been the case in various literatures and cultures. The concept of the ‘provincial’ cannot be applied to fields and haystacks – there is nothing provincial about the earth.” And similarly there is nothing provincial about people who live each day the life they have been given as best as they can.
Blue Is Like Blue, Vinod Kumar Shukla, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai, Harper Perennial.