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Dispatches from the present


The Principle of Hope


Five years ago I spent a miserable day in the hometown of Vinod Kumar Shukla, a poet and novelist who writes in Hindi and recently won this year’s PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. Many of us undertake an absurd literary pilgrimage at some point in our lives; this was mine. It was a hot summer day in Rajnandgaon, a small town in central India: the streets were crowded and chaotic, the shopkeepers unfriendly, and the groups of young men hanging about on street corners looked like they were serving out a prison sentence that would never end. The only bookstore I came across sold Hindi paperbacks with pulp-fiction titles: The Playing Cards of Fate, Crime World, Weapon, I Am a Pakistani and My Father, Hitler. The rich and the poor wore their life’s stories on their faces. I felt like a minor character in one of Shukla’s novels, A Window Lived in the Wall, who searches unsuccessfully for a window that serves as portal to another world; like him, all I could find was heat, dust and dirt. Perhaps Vinod Kumar Shukla is the only person who knows the secret of where this portal is hidden.

It was difficult to imagine any kind of poetry being produced in so harsh an environment. But Shukla, now in his eighties, is still going strong, still writing poems and stories set in a dreamlike version of Rajnandgaon that has long disappeared, if it ever existed in the first place. Now a prolific writer of children’s fiction, he is primarily known for his poetry and for three remarkable novels: Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt), Khilega to Dekhenge (Once It Flowers) and Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (A Window Lived in the Wall), which have been serviceably translated by Satti Khanna. The protagonists—a clerk in a government office, a primary schoolteacher, a college lecturer—are the Indian cousins of Bartleby, Raskolnikov and Prufrock; clerks defeated and humiliated by history. These are wonderfully whimsical novels full of bizarre conceits: a man waiting for a bus hitchhikes a ride home on the back of a passing elephant; a tribal village is besieged by a mysterious ticking noise that turns everybody mute, until the village elders play an ancient tune on their flutes and bring sound back into the world. But I don’t want to mislead prospective readers—Shukla’s sentences may be playful, but his characters live in a world encircled by a political disappointment so complete and corrosive that it can only be hinted at indirectly, lest it destroy everything it touches.

I have been reading Shukla for many years but met him just once, while conducting research for my doctoral dissertation. We ate poha in his living room in a quiet neighborhood in the city of Raipur, and he gave noncommittal answers to my intrusive questions about the left-wing literary milieu of his youth (back then, my primarily academic interest was in one of his mentors, the Marxist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh). Shukla was far more somber than I had expected him to be. “I have lived a very ordinary lower-middle-class life,” he said, a few minutes into our conversation. “I’ve never experienced any event or incident worth writing about.” Shukla’s father had died when he was still a boy, and it seemed like the period of economic insecurity that followed still rankled. “My childhood was shorter than most people’s childhoods tend to be. Whenever I left home for outside, I felt like I was expanding the size of my cage. All of us end up living in cages one way or the other. … Freedom is actually a measure of how long the rope around your ankles is.”

Speaking about his second innings as a children’s writer, Shukla recalled a moment from his life that convinced him of the role of kalpanā (the Hindi term for imagination, or fantasy) in our experience of yarthārtha (reality):

My daughter was born in a public hospital. They were short of space so they laid her out on the floor [instead of in a cot], not very far away from the stray dogs and cows that would roam freely though the ward. These kinds of scenes and conditions were very normal for a government-run hospital at that time. I remember that when she was three days old, she heard the sound of birds chirping above her, and turned to look in that direction. I remember this very clearly… For a newborn child, everything in the world is a kind of fantasy.

Escapism is not quite the word I would use to describe the bond between Shukla and his readers, whether children or adults. He points at a sparrow, and we follow his gaze, entranced; the squalor does not disappear, we just turn away, at least for a little while. As an early Hindi review of The Servant’s Shirt put it, Shukla’s fiction—with its odd grammatical tenses and strange juxtapositions—has a unique ability to unveil the “extraordinary buried in the depths of the ordinary.” It is up to us, as readers, to do some something worthwhile with this gift.

Alongside his novels, a reasonable selection of Shukla’s poetry has already been translated into English. But I’m not optimistic about his chances of finding a larger audience in America even after the PEN/Nabokov award, which has tended to confirm rather than confer fame (last year’s winner was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o). Indeed, it feels odd to type out the names “Nabokov” and “Vinod Kumar Shukla” in a single sentence. Especially in translation, Shukla’s whimsy can come off as a little sentimental, or twee, glorifying a harmonious and pastoral vision of life in rural India. Even critics in Hindi have occasionally been exasperated by his retreat from the more social-realist seriousness of The Servant’s Shirt into the idiosyncratic fantasies of A Window Lived in the Wall. Out there in the real world, as newspaper headlines from Shukla’s home state of Chhattisgarh ceaselessly remind us, jungles are being turned into mines, and those who used to live in these jungles are being robbed of their languages and land. But I cannot bring myself to critique Shukla for writing about love instead of anger, for staying committed to the principle of hope.

One of my favorite poems by Shukla is written from the perspective of a youngish man out on a restless walk, torn between the desire to return home and a desire to escape.

“You should look at your home from very far away,” the poem begins.11. Translation mine, from the Hindi. Another version, alongside the original, can be found here. “From the kind of distance that leaves you helpless.” “As you leave home,” it continues, you should turn back “to look at your country from another country / at your planet from outer space.”

From this distant vantage point, the poem speculates, there may be no difference between the thought of returning to Earth and returning home. When you are far enough, “instead of wondering what the kids at home are up to / you’ll think of all the children on Earth. / Instead of worrying about whether there is enough to eat at home / you’ll worry about the entire planet.”

Suddenly, in its final lines, the poem abandons its speculative tone and becomes uncomfortably, bluntly confessional:

Things at home are such a mess
I walk away a little, and then turn back home
as if I am returning to Earth

In December 1972, on their way to the moon, the Apollo 17 crew took a photograph of the earth titled The Blue Marble, one of the most famous photographs in recorded history. Reading Shukla’s poem, I think of a man in 1970s India gazing at The Blue Marble in a magazine, choked by a quiet desperation about the future. Is it sentimental to be so moved by this? From the depths of despair, the poem finds its way home, back toward ordinariness and domesticity. This too is a form of courage.