Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla was conferred with the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature-2023 on March 2. The annual award founded in collaboration with Vladimir Nobakov Literary Foundation is given to a living author whose work, written or translated into English, is of “enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship”. Well-known in the realm of Hindi literature, Shukla’s writings deal with class and wealth issues. They are about the poor who struggle to survive in a capitalist world. “Whatever I have written is reality. I cannot separate my imagination from reality,” says Shukla.
“I was unaware of such a prize for writers. I am still trying to process the fact that I have received it,” says 87-year-old Hindi writer and poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, recipient of the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature-2023. Described as the “Oscars for Books”, it is among the most coveted literary award and carries a purse of $50,000.
Back home, Shukla has won nearly every significant laurel that can come a writer’s way. Sahitya Akademi Award, the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize, and the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year award for Blue Is Like Blue (2019), a collection of stories translated into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai.
Born in Rajnandgaon in 1937, and now a resident of Raipur —both in Chhattisgarh— Shukla studied and taught Agriculture Sciences at a college in Jabalpur. The explosion of literary creativity seen in his novels, poems, essays and short stories can thus be best termed as preordained.
“There was an environment of reading and writing in my home. My mother grew up in Jamalpur and later lived in Dhaka in Bengal, where my grandfather had a flourishing business. My mother would read extensively and she brought that culture to her new home after her marriage,” says the writer. “She would read the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and other Bengali greats.”
There were budding writers among his cousins and siblings too. “In my father’s home, my uncles subscribed to monthly magazines like Madhuri and Saraswati. Padmalal Punnalal Baxi, a popular writer of those times, lived in Rajnandgaon, a small village then. He used to teach one of my uncles,” the writer reminisces about his early childhood.
“My cousin, Bhagwati Prasad, was also a writer. He had written a book of poems. He pawned his wife’s jewellery to get it published. A bundle of that book was lying in our house for many days. My elder brother, Santosh Kumar, used to write too. But that didn’t last long. I was the only one who continued to write. My mother had the biggest influence on me,” Shukla narrates in a voice that has become frail with age.
Speaking about his work, the jury for the PEN/Nabokov award, comprising Amit Chaudhuri, Roya Hakakian and Maaza Mengiste, observed, “Shukla’s prose and poetry are marked by acute, often defamiliarising 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.”
As a poet and writer, Shukla is best known for his ability to turn ordinary and mundane into extraordinary and amazing. There is a sense of wonder in his creativity. A delightful confluence of imagination and reality, where tangible and abstract pushes the reader to take imaginative leaps.
“Whatever I have written is reality. I cannot separate my imagination from reality. While writing, I don’t know when something real transpires in my fiction and when a dream takes over. I believe in the truth of the imagination,” he says, and adds, “My childhood became the foundation of my writings. Most of my writings are autobiographical. All characters in my work are people with whom I have come in contact over the course of my life. Wherever I needed to add something in characterising them, the parts which I had forgotten, I would use my imagination. Right from the beginning, I have always considered imagination to be my reality.”
The Poet in Shukla
In the world of literature, Vinod Kumar Shukla is better known as a poet. His first published work was in his college’s magazine.
“Later, it was poet Muktibodh who sent a collection of eight of my poems to Shrikant Verma. So actually, they are the first of my poems to get published. What publishes first becomes your first work of creativity,” he says. “My first poetry recitation was in the presence of Harishankar Parsai at a small event organised in a school in Jabalpur with other local poets.”
Shukla describes poetry as a medium to express his thoughts: “There is no particular reason for writing poetry or prose. Often, a thought itself compels me to write. It gently taps on the mind and plays a game of hide and seek. It is like a testimony for the readers who come in contact with my work.”
The poet continues, “I don’t remember exactly when I started writing and what exactly I wrote first. When a writer begins with a line, it is not necessary that it will be a part of the end product,” he says, explaining his unrestrained style of writing. His first book of poetry titled Lagbhag Jaihind was a collection of 21 poems. It appeared in 1971 in Pehchan, a series launched by Ashok Vajpeyi, a bureaucrat and a poet.
Shukla’s poetic expressions are distinctive in their uniqueness and range. He gives his words new shades and layers of meaning and the flow has an enchanting cadence.
“I never give a title to my work. Mostly, it is the publishers who select one and I think they just pick up the first line of what I have written,” he says about the long titles of his books like Veh Aadmi Chala Gaya Naya Garam Coat Pehn Kar Vichar Ki Tarah, Sab Kuch Hona Bacha Rahega, Akash Dharti Ko Khatkhatah hai, Khilega Toh Dekhenge, Deewar Main Ek Khidki Raheti Thi.
What makes Shukla’s work so unique is that it cannot be captured or described through some precursors — whether in form or content. The extent of his originality is such that he sounds like nobody and nobody sounds like him. At first, his writings can appear weird and even bizarre, but it slowly grows on the reader delighting him/her for its simplicity and sweetness when read carefully. He is often compared with the Marxist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh whom he met in the late 1950s.
“Muktibodh, Ashok Vajpeyi and Harishankar Parsai encouraged me to write,” he says. “Muktibodh was considered a Marxist, Parsai ji was also a leftist. In Raipur, progressive writers had a growing influence in those years, so people find all these influences in my writings. But I feel that it’s the critics who create these classifications. I don’t mind as critics encourage people to read and compel the writers to return to their writings and study them again. I think the biggest presence in writing is that of a critic.”
The only influence, if any, in his works has been that of international writers, particularly the Soviets.
“I would read Soviet publications as they were available at very cheap rates and had very rich well written content,” he says. “My granddaughter is reading a collection of Anton Chekov’s plays. I have asked her to lend them to me as I wish to read them again,” he adds.
Shukla has also travelled abroad riding on the crest of his writings. These experiences, he says, were like a fairy-tale.
“BBC invited me to England for an interview. I visited Germany to attend a book fair as the theme was India.”
He went to Poland with Ashok Vajpayei, Manohar Shyam Joshi and Shrilal Shukla.
“I knew nothing about that country and was so ill-equipped for the winter. I had no option but to remain indoors,” says Shukla, who travelled to Poland wearing canvas shoes. “Manohar Shyam Joshi was very tall and he had a long coat. He lent me his short coat which became my long coat,” he recalls.
Though better known for his poems, Shukla stunned the world of Hindi literature with his first novel Naukar Ki Kameez, which appeared in 1979. A Kafkaesque story written in a very humane way, it was considered in the league of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The deceptive ordinariness of his language and storytelling broke the stereotypical moulds of fictional form prevalent then. Director Mani Kaul adapted the novel for an eponymous film in 1999.
Shukla’s oeuvre mostly veers around life in small towns on the thresholds of turning into cities, but which have remained a kasba. He is at his poignant best when he writes about tribal life and issues that beleaguered them, most importantly, their displacement from their natural habitat.
“An Adivasi lives in a one-home village. The forests, the animals, birds, flora and fauna of a jungle make his neighbourhood and he depends on the moon, sun and stars for light. There is a single hut surrounded by trees and then 15 km away there is another hut,” he says about the bond that a tribal has with nature.
His famous poem, Raipur-Bilaspur Sambhag, bemoans the plight of tribals who are crowding the station waiting to catch a train, which will take them to some place in their search for employment. It broods over what this displacement will do to them and once had Shukla choke over the lines while he was reciting the poem.
“I have realised that by getting close to humanness and humanity, I have, by default, gone against exploitation. It happened very unknowingly. I would see tribal women collect mahua, chironji and other products from the jungles and bring it to the village market to trade them for salt. The sheer exploitation of exchanging salt with chironji shook me.”
The extraordinary poet of the ordinary is equanimous as he speaks of the award. “The award is for a lifetime of work, but I still write every day. It is like a diary. I sometimes get a significant line which I pick up and connect with. This award has made me a bit hesitant while writing, as I think my reader might grimace while reading my work, ‘Oh! He is the one who got the PEN/Nobovak award for writing this!,’” he voices an imaginary thought and then quietly chuckles.
Barkha Mathur is a senior journalist
This appeared in print as "I cannot separate my imagination from reality"