Hindi writers have begun to attract international attention by winning prestigious awards and this can only warm the cockles of Hindi readers’ hearts. Close on the heels of the International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s novel Ret Samadhi, translated as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell, comes the PEN/Nabakov Award for Achievement in International Literature 2023 for Hindi poet, short story writer, and novelist Vinod Kumar Shukla.
This is one of the most coveted literary awards and is given for lifetime achievement in literature. The 86-year-old writer had long ago acquired a formidable literary reputation in the Hindi world as a unique and extraordinary talent whose writings made a deep impression on the readers on account of their deceptive ordinariness.
Vinod Kumar Shukla is primarily a poet and his first book of poetry titled Lagbhag Jaihind (Almost Jaihind) was a slim volume of 20 pages containing 21 poems. It appeared in 1971 in the second Pahchaan series that poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who was an IAS officer posted in Madhya Pradesh, had launched to present those writers who had made or were in the process of making their mark.
The second series included Andrei Voznesensky’s poetry collection titled Faisle ka Din (The Day of Judgment) and the debut works of three young poets—Soumitra Mohan, Vinod Kumar Shukla, and Kamalesh. (The well-known poet Srikant Verma had translated Voznesensky’s poems into Hindi.) The series also offered Gyanranjan’s long short story Bahirgaman (Exit), which later acquired iconic status. This set of five books was available at a price of Rs.6.
The first Pahchaan series had offered the poetry collections of Vishnu Khare, Jitendra Kumar, Gyanendrapati, and Shamsher Bahadur Singh, and the documents of a Writers’ Camp held at Seedhi in Madhya Pradesh.
Unique poetic voice
Lagbhag Jaihind announced the arrival of a unique poetic voice that had an undefinable magical timbre and quite a wide range. Here was a 34-year-old poet who was trying to sculpt his distinctive poetic expression by using the language in an imperceptible manner to create new shades of meanings and mesmerising cadences. Among modern Hindi poets, he was perhaps the only one who made ‘vakrokti’ the veritable leitmotif of his poetic style. The word ‘vakrokti’ is comprised of two words—‘vakra’ (crooked or indirect) and ‘ukti’ (poetic utterance). Therefore, ‘vakrokti’ means indirect, crooked or oblique and distinctive speech.
The seventh-century Sanskrit literary theorist Bhamaha, whose theories find resonance in many basic tenets of Russian formalism and several other 20th century critical doctrines, was the first person to opine that unique and oblique expression is what lends literariness to a piece of writing or speech. Vinod Kumar Shukla seems to agree with him almost completely. No other modern Hindi poet has made such a profoundly innovative use of an age-old poetic device and evolved a freshly-minted poetic language that is not only highly individualistic but also mystique-laden.
His first full-length collection of poems was published 10 years later in 1981 and it firmly established him as one of the front-ranking poets in Hindi, despite meagre output. The 150-page book contained 37 poems and attracted the attention of the Hindi world because of its startlingly prosaic and long title. The book bore the title Vah Aadmi Naya Garam Coat Pehen Kar Chala Gaya Vichar Ki Tarah (After Wearing A Warm Coat That Man Went Away Like A Thought). In fact, this collection shared quite a few poems with Lagbhag Jaihind. None of the poems in this slim volume bore any title, but the first line of the fifth poem, which is the first poem in this collection, was the same and its first line was turned into the book’s title.
Later he published a few more poetry collections such as Sab Kuchh Hona Bacha Rahega (Being Everything Will Survive) , Atirikt Nahin (Nothing Extra) , Kavita se Lambi Kavita (A Poem Longer Than Poem) , Kabhi Ke Baad Abhi (After Sometime Now) and Pratinidhi Kavitayen (Representative Poems).
Stature as novelist
Just as he had discovered a new poetic language that had a rainbow of multi-chromatic gestures, Vinod Kumar Shukla effected a similar revolution in finding a new language and style of storytelling. When his first novel Naukar ki Kameez appeared in 1979, the Hindi world sat up to notice the arrival of an unusually original fiction writer who had made a clear break from the romantic melancholy of Nirmal Verma and expressed his immediate reality through creating a new language and breaking the old moulds of fictional form that had a great impact owing to its structural integrity and creative coherence.
When one remembers that Vinod Kumar Shukla studied and taught agricultural science, explosion of such literary creativity comes through as nothing short of a miracle. No wonder that Mani Kaul chose this book to make a film on it in 1999. Shukla wrote short stories too and they are collected in two books— Ped Par Kamra (A Room On The Treetop) and Mahavidyalaya (College).
However, his reputation as an iconic writer rests on his two highly-acclaimed novels— Khilega To Dekhenge (Will See If It Blossoms) and Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rahti Thi (translated into English as A Window Lived In A Wall). Vinod Kumar Shukla has spent all his life in Madhya Pradesh and he is not wrong in proclaiming that his localness is universal.
Almost all of Shukla’s works have been published by Rajkamal Prakashan Samooh.
Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.