Vinod Kumar Shukla: quiet champion of the Hindi heartland

Shukla, this year’s PEN/Nabokov Award winner, may not have penned searing newspaper opeds or issued political statements, but his art firmly stands with the victim

Updated - April 24, 2023 11:50 am IST

Published - April 21, 2023 09:23 am IST

From poetry to short story to novel, Vinod Kumar Shukla is one writer who navigates all genres with equal panache.

From poetry to short story to novel, Vinod Kumar Shukla is one writer who navigates all genres with equal panache. | Photo Credit: Shashwat Gopal

“Can I touch you once — just to know that you are the one I see on TV?” With great hesitation and humility, the old man asked his visitor. “I still can’t believe that you are before me in person.”

Despite having known him for over a decade, I couldn’t stop marvelling. I was in Raipur with the actor friend Sushant Singh this January. Sushant wondered about the city’s notable locations. “Do you want to go on a pilgrimage instead?” I asked. Soon we were at the home of one of India’s greatest contemporary writers. Approaching 90, Vinod Kumar Shukla greeted us with his vulnerable and simultaneously amazed gaze, as he stretched his hand forward to touch Sushant, who, I believe, must have blushed deep inside.

For a writer who has always stayed away from literary and political discourses, the life and works of Shukla offer several vantage points to examine the debates. The first is about the origins of a genius. Is the creative talent inherited or acquired, is it the seed or the nourishment? Most answers should avoid the binaries and offer an amalgamation of both traits, with a tilt towards perspiration. But ask Shukla about his favourite authors, or even a reading list, and he stares back at you. Talk about the craft of the novel, the masters, or even his own art, he will offer the most simplistic answers, and instead ask you about your family.

It may remind you of another sui generis genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan. A distance from formal mathematics allowed him a boundless space to experiment that was not easily available to enormously more erudite or academic mathematicians.

Shukla is among the most provincial Indian authors, rarely stepping out of Raipur and Rajnandgaon, let alone Chhattisgarh. Entrenched in a traditional family that seems to be both the manifestation and extension of his fiction, he has a handful of friends and barely attends functions in Raipur. I vividly recall a visit to his home when his four-year-old granddaughter Tarush Shashwati came to the hall, only to be asked by the old man to recite the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’: “Uncle ko Hanuman Chalisa sunao.”

A fully-formed voice

With a minimalistic life that is diametrically opposite to a bohemian passion, Shukla has created a rich literary universe, a fraction of which many others, always hunting for new addictions and adventures, have not been able to create. His pen weaves a unique yarn and nonchalantly upends various perceptions about creativity.

There are poets, there are short-story stylists, and there are novelists. Exceptional ones traverse two of the three territories. He is among the rare ones who navigates across all genres with equal panache, leaving a trail that has seen numerous followers in just a few decades. More importantly, he arrived with a voice fully formed. 

Vinod Kumar Shukla’s he published the debut novel Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt), a text that the two great masters of modern Indian liter

Vinod Kumar Shukla’s he published the debut novel Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt), a text that the two great masters of modern Indian liter

Soon after his earliest poems stunned the Hindi world with their novelty and precision, he published the debut novel Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt), a text that the two great masters of modern Indian literature, Nirmal Verma and Krishna Baldev Vaid, besides many others, treated with awe and admiration.

Having published three novels, several poetry and short story collections, he has of late ventured into a new territory, that of children’s literature. He has quickly mesmerised young readers, with his thin story books for kids drawing more royalty than his iconic works from major publishing houses. 

The writer as activist 

The second debate is about the social responsibilities of a writer. He is often accused of not addressing contemporary topics in his works. But is it required for a writer to come out on the streets or write polemical articles? Or is a work of literature that leaves you enriched and fulfilled a great commitment in itself? 

He may not have written newspaper op-eds or issued political statements, but his art firmly stands with the victim. Besides his penetrating poems about the Adivasi life of Bastar, Naukar Ki Kameez is a poignant and haunting account of the cruelties an ordinary human being is subjected to.

A hesitant and withdrawn man, Shukla avoids media interviews but if you respect his silences and wish to hear his soul, he gradually unveils himself. On several occasions in the last decade, he has firmly articulated his political position in recorded conversations with me. “The citizen has never felt so lonely since Independence,” he said in December 2019. “Democracy may also help in creating a dictatorship. A majority government may transform into a dictatorship.”

And then it’s about the Hindi establishment. His lone son Shashwat resigned from the Chhattisgarh Hindi Granth Academy a few weeks before the recent announcement of the PEN/Nabokov Award for Shukla. Working on a contract for nearly 15 years, he had seen governments by two political parties in the State, but his post was not regularised. 

Meanwhile, the academy’s condition worsened. It barely published any text; its power and telephone lines were disconnected for not paying bills. This, at a top government institution of a language that has brought two great international honours to the country in a year, a language which the country’s political rulers are promoting as the national tongue.

Thankfully, it didn’t impact the creativity of the old man who continues to remain in the sole habitat of the language he was born in.

The writer engages with multiple forms of prose.

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