The Caged Bird

Vinod Kumar Shukla’s (extra)ordinary life and writing

Vinod Kumar Shukla keeps away from the literary limelight. He recently finished three books in Hindi for young readers: a poetry collection, a short-story collection and a diary. courtesy shashwat gopal shukla
31 December, 2020

ON 3 APRIL 2020, the publisher Rajkamal Prakashan went live on Facebook to host a virtual interaction between the writer Vinod Kumar Shukla and his readers. The video starts with him saying, “Main, Vinod Kumar Shukla, apne ghar par hoon”—I, Vinod Kumar Shukla, am at home—a line that hints at the matter-of-fact style of his writing, which is rooted deeply in the ordinary. His live video was viewed over seventeen thousand times on Facebook, with comments pouring in from around the country, by readers who rarely get an opportunity to listen to him at events or festivals. Shukla, one of the most renowned contemporary Hindi writers of our times, lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh and keeps away from the literary limelight.

Kehne ke liye itna adhik aur bikhra hua hai, ki main apne ko samet nahi paata”—There is so much to say, and it is so scattered all over the place that I cannot gather myself completely—he continued. “I like to convey my ideas through my books, not by speaking on social media. In fact, I do not even have a Facebook page.” Shukla is not comfortable with technology and finds it awkward to speak about himself, or draw any attention to his life or work. His translator Satti Khanna told me that this humility would be celebrated if it were not such a quiet, inward quality. Shukla writes because that is what he does. He added during his live session that, when he thinks about what to write, a familiar bird comes to his mind, and the act of writing is his attempt to free this bird from the cages inside his head. Sometimes he does not even know what he is going to write but finds out after he has started. At the age of 83, Shukla reads and writes for between seven and eight hours in the day, and another two or three hours at night. A heart attack eight years ago left him physically weaker, but nothing can keep him away from his books. He is not able to type any longer because of his eye condition, but dictates his stories and poems to his wife. His son, Shashwat, types them up on the computer.

Over the years, Shukla has come to be recognised for his distinctive writing style. He writes about people and objects that he knows intimately, in a manner that feels both familiar and astonishing. Imagination is abundant in the worlds he creates. His style has often been seen as bordering on “magical realism,” an expression that Shukla was not aware of before he started writing, and his style and language have not been influenced by international writing or global literary movements. I asked him where he found inspiration to infuse magic into his writing, and he said, “Jaadu aur khushi jeevan ki chahat mein hain”—magic and joy are found in your love for life.

BORN ON 1 JANUARY 1937, in Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh, Shukla has always remained rooted in his birthplace. “I believe that, without being local, I cannot be universal,” he said, during a virtual session for the Jaipur Literature Festival in August this year. Shukla’s birth coincided with the opening of Nandgram’s first cinema hall, Krishna Talkies. He believes his father and uncle even had a share in opening the cinema, and attributes the fantastical nature of his work partly to his regular visits to it. “My mother possibly took a month’s break after my birth from watching films, so I always consider that I have had a month more of life and a month less of films,” he said in an interview with the Indian Express.