Dreaming the World: Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Extraordinary Sentences

What do you do—as a critic—when you encounter a writer so gladdeningly cajoling, so sweetly weird that you’re convinced anyone who read him deeply and carefully would be delighted; but who also, stylistically, can be studiously bizarre in a way that you worry will scare off the very readers who might love him? 

Born in Rajnandgaon in 1937 and now resident in Raipur—locations that inspire his work—Vinod Kumar Shukla is the author in Hindi of novels, poetry collections, and short stories. Though he lives outside of the limelight, he has won practically every major prize available to a Hindi writer, including a Sahitya Akademi award (from India’s national academy of letters), the Atta Galatta–Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize, and, just this year—he’s now eighty-three years old—the inaugural 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, from which “College” is taken. Published in 1979, his fiction debut, Naukar Ki Kameez, or The Servant’s Shirt, was turned into a 1999 film by Mani Kaul; this novel and three more have been translated into English by Satti Khanna.

Alongside his writing career, Shukla taught agricultural techniques to farmers until his retirement: we find in his work an intimate understanding of rural and small-town landscapes and communities. One must look closely, however, to spot his emancipatory politics, for he writes playfully and unprogrammatically. The Indian journalist Paromita Chakrabarti describes Shukla as shaped not only by India’s history, but also by its rich literary legacies. Shukla’s mother, whose father was killed in the violence around Partition, read to the family the “works of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and other Bengali greats . . . poetry was a common love”; Shukla was influenced in particular by the Marxist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, whom he met. Shukla writes about painful experiences, and often specifically of the Indian poor, but without sentimentality or melodrama, and while his characters always have money on their minds, they never say it in so many words. Comedy and wonder are there for the asking: 

The first time that Muktibodh read me his poems it was late by the time I reached home. One of them had been a long poem about the sky. It had seemed as though a kite, tied to the string of time, were flying above the world and had been given plenty of line. Muktibodh handed me the spool after he ’d finished reading. The poem had ended but it had not yet finished; it still hasn’t.

—From “Old Veranda”

“Old Veranda” and all other short stories I quote appear in Blue Is Like Blue, translated by Mehrotra and Rai. Muktibodh’s poem “still hasn’t” finished: Shukla’s phrasing leaps surprisingly from the past into the present, reminding us that the writer’s basic unit of meaning and wonder is the sentence. Each of his makes you stop and think, or tumble flat on your face. Here’s another example, also featuring a veranda, from his 1996 novel Once It Flowers : “His wife awaited him on the verandah. She continued to gaze expectantly even after he had reached her” (translated by Satti Khanna, 2014). Shukla defamiliarizes whatever he touches, making the world plastic and askance. You put the book down, turn it over, glance at the back cover and then out the window, with a shiver. Something has changed, but you can’t put your finger on it. His words haven’t “finished” with you.

It could be the best thing is simply to step aside, pointing you to “College,” a story characteristic in so many ways. The emphasis, for instance, on darkness, distance, situations where the clear grows unclear, and who knows what’s what—“In the dark, the neem tree did not look like a real neem tree . . . It looked like some other tree dressed up as a neem”—and, following on from this metaphor, acting and role-playing. Also, the people-watching narrator—“walking in the bazaar was what I liked best . . . Watching other shoppers was more fun than being a shopper oneself”—who, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, heeds what others miss, smelling out a deeper reality beneath everyday surfaces: “In the history class my attention would invariably be drawn to the floor. I would tap it with my foot and it would sound hollow. I was convinced that there was an underground chamber there.” 

Editing and translating Shukla’s short stories, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai notice cross-connections with the poems too: I write this essay for those who, having read “College,” feel enticed to discover more. But if Shukla has caused the floor to vanish beneath you, I can’t promise to restore your composure. The further into his world one travels, the more unsure one gets. But this can be liberation rather than disaster, and one may learn from him not only about India but also about oneself. 

My title is from Jorge Luis Borges, who isn’t a magical realist, just as Shukla isn’t, not quite. They are philosopher-magicians, special-effects wizards in literature. Why act, think, create this way? Because, says Borges, we

have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

Shukla is Indian, writes in Hindi, but he isn’t your standard postcolonial writer. Mehrotra and Rai make that (combatively) clear in their introduction to Blue Is Like Blue:

Shukla must be among the few writers alive whose work has appeared in journals where world literature is published or discussed—Granta, Metamorphoses, Modern Poetry in Translation, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, The Baffler, n+1—but who has heard neither of these journals nor of world literature. In contrast to his unawareness of the term and his indifference to the subjects that keep the assembly line of global fiction moving (historical trauma, acts of terrorism, personal turmoil) is the attention he lavishes on the fleeting observations, thoughts, memories, and gestures that for most of us, regardless of where we live, constitute our lives.

As this suggests, Shukla is tough to pin down. His supernaturalism suggests magical realism. (People turn into birds or become invisible; falling down infinite holes, they learn to fire real bullets out of imaginary guns by shouting bang.) But in that mode, writes Maggie Ann Bowers, “it is assumed that something extraordinary really has happened.” Shukla’s more mischievous. He gives strange events in the conditional tense, so it’s unclear if—within the overall narrative—they’ve really occurred. 

Approaching his stories and novels through his poems, where the sentence-effects I mention are allowed free rein, it becomes clear that his real subject is the porous membrane dividing perception from imagination. Here’s a poem which quick-wittedly investigates objects, animals, buildings, and people, without activating the standard literary process of illumination-through-comparison. It’s a refusal, I think, of the cultural “production line” mentioned by Rai and Mehrotra; living beings are not, the poet suggests, things for transactions:

That man put on a new woollen coat and went away like a thought.
In rubber flip-flops I struggled behind.
The time was six in the morning, the time of hand-me-downs, and
      it was freezing cold.
Six in the morning was like six in the morning.
There was a man standing under a tree.
In the mist it looked like he was standing inside his own blurred shape.
The blurred tree looked exactly like a tree.
To its right was a blurred horse of inferior stock,
Looking like a horse of inferior stock.

—Trans. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra 

Concerning images that echo in other works, what relationship is there between the neem tree in “College” and, in this untitled poem, the blurred tree which “looked exactly like a tree”?

These tics, or tricks, suggest a type of ineluctable facticity—such as we ’d expect from reportage of Indian poverty—before refocusing on language itself, which glitters like dust in the light between us and what we’re trying to examine. Shukla isn’t surreally escapist, but sensitive to overtones realists skip. “That man” has a “new woollen coat”; the speaker struggles in rubber flip-flops, requiring hand-me-downs; it’s implied that to his “master,” he’s a beast of burden and, like the horse, “of inferior stock.” In a strict caste system, people suffer roles they can’t escape, and the strength to redefine oneself (“I wasn’t that horse”) is often unfeasible. Poetry—considered as a network of images—connects here with frameworks of exploitation. You get from Shukla an excessiveness announcing itself, paradoxically, through tautology—“Six in the morning was like six in the morning”—as if to extract from nullity a vim that surmounts, without denying or sentimentally transcending, the constrictions his work records. 

I’m aware, reading Shukla in translation, that part of the eeriness I respond to in his short-circuited tropes may relate to their appearing in English. The novels and stories and poems are, like his sentences, two-sided, for in them English and Hindi, like the magnetized halves of a simile or metaphor, meet suggestively. The translated work is neither one thing nor the other, belonging neither here nor there—though it may aspire to a universality undone each time we encounter in the work a strangeness that shifts the reader from eye-skimming fluency toward scrutiny of individual sentences and paragraphs.

I was caught off guard, for instance, by the opening of the twelfth chapter of Once It Flowers (or, in the original, Khilega Toh Dekhenge):

A rural railway station was about to arrive. Or else the scene of a rural railway station was arriving seated on the train. The previous train had already brought most of the image of the railway station with it. When a passenger disembarked, it was like an image of the passenger disembarking. When a passenger got on, it was like an image of the passenger getting on. The rain shower was like an image of the rain shower. The sun emerging was like an image of the sun. The images kept changing, but there was one image that seemed to have disembarked for good—the image of a rural railway station. It may not have bought a ticket for its journey. Otherwise, wouldn’t the image of the station have walked off like the other passengers?

This was the same station as before. Musua station.

This paragraph seems to untether from the narrative, becoming a laboratory space in which Shukla’s experiment with the independent sentence is repeated over and over. No sooner is a detail enrolled than it’s scrutinized and compared to the image of itself. 

The novel is about—though it unstintingly expands, to ponder a community—the family of Guruji the schoolteacher, who after their roof is blown off by a storm move into “an empty police substation left over from British times.” Shukla explains in an interview with Khanna, appended to this translation: “[N]ew architects must have been hired after Independence, but many police stations built by the British are still in use. For instance, the Central Jail in Raipur was built by the British.” This foreign-homely place, both anomalous and intimate, imposed and chosen, provides for Guruji, his wife, and their children, Munna and Munni, a starting-point for adventures of the mind.

To read the paragraph above is to go on such an adventure, and, as I’ve said, I was wrongfooted. “A rural railway station was about to arrive” sounds—a solecistic shimmer!—like pidgin (or translationese), for trains arrive, not stations. But Khanna’s version respects, carrying the syntax into English, where it chirrs unexpectedly, one way of putting things in Hindi: “station aa rahaa hai.” This translinguistic peccadillo pinpoints a real-world strangeness. A railway station changes how people see themselves, and act (sexual harassment becomes a problem; we learn that “for many women, train travel becomes one more source of distress”). Once provincial lives are touched by places formerly distant, communities could be decimated by flight to larger townships; Guruji’s son asks him if more people are getting on the train than getting off. The dance of separation and fusion is played out by the paragraph itself: it reads briefly as a prose poem with its own integrity, before slotting back into the plot.

I say prose poem—seeking a vocabulary for how Shukla’s fiction turns, at times, away from plot toward the often ouroborotic microplots of individual sentences—but we might use the language of film. The self-contained epiphanies of modernist prose resemble movie set-pieces that take your breath away and are remembered long after you’ve forgotten the rest—or, that are highlighted in publicity materials, trailers, prior to release. Taking this route, Shukla’s railway station echoes the great moment in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) when Durga and Apu race to a railway through a field of kaash (or pampas grass), a cinematic inscape with its own dizzying momentum. 

But my fascination remains with those sentences where the filmic intrudes, alternatively, as a perpetual self-consciousness. Every object is really a prop on a film set, every utterance might be altered or edited out or re-recorded for superior fidelity. In the aforementioned interview, Shukla also raves about the “talkies” he saw growing up in Rajnandgaon, which introduced a heroic, or mock-heroic, feeling into ordinary life: a reimagining of the everyday in terms of actors playing roles. His sentences grasp at reality (indicating their target’s escape, like water running through your fingers) through a circumambient daydream—the mental slipperiness that, when you think about it, coats with oblivion all we experience and will soon forget or misremember. Guruji and his family watch a film with playback singing (songs not actually performed by those onscreen); his wife speaks in the darkness, and he says: “That’s not you speaking. Somebody else is performing playback for you.” It’s that neem tree again from “College.”

Films and books redeem the evanescence of our lives by making moments conscious of themselves, placing them within a frame. But that doubled awareness also threatens to steal from the passing instant its spontaneous flavor. Depicting Indian small-town life, there’s often an elegiac perfume to Shukla’s unforeseen sentences, as they relay swift-moving experiences:

Children picked up flint stones from the hills and played with them, striking them to watch sparks fly. The sparks were beautiful—too many and too rapidly vanishing to keep count. Their flaming and dying were the being and passing of instants.

This cinematic passage from Once It Flowers zooms in on the leaping glow of the sparks. (Shukla uses this metaphor in Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof—published in Hindi in 2011, and translated by Khanna in 2017—where six-year-old Bolu “arrives suddenly as if transported by a zoom lens,” and his friend Bhaira looks at his father without understanding: “the zoom lens would not focus on his father; he looked hazy.”) The final sentence, equating one thing with another—going beyond simile—is philosophically assertive: the children, though they wouldn’t speak in such terms, do what they do out of a feeling for the texture of time. I think again of a sentence from Moonrise, about stars in the sky: “They were the questions children wanted to ask, but had never asked out loud.” 

Why do children play? To take between finger and thumb, and test tactilely, the fabric of reality (as we do, reading novels, and especially when pulled up short by puzzling, agential sentences, each becoming, like a koan, an event in itself). Do we live in a world of realities or of images? There’s Plato’s allegory of the cave, but also, closer to home (or Shukla’s) the insights of Advaita, the Hindu philosophy asserting that, at their deepest, the self is at one with reality, whose plurality of appearances is an illusion. 

Shukla’s prose explores our wavering focus on our surroundings: how the mind sizzles for a minute with excitations, then is flattened and neutralized by boredom, bouncing from one mood to another. In the short story “Man in the Blue Shirt,” another Indian flâneur—“I had time on my hands”—is people-watching, picks one in particular, and then becomes (mildly) obsessed with who the man is and where he’s going. It’s a story about crowds—“The crowd was like a crowd”—and how they can be alienating, and yet how (outside bigger metropoles) strangers act like intimates. It’s funny, and resembles, like Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof, a story for children or a folktale or a joke, as strangers try differently to explain the man in the blue shirt. This is where Shukla’s poetics of prose meets his handling of narrative. On the one hand, his circular sentences match microcosmically stories with no clear beginning, middle, and end; but when you get one such sentence after another, they also coalesce into a picture of Indian small-town life that, unlike traditional realism, can suggest thought-behaviors shaped by hardship, happenstance, and the collision of longstanding traditions with new, unevenly allocated, technologies. 

In the Bajrang Snack Shop, for instance, in Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof,

The tables were rickety. If you set down a teacup the table trembled the way hot tea in a cup trembles when you blow on it. By the time the legs of the table stabilized, the tea would have cooled enough to sip.

The first sentence sets the scene, before Shukla’s trademark effect. It’s as if Andrew Marvell, through a portal in the gardens of Appleton House, stepped out of seventeenth-century England into a twentieth-century Indian backwater—the perception is as exquisitely self-enclosed as a couplet he might graffiti on the snack shop wall. But how to get back to Indian lives? By suggesting how people accommodate themselves to circumstances, learning to, if you like, rhyme with their environment, just as the trembling of the table consorts with the trembling of the tea. In this way, Shukla suggests without mawkishness the tiny satisfactions clung to by people without privilege, hidden in the wrinkles and folds of the nondescript: what the Oulipo writer Georges Perec identified as the “infraordinary” or—as opposed to the exotic—the realm of the “endotic.” There follow remarkable sentences about light—“The dim light that entered the room seemed to apologize for being the little that was left over from the brightness outside”; “the shaft of light” entering the room after sunrise “seemed to be a clothesline to hang darkness on, after the darkness had been beaten clean”—but he’s really talking about technology: “a weak light bulb,” the “neon tube in the verandah”; “transient electricity, ready to be on its way out soon.” In Once It Flowers, it’s said the “police never made rounds” of what they list as an “underilluminated” village: “underilluminated meant unimportant.”

Likewise, a sentence can be a window on a personality: “Bolu . . . had a way of merging into the background that made him hard to detect.” The prose stylist is determined to avoid autopilot and see everything afresh: in some, this can become showing off and a means to attain a position of superiority through irony. Yet Shukla’s style radiates energies also discoverable in the lives and loves of his characters: “It needed practice to see things in familiar and unfamiliar ways. The practice for seeing a wife as more than wife required to love her more often. People kept looking for cozy little worlds to settle in.” I don’t think Shukla is wholly at odds with that coziness: his man in the blue shirt is irruptive, singular, but has a way of bringing people together. It’s a question less of orthodoxy smashed than (returning to Perec) of the strange and disconcerting inhering in the material holding communities together. Rather like Wallace Stevens’s man with the blue guitar, Shukla’s man in a blue shirt is less an individual than a principle of the imagination. Time and space shimmer and warp around him, and the narrator scurries to keep up:

The man in a blue shirt left in a hurry.

“Your shirt isn’t really white,” the old man said to me as we started walking.

I tried to remember if I ’d ever worn a blue shirt. In my mind I went over all the things at home that were blue. The sky isn’t particularly blue. Blue is like blue. A group of boys strolled past wearing clothes that were of five different colors. We came across an ochre-colored house in Gudakhu Line. The old men wore dirty white shirts.

Color provided the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with the epitome of private experience: we’ve each a peculiar, even unique idea of what blue is; nevertheless, our language games situate idiosyncrasies within a collective framework (you understand when I ask you to hand me the blue book, not the red). Though Shukla stresses perceptual thaw, he does this in sentences that, touching base with pellucid sense-units, place their ruptures in a shared life-world. 

If, at one moment, as we’ve seen, he seems unsure what a tree blurred by mist really is, at others, he talks matter-of-factly, restoring the horizon he’ll later sponge away. This process of retrieval followed by dispersion crystallizes in a single paragraph from Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof:

[P]eople who have sight share the visible world. A person with eyesight sees a particular tree much the way another person with eyesight sees that tree. That disc which is known by one sighted person to be the moon is known to be the moon by another sighted person as well. Knowing the moon by seeing it is one way. Knowing the world by not seeing it is another. One must draw close to something to be able to touch it. The blind live closest to creation, so close they can run their hands over it.

The moon reappears throughout the narrative to heal each child’s experience of disconnection: “it was the same moon, and it shone more radiantly as all the friends came together.” Children only gradually grow assured of the stable world assumed by realist fiction (it’s why they like to hear the same stories over and over again). But does this process ever end? Even as adults, we gain then lose this confidence; we think we know what’s going on, then realize our certainties were false, and that what Keats called “negative capability,” or the capacity of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” is essential. Then we go back to feeling fixed and grounded: Shukla’s sentences give each stage of what could be a cyclical process. Novelists may philosophize, but they aren’t philosophers operating under the obligation to a final truth. To butt one’s head against the brick wall of mental fatigue—being certain, only, of the tautology “blue is like blue”—might seem like failure. But Shukla’s prose has to it a singing sweetness, a return upon itself suggestive of plenitude rather than depletion. His style doesn’t corrode but promotes curiosity: the narrator looks around, becomes more interested in familiar buildings and unfamiliar people.

Shukla’s characters typically enter our field of attention visually, through becoming, that is, visible. Guruji sees his wife arrive in the dark—“A woman who looked like his wife was running towards them, holding a lantern. The patches of what was visible and what was not visible jumped strangely together.” From a narratorial perspective, the first, cinematic sentence is more important than the second, whose provocation is unique to literary prose; one feels, however, that for Shukla it’s the other way around. He doesn’t describe faces or bodies especially, but stresses clothes, because they define others in terms of their responsibilities, grievances, fortunes, while allowing for role-playing. 

In one paragraph from Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof, that visual or, as I’ve said, cinematic sensibility is deconstructed into—the word actually appears—“sentences”: what’s heard takes priority over what’s seen. It’s a touching scene about a minor incident: a mother loses sight of her child briefly, then finds her again; it’s also an inquiry, I suspect, into the limits of literary representation. Whose lives, and which experiences within those lives, can fiction accommodate? Shukla foregrounds anxieties rarely explored in fiction (or film); “The Burden” concerns a man who worries he’s forgotten to lock his door, returns to check, and cycles on with an ephemeral lightness of heart now considerately immortalized: “He smiled and shook his head, then continued to go along at the same speed. If someone had then seen him smiling they would have been surprised.” Discomforts pass and we laugh about them in retrospect. At the time, however, they can be all-consuming:

Her daughter had vanished. Koona’s mother thought she heard Koona say: “These yellow flowers are fragrant” just before she disappeared.

At first, Koona’s mother thought she had heard the entire sentence before Koona disappeared. Afterwards she thought Koona was visible as far as “These yellow flowers . . .” The rest she heard only after Koona vanished. Or it may have been that she heard Koona’s entire sentence after Koona was no longer visible. She panicked. Where could Koona be?

Shukla’s hyperscrutiny of objects, people, and relational threads aligns with everyday panics. There’s nothing rarefied about his preoccupations. A mother loses sight of her child: suddenly, she analyzes her environment like a detective; she goes over remembered sentences like a literary critic; she tells and retells the story of how she got here, like a novelist.

Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof has children as its main characters, dressed vibrantly, and in noting this, Shukla’s prose approaches in its conscious naïveté the amazement with which children encounter the world. Each has their quirk, which Shukla develops with gusto. Bolu, for instance, can only talk while walking, so Koona exclaims, “Please don’t say anything, Bolu. If you speak, you’ll move away from me.” Talking is a way of moving both toward and away from people, and Chhotu, an impressionist of his friends’ voices, finds that he can only speak in a persona, not as himself:

Chhotu’s shorts were a dark navy, easily mistaken for black. His shirt was iridescent, one color in the sun, another in the shade—indefinite like his voice. The indefiniteness might extend over time to his appearance as well. His appearance might change as he grew older. At first he would appear to be Chhotu. Then he would appear to be like Chhotu. Then he would become quite different. He would come to meet his friends and say, “I’m Chhotu.” His friends would recognize him because he spoke in Koona’s voice. What if he used a voice unfamiliar to his friends?

This is an example of Shukla writing in the conditional tense, suggesting (with cinema again in the background) scenes that—it gets nebulous—may or may not have happened, or are about to, or are of dubious canonicity, like deleted scenes restored in the editor’s cut. Are these the novelist-narrator’s fantasies, or Chhotu’s, or those of other characters, who care about him? 

The future can be frightening. Is the person Chhotu may become the same person he is now, if personhood is (as it would seem to be, in qasbah communities) fundamentally relational? (Friends repeats provokingly, appearing three times in three successive sentences, stressing Chhotu’s agitation.) The sadness is in the transition: becoming other to the memory of himself, he first changes enough to be (enlisting the structure of simile) “like Chhotu”; the sort of person, like the man with the blue shirt, who reminds people of other people. Because his role was to speak in other people’s voices—he was never self-identical—only through impersonation can he confirm his identity. Children aren’t themselves for long, but always becoming someone new (as, no matter how clever a sentence is, we read it primarily to reach the next): if we map this onto a province being integrated into a national culture, then the future of these children becomes doubly uncertain. They may drift away, and even if they don’t, their hometown may in their lifetime change beyond recognition.

I mentioned in Once It Flowers women molested on trains—Shukla’s is a feminist intervention, concerning a country where, given practices ranging from “eve-teasing” to outright rape, women aren’t safe in public spaces. This generates another imagined “scene” in which a traveler is abducted. She escapes her kidnappers and returns home, but the situation resembles Chhotu’s:

She will hear the familiar chirping of birds, but the birds will not be those she knew in her village. She will see familiar trees, but they will not be trees she knew in her village. The morning air will be different from the night air. She will notice a tribal person from whom she will seek directions to her village. She will hear the footfall of her pursuers and run into the afternoon. Many days will go by in this way, many years. The girl will grow middle-aged and become safe for that reason.

The scene can include the middle-aged woman meeting a man. The man should be familiar to her, someone from her own village, someone who has aged like her father. Will he recognize his daughter in this middle-aged woman? She will recognize him. The scene may well show Guruji as the father. Guruji will address the middle-aged woman: “Munni, my child!” The man doesn’t have to be Guruji.

To repeat the future tense in successive sentences introduces into the prose the noise of composition. Shukla doesn’t only supplant—dazzling the reader—the story we’re reading with another, occurring at a different level of fictional reality: he also reminds us that any story is only made of words coming together according to the grammatical and literary rules that we’re used to.

But to recognize this isn’t—as experimentalists of other stripes have argued—to deny fiction’s link to reality, nor its ability to probe and process experiences of the heart. When the escaped woman is identified as Munni, with Guruji for a father, the devices of fiction are laid bare, and with them the limitations of the reader’s empathy. It’s the main characters we feel for, and whose destinies concern us, so for this woman to actually be Munni, grown up, amplifies the crisis. Shukla inserts a representative event (the abused and kidnapped woman) without, by strictly assigning it to one of his protagonists, reducing her character to a cliché without interiority. The woman needn’t be Munni, and her father needn’t be Guruji; it forces consideration of those on the margins of stories, and of miseries elusive of representation—so many women have suffered this way. There’s arid wit to the sentence about the woman aging, and therefore becoming safe from molestation by men; and, as with Chhotu, the idea that if we’re different people at different times in our lives, this is because people alter in how they see and treat us.

We see in Shukla’s art how the movement of prose toward the curvatures of verse can further the fiction writer’s work, discovering (with each sentence) a new angle on individuals and their ligatures. He doesn’t appear to believe, really, that verse and prose are different (that’s why his images float unconcernedly out of poems and into stories and novels and back again). You’ve the feeling he wrote his work out of the same wonderment it conjures in the reader. “I don’t know while I am writing,” he says in his interview with Khanna,

when something real transpires in my fiction and when dream takes over. I believe in the truth of the imagination. I believe that I am capable of exercising my imagination. I can imagine how sweet happiness is, and I derive happiness from what I have just imagined. I want to save my capacity to dream in the world of stark reality. I feel assured if someone says to me “It’ll be all right” when I am in pain. There isn’t much happiness in stark reality. We use the happiness of imagination to extend the happiness possible in life. We want happiness to stay fresh a long time, but it is pain that persists like a splinter lodged deep under the skin. It is difficult to extract that splinter. “It’ll be all right” is a fantasy. The fantasy gives us courage to fight with painful reality. Everything doesn’t become all right, but it is still possible to hope.

What a deliciously contrarian approach to writing of poverty and structural injustice. India is a thoroughly unequal country, and the prejudice-fomenting Hindu nationalism of its prime minister, Narendra Modi, has reduced the rights of minorities and endangered their lives. Discovering Shukla in this context, one may find that a bit of Indian sweetness and light isn’t escapist, but what’s required to go on hoping and believing that things can get better. 

Shukla—aligning with other Hindi writers who, from the 1950s onwards, sponsor the imagination over a narrow realism—finds ingeniousness in the lives of the dispossessed. He dares to write of “happiness.” There remains the feeling that literary fiction, and poetry, must be gloomy. Yet Shukla, writing of Indian people, doesn’t reduce them to their circumstances:

The sky could be seen as sorrow or happiness. The sky of happiness would not be pale red or dark blue. The sky of sorrow would not be yellow or black. One needed to know judo or karate to see the sky of happiness. This skill was useful for self-defense as well. There was happiness in moving from the glare of the sun into shade. There
was happiness in the touch of air.

Shukla holds back—in Once It Flowers, quoted here, but also throughout his work—from saying outright that it’s in our power to choose to see the world as either a happy or an unhappy place. Guruji and his neighbors, terrified of fires, carry around buckets of water just in case. Except it’s hard to do, so they tote empty buckets—doubling as containers for groceries—thinking they’ll fill them up later; but even this is a fantasy, for “drinking water had become scarce in villages. Water to put out fires was a distant dream.” Shukla doesn’t paper over poverty, but he also won’t dismiss as delusion people’s ways of coping. He certifies an experiential sweetness which, felt along his rhythms, can’t be denied. In what he says about sun, shade, and air, he tries for a definition of happiness available to everyone.


Vidyan Ravinthiran teaches at Harvard and is the author of two poetry collections from Bloodaxe Books, The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (2019) and Grun-tu-molani (2014), and the monograph Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell University Press, 2015).