India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
An all-time favorite poet
Even as everyone was celebrating the Indians at the Oscars, I celebrate that Vinod Kumar Shukla, one of my all-time favorite Hindi writers and poets, received the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature.
This prestigious award recognizes the excellence of an author’s body of work for its enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. Shukla has won several literary awards before, including the most prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, in 1999, for best Hindi work for his book Deewar Mein Ek Khirkee Rahati Thi (A Window lived in a Wall).
I fell in love with the very first poem I heard, on Hindi Kavita on YouTube, read by Manav Kaul. Its opening line is Hatasha se ek vuyaki baith gaya tha. I translated it in August 2015 and shared it on the ServiceSpace blog. I have read it in Hindi and English, in London at the Poet’s Church, at the San Francisco LitQuake, at my professional conferences, and in my poetry group, the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley public program Irshaad (@ the 41 min mark).
I finally published it in the journal of Organizational Aesthetics. I return to his words as one likes to visit old friends. He is an octogenarian living in India and did not travel to the US to receive this award.
Poetry that helps you find your mojo
By reading and translating some of his poems, I feel understood and know where I belong. No matter what mood or state of mind I am in, when I read his poems, I feel seen, heard, and made whole. I find my mojo or know myself better. My Hindi is limited to what I learned growing up in Delhi. Having lived in English speaking countries all my adult life, that is mostly what I speak.
Yet, his work is accessible as he has many poems in simple Hindi, used masterfully to convey the most profound ideas with the beauty of a close enough observation of the realities of everyday life. His life as a retired family man rooted in Chhattisgarh, India, is likely very different from my life as a single working woman with a corporate gypsy lifestyle in Silicon Valley. And yet, reading his poems makes me feel he knows me and my life better than anyone else. I often feel that he might as well have shared the same lived experiences that I have here, which explains my fan-girl enthusiasm. Maybe the explanation for this is that I only like those poems where he reflects the same values that I hold dear.
Embracing the in-betweenness
Like Trishanku, the mythological character suspended between heaven and earth, immigrants often feel suspended between their country of birth and their adopted country. Vinod Kumar Shukla embraces this category defying in-betweenness as the most normal thing. Here is a short poem by him.
आकाश से उड़ता हुआ
आकाश से उड़ता हुआ
एक छोटा सा हरा तोता
(गोया आकाश से
एक हरा अंकुर ही फूटा है.)
एक पेड़ में जाकर बैठ गया.
पेड़ भी ख़ूब हरा भरा था.
फ़िर तोता मुझे दिखाई नहीं दिया
वह हरा भरा पेड़ ही दिखता रहा.
flying through the sky
flying through the sky
a small green parrot
(as if the sky has
sprouted a green shoot)
goes to sit on a tree.
the tree is also lush green.
then I cannot see the parrot
only the lush green tree.
A place in Mother Nature
The image of a bird disappearing into the tree is familiar to all. The idea of a shoot sprouting in the sky is so original. The oneness of the parrot with the tree is so rooted in the Indian philosophical tradition of oneness of all things, with the soul/atma and supreme-being/ paramatma being part of the same light, as a candle has the same luminous flame as the light from the Sun. As the green parrot disappears into a green tree to become it, the poet reminds us we belong and have a place within Mother nature, not separate from it, but one with it, if we can be it.
From reading Vinod Kumar Shukla’s poems, I like to imagine that he might be gentle, patient, generous, loving, kind, hopeful, and definitely a nature lover. His prolific output and clear voice as a writer show he is a keen observer as only a deeply rooted person can be.
A fearless thinker
He is a clear thinker, fearless, and at ease with paving his own path, with beautiful expression in the most original way. He might have scant regard for what others may think, but he is in harmony with a surrender of his nature to belong to Mother nature, with no hint of rebellion or malice towards anyone else.
He appears comfortable with not-knowing, with a certain claim to embrace the transient as naturally as he holds the vision for the eternal. With a tendency towards silence and a love of ancestral things, he keeps an open mind with love for strangers, as if they were no different from his own.
Discovering the multiverse of a poet
I hope many new readers will discover Vinod Kumar Shukla’s work and indulge in an unhurried manner, allowing time for evoking their own imagination to fill the silences he fluently leaves in between his words and lines, to invite every reader into having their own unique experience even as they read about his way of seeing the world, with realities near them.
My tip to the reader is to stay with his words the way you might stay with an abstract painting, to see all the possibilities it might contain. I pray the poems will reveal their multiverse to everyone, everywhere but not all at once. For young readers, you can order his children’s books to get them started early.