2023 PEN/Nabakov award for eminent Hindi poet and writer Vinod Kumar Shukla

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

PEN America has announced recipients of two “monumental career achievement honors”, one of whom is the much-celebrated Hindi short story writer, novelist, poet, and essayist Vinod Kumar Shukla.

The 86-year-old Shukla is known for austere yet evocative, spare yet descriptive and detached yet deeply empathetic poetry, prose, short stories and essays. The 2023 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature will serve the purpose of bringing much-needed and eminently deserved attention to one of the world’s great poets and writers.

The career achievement honor will be presented live at the 59th Annual PEN Literary Awards, March 2 at The Town Hall in New York hosted by the Indian American actor Kal Penn. Given his age Shukla will not attend the presentation.

Shukla is a highly respected writer and poet known for his deep rumination on life and all that happens within as well outside. Here is a writer who titled one of his books ‘Deewar Mein Ek Khidkee Rahati Thi’ (A Window Lived in a Wall). The idea of a windows “living” in a wall is brilliantly original in its poetic imagination.

A very cursory look at Shukla’s works, as available on the net, reveals a writer of lucid quietude. He comes across as someone who has a particularly distilled creative expression. He is also someone who is very visual. In an interview with ‘Pustak Varta’ (Book Talk) ten years ago at age 76 he had said, “I don’t think in language. Ideas come to me visually. I think visually.”

In a two-part conversation with him on YouTube, he says many striking things. In Hindi he says, “Shuruat ka koi sandarbh nahi hota, Kuchh hona hi us ka sandarbh hai jaise bansuri ka hona hi sangeet ka sandarbh hai.” A free rendition of this would be, “A beginning has no context.

That it is there is its context quite like the flute is the context for music.” It is a remarkable thought, particularly the idea that a beginning has no context. That could well be applied to the universe presuming it had what our restricted comprehension calls a beginning. I digress.

Sample some English translation of Shukla’s poetry on Poetry International Rotterdam.

And I, the city man,
separate from nature so
that I leave the tree behind and sit in the bus.
Sitting in the bus, I wish
that there were trees on both sides of the road.
In my room
I have hung a picture of an entire forest


A man sat in desperation
I did not know the man.
But I knew the desperation.
. . . We walked together.
We did not know each other.
But we knew walking together.

The second poem in its original Hindi must rank as one of the greatest examples of a poet distilling wisdom down to but a few splendidly evocative lines.

In his interview with ‘Pustak Varta’, Shukla made a fine point about the difference between writing prose and poetry: “Gadya likhna, likhne mein sahaj shuruat hai, par baad mein kavita ki tarh kathin. Kavita kathin shuruat hai par baad mein gadya ki tarha sahaj.” (To begin writing prose is natural but it later turns out to be difficult like poetry. Writing poetry is difficult in the beginning but becomes as natural later like prose.)

In a remarkable show of democratic generosity, in contrast to literary exclusivism and conceit of many other writers, Shukla says in the same interview, “Everybody should write at least one book. There is no person or life about whom something cannot be written. Everyone can write about themselves and others.”

It is remarkable that as a vocation Shukla used to teach agricultural techniques to farmer. His connection with the ground below has perhaps given his writing both an earthly footing as well as lofty wisdom. At the same time quite a bit of his writing is characterized by magic realism and supernatural impulses where the real and imaginary fuse effortlessly.

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