The poet who has discovered the syntax of liberation
Vinod Kumar Shukla (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
I COULD NEVER HAVE imagined a shoe as a horse, its laces as reins that control the animal, how that makes the shoe unfree. This conceit comes as the last line in a Hindi poem Vinod Kumar Shukla wrote in 1964. I hadn’t been born then, of course, and reading Shukla’s poems through the rainy months in my forty-eighth year has often led me to think of the aboha-wa— the weather, deriving from hawa, air —that could result in such a universe of metaphorical substitution with which the poet, born on the first day of 1937, builds his world. How freeing it must be to leave like air, to leave like an idea, like a ‘bichar’ (Woh Admi Naya Garam Coat Pehenkar Chala Gaya Bichar Ki Tarah), or to arrive like sleep, ‘anhoni si neend’, unlikely, impossible sleep (Neend Aa Rahi Hai).
That this is a literary world unlike any I have entered or stayed in is an awareness that comes to me from time to time. Rituparna Sengupta, whose gifts of three of his books are the reason I am returning to these poems, tells me the same in a voice message: “I feel like I am in a different world when I read Shukla.” She translates his poems from time to time, from his Hindi to English—I feel her sense of enchantment in her translations, because she is in a spell as much as Shukla is. When we were children, different groups of sounds —‘abracadabra’ and its many variations, for instance, were said to induce a spell, a state of hypnosis. Like everyone else, I wasn’t hypnotised; it was, in fact, the non-verbal and non-linguistic that hypnotised me from time to time: an open field, a solitary tree, dense clouds, the wind through the bamboo groves; simplicity could hypnotise me, take me away from the world of my feet. I’ve been enchanted by the moisture of literature before — there are writers whose lines and sentences I have memo-rised, hoping to wring something out of them by commit-ting them to memory — but this is a different experience. This is hypnosis caused by common and collective nouns, without any proclivity for ornamentation, using almost no rhetorical device except the simile and repetition.
When I first began reading Shukla, I mistook this en-chantment as deriving from dailiness and deprivation, particularly the latter, a world without money that had produced some of India’s modernists — Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay in Bangla, Bhuvaneshwar in Hindi, just to give two examples. In all of them, the thought of mon-ey ran like a nerve. The thought of having misplaced a twenty-rupee note could displace a day. It is, however, not a materialist world. Quite the opposite — it throws up the paper currency note and the way it runs our lives like air runs our bodies. What is money, how much does one need, how does one find freedom from it? This resistance to money and quantifiability, to what makes us rich or poor, or what makes a poem or doesn’t — Kavita Se Lambi Kavita (Poem Longer than a Poem) is the title of one of his collections — is at the heart of his philosophical investigation on freedom.
When you have a poem with a title like ‘Woh Admi Naya Garam Coat Pehenkar Chala Gaya Bichar Ki Tarah’ (‘That Man Wore a New Woollen Coat and Left Like a Thought’), you wonder, at first, about the freedom and agency that allows a man in a new woollen coat to walk away, to transform into a thought. Shukla has given himself so much bagginess in his titles that there is neither anticipation nor expectation that usually makes titles work — the first line of most of his poems, right from the start of his writing life, are a repetition of the title. I often hear them in the voice of a schoolmaster repeating a statement, just so that the student doesn’t miss it. In a world where the title has to bear the weight of impression and introduction, this lethargy is freeing — one can walk away from the pressure of inventing a title. A poem is not a person who needs to be introduced as Mr, Dr or Professor, after all. It’s also an adoption or continuation of an oral tradition where poems and songs were remembered by their first lines. Shukla’s understanding of form has always seemed to me to be a search for the freest position — a bed instead of a chair, or even sitting on a wall.
Often we want to be free of time and space. Shukla notices time and space want to be free as well. That is why we meet
a ‘ghari’ , a watch, and then one watch after another, almost the way we run into falling leaves, as if they were the same thing
What I mean to say is that no matter what the subject he’s writing about, these are poems of rest. The freedom to rest is perhaps the most difficult of forms, particularly when one’s medium is words — for our eyes, ears and mind are not at rest when we read. All of this has to happen without our participation — reading a poem does not have the intentionality of burning calories on a treadmill — so that we are led to something as one is to a secret. A secret is pause — freedom is not to be free of the secret but to know what to do with it. ‘Ek-ek sukha patta/thhehar-thhehar kar girta hai’, each and every dry leaf, they pause and fall. The poem is — not unexpectedly — titled ‘Ek-ek Sukha Patta’. Notice what the first line of the poem, following— and echoing — the title does? It repeats, without demanding great energy of the writer and the reader, the rhythm of both the falling of the leaves and the echoing phrases of ‘ek-ek’ and ‘thhehar-thhehar’. By doing this, Shukla makes it possible for the leaves to fall — to fall freely. EE Cummings, in his short poem (‘a leaf falls on loneliness’) about falling leaves, had to depend on the eyes of the reader, to see the letters of words fall like leaves:
Shukla wants to free the reader of this labour — sound, just sound, its circuit, should do the work. It is as if freedom lies in being free of literacy cultures. The leaves are not literate, why should their fall be limited to the arrangement of words on a page? And so sound, and this technique, that he makes peculiarly his, in a figure of speech that should be named after him, to show us this freedom to fall: ‘Samay dekhney ke liye bahut samay lagta hai’, to look at the time requires a lot of time. Notice how the arrangement of words, the placement of ‘samay’ in the line, with its chiasmus-like energy, turns it into a truism.
We are all struggling to be free — of jobs, relationships, places, shoes, clothes, people, ourselves, and form, of forms. All of us, including the leaves. Free of what? Quite often we don’t know what we want to be free of, most often it is, to put it in shorthand, to be free of time and space. Shukla notices that time and space want to be free as well. That is why we meet a ‘ghari’, a watch, and then one watch after another, almost in the way we run into the falling leaves, as if they were the same thing. The falling of leaves from the tree, the poet tells us, is like a watch keeping time; a watch on the wrist — a person nearby can hear it ticking. He ends the stanza there, letting us work out the analogical relation between clock and leaf. Which is freer, are both falling? In the next stanza he rewards us by confirming that we were right to make the analogy: “Ek sukha patta girta hai, jaise ek second hai”, a dry leaf falls, as if it were a second.
It is syntax, then, that allows him to do this in poem after poem. It is as if Shukla has discovered what very few of us have — the syntax of freedom. We go to his poems to be touched by the contagion of that syntax. The next stanza carries on with the leaf-as-time analogy — “One has to lower one’s neck to look at a watch./Even if a tall sheesham tree is in front of you.” Soon after, in the next line, we meet Shukla’s favourite poetic device: repetition without refrain, often, as here, in dialogue. People repeat after one another, like leaves fall after one another, like seconds follow each other. That, at least, is how I read these lines. There is great freedom in such repetition — we have been conditioned to think of an echo as being chained to an original sound, but this is not echo, this is the architecture of ‘live’ quotation, of borrowing and then dropping a word or two, like the echo does, only more opportunistically here, for all poetry is opportunistic, a temporary arrangement, a momentary stay against confusion.
And then there’s the freedom to go away, a kind of freedom that I have felt only in a Shukla story or poem: “Rickshaw wala puchhta hai Moti Bagh janey ke liye /Saath wala kahin chala gaya,” the rickshaw-wala asks about going to Moti Bagh; the companion has gone somewhere. This is how most of his poems end — without an ending, with someone leaving, the way one leaves a playground or marketplace, with the freedom to both return and not return. The freedom to leave is perhaps the greatest freedom. And so something in the poem leaves the poem, the poet leaves the poem, the reader leaves the poem.
The lines are like streets — anyone can come, anyone can leave. ‘Station ke Taraf Aatey-Jaatey’, both the title and, of course, the opening line of the poem — there’s a jail near the main road leading to the station, “a friend’s house just next to it that I keep visiting from time to time.” “He is fond of poor people,” he says of the friend, thereby explaining his own financial life and his friend. “I’ve been to the station many times/I’ve never been inside a jail.” Once again that matter-offact quasi-aphoristic smooth punchline, except that it is not the concluding line of a poem but only the last line of the first stanza. What is extraordinary is the ease with which he makes his reader believe — there’s not a moment of disbelief or pause — that one is free to walk inside a jail whenever one chooses to. That going inside a jail is as difficult as coming out of it does not occur to us — such is the syntax of Shukla’s phrasing, of the lines that follow each other like breath and those that stop, both freely.
LIKE ABANINDRANATH TAGORE who used onomatopoeic pairs to give his Bengali readers a sense of rhythm, of sound and light, colour and speed, talk and whisper in his untranslatable Jorasankor Dharey, Shukla exploits the two-way thoroughfare of paired sounds to create the sense of freedom: “aatey-jaatey”, “aana-jana” or “uchi uchi” “ek ek”, “dour dour”. There is rhythm, repetition, continuity and flow in these words, in that they seem to be without end — this is freedom, to have become part of life’s flux, of life and death, knowing that everything is, in the end, only about coming and going. Notice the unexpected freedom of both lethargy and movement in these titles: ‘Jis Sadak Par Main Chala Gaya’ (The Road on Which I Went Away); ‘Tahalne Ke Waqt’ (While Strolling); ‘Kam Par Jati Hui Aurat’ (The Woman Going to Work). Everything in this world is tentative, as if every articulation was a shy lover’s question, and yet every thought is as uncertain as it is sure. It is this that gives porosity to Shukla’s world, where every word is a thing but also more, so that we can excerpt and extend formulations which should work only in poems to our lives, both immediate and of ourselves as a species. Shukla, like a theoretical physicist who has understood the behaviour of time, uses the inexhaustible potential of the present tense — he gives to these words a life beyond an ending, his poems reject the punctuation demand of the period.
He gives words a life beyond an ending. His poems reject the punctuation demand of the period. All his work, but most particularly his poems, are just about that—the freedom to get up and go, the freedom to arrive and stay
All his work, but most particularly his poems, are just about that — the freedom to get up and go, the freedom to arrive and stay. ‘Ghar Se Bahar Nikalney Ki Garbari Main’ — I often find the rhythm of this poem and its title in the stories, it endears me to them, how the characters leave their rooms or houses in a hurry and start feeling uneasy; they have left something there, they can’t remember where they have kept a precious twenty rupee-note; something there is that doesn’t let life outside the house be free. The story — its plot, if one must use that cheapened word for Shukla at all — becomes just about this: to become free of the worry of something left or misplaced at home. What does this mean as philosophy, particularly if one were to look for it as an optic? “Main humesha jata huya dikhai deta hoon/Main apni peeth bahut achchhi tarah pehchanta hoon,” (I’m always seen going away, I can recognise my back very well.) What does this freedom from the face, from its overwhelming code of recognisability, bring?
There is hardly a poem where I do not find Shukla thinking of freedom: “Shayad sab koi kaidi hai./Ya dushmano ka ujar bagicha hai/Hamare kabzey main.” (“Perhaps everyone is a prisoner, or the gardens of our enemies are under our control”), from ‘Per Ki Phati Khaki Wardi Pehenkar’, ‘Wearing the Torn Khaki Uniform of the Trees’. The garden, with its thousand thorns, is no less than an army of tired soldiers that have stopped to rest, says the poet. Used as one is to the mainstream experience of gardens, Shukla’s poem asks — where is freedom in a garden or a poem? In that last line — simple, short, a statement as much as it is a realisation: “Yeh bagicha mera nahi hai,” this garden is not mine, the freedom from ownership.
OWNERSHIP AND ITS props, particularly money — Shukla seems to be confused by it, by its power and authoritarian life. He wants to be free of it, though he doesn’t know how: what makes us freer, not having money or not using it? ‘Mujhe Udhar Lena Hai’ (‘I Have to Take a Loan’) is the title of a poem — he asks his neighbour for a loan; the refrain of “Mere paise kharch nahi huye,” I’ve not spent my money, runs through the poem; he is told that there are many wealthy people in the world, he wears his glasses, he walks, he tells himself, “I have strength, I am alive! Wealthy! Wealthy!”; he shouts, “I haven’t spent my money, and without taking a loan I’ve done a lot, and even though I had a hundred-rupee currency note that looked exactly like your hundred-rupee currency note, my face is not like yours … Freshly bathed, I am in clean clothes, how is my face ugly! What should I do to get a loan?” In these poems we see attempts to free himself from the face — choosing the back over the face, becoming tree, the face on the currency notes and his thoughts about his own face, and indirectly about the faces of the wealthy. And then the comparison, a different version of becoming: both are hungry, both are sitting on a wall, a crow and the speaker in the poem; the crow has a piece of roti in its beak that it has snatched from somewhere; “I think — Hai! Neither am I a crow nor do I have a beak — what kind of a human am I that I do not know how to snatch what is rightfully mine! (‘Main Diwar ke Upar’, ‘I’m Sitting on the Wall’). People seek freedom from poverty, Shukla wants freedom from the idea of money itself, from his own species that needs money.
Perhaps that is why currency notes get lost so often in Shukla’s world. In ‘Kitna Kuchh Nuksan Hani’ the wife loses a ten rupee note, she stops eating, everyone is looking for it, there is sadness, there is loss, and, through these thirteen pages of the poem, we experience the anxiety that the loss of ten rupees could cause to an Indian family in the 1970s; we also meet his unique interpretation of money and its philosophy — “Jab tak yaad nahi/Tab tak jama rahega,” until she can remember, the money will remain safe; and saved. Losing and finding, coming and going, living and dying — to accept that these are all part of the same rhythm is what gives freedom to Shukla’s world: “Janam ke saath ek na ek din mrityu – /Ek judwa janam hai …”, every poem an iteration of the life-death twin. “Jitne din jeebit rahunga/Apni mrityu ko bacha kar rahunga” — as long as I’m alive, I will save my death. Where? Shukla’s answer is ready: in the “gullak”, the piggy bank. There it is — money is lost, money is found, life is lost, life will be found, for both money and life are free to come, to stay, to go… Like Shukla is, like his reader becomes, temporarily.