Review: Blue is like Blue by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Sahitya Akademi Award Winner Vinod Kumar Shukla’s only collection of short fiction captures our reactions to the mundaneUpdated: Jan 03, 2020 20:03 IST
In Greek mythology, the river Lethe is one of the five rivers of the underworld. It is also known as ‘Ameles Potamos’, the river of unmindfulness. Those who drink from it experience complete forgetfulness. It is by this river that Vinod Kumar Shukla sits patiently, pan in hand. With a practised hand, he sieves out the gravel and sediment until all that remains are delicate gold flakes, near imperceptible tendrils of our memories that, if not for him, would be lost to the giddying current of the commonplace.
Blue Is Like Blue is a collection of such shiny wisps. It is Sahitya Akademi Award Winner Vinod Kumar Shukla’s only collection of short fiction, bottled for the very first time in English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai. To read this book is to uncover humanity at its ubiquitous default setting. Shukla manages to capture our collective mental knee-jerk reactions to the mundane and traces them to the subconscious thoughts that surround them. In Twenty Rupees, the otherwise parsimonious protagonist buys a ten-anna movie ticket in the black market for one whole rupee, simply because he might as well watch the movie since he’d come all this way. In The Burden, the protagonist is on his way to work when he turns around and heads home, for he has forgotten whether he has locked his room. In Man In The Blue Shirt, a young boy follows the eponymous ‘man’ who is seen walking down the same line twice without returning. He chronicles that which is summarily dismissed by our brains for being quotidian.
Most of the characters and stories are jolted into being by the most mundane of sightings – a shoe-shaped ashtray, a bunch of keys, a leaf that falls into the pocket of a cyclist. It is within this world that Shukla manages to uncover the silent thoughts of ‘the-smaller-than-life’ people. But this world is ours. We are the old man who hoards trinkets in his coat to hide them from his family; we are the sons who call our father ‘uncle’ because we grew up with our cousins; we are the people who lock our rooms where our salaries are hidden; we are the children that worry that our fathers have been overcharged; we are the mob that gathers to hear a man standing on a drum on a busy day. Their thoughts are our thoughts simply swallowed by the force of propriety and stifled by guilt. Like the man who, when his friend exclaims that he is going to chop off his wife’s hand, asks whether he plans to sever it from the elbow or the shoulder; and the young boy left alone in a room hunts for the best hiding places for the almirah keys.
Shukla’s prose is lilting, sparse and evanescent – it leaves behind no trace and one wants to hold on tightly, lest it floats away. There is a utilitarian purpose to each object, each sentence spartan, devoted only to driving the plot further. Without any embellishment of detail he achieves this through the ingenious use of comparing things to themselves “the crowd was like a crowd” after which the crowd requires no further description, he finds a boy that inventories by colour his immediate surroundings to forget the death of his father, and comes to the startling conclusion that “the sky isn’t particularly blue. Blue is like blue.” At the leisurely pace of an old electric heater he manages to warm up the room on the coldest of winter days.
In the Old Veranda, Shukla talks about himself; his poetry sessions with Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, the Marxist poet; his old house in Rajnandgaon; the two darknesses of the birthing room, of a childhood spent escaping home to watch silent movies at Krishna Talkies; of the collision of his two worlds, the one inside his head with the one outside. In both, he reaffirms he knows blue, blue is like blue. Perhaps that is how he remains anchored to both worlds simultaneously.
Blue Is Like Blue is a catalogue of consciousness, which traces the associative nature of our thoughts and lives. Vinod Kumar Shukla manages to slow down the spate of the river Lethe and to delay oblivion ever so briefly. And we remember, we remember all that we’ve seen and known and have always referred to as, ‘I can’t quite put my finger on it.’
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai have translated the essence of Shukla’s into English, for which we owe them a huge debt. Do yourself a favour and buy two copies of this book. Should time, memory, friends or repeated reading destroy one, you’ll still have a backup.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two bi-weekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha