Treasurer of Piggy Banks
Treasurer of Piggy Banks by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated from Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Publication date: February 2024
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In the confusion of leaving home,
I leave it so far behind that everywhere I go
I’m seen as an infiltrator.
Infiltrator or inhabitant?
Infiltrator or inhabitant? In Treasurer of Piggy Banks, Indian poet Vinod Kumar Shukla sees the world through both lenses at once. All details are local yet canonical, and when inside his lyric mind, we are rooted, and the roots are spreading far and wide. Shukla’s ability to see things through their opposite illuminates what is hardest to comprehend with aphoristic yet surreal clarity, from environmental collapse to the way our own deaths are snug inside our lives.
These poems are translated from Hindi with deft humor and acrobatic muscle by poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who writes in his introduction that Shukla’s lines are so unique to him, “you could put them on a check, and it will be honored at any literary bank.” You can’t hoard or even spend the wealth of the lines in this collection, but the shiny, slippery, and threatened value of the world accrues through them.
Shukla was born in Rajnandgaon, in central India, in 1937 and has published more than a dozen books that include both poetry and fiction. He was recently awarded the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. His writing was described by Amit Chaudhuri as “a compelling combination of strangeness, acute observation, love of life, unexpected thinking, and an air of normality that adds to the strangeness.” Mehrotra lives in Dehra Dun, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He is the author of seven previous books of poetry and two collections of essays.
The Common, January 26, 2024: Four poems by Vinod Kumar Shukla .
Words Without Borders, December 13, 2023: "Nothing unfinished is completed" and "I’m about to arrive".
As a poet, Vinod Kumar Shukla wishes to retain a meticulous record and also to create a body of knowledge. The subject of this activity is his, and other things', relationship to the universe, whichever bit of the universe preoccupies Shukla at that moment: a kitchen, a lane, a bus stop, or a market. A persistent logic characterizes the poetry, as well as a language that's mathematical-scientific in scope, never neglecting the benefits of using tautology ("The blurred tree was exactly like a tree") or reiterating the obvious ("Inside the prison is Nelson Mandela"). Throughout the work glimmers a liberating fact that lies outside the remit of mathematics: the universe and our place in it are unknowable. The poet arrives at no illumination; we do.
One can hardly think of a record in literature that possesses a comparable uniqueness, or of a body of knowledge that's as indispensable.
When I examine the poetry of old India I think surrealism is nothing new. When I read the poetry of Vinod Kumar Shukla I am certain nonsense has a grander and wiser history than logic. Shukla writes high-quality nonsense. It might be high-quality surrealism or it might be the way the human mind thinks. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who has already translated the upside-down language of Kabir, is the ideal mediator, between Shukla’s unsettling nonsense and North America’s poetry.
Vinod Kumar Shukla’s poems descale our eyes to the quotidian, bringing each bus, tree, and banknote into the light of wild novelty. Across decades of writing, his voice refreshes the archetype of the wise fool: doggedly facing down the absurdities of civilization, yet sparked with a surrealist passion (“My confidence in sleep is unshaken.”). Shukla’s poems are often like taking a promenade with Basho and John Ashbery, making a journey that arrives, sudden and laughing, at the self. They favor mirrors, finding wisdom in syllogism because they know the truth: that “it takes time to tell the time.” In sentences that bring together aphorism and aporia, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translations brilliantly deliver the humor and wonder that catalyze Shukla’s verse. This collection is an invaluable introduction to a powerful, lasting voice.
Entirely and utterly delightful! These short, crystalline poems, while seeming to be unambiguously direct, all contain a little twist crafted by an exceptionally inventive and keen intelligence. Shukla achieves the truly uncanny by infusing the details of daily life, which he so clearly loves, with a marvelous strangeness. Whether they have you laughing or cocking your head, these poems are all unexpected—and enchanting. Shukla’s is a world of complete equivalence, in which everything equals everything else with mathematical precision and shape-shifting fluidity—the whole is an absolute treasure brought seamlessly into English in Mehrotra’s striking translation.
Vinod Kumar Shuka receives the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature
March 20, 2023: “The Principle of Hope” in The Point
Vikrant Dadawala contextualizes Vinod Kumar Shukla's writing
April 23, 2023: “Quiet Champion of the Hindi Heartland” in The Hindu
Ashutosh Bhardwaj writes about Vinod Kumar Shukla's writing post the PEN/Nabokov award