I saw a man with two noses, a double nose
Vinod Kumar Shukla was born in Rajnandgaon, a small town in central India, in 1937. He attended local schools and went to college in Jabalpur, where he studied agricultural science. For most of his working life he taught at Indira Gandhi Agricultural University, Raipur, from which he retired as associate professor in 1996. His subject was agricultural extension, which involved traveling to the surrounding villages to acquaint farmers with new agricultural techniques.
His meeting with the Marxist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh (1917–1964) is described in “Old Veranda.” The encouragement he received from the older poet, who suggested Shukla send his poems to a magazine whose editor he knew, proved to be decisive. Shukla’s first collection was a twenty-page chapbook titled Hail India, Almost (1971), whose ironic title marked him out as a new voice in Hindi poetry. Some of its poems were later collected in his first full-length book, That Man Put On a New Woolen Coat and Went Away like a Thought (1981). “There is nothing of me except what is here,” Shukla writes in one poem. Shukla’s here is a specific place: Raipur, and before that, Rajnandgaon.
The author of several works of fiction, three of which have been translated into English — The Servant’s Shirt (1999), A Window Lived in a Wall (2005), and Once It Flowers (2014) — Shukla describes lower-middle-class life and its proprieties in elaborate detail. No gesture or flicker of thought is too mundane.
— Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
The house in Raipur that we moved into later has verandas that are more like rooms. It’s hard to say why they aren’t rooms, or what makes them verandas. One of them is called the old veranda. The house was built slowly and all at once. Since one of the verandas was the old veranda, the other became the new one. The old veranda of our house in Rajnandgaon is now in the house in Raipur. The pole star in Raipur is the same pole star that was in Rajnandgaon. Because there is the sky and the pole star, the homeless do not feel that they are homeless but that they live in the same one place under the same sky, which is the same everywhere. Even as a little boy in Rajnandgaon, I would think about the universe. However much you may learn about it afterward, you never forget those early associations.
My wife asks, “Do you know where your brass lota is?”
“It’s on the old veranda,” I tell her.
A friend who is sitting there asks, “Isn’t the house new?”
“It is,” I say.
“If you were building a new house, you should’ve built a new veranda as well.”
“The whole house is new. There used to be a quarry here. It’s still around somewhere.”
“How many years ago was the house built?”
“When will it become old?”
“Who’s to say. When it’s torn down.”
“I thought a house was torn down when it was old. Is the old veranda being torn down?”
“No, it’s not. It’s the same as it’s always been. I don’t remember it ever being any different.”
“I should be going. I’ve got to buy some wheat.”
“Where are you going to buy it?”
“You won’t get new wheat. That only arrives in March.”
“I’ll buy the old wheat. There’s not a grain left to eat at home.”
“Do you like rotis?” I asked.
“Yes. But only fresh rotis.”
“Hot and fluffy. Not cold and stale.”
“I like fermented leftover rice,” I say.
“The rice may be fermented, but the grain it’s made from is new,” he says.
“That man there carrying a pickax must have had some for breakfast,” he says, looking toward the road. Someone from the village is walking by with a pickax.
“So you’ve got this bag and you’re going to buy wheat,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “to buy wheat.”
Then he leaves.
If a boy wants to become old, he should first add more years to his life. But what kept happening was that the person who was old was not getting old. The place of birth is where you’re born. It’s never about dying and being born again.
The old veranda in Rajnandgaon ran along the front of the house and the new one was built at right angles to it. The new veranda remained the new veranda even when the house was in ruins. When the foundation for the new veranda was being dug, they found a lot of worthless cowries, enough to fill several gunnysacks. Adjoining the old veranda was the birthing room, where even during the day it was dark inside. The only light came in from the door when it opened, the light like a sentry to keep the darkness from escaping. The darkness of the night remained in the room. In this way there were, in the room, two darknesses.
Whoever entered the birthing room took just two days to forget that there was anything like sunshine. Only the chirping of birds would have told them that it was morning. Had anyone else said that it was morning they wouldn’t have believed it. They wouldn’t even have believed Ajiya, though her words carried a lot of authority. Sunset happened only when you thought of sunset. If you thought of sunset at high noon it would be sunset. So much so that if you thought of midnight at midday it would be midnight. The birthing room was not a place where you thought of anything except the child who was about to be born.
If you closed your eyes, walked into the birthing room, and there opened them, for a long time it would seem that you hadn’t remembered to do so. You could be deceived into thinking that your eyes had forgotten how to see. We stayed away from it irrespective of whether it was occupied or not, nor did we go anywhere near it when we played hide and seek.
Inside the threshold of the birthing room Amma kept her household gods. When someone went into labor the gods were shifted out, and after a month or so they were reinstated. Since ours was a large family this happened twice a year. Sometimes three times. If during the day the darkness did not emerge from the room even when the door was open, at night it would come out even when the door was shut.