Insight: Akhil Katyal

AKHIL KATYAL‘s poetry has one of the most eclectic audiences one can find—and a majority of it is virtual. If you trace the ‘shares’ on his posts on social media, you’ll find college professors, students, and often, the students’ parents too. His work evokes a sentiment of immense solidarity. The comments section reads like a classroom discussion, straddling observations, discourse, and impromptu collaborations. Fitting, one could say, considering his official role as an assistant professor at Shiv Nadar University. Indeed, Katyal’s work shadows his ability to teach. He never tells, but merely shows, highlighting subtexts and contexts that leave you wanting to explore more.

Harnidh Kaur, Poetry Editor

When Farida Khanum

sings now,

she does not hide the age
in her voice,


she wraps it in paisleys,
and for a moment
holds it in both of her hands, before

she drowns it in our sky.When she sings now,
she knows

that at the end of that note
when her voice breaks
like a wishbone,

he will stay.

When I die

bury me

only in your eyes.

For someone who’ll read this

500 years from now

How are you?
I am sure a lot has changed

between my time and yours,
but we’re not very different,

you have only one thing on me –

I have all these questions for you:
Do cars fly now?

Is Mumbai still standing by the sea?
How do you folks manage without ozone?

Have the aliens come yet?
Who from my century is still remembered?

How long did India and Pakistan last?
When did Kashmir become free?

It must be surprising for you
looking at our time,

our things must seem so strange to you,
our wars so little,

our toilets for ‘men’ and ‘women’
must make you laugh

our cutting down of trees
would be listed in your ‘Early Causes’

our poetry in which the moon is still
a thing far away

must make you wonder, both for that moon
and for the poetry.

You must be baffled,
that we couldn’t even imagine

the things you now take for granted.
But let that be,

would you do me a favour,
for ‘old time’s sake’?

Would you go to the Humayun’s Tomb
in what used to be Delhi

and just as you’re climbing the front staircase,
near the fourth rung, I have cut into

the stone wall to your left –
‘Akhil loves Rohit’

Will you go and see it?
Just that, go see it.

जेनेरल साहब – Bertolt Brecht
tr. Bertolt Brecht’s ‘General, Dein Tank ist ein starker Wagen’

जेनेरल साहब,
आपका ये टैंक बड़ा ही शक्तिशाली है,
जंगलों को रौंद देता है
सौ-सौ आदमियों को कुचल देता है,
पर इसमें एक दोष है –
इसे एक ड्राइवर की जरूरत पड़ती है

जेनेरल साहब,
आपका ये बॉम्बर बड़ा ही शक्तिशाली है,
हाथी जितना बोझ लिए भी तूफ़ान से तेज़ उड़ता है,
पर इसमें भी एक दोष है –
इसे एक मैकैनिक की जरूरत पड़ती है

जेनेरल साहब,
इंसान बहुत काम की चीज़ है,
वो उड़ सकता है, वो मार भी सकता है,
पर उसमें एक दोष है –
वो सोच भी सकता है

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Dr. Siras,
In those nights,
you must have felt loneliness like a drip.

The walls of your room
would’ve been held apart only by a faint song,

and memory must have sat by you all night
combing the hours.

In your Marathi poem, Dr. Siras, the one about the ‘beloved moon,’
the one in which you somehow eke dawn from the dark sky,
I read it last night on the terrace,
it held me, it held my hands,
it let grass grow under my feet.

In this house that I have lived in for three years in Delhi, Dr. Siras,
the windows open onto a Palash tree.

I was 27 when I had rented it,
and at 27, the landlord had not spent too much time on the word ‘bachelor’
he had only asked if I had ‘too many parties’,
I didn’t, and I had got the house.

But next time, Dr. Siras, when I will try and look for a place in this city,
I will be older and they will pause at “but marriage?”
and I will try to eke out respect from a right surname,
from saying ‘Teacher’
from telling my birth-place,
and will try and hide my feeling small under my feet.

What had you said, Dr. Siras,
when you looked for that house in Durga Wadi?
What had you said for the neighbourhood, ‘Teacher’, ‘Professor’,

What gives us this respect, Dr. Siras, this contract with water?

In those nights,
weighing this word in your hands,
you must have felt weak, like the sun at dusk,
you must have closed the window to keep out the evening,
you must have looked back, and hung the song in the air
between refusal and letting go.

(Thanks to Apurva M. Asrani and Ishani Bannerjee)

That night in Mumbai when Brandt asked ‘Are you good with speed?’ and I said ‘Yes’


it was as if
I pillion rode the moon
on the Western Express Highway,

and every mile we raced on his bike
we reclaimed from the sea,

the Goregaon high-rises passed us by
like longing measured on a Richter scale,

and the sky, window-lit at Malad, tripped
onto us,

at Kandivali, the fortieth floors spun out
into the night till the sky was only staircases,

and when he dropped me
by those black mountains of Borivali,
I realized I had held onto my seat
like the black holds onto basalt,
like the skin holds onto bones,
like Mumbai holds onto sea.

इंसान की कीमत कितनी कम लगाई जाती है – रोहित वेमुला

इंसान की कीमत
कितनी कम लगाई जाती है

बस एक छोटी सी पहचान दी जाती है
फिर जिसका जितना काम निकल आये –
कभी एक वोट,
कभी एक आंकड़ा,
कभी एक खोखली सी चीज़

कभी माना ही नहीं जाता कि इंसान
आखिर एक जीवंत मन है

एक अद्भुत सी चीज़ है
जिसे तारों की धूल से गढ़ा गया है

चाहे किताबों में देख लो, चाहे सड़कों पर,
चाहे उसे लड़ते हुए देख लो,
चाहे जीते-मरते हुए देख लो

चाहने से क्या नहीं मिलता

आकाश दो तिहाई ‘काश’ है
आसमां आधा ‘आस’ है


Inklette: What does the experience of being a contemporary Indian writer mean to you? What is it like to occupy this space?

Akhil: These are very, very strange times. Professor Gopal Guru who opened the lecture series on Nationalism recently at JNU, after the terrible sedition row, said the “benign, egalitarian state” has gone missing. Imagining it back into being seems such an uphill task. Think of this – a small university event on 9th February whose very name was the name of a poetry book, ‘The Country Without a Post-Office’, an event which raised legitimate concerns about the miscarriage of justice at the highest levels, an event which brought Kashmir – which has never known India as either ‘benign’ or ‘egalitarian’ – shattering back into the mainstream Delhi imagination, that one event, could kick-start a most unfortunate series of events which landed up three university students in jail and hundreds others finding themselves demonised in their own city. A false bogey of ‘anti-nationalism’ was raised to scuttle deep and searching questions this country needs to ask, that its writers and artists, its teachers and students are asking.  

Speaking on these series of events, in the same lecture series, journalist P. Sainath said to JNU students – ‘Welcome to the rest of India’. You’re only experiencing, he told them, what non-Delhi has been experiencing for decades, the repression, the arrests, the elusive bails, what Bastar or Jagatsinghpur feel in their marrows every day. What Kashmir could give all of us masterclasses in. Look at Hyderabad. Look at what is happening in the university, to its students and teachers, who are, against all odds, carrying out a most strident struggle for all of us. Look at the utter casteist and MHRD-backed forces at work against them.

It is important, and inspiring, to note that at the centre of both these rows, in JNU or HCU, is a boundless literary imagination, one that has shown the way to wed that which is ‘political’ with that which is ‘imaginative’ – there is no other way, there can be no other way. Rohith Vemula’s reaching for the stars in that gut-wrenching last letter which has become the fable of our times, and Agha Shahid Ali’s searing and sorrow-laden transcription of the horrors in 90s Kashmir in his book ‘The Country without a Post-Office’ are what we have at the centre of these debates. These documents anchor these debates, fuel them, and keep them alive. It tries to keep at bay a government that is afraid of its artists, teachers and poets – that pushed Vemula to his death, that was flummoxed by Ali’s metaphors. To be an Indian writer today is to recognize such power in the literary, in such urgent and poignant voices such as Vemula’s and Ali’s. To appreciate what conversations it can create, what old, rigid forces it can upset. To be a writer today is also to recognize the differences between literary folks working in different settings – of language, of caste position, of location. The anti-caste songs of the musicians and poets of the Kabir Kala Manch in Maharashtra landed them up in jail, whereas I largely write from the relative safety of Delhi, of a job, of a caste-position that shelters me, of cultural capital that has so far ensured nothing untoward happens.

At a recent event in Delhi University, where some of us were called to read poems on the occasion of Women’s Day, there was a threat that the BJP student wing ABVP would interrupt the event and cause trouble if any anti-Sangh sentiment was expressed at the event. They had done it in the past on many, many occasions. We noticed some of them were hovering around. This is our times. The space of the literary finds itself surrounded, sometimes vulnerable and sometimes strident, in this BJP-backed anti-intellectual, anti-artistic climate that is systematically being built one arrest after another, one denied bail after another, one sedition row after another. But my contemporaries – in and outside Delhi, writing in Hindi, in Marathi, or in Telugu – continue to write in situations million times more vitiated than mine. So what excuse do I have. I draw inspiration from them and get on and write.    

Inklette: We’ve heard you’re learning Urdu these days. Could you talk more about it? Also, as a translator, what is your relationship with language?

Akhil: You know it is incredible. One of my students, Abdur, is teaching me. He is walking me through a language that had always felt so intimate but never looked it. Now each letter is being caressed out of incomprehension. And brought into meaning. You know I learnt to write ‘dil’, ‘ab’, ‘aarzu’, ‘suno’ and other such short words in the last class. It was quite overwhelming when I could recognize the ‘gulon’ of Faiz’s ‘gulon mein rang bhare, baad-e-nau-bahaar chale’. As a translator, what do you want – you what to know how a language breathes, sits, dreams, gasps, orgasms. You want to make the dreams of one language be realized in another, you want one language touch the viscerality of another. Learning the Nastaliq at this late stage – I am 30 – not as someone who is learning it by rote but as one for whom each curve and nuktah is a thing of beauty, is a thing of surprise, I cannot thank Abdur enough who is helping me in this. He is opening the door and letting me enter a language. I am looking forward to the day – hopefully not too far – when I would write a letter, all right to left, all curves and dots, that would express the appreciation I feel. Also, to a translator, a third script means your world has just exploded open. New texts, new authors, new loves, new noise, new worlds to inhabit.

Inklette: You’ve written and spoken about sexuality on various platforms and occasions. Poetry has a body, a form, through which language flows. How would you compare this experience of poetry with the experience that is shared between the body and sexuality, at large?

Akhil: I know there are nights when to be able to write a poem is also to be able to sleep that night. That the poem produces that very visceral, that very physical response – of calm, of rest wrenched out of restlessness. Of the place which the body reaches with that ability to transcribe in words that precise thing which is happening inside and around you. I know that there is something somatic about what the poem does – when you write it, when you read it to yourself, when you share it with others. You know that feeling, when you’re reading something on stage, when you’re reading it among hundreds of listeners, you hurl your body into the audience as much as you hurl your words. Think of Habib Jalib reciting ‘Aise dastoor ko, subah be-noor ko, main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta.’ Think of his body trembling at each word, think of each word finding a limb. That’s my ideal, I wish I was able to write and sing like that. For the very specific of your question, as far as the ‘body’ of the poem is concerned, its ‘form’ which allows language to flow through it and find meaning in it, and the connection of this with our own sexualness, I guess there is a quirky allegory there somewhere but I don’t know what it is.   

Inklette: Finally, we come to the toughest question: do you have any favourite poets or writers?

Akhil: It is not tough at all. Agha Shahid Ali for his searing embrace of sorrow, Dorothy Parker for her pathos and self-deprecation, Mangalesh Dabral for his gentle inventiveness and bringing alive mountains for me, Uday Prakash for his hope in the darkest of times and insight, Rene Sharanya Verma for her joy and resistance, Aditi Rao for her vulnerability, Anannya Dasgupta for letting pain know rhyme, Vikramaditya Sahai for wrapping words around heartbreak, Dushyant Kumar for letting me know what places of love Hindi can find, Gorakh Pandey for his imagism that is possible only in the welter of the political, Parveen Shakir, for letting me stake a claim on Urdu, and finally, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for telling me that there is a vocabulary in which one’s desires can speak to the desires of one’s time.

AKHIL KATYAL is a writer and translator based in Delhi. His first book of poems Night Charge Extra was shortlisted for the Muse India Satish Verma Young Writers Award – 2015. In 2014, he was selected among the five best emerging writers in India by The Caravan Magazine and The Columbia University Global Centre in France. He translates widely between Hindi and English, including the works of Langston Hughes, Mangalesh Dabral, Amrita Pritam and Dorothy Parker.