How do you hear a city like Delhi?
From secret cruising hot spots to the cacophony of protest rallies, Akhil Katyal’s new collection of poems captures the many moods and colours of the nation’s capital
Akhil Katyal’s poetry speaks in many voices: sly turns of phrase, urban proverbs spun out of bleak realities, smutty jokes, erotic longing, slowly unpeeling layers of thoughts. His new collection, Like Blood On The Bitten Tongue, borrows its title from a line by the poet Agha Shahid Ali. But unlike Ali’s gentle laments and flowery sentiments, Katyal is crisp and quick. With his ear to the ground, he listens to the rumblings around him, while remaining alert to the desires of the heart.
These poems are all about Delhi, where Katyal has lived since he moved from Lucknow in 2003. “I knew Lucknow through my parents and teachers, but I found myself in Delhi, on my own terms." From the cacophony that fills the polluted air of the city, to the frisson of the Metro, to the city’s rousing protest culture, to the discovery of love and sex—the poems are a rite of passage. Katyal spoke to Lounge about what Delhi means to his poetry. Edited excerpts:
Did you write poems in Lucknow?
We had a Hindi syllabus in school there which involved reading Mahadevi Verma, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, Kedarnath Agarwal, and so on. The sense of chhand (rhythm) of their work was infectious. I remember writing a whole lot of Hindi poetry in Lucknow, the buzz caught me there. But when I came to Delhi and enrolled in Hindu College, I was lucky to be mentored by the late Lalita Subbu, one of those rare teachers who took a generation of students under her wing. She was crucial. I transitioned into writing more seriously and consistently, with a sense of both play and craft, after I had passed through Lalita Subbu’s world and apprenticeship.
The mellifluous Urdu-Hindustani culture of Delhi versus the hard-edged city of violence and machismo jostle for space in your poems. How do you navigate this bridge?
I am not entirely sure if there are clear bridges, since sometimes these aspects stand in opposition to each other, competing for affective space and emotional claim. As I was growing up in Lucknow, I remember going to kavi sammelans and Urdu mushairas in our neighbourhood. Those were my first encounters with the sense and sound of poetry, which continued in Delhi.
Delhi is a tough city to love, riddled with inequality and power structures. But like any big city, it sometimes allows you niches to work in, especially if you have class and caste privileges. It is possible for anyone to develop a narrative of the place. As long as one had a story for Delhi—and poetry enabled those stories for me—even this polluted, power-laden city offered a habitat of some sort, even though not equally to everyone.
In the last three months in Delhi, a large set of people had been protesting against a law that may institutionalize inequality. Then we saw a form of violence unprecedented in recent years, and now, as in every other city, we are either sitting indoors or walking across stretches to reach villages and towns hundreds of miles away. Habitat feels like a strange word to use in this context.
There are poems in Hindi, somewhere Hindi is mixed with English, then poems entirely in English. Do you worry your bilingualism will affect your readership?
I believe the poems will find their readers. In fact, bilingualism may even expand my readership. People around me in north India are mostly speaking a mixture of Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English. A bilingual text could lay claim to their attention more than a purely English text. In any case, how else do you hear a city like Delhi, where clusters of languages—Indian and non-Indian—are spoken at any time?
How do you know that a poem has come to you in Hindi or English?
To me, any piece starts with a phrase and that determines the language. The first Hindi poem in the collection begins Tum koi Metro station hoti/ Toh zarur Yellow Line par/ ‘Ghitorni’ hoti (Had you been a Metro station, you would surely be Ghitorni on the Yellow Line). I remember taking this line to catch a bus to Jaipur. As I saw the name of this station, with its hard sounds of gh and ta, for the first time, I immediately thought of this person in my life.
You write in short and long forms, for newspapers, social media and also slow, reflective poems. How has this affected you as a poet?
On a good day, I hope it allows me to keep experimenting, remain nimble across forms, and gain the epigrammatic or witty flavour of small, rhyming poems while meditating on reflective long-form poems. On a bad day, it can leave me scattered and confused. But, in the end, no particular form makes its sole claim on me.