Overlooking Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in south Delhi is a second-floor apartment in a post-Partition colony whose families originate from Jhung, Sargodha or Lahore in Punjab, present-day Pakistan. The poet and translator Akhil Katyal’s house is built like a railgaadi – one room behind the other. When a train passes over the nearby tracks, the house shakes and “first-time guests think there’s an earthquake. Every time.” In the bedroom, late at night, “when the day has seeped in and little words, phrases or sentences seem ready to become a poem,” he writes.
His bookshelf is lined with poets such as Agha Shahid Ali, Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Doty, and Mangalesh Dabral, the last of whom Akhil respects especially, “for silently and stringently noting the ascendant religious bigotry of our times.” Next to these sit writing from Kashmir such as Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves, anthologies of writing and photography edited by Sanjay Kak, and Mridu Rai’sHindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir – a book Akhil recommends for “a layered history of the region.”
His second poetry collection, How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross, will be published with The Great Indian Poetry Collective in April. Its poems explore the relationships between India, Pakistan and Kashmir, whose lands the “Indus and its tributaries string together.” He says, “What is not possible in the newsrooms will be said in the poems. Must be said in the poems.” Writers, in his opinion, “cannot afford the silence” that states try to insist upon. He points out that “about a lakh Kashmiris have lost their lives in the last three decades, civilians and combatants. Their ghosts haunt us, whether we know it or not.” He takes his cue from other writers writing on the region. As he says, “when these writers are writing so evocatively, politically, and damn meaningfully about Kashmir, then how could one not.”
Akhil is an academic: his first published work of prose is a scholarly book called The Doubleness Of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire In Modern India. (Queerness is also intrinsic to some of his most popular writing, of which more shortly.) Since earlier this year, he’s been taking the Violet Line daily from Jangpura to Kashmere Gate where he teaches creative writing at Ambedkar University. He tries, he says, to teach empathy rather than political consciousness. If you teach “with an express agenda of teaching some readymade political consciousness,” he says, “you are setting yourself up for failure.”
The other thing he does - and perhaps the thing you best know him for, especially outside Delhi - is his post poetry on Facebook. On his page, he publishes small, strikingly witty original poems and sparkling, spiky translations of the greats, in both English and Hindi, and occasionally from Punjabi. His latest, a translation of Philip Larkin’s famous This Be The Verse, renders its immortal first line in Hindi thus: Tumhari le lete hain tumhare mummy-daddy. It was posted on February 14. “Matr-pitr divas ki aap sabko badhai!” read his cheeky introduction - happy parental worship day, as the religious right would like us all to swap Valentine’s Day for.
He confesses that he doesn’t wait as long as he should before uploading a poem to Facebook, where an audience of thousands reads his work. In a few instances, Facebook comments which suggest “a better word for a translation, or another word or phrase for a line” are incorporated into Akhil’s edits and “poems become a collective effort.” He likes this. But the medium that truly enamours Akhil is not Facebook but the stage. “That thing which you share with the audience, likes and comments on Facebook will never replace,” he says.
He’s transfixed when he sees videos of “Habib Jalib reading to an assembly, or Parveen Shakir or Faiz Ahmed Faiz at a Mushaira, or the Palestinian Rafeef Ziadah at a slam,” and says, “I want to be able to read like that.” (Also on Valentine’s Day, he led a reading of love poems from across India at Chhatarpur’s Oddbird theatre.) His Hindi poems have been performed more, but his English ones are published more, he says.
To help refine his own voice, he reads, and hopes to read, more of the Hindi poets he admires: greats like as Dabral, Uday Prakash, Dushyant Kumar and Gorakh Pandey, as well as newer voices shaking up the establishment, such as Shubham Shree and Varun Grover. But the book book he is never far from these days is Ravish Kumar’s Ishq Mein Shahar Hona from Rajkamal Prakashan which he’s currently translating into English. “Fingers crossed,” he says, “the manuscript goes at the end of the month to Speaking Tiger.”
He translates only the poems that he loves, because “translating poem is the surest way of telling it you love it, to pay a little tribute to it.” When he takes on translation as an assignment, he finds that he’s awful at it. “When you love something,” he elaborates, “you figure out its mood because it has spoken so powerfully to you. Then when you translate it, you translate this mood. Not the strict letter. You never only translate words, instead you translate buoyancy, grief, humour, gravity or weightlessness. You can do that only with the poems you love.” He concludes, “If there’s no love for the poem, then it is dead, and you can’t translate a dead poem. There’s no pulse to find.”
Getting there: Read some of Akhil’s poetry here.
This story was contributed by Urvashi Bahuguna, a writer based in New Delhi.
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