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Akhil Katyal’s city of poems

With the launch of his new book, poet Akhil Katyal talks about sexuality and how the city inspires him

Recently, in February, Akhil Katyal, a Delhi-based poet and queer-activist, launched his new book, Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue, which is a collection of poems in English, Hindi, and Urdu. The book’s preoccupation is with Delhi and the various experiences the poet has lived through in this city. The illustrations in the book by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, give a visual interpretation of Katyal’s words Known for his bold, bittersweet, and politically charged poetry, Katyal is influenced by poet Agha Shahid Ali. The title of this book too, is derived from the words in Ali’s poem “Chandini Chowk, Delhi”. Katyal’s book launch also had five other poets, Mangalesh Dabral, Anannya Dasgupta, Aditi Rao, Vikramaditya Sahai, and Chanchal Kumar, also read out their work.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Katyal, after the book launch.

When did you start writing poetry seriously?

One particularly great teacher called Lalita Subbu — who taught us in our undergraduate programme in English at Hindu College in Delhi University — was the one who gave me suggestions, gave my poetry a shape, brought some tightness to it. She told me what the difference between self-indulgence and draft is. She was the one who really finally gave it some form. A good teacher can make all the difference.

The cover of Katyal’s latest book

The cover of Katyal’s latest book   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

You were born in Lucknow, but have always talked about your undying love for Delhi. Tell us a little bit about how this relationship evolved.

It evolved slowly. I was doing my Bachelors and my Masters here. I guess it was a place where you could escape, you could live your life on your own terms, you could go wherever you wished. Classes in the university made you think in terms that you’ve never thought before, you met people you’ve never met before. That was a great thing about Delhi University, because people from all religions, from all walks of life are there. Then, that was a point of no return. You could discover what you were interested in rather than what your school or what your parents wanted for you. Any big city allows that for you whether its Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata or Bangalore, but it was Delhi for me. The city and Delhi University, particularly, allowed me to step out of my own constraint.

(From left) Vikramaditya Sahai, Chanchal Kumar, Mangalesh Dabral, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Anannya Dasgupta, Akhil Katyal, and Aditi Rao at the launch

(From left) Vikramaditya Sahai, Chanchal Kumar, Mangalesh Dabral, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Anannya Dasgupta, Akhil Katyal, and Aditi Rao at the launch   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In one of your earlier interviews, you've said, “It was easier to come out to my family as a gay man than it was to come out as a poet”. Can you explain? Is this reflective of how society perceives the poetic arts?

That was a jocular context. Coming out as a gay man had me riddled for months in terms of what one could say or how much of a life one lived only inside their head rather than freely with one’s family.

In our sub-continent, poetry has always had a public light. So, in that sense a poet is also a figure of much devotion, especially in Urdu and Hindi. In those contexts, poetry doesn’t have a reviled life. But it is always seen as if poetry only happens after some remarkably unique individual inspiration rather than craft, training, discipline and study. And I do think, that is why poet is seen as a peculiar kind of figure rather than someone who has also trained themselves in certain aspects of the craft.

Your poem “He was as arrogant as a” binds the entire city in a love story. It connects emotions to the localities within Delhi. Tell us the story behind this poem.

I was caught in a traffic jam in Chhatarpur one day, and all the cars that were stopping were the fanciest of cars — Audi’s, Porsche’s, and Ferrari’s and I thought ‘where have I come’ . I could see one of those drivers, driving rashly a car which I am sure was worth crores, and emerging from one of the area’s farmhouses. So that line just came to me “he was as arrogant as a Chhatarpur farmhouse”, that he was as arrogant as his origin. Just the fact that the city or a neighborhood can become a metaphor, that idea then worked through the rest of the poem because if Chhatarpur can stand for arrogance then what can other neighborhoods stand for. [But] the lightness of that poem has collapsed in the face of what Delhi’s facing now. That poem cannot be written now. What will Maujpur, Shahdara stand for? Poetry is so little compared to the monstrosity of this moment.

That poem was written in a very different context. You know when it says “kiss me like Shalimar Bagh”, it is because “Shalimar Bagh” is a set of soft consonance and vowels. What has happened now is so large that our words will have to match up to that scale.

Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue by Akhil Katyal, from Context-Westland, ₹499, across bookstores and Amazon.in

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 10:15:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/akhil-katyals-city-of-poems/article30962544.ece

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