Poet Verses Delhi

Akhil Katyal chronicles Delhi’s many moods in his new poetry collection

Originally published in India Today.

The last line of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Chandni Chowk, Delhi” gives Akhil Katyal’s new book its title, but the entire collection seems impelled by the poem’s opening command—“Swallow this summer street…” In these Delhi poems, Katyal imbibes the streets and seasons of the capital city in order to, as he says, “make sense of it.”

Katyal has been making sense of Delhi for the last seventeen years, ever since he moved from Lucknow for his bachelor’s. He describes how living on his own helped him develop a relationship with the city. “You have your own space, but the city is always available—as escape, as wonder, as fun, as solace.” We meet in Jangpura Extension, where he now lives, and which figures in some of his poems, including the collection’s first:

… Our beginnings
were rocky, we held hands uneasily,
like Def Col and Kotla,
but then, in some years,
often and more breezily,
like Jangpura & Jangpura

As in Ravish Kumar’s Ishq Mein Shahar Hona, which Katyal translated into English in 2018, the currents of love, friendship, and politics course through Delhi’s thoroughfares and eddy around its colonies. Appropriately for a city with constant “personality changes,” Katyal writes in a range of registers, from wit wrapped in doggerel, to melancholy and elegiacal. He uses English and Urdu-inflected Hindi, and a smattering of Punjabi. Katyal says he writes “sixty-forty, English to Hindi”; his publisher was keen that this, his third collection of poetry, include both roman and Devanagari scripts.

Katyal also draws from the diverse poetic traditions; he observes that “in Delhi there’s university spaces, there’s a slam space, there’s government sponsored sammelans, there’s Jantar Mantar and all the protest poetry.” For example, the laughter of the hasya kavi sammelans at the Diwali melas his father took him to in Lucknow echoes through the sly, punchy Punjabi of “कदी बेब्बे जी दिग्गे , कदी बाउजी”. The “great sense of rhythm and chhand” Katyal admired in the Hindi page poetry he encountered at school makes his way into his work too. Katyal rattles off Kedarnath Agarwal’s “Basanti Hawa”, stressing the poem’s gusting, short lines that mimic its subject matter. Similarly, his own “Twenty kinds of people on the Delhi metro” captures the jostling of bodies and the stop-start speed of the train, with descriptions of each type of commuter spilling across the line breaks.

There’s sharp social and political commentary in “Maruti Swift” and “At the swear-in ceremony”, and the more rousing “हम हैं दिल्ली वाले जी”, which has a flavour of the call-and-response declarations of unity at the city’s protests. There are love poems too, from erotic (“At the tailor’s”), to dark and lustful (“Jangpura Extension”, “I want to 377 you so bad”), to simply wistful (“Tum yaad aate ho”).

Delhi’s queer “concentrics” form a net of reference around Katyal’s writing, knitting together people and places, from the Saheli office to “दिल्ली दी गे पार्टियां” (Kaytal is currently co-editing an anthology of queer South Asian poetry). Dedications to friends and fellow poets mingle with paeans to JNU, meditations at crematoriums and ghats, and poems that mirror in words the embellishments of Akbar’s tomb in Agra, the “leaden longing” of the chandelier at Jama Masjid, or the gaiety of Connaught Place in 1950. Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s sketches complement this imagery without overwhelming it.

Some poems tell more involved tales, such as “That evening”, an account of an encounter with a familiar stranger at a performance of Rajat Kapoor’s Hamlet – The Clown Prince. The poem, which swells to a stirring affirmation, hints at Katyal’s untapped narrative talents—“I’m very keen on starting a novel,” he says. “There is a way in which prose pushes you to elaborate rather than remain with the first insight, which you’ve cooked and baked in a poem.” Given that his poems already surge with observations typically bitten back, that’s plenty to be excited about. 

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