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Why Akhil Katyal is a Poet For Our Times

His second book, "How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross" seeks to document the turbulent history of South Asia through verse.

Even if you’re not a Times of India subscriber where he has a weekly poetry column, you’ve surely encountered Akhil Katyal’s sharp yet laconic verse on contemporary issues from Section 377 to agrarian distress. All poetry is political certainly stands true for this poet’s work.

His second book of poems, How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, Rs 350), seeks to document the turbulent history of South Asia through verse and covers the full range from everyday issues to global conflicts.

Katyal’s book transports you from the streets of Delhi to Kashmir and Palestine all in two pages. He is unafraid to use language to his advantage in critiquing the current regime especially in poems like Hindus never ate Beef*, and Gurgaon is now Gurugram. In the latter he writes:

The idea is BJP’s 

They say it’s for Guru Dronacharya 

Eklavya be like “Bitch, please!” 

Katyal’s book transports you from the streets of Delhi to Kashmir and Palestine all in two pages.

The first time I read any of his poems about Kashmir, I couldn’t stop thinking about Agha Shahid Ali. Katyal describes himself as his “desperate and willing epigone” and dedicates the book to him. Poet Christopher Merrill, a friend of Agha Shahid Ali, says that the late poet would have cherished how Katyal depicts the tragedy of conflict in Kashmir. Rightly so because Katyal provides a chilling description of the conflict that has lasted seven decades in poems like Identity Card, Kashmir and Peacetime. In The Incredible India J&K Tourism Video he writes:

I suppose the most crucial role here is the editor’s:

so damn difficult to keep the dead out. To keep

the greens of the hills, the blue of the lake, the

white of the snow, and still, to keep the red out.”

Katyal ties the shared history and culture of India and Pakistan much against the wishes of politicians from both sides. His poetry fosters a feeling of oneness in the face of all the forces that are trying to make everything Islamic as “theirs” and everything Hindu as “ours”. In poems like He was born in 1948, So He’s, Katyal describes how people from both sides of the border are trying to divide our culture, our music and poetry along the same lines as our borders were drawn up in 1947 during the Partition. He highlights the absurdity of such an act.

Katyal ties the shared history and culture of India and Pakistan much against the wishes of politicians from both sides.

Katyal extends the use of the metaphor of Delhi, its small lanes and its well-known spaces to document his personal history with the city. In Things You Discover Your First Day Cycling in Delhi one travels with Katyal from Defence Colony to DPS Mathura Road to Pragati Maidan and finally into Lutyens’ Delhi, reminiscing with him as he describes his love affair with the city.

He has an interesting approach to history in many poems in this collection; he has taken from ancient sources like Kalhana’s Rajatarangini in his poem titled Mihirgulla where he describes the fate of the vicious Hun who was known to subdue the people of Kashmir cruelly. In For Someone Who Will Read This 500 Years From Now, he superimposes the future with what we make of the present.

Katyal has succeeded in presenting with a renewed freshness of form and diction, the problems of our era. If someone with even a limited knowledge of Kashmir read his poems, they would speak to them. As poet Mangalesh Dabral wrote in praise of the collection, “Violent histories are being made every day… Akhil Katyal… makes lasting poetic documents out of these histories.” Most importantly, Katyal has achieved what good art must do — make its readers think and reflect.

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