Early into a reading last Sunday, poet Akhil Katyal asked his audience: “How many of you know Hindi?” Many hands shot up instantly. “And, how many of you know Urdu?” he added. This time, the number of hands was few. Amused by the response, Katyal tried to explain how the two languages were siblings, even twins: “So what do you say: ‘Mere hriday mein vichaar aaya’?” Naturally, the audience chose the former. “Well, then you know Urdu as well,” Katyal declared, commenting on how those who associate languages with religions do so only out of political motivations.
Katyal himself travels easily between languages. During the course of his reading, he recited — his own compositions or translations from others — in Hindi and Urdu, of course, and also in Punjabi and English. For the uninitiated, he is a well-known New Delhi-based poet and translator, as well as queer activist and academic. He has published a book of poems, Ishq Mein Shahar Hona.
I have heard Katyal perform innumerable times at different places, and have always admired how easily he connects with his audience. (This ability extends beyond live readings into social media, where he commands a large following.) His style is conversational and full of humour that is often charmingly self-deprecating. He eschews the formality of high-minded poetry that often alienates audiences, often resorting to narrative techniques reminiscent of mushairas or spoken word artists. The real star of last Sunday’s evening, however, was not Katyal but the children who read before and with him. All of them are members of The Community Library Project run out of Ramditti J R Narang Deepalaya Learning Centre at Sheikh Sarai in New Delhi.
The project, started in 2015, “believes all people should have access to books”, according to its website. Its stated mission: “(The Project) is animated by the idea that all people should have access to books and thinking through books, and that this can be accomplished by creating libraries that allow people to borrow books at no cost. We are particularly concerned in building a library movement that promotes libraries welcoming all and provide an inclusive space for members to come together to articulate their ideas, opinions, questions and issues.” Since the first library, three more have opened at Sanjay Colony and Gole Kuan, as well as Sikanderpur in Gurugram.
Poets Akhil Katyal and Mohini Gupta with the young poets at the Community Library in Sheikh Sarai on Sunday | Photo: TCLP Facebook page
As many of you would know, Sheikh Sarai is a working-class neighbourhood; many of the students, who are members of this library, are first-generation learners. Some of them were part of a workshop conducted by poets Sujit Prasad, Mohini Gupta and Michael Creighton. The poems produced in this workshop were recited by the young students on Sunday evening. These tackled subjects as varied as corruption and samosas. But, what was surprising was the confidence with which the young poets took stage and recited their verses. They laughed and exploited the rhythm and rapped merrily. Many of their seniors, with volumes to their names, could learn a trick or two from them.
At the beginning of the evening, one of the volunteers, Zoya Chadha, pointed out the poster for the event with the caption: “Duniya sabki, sahitya sabka (The world is everyone’s, so is literature)”. She added that the same poster had been used when poet Manglesh Dabral had come to the library a few months back. This seems to tie in effectively with the mission statement of the library: to take literature out of the confines of universities and elitist readings, and make it more accessible to people who would perhaps not seek it out otherwise. The alacrity with which the audience, many of them residents of the neighbourhood, responded to the recitations that evening would be an encouraging sign for most of us.
The writer’s book of poems, Visceral Metropolis, was published last year and his novel, Ritual, is forthcoming next year