The language of Delhi

A couple of months back, a friend and I were walking down from the SDA Market in South Delhi towards Aurobindo Market, when she pointed out a road sign and said to me: “You know, I can read all the four scripts (Roman, Devnagari, Nastaliq and Gurmukhi) on it.” I could read only the first two and asked her to teach me at least one of the others. In Akhil Katyal’s latest collection of poems — his third — this experience, which must be common for so many of our fellow citizens, finds poetic expression and historical resonance.

“My grandfather/would ask us to read him/the shop signs in Devnagari:” writes Katyal. “All his life, he/only knew Urdu,/leaving Lahore at 18.” The grandfather in question moved from west Punjab to Delhi, and then to Lucknow (Katyal’s hometown) as a refugee, and never learnt the Devnagari script, depending on his grandchildren to read out shop signs to him. But he never taught them Nastaliq either: “Years later,/when I ache to read Faiz’s letters/in his own handwriting, I have to/write to a Facebook friend in Lahore,/or ask an old Jangpura neighbour,/or worse, use a translation app.” Katyal finds he has no visa to go to the language which his grandfather inhabited. 

In a remarkable trilingual experiment, Katyal gives the reader the shop signs first in Devnagari, and then moves on to Nastaliq while referring to Panchkuian Road, where his grandfather first lived after coming to India. The theme continues in the next few poems “In the Urdu class” and “In the third Urdu class”. In many ways, the places, languages—several poems in the book are in Hindi—and memories we inhabit is the theme of this book — wonderfully illustrated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh — which carries as its subtitle: “Delhi Poems”. Through these poems, Katyal performs a cartographic act, bringing to life the metropolis which he has adopted as his home. 

For Katyal, there are two self-confessed inspirations for writing about Delhi: Aga Shahid Ali and Ravish Kumar. He translated Kumar’s Ishq Mei Seher Hona, comprising short love narratives. At the same time, Katyal is also located within a larger community of poets, currently living and working in Delhi and writing about it relentlessly. Some of these poets are Michael Creighton (New Delhi Love Songs, 2017), Maaz Bin Bilal (Ghazalnama, 2019), and yours truly (Visceral Metropolis, 2017). This is not an exhaustive list and also does not include poets working in languages other than English. 

ike Blood on the Bitten Tongue Delhi Poems

Katyal, as his many fans would already know, also creates a queer map for Delhi. He has been a queer rights activist for many years. His poems “I want to 377 you so bad” and “Girl, when you” have gone viral on social media. (Katyal often first publishes his poems online.) The first one reads: “I want to break laws/with you in bed and in streets and in parks”. This poem was written in 2013 — the Supreme Court revoked sections of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised non-heteronormative intercourse, only in 2018. These lines are like throwing down the gauntlet to the law.

In the second poem, Katyal casts light on how silly the law was anyway: “Girl, when you/blow your boy…/I know it feels/like heaven, you/too violate 377.” (This poem was written in 2014.) The poem that I particularly recommend is “[Varun is Typing]”, which imitates the process of hesitation and inhibition as two men text each other on a messaging app. The poem is easily available online, so I am not describing it; Katyal’s innovation lies in adopting a technological development and incorporating it into a poem of such emotional depth.

Most of the poems in this book will not be unfamiliar to the readers who have probably read them online already. One reason for buying the book is, of course, Ghosh’s art. But even lovers of Katyal’s poetry would be well-advised to get a copy, because reading these poems altogether — and away from the immediate context in which they were first produced — is a very different experience. In some ways it is also a sort of time travel to those events or memories, a visa to the country of the past, where, as L P Hartley tells us, they do things differently.

(The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in February)

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