Poetry, Kashmiri Writing in English, South-Asian Queer Literature, and LGBT Activism in India are just few of the many interests of poet, Akhil Katyal. Best known for his book The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India, Mr Katyal is a former English major and current professor at Shiv Nadar University. He can easily be pegged a full time thinker and writer. Through his two recent poems Identity Card and Mihirgulla, he reveals what drives him to be the poet he is today.
The 6th century Hun of Kashmir
was so known for his cruelty
that 'people could tell of
the approach of his armies by
the vultures and crows that flew ahead of them.'
Kalhana wrote in his Rajatarangini,
that the Hun was 'a terrible enemy of mankind,
who had no pity for children,
no compassion for women,
no respect for the aged.'
all Kashmiris remember,
was a long night of massacre
that they thought would never end.
Does India know that
as one more spring was sharpening Jehlum's air,
the Hun took his own life?
(thanks to Prem Nath Bazaz)
Name: Nasir Shafi
School: Greenlight Higher Secondary
Resident Of: New Theed Harwan, Srinagar
Father's Name: 'More than 300 pellets pierced my son’s body.'
Mother's Name: 'He was tall and looked much older for his age.'
'...distinction holder...', '...ace footballer...', '...wanted to be an engineer...', '...had promised us he will take mummy and papa on Haj...'
Last Seen: '...boys were throwing stones at government forces near the Theed bus stand. Around 5 pm, or later, the forces surrounded the spot from all sides. I saw Rakshak jeeps speeding towards us...We ran towards the Dachigam Park forest...As we reached near the Hapatghar, the bear cage, the police were already there...some of us tried to hide behind bushes and trees, others ran towards the saraband, the reservoir...I climbed a tree to save myself...I saw the SHO order his men to catch the boys...then I saw Nasir alone in the Saraband. A group of five policemen went towards him...one among them pointed his gun at him and fired...he fell down instantly...'
Date of Death: 17-Sept- 2016
Cause of Death according to local Police: Killed by a Bear.
Meaning of Name: Nasir, 'Protector', 'Helper', 'The one who will bring victory'
(thanks to Ubeer Naqushbandi, Junaid Nabi Bazaz, Abir Bashir, Faisal Khan and Jehangir Ali)
Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in Lucknow. My family wanted me to be an engineer but I escaped that tragedy thanks to the last-minute change of heart of my father. I was rushed to DU with a single day left for the admissions to close. Hindu College, English honours, third list, last name. That was 2003. I’ve been living in Delhi ever since. I’ve been writing poetry for about the same time. And at my university now, I also teach poetry.
As far as poems are concerned, some of the things that I admire to bits are the elegiac books of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, the sensuous longing in the Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, the elegant simplicity of the Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral, and the fiery rage of Meena Kandasamy. Apart from them W.H. Auden’s poems on love, Mark Doty’s on loss and Dorothy Parker’s on self-deprecating dark-ass shit have always been besides me.
When did you first discover your love for writing and translation?
Through my teacher at Hindu College in Delhi University, Lalita Subbu. In the early 2000s. In those amateur days, she had taken me under her wing. As she did with so many young poets, singers, photographers and film-makers. She would colour my poetry drafts red and spend a lifetime discussing each line. After college classes every weekday, Lalita, Vaibhav, another common friend, and I used to trudge along to Delhi School of Economics (DSchool) canteen. Where she treated both of us to cutlets and coffee. And talked with us of everything under the sun. Our trips in life, our writing, our classes, our love-lives (or the lack of it). Those were the days and her’s was the kindness and mentorship that allowed me to take
myself seriously as some sort of a writer. Of course you keep on learning. And when I falter now, often, I wish Lalita was around to discuss these knots away.
As far as translation was concerned, over the years, the wish to read Dorothy Parker’s playfulness or W.H. Auden’s lovelorn-ness in Hindi, or Amrita Pritam’s longing or Paash’s anger in English, was too overpowering to not attempt it.
How do you strike a balance between the endless world of academia and writing?
I don’t find them pulling in different directions at all. They complement each other. Classrooms often help me think through several ideas – whether political, ethical or aesthetic - that find a way into my poems later on. I have had the pleasure of teaching some amazing students over the last six years in Delhi, at DU and at SNU, who’ve kept me on my toes, and from whom I’ve learnt a lot during our conversations, Ifra, Carl, Ranjit, Abhishek, Mouli, Indranjan, Arghya, Sthira, Zoya, Ankit, Simar, Rovel, Sameer, among several, several others.
As we discussed Namdeo Dhasal or Amitav Ghosh, Jonathan Swift or Malik Sajad, Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Agha Shahid Ali, pennies kept dropping in my head. These conversations have helped me understand tricky things about the world around me. And that’s the thing that makes you keep on writing. So I find that the spaces of academia have always made so much of my poetry possible.
What inspired you to write Identity Card and Mihirgulla?
What inspired? Kashmir and Kashmiris.
What India is doing in Kashmir is unconscionable. What it has been doing there for decades is outright violent and morally repugnant. It has devastated the Kashmiris but it has also brutalized us. We should be clear, we are there only because of military strength and nothing else. We have blood on our hands, of several thousands of Kashmiris and of our own soldiers, sons of farmers and labourers, who have been airlifted there to fight a war not of their making.
Kashmir is an issue of self-determination of the Kashmiri people. That’s what it is fundamentally. We promised them a plebiscite and forgot about it somewhere along the way. Our leaders promised them that. We should have the moral capacity and the political acumen to give them that. It’s their right, the right of the common Kashmiri people. No amount of territory acquired or kept is worth more than a human life lost in this conflict, whether of a Kashmiri or of our soldier.
These big-brother bully states of India and Pakistan need to get this sorted and create conditions in which self-determination of Kashmiris can be pushed through. That’s the only long-term vision we can have which doesn’t make killers of us all.
As a poet, how do you even wrap your head around this large, complicated subject matter, this maslaye-Kashmir, this long standing military stalemate that has brutalized our part of the world? Identity Card and Mihirgulla are both attempts in that direction.
I take cue from Kashmiri writers such as Mirza Waheed, Irfan Mehraj, Muzaffar Karim, Essar Batool, Agha Shahid Ali, Nitasha Kaul and Omair Bhat, among several others.
Identity Card is an attempt to speak of the death of Nasir Shafi, the eleven year old who we gunned down with pellets last year. Whose every promise we snuffed out without blinking. His school ID card was photographed by one of the Kashmiri photographers. This poem came out of that photograph.
Mihirgulla, the 6 th century Hun of Kashmir, I had first encountered in Agha Shahid Ali’s canzone Lenox Hill, and reading up more and more on him, I realized there is a history lesson for us Indians here. Strong military regimes that do not care for the will of the people write their own doomsdays into being with every life they take. India thinks it is keeping Kashmir by being there, it does not know it is losing itself. That’s what happened to the Hun. That’s what is happening to us. Kalhana got it ages ago. We should too.
What's next for you?
The second book of poems - How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross. It's poems move through India, Kashmir and Pakistan. It will come out later this year with The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Shikha and Rohan, both editors with the collective, have helped me greatly with the book. I am doing the last series of edits.
The other is a book translation project - Ravish Kumar’s Ishq Mein Shahar Hona. I am translating this gorgeous book about Delhi into English. It’s almost done!
Text Priyanshi Jain
Photography by Thomas Langdon