Akhil Katyal on Poetry and Language

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Indian poet and translator Akhil Katyal about the influence of the poet Agha Shahid Ali, the technique of writing in different languages, as well as his forthcoming work, The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India. 

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Akhil Katyal Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features Indian writer Akhil Katyal.



Merrill: Akhil KATYAL (poet, translator; India) has translated works by Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Agha Shahid Ali, Amrita Pritam, and many others. He teaches English literature at Shiv Nadar University, near New Delhi. His most recent collection of poetry is Night Charge Extra, published in 2015. He participates in the IWP courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.


We are recording from the University of Iowa on October 11, 2016. We had the chance to sit down with Akhil, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Akhil, welcome.


Katyal: Thank you.


Merrill: We have a shared admiration for the poet Agha Shahid Ali. In fact, Shahid was the godfather of my oldest daughter Hannah. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about his place in Indian literature, and your relationship to his work, or how it may have influenced you.


Katyal: You know I’m actually in Delhi constantly surrounded by a lot of poets who are constantly citing his works, so whether it’s Jeet Thayil, whether it’s my university teachers, whether it’s a lot of friends, and now, whether it’s my students. Shahid’s work has risen in academic syllabi in both India and Pakistan. One of the ways in which he was really influential for me, I think, is, is he gave a very restrained, but also a very eloquent vocabulary for loss. And, that’s running throughout the oeuvre of Shahid’s work, so whether in the mid-seventies he wrote about the loss of Begum Akhtar, or whether in the nineties he wrote about what was happening in Kashmir courtesy the Indian state, or whether in the late nineties he wrote about the loss of his mother. I think to find such a disciplined and yet such an eloquent voice, for loss was incredibly influential for me in my own writings, yeah.


Merrill: About the writing of political and other types of poetry, Shahid said, “I’ve always thought that any kind of poetry, political poetry, love poetry, whatever, becomes good poetry when the subject matter is impassioned with the writer. That is, let’s say, if you can write about your country or the suffering of your people the way you could write about the loss of a lover.” And that’s so vintage Shahid, isn’t it? Is this also your goal? And who might be the political poets who move you the most?


Katyal: You know, in the same interview where he said that, there’s also another thing which I’ll paraphrase. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he also said something, that one of the ways that he never wants to try is, the words should never be a dustbin for self-indulgence. What it should be is a vessel for his emotions. I think the difference between that is, and particularly with political poetry is it becomes very, very difficult; it’s a very thin line, to manage that. I have worked with, I’m comfortable with and hope to work with two kinds of poems, so I’m not skeptical of the propaganda poem, or skeptical of the direct poem, the poem which imagines an audience of an assembled rally or a crowd or a very direct audience. And yet, and I think poems which last, poems which help you change the way you think, poems which have a more meditative quality are the ones in which Shahid’s way of understanding a political poem is the only way which works. I mean, I’m thinking of “Lenox Hill,” which is one of his most popular poems, and I think a really powerful poem from the last century, in which, to speak about the loss of his mother, who was dying in the nineties, is completely indistinguishable from how he speaks about the loss of his homeland, Kashmir. So, and it’s a canzone, it’s an extremely difficult form, sixty-five-line poem with five end-repeating words, and he mounts such an elaborate net, of loss and hope together of this image of the child, of an image of an elephant who—a mother who had died long back—and her son coming to visit the skeleton of the mother. That’s incredibly alive if you think of Kashmir today, in fact as we speak today, Kashmir has gone into the ninety-fourth or ninety-fifth day of curfew, and you have stories of mothers and sons exactly like this which are being repeated ad nauseam. So Shahid was in, which is why I think Shahid has an incredible place, because he spoke to a political reality as real, as is one moment of the loss of his mother.


Merrill: Yeah. And he not only fuses the two, in the same way that he prized in the Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who, for whom the beloved could as easily be the idea of revolution. But he also brings to the table such masterful technique, to write the canzone as he does in “Lenox Hill,” an incredibly difficult formal imperative, and yet he uses, I think he especially in the later poems, he uses his command of craft as a way to keep a leash on the emotions, right?


Katyal: Oh, absolutely. You know, when the subject matter is so large, or when the subject matter is so topical, or the subject matter is so overwhelming—how is it you will prevent your own words to go out of control? And I think one of the ways it, what helps is a villanelle or a ghazal or a canzone. So whether it’s the rhymed couplets, or whether it’s to look for that right repetition in a villanelle, or whether it is to actually think through something—which is what repetition allows you in a canzone—to think through that emotional state. I think that is what allowed him the discipline, and that is what makes the poem almost surgical in its emphasis.  Rather than something, which is short-lived, rather than something, which simply makes a statement and then dies out and I think the form allowed him that. He is also someone who was very playful in his translations, and as it happens, it—his turn to form seems to be a response to that play. As you had suggested earlier, and in your work as well, his turn to form seems to be a response to the earlier playfulness with Faiz and with Faiz’s poetry, which, “The Rebel’s Silhouette” …


Merrill: Play, playfulness could also mean a sort of loose approach to that—to the form.


Katyal: Yeah. A loose approach to the original, and the form. “The Rebel’s Silhouette,” which is also a loose translation of Naksh-E-Fariyadi, which is Faiz’s, one of the names in the collection that comes from Ghalib, something that I teach to my students in the classroom. So it lives, it lives very actively in my academic and my poetic life.


Merrill: I love that, yeah. You mentioned Kashmir, and you write about it.  How would you distinguish the way that you try to write about the people’s relationship to the land and to the larger conflict, say, from Shahid’s?


Katyal: You know that’s really important for me because I usually find myself, if I were to look back at my own work, I usually find myself talking about the Indian state’s relation to Kashmir. And my audience for those poems, I always imagine them to be an Indian audience rather than a Kashmiri audience. So I always talk about the response that the state, through various apparatuses, whether it’s the military apparatus, whether it’s the state apparatus, whether it’s a cultural apparatus, so I always find myself talking about trying to reckon what is it that we as a nation, we as a people, have been doing to Kashmir since the forties. It’s not only since the militancy started in the late eighties, but since the forties what has been our response. So I think it’s self-reflection, rather than claiming to speak about what Kashmiri reality is from a Kashmiri standpoint. Even Shahid was really skeptical of that. He was very conscious of the fact that he wrote in English, and that he didn’t write in Kashmiri, and in interview after interview that I have read, he disowned the title of anyone who would even suggest that he was the national poet of Kashmir even if he, even if it gave him some secret pleasure. But he would disown it, because he said, “That is not the words that I claim to speak.” I’m certainly not a nationalist poet of any kind, even if I speak of concerns which happen to be of the Kashmiri nation. So I speak of my own nation, and what it’s doing to Kashmir rather than of the Kashmiri reality of which, of each and every Kashmiri is more informative than I am.


Merrill: That seems to me to be close to Charlie Simic’s idea that the epic poet is always speaking on behalf of large ideas of bloodshed, but it is the lyric individual voice which in Charlie’s view, has the most enduring value—that single lyrical voice against the tribe, which as he says, always asks you to agree to murder.


Katyal: Oh, absolutely. And you know right now in India and in Pakistan, actually, it’s anathema to speak of Kashmir in any way which is not statist. So people are being booked under Public Securities Act, people are being booked under sedition laws, people are being constantly hounded by various media channels for having an opinion which differs from the absolute letter of the state, and what we need in Kashmir. And this is why Shahid was really important. What we need in Kashmir is not political strategy but what we need is a moral arc, which informs our political strategy. And the absolute embrace of loss in Shahid or absolute embrace of forms of beauty in Shahid, I think are the ones who can even suggest a hint of that moral arc that both India and Pakistan need to adopt in relation to Kashmir, and from that will emerge any kind of political solution. That’s what I think. And I think Shahid is going to become more important as time passes by, which is tied to the tragic endurability of the Kashmiri crisis as well.


Merrill: Another thing you share with Shahid is sexuality. You have said that, “it was easier to come out to my family as a gay man than it was to come out as a poet.” I think Shahid would have loved that since he did not come out to his family until he was in his mid-thirties. So why is that? And what are the challenges of that stance in contemporary India?


Katyal: So, when that was said it was also partially a joke.


Merrill: Yeah.


Katyal: So, in one sense to be a poet, the reverse might be true for most people, but the thing is I come from a family of engineers. My father, my uncles, my brother—they are all engineers of one kind or the other. And for me to adopt English literature as something that I could study, like my parents were absolutely aghast at the fact that English literature could be something that you studied other than just a hobby. And they said “how can you make a hobby, how can you make money out of a hobby?” And, I mean, now they are suitably corrected, but I think that was, to be able to be the only person in the entire joined family to be doing poetry, to be taking it seriously, was something that was always a matter of family humor. But, I mean to be fair, sexuality was far more of a struggle, as it, as is true, as it has been for many people including Agha Shahid Ali. You know it’s a really interesting story. In the late nineties, there were two collections which came out in India, in South Asia, one which was Yaraana: Gay Writing from India, edited by Hoshang Merchant, and another called Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, which was edited by Saleem Kidwai—a very close friend of Shahid—and Ruth Vanita, who teaches in Montana here. Shahid refused to be part of both volumes. And whereas, his refusal to Merchant, is more understandable because he didn’t appreciate the way the collection was happening and Merchant has told me that, but his refusal to Kidwai was something which was taken as a betrayal, because Kidwai was such a close friend. But that tells you about the difficulty of what it meant to him, to be, to put his parents in the place of publicly acknowledging Shahid’s sexuality, his father particularly. Because he, they were sitting on the top of such a fragile net of connections, and it would, it would unfurl, it would not be easy to resolve, if that were to be a…


Merrill: And I, I think that he justified it in his own mind to a certain extent by invoking Elizabeth Bishop’s refusal to appear in anthologies of women’s poetry. She, she said she didn’t want to be “ghettoized” and I seem to recall Shahid invoking some of that same argument, but I suspect that the deeper issue had to do with his own parents.


Katyal: Yeah, and, and which must tie in very beautifully with how sometimes identities become traps, especially when it comes to categorization of literature. Though, that, it doesn’t make him shy away from writing about desire, it doesn’t make him shy away from writing about his identity as Kashmiri, so, I think, I think there’s a constant sense of play, flirtation even with those identities, rather than, rather than stamping it on one foot. Yeah.


Merrill: So in your poems, you often reference “377,” or Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized certain kinds of sexual behavior, and I wonder if you could talk about how popular and political views of sexuality have evolved in India in recent years, and how has your work spoken to that?


Katyal: You know, I came to Delhi for my education but one of the really important influential phases of my life was in Delhi because I found other queer friends. And they sort of adopted me, and we became sort of a family. And, the affective relationship to queer activism in Delhi is the one which informs a lot of my writing as well, and my sense of relationships, so when the first Delhi Queer Pride was organized in 2007, or 2006 if I’m not mistaken, we were involved in it, we were organizing it together. And the poems on Section 377, there are a few that I’ve written both in English and in Hindi, are the ones that I wrote to be recited to an audience of about two thousand people or three thousand people during the Delhi Queer Pride, when the Pride ends for a small staged event. So, it was written just to create a sense of community, it was written to talk about the absolute blunder that this law is, which was introduced by the British in 1860s, and which criminalizes primarily relationships between men, but by being absolutely silent about relationships between women it effectively criminalizes that too. And Section 377, the history of colonialism is also the history of anti-sodomy laws. And it spreads in Africa and Asia, along with that though in Britain in 1967 it goes away. But we are left with it, and government after government seems to support it, except a few minor voices. Our current minister, for instance, said it’s unnatural. So, when you speak to three thousand people in the center of Delhi during the Queer Pride and talk about 377 as being as being absolute, the worst reality that is possible, you make a joke out of it. And thank God for that.


Merrill: Yeah. Can you talk a bit about your forthcoming work, The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India? When will the book be published, and what should listeners know to look forward to?


Katyal: So, that’s my academic book that came after some years of research. I did my Ph.D. at SOAS in the University of London. The book is about how there are different idioms of same-sex desire in India. I studied Hindi and Urdu literature in the 1930s to 50s. I studied gay and lesbian literature and activist publications, and what I found out is that folks in India whose primary ways of speaking are in Hindi and Urdu, were not waiting for the terms “gay” and “lesbian” to appear in their country to practice it or to stand by it. So I was looking at what are the other ways in which folks were doing it, thinking about it…


Merrill: And naming it.


Katyal: And naming it. And I found that there are various ways, and there were very flexible ideas of friendship, there were very flexible ideas of what constituted fun and play, and there were understandings of, very playful but pejorative, understandings of indulgence, or what is a bad habit, or what’s an addiction. And the idea was, you know, to be ordinary is to have some bad habits because if you’re extraordinary you’re a god. So, that’s the bit that I found in Hindi and Urdu literature and this book sort of brings together those ideas, those idioms of same-sex desire. It’s coming out later this year, in December. And the other work that I’ve been doing during this residency, which I have been really glad to get this time to do is a translation of an amazing Hindi writer, Ravish Kumar. His book called Ishq Mein Shahar Hona, or “The City Happens in Love,” which is a collection of eighty-eight flash fiction pieces about lovers inhabiting Delhi, and how Delhi is becoming possible in the habitation of those lovers. So…


Merrill: That makes me think of a wonderful title by the American poet, Li-Young Lee, “The City in Which I Love You.”


Katyal: “The City in Which I Love You”?


Merrill: It’s some kind of a variation on that.


Katyal: You’re right.


Merrill: Well, Hindi has a fifteen-hundred-year-long history and belongs to an even older family of Sanskrit literature. And I wonder which writers within the Hindi literary tradition, or broader, in the South Asian, have inspired you in your own work. What are some of the pivotal Hindi texts for you?


Katyal: You know the language that was spoken around me as I grew up was an odd mixture of Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi, and in school, English. So we were caned if we did not speak in English in our school because it was, it’s a horrible colonial hangover, and that was the school that I lived in. It’s a two-hundred-year-old school, but at home, and elsewhere, we were speaking Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. So the writers that I admire are also the ones in each of those languages. So they could be Parveen Shakir, who was an Urdu Pakistani poet; they could be Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was an extremely important influence on Agha Shahid Ali as well. And a contemporary Hindi poet that I really admire because he has an almost paused, meditative, understanding of contemporary political realities is Mangalesh Dabral. His work has been recently translated as This Number Does Not Exist, that’s the American edition which has just come out, and where nine of us have actually translated his works, along with Christi Merrill, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and several others. And, that’s an incredible volume, and Mangalesh Dabral is someone who I teach in the university as well, and was really lucky that he came and spoke to my students as well recently. And I think Mangalesh Dabral is someone who makes, turns Hindi, molds Hindi, to be able to speak about political realities which are, which also make sense in an international context rather than just in a parochial, Hindi-land context.


Merrill: And you write in both English and in Hindi, and can you talk a little bit about the different ways in which you approach the writing of a poem in one language or another?


Katyal: You know, the thing is, when you write in English, in a city like Delhi, you immediately curtail your audience. When I write in English, I usually write it for a poetry reading, which would have forty people or fifty people, maximum a hundred people. But when you write in Hindi, you know that you can read that poem in a gathering of three thousand people, you know that you can read a poem in a rally, you know that you can read a poem and it will travel much faster. So the circuits in which the poem make sense often determines the language in which I speak of it. Sometimes you just feel its heart in a particular language and that determines which language you’re going to use when you write something.


Merrill: Does a poem ever start in one language and then move to the other language for you?


Katyal: I usually find if something is playful, I end up writing in Hindi, and if something sad or sensuous, I end up writing in English. And that seems… I mean the language for pause for me is English, but the language of fun for me is Hindi, and that seems – I mean, and that might be, that might have a lot to do with the language of uh, education and meditation for us in, in an English-medium school, was determined. And the language of excess, the language of, of dance, the language of uh, um, jealousy, and the language of all those emotions was Hindi. So, I often translate my own poems as well, uh, so the, the poems usually – at least thirty of my poems must exist both in Hindi and English versions.


Merrill: I see, I see. Have you ever been tempted to write in Punjabi or Urdu?


Katyal: One of my students started teaching me the Urdu script over the last year, so now thankfully after ages of frustration I have been able, I have started reading the Urdu script as well. So, the language in which I write—it’s a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. So that is indistinguishable. In fact, the difference between Hindi and Urdu is purely political, you know, they’re pretty much the same language, though they’re written differently. Punjabi is something that I cannot read the script of. But my parents always spoke to each other in Punjabi, even if they spoke to us in Hindi and English. So, I translate from Punjabi, but I find myself stuttering when I write in it. But I translate from Punjabi all the time.


Merrill: I see.


Katyal: Amrita Pritam being one of my favorite poets to translate.


Merrill: So, what has been the effect of the translations from Punjabi, from Hindi into English, of American writers into Hindi? You have an extensive life as a translator.


Katyal: You know, the first time I was invited to read some poems recited at the Delhi Queer Pride, I ended that poetry recitation with “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes and that was in Hindi, and also the poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” And you wouldn’t—I mean, it would be very easy to imagine what kind of effect that would’ve had. I mean, we had thousands of people cheering together, because that spoke, I mean that was the truth of the American Civil Rights movement here, “What happens to a dream deferred?” could easily be relocated into a different political reality. “[Recites a line in Hindi].” And that poem and the response that it met was electric. “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? … [Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load? / Or does it explode?” And that’s precisely what was happening in the Delhi Queer Pride. It wasn’t sagging like a heavy load. Something, their deferred dream was exploding. And that in Hindi worked perfectly.


Merrill: Can we hear some of it in Hindi?


Katyal: [Recites the poem in Hindi] So that’s what it…


Merrill: That’s wonderful.


Katyal: “[Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?


Merrill: So, before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could tell us a little about what you’re working on now, and what you’re reading, and if you have any recommendations for our listeners.


Katyal: So, as far as my next poetry volume is concerned, it’s coming out sometime in 2017; it’s being done by this group called Great Indian Poetry Collective, which is actually a bunch of poets based in India and in the U.S. It’s tentatively titled Comeback, but I don’t like the title so it most probably will change. And the book that I’ve just started reading, in fact I’m only on the first chapter, is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Well, I thought this might be the perfect time to read it, considering it’s the first two months of mine as well. I’m only on the first chapter but I already like the voice, and her trying to explode reality of Africans in America, as against African-Americans. It’s, like, I’m hooked. But I would suggest that; I’m, already on the premise of the first chapter. But I’m sure it only gets better. Yeah.


Merrill: Okay. Well, Akhil, thank you so much. This has been really, quite enjoyable and illuminating.


Katyal: Thanks a lot, Chris, thank you so much.

Additional Information

Akhil Katyal
December 15, 2017

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