In this book, How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross?, the poems have been divided into three sections:

  • To will the distant mountains to glass
  • To will the distant mountains to glass
  • To will the distant mountains to glass

This sentence is the second line from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”. The poems in the first section are about the things and moments that appear distant to the author now. The second section is about the will, exercised and not, in pursuit of a passion. The passion has different scales and it varies from the love for cities like Delhi, to history, and the kind of passion that spills into road rage, on the restrictions of passion (the fast-turning-iconic “I want to 377 you so bad”), from passionate love to the passion for one’s nation, which, if unchecked, turns into jingoism, the exploding passion in Shammi Kapoor’s Yahoo, Chale Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe and the muffled passion in Aligarh.

The third section is about the valley. Ananaya Jahanara Kabir called Kashmir the “territory of desire”. In Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, this desire took several shapes from reminiscence to arrive at a moment of witnessing. Katyal follows in this tradition and his poetry becomes an act of recording oral narratives of the present moment in the valley.

Archivist of the present

Here is a collection of poems that is transparent, sharp and full of gut-wrenching truth. Katyal’s poetry spills out love, pain, passion, desire and a yearning to understand his present moment. His writing has an empathetic will to learn and discover. He opens up a question, an observation with a childlike curiosity, inviting us into the poem, “I confuse my be with pe”, leads us on this quest for clarifications, “He asks me to write, ‘Water’/ I write ‘you’”, and then, he drops the hammer of truth, “Both difficult to hold on to”.

This sudden jolt of realisation hits you as he answers his own dilemmas with the soft blows of poetry. His poetry is delightful, to say the least. He is a poet of our present times, an archivist of the present, if you will. His love for Delhi, Kashmir, languages, and his thirst to understand and unspool the idea of nation, patriotism, borders and religion has taken the shape of an eccentric and powerful collection of verses which becomes more and more relevant with each passing day.

This work, which is quite timely, has managed to sum up Indo-Pak relations as well. He has recorded the present tensions in verses on nation, borders and harmony written before the February escalations which goes to show how much Katyal understands and estimates this tension between our borders. Katyal is observing, recording, and churning the truth through the prism of poetry like the Halahala poison being churned out during the Samudra Manthan.

The crux of the poem turns bitter or sweet depending on who is reading it. Katyal makes acute observations about the present moment that we all are privy to and yet, choose to ignore. He calls us out in direct fashion, but turns the query on its head with a cheeky comment in the verse. It reminds me of a Hasan Minaj joke, “The Indians and Pakistanis, during a cricket match between the two countries scream, ‘India won!’, ‘No, Pak won!’ while Hasan stops the two parties by screaming, ‘No guys, the British won!’” Katyal’s manner of writing echoes the sentiment behind such a joke and provides us with some exceptionally satirical poetry.

Locating Kashmir

Occasionally, though, he also melts us with softly sincere and honest poems. In some of the verses focussing on love, relationships and Kashmir, Katyal seems to be in a conversation with Agha Shahid Ali’s work. He explores Shahid’s Kashmir and tries to find a way to look at it, the way Shahid couldn’t. The only way to do so is of course by locating Kashmir and Kashmiris in their present moment. Katyal is picking up the mantle from where Shahid left it, but it is inevitable that he can only explore Kashmir as an outsider, looking in.

This is reflected in the poems in which he weaves his verses in the manner of documentation. In “Identity Card”, he writes, “Name: Nasir Shafi/ D.O.B: 13-Jan-2005 / School: Greenlight Higher Secondary / Class: VII / Residence: New Theed Harwan / 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’, ‘great footballer’, ‘wanted to be an engineer’, ‘had promised he will take mummy and papa on Haj’ / Date of Death: 17-Sept-2016…”

While Shahid writes of a “city from which no news can come”, Katyal writes of a Kashmir where news of death has become a morbid and mechanical affair. He moves with an unsettling ease through the darkness of the Indian subcontinent and each poem leaves you with a question for which you must want to discover answers. The politics, violence, morality, sexuality and geography of the nation become the meeting points for these questions for which there are no hints, just a frantic recording of frantic moments which pass us faster than a tweet. Katyal ensures that these questions – which appear in the form of a soldier at Siachen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a refugee grandfather, and a Shammi Kapoor sliding down the snow – are not forgotten in this whirligig where “India” acquires a different meaning with each passing moment.

Katyal’s work also shines in discovering love in the cracks of Delhi’s geography through poems like, “[Varun is typing]”, “For Someone Who’ll Read this Five Hundred Years From Now”, or “He Was As Arrogant As”. Reading this collection, over and over again, and sharing the poems with friends and colleagues from whom I received near-identical responses at the beauty of these verses, I imagine a young student, decades from now, sifting through these verses and creating a shrine for this book in his heart – just as I and many others from the current generation of readers carry a constant memorabilia of Shahid’s lines in ours.

How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross?, Akhil Katyal, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.