My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sitting dumbfounded after having read this whole book in one go. Such a conundrum. Should I take bite-sized morsels and leave some for later? Or ask for the avalanche?
The avalanche. Always the drowning. Always the surrender.
As I write, there are tingles. I have gooseflesh. I am numb all over and prickling. My body has gone to sleep, my mind is awake in astonishment. These beautiful thoughts, these seductive words; I would happily give myself to day after day. I spent my day with How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross and my one thought, repeatedly was, “Akhil Katyal is Agha Shahid Ali come back to us.”
I carefully posit that Katyal may well be the new voice of India and do I dare say it, even Pakistan. Because at the essence, we are still one, us and them. We separated but have never really gotten over each other. This a book of such great beauty that it is nearly suffocating. Reading this, taking minuscule breaks, I was gasping for air. I took sips of water. It took a litre, maybe more, but my mouth was as parched as the Thar in April.
Katyal writes about difficult things. That is why we have poetry, I suppose, to soften the rock in the throat when we speak of terrible things. War and dead soldiers, children blinded by insurgency, desolate postings in the Siachen, the discomfort of peacetime between assaults. The weight of shadows, the ferocity of desire that hurts even the sheets. When speaking of translating Urdu, he shudders at using a translation app which he likens to “rubbing stones on silk”. A soldier unmans his backpack and throws a grenade into the crevasse. Days later a child picks up a custard apple in the Indus.
His poetry is lush and spartan at once. Formidable and cheeky. Wistful, nostalgic (without the dishonesty), and accessible. Why accessible? Because he writes of the human experience that none of us is safe from. Love will find you, so will loss and deceit. Loneliness, separation, desire. We are not immune. None of us. Memory, hauntings, and the void are all inescapable, but so is tenderness, ardour, and death.
There are some who don’t care for poetry, but I don’t believe we can remain untouched by it. This is a love song to lovers, a letter from bereaved families to their sons, a raunchy sext to the one whose name you have scratched into the side of some World Heritage site. It is a prayer for peace, knowing peace is as tenuous as life. It is a message in a bottle thrown out to sea.
May you find it. May you find this gentle voice. May the words bring you home