Dilli Diary: The poet reports
Akhil Katyal on how poetry can illumine and enlarge our notion of the city we inhabit
It is the loadshedding hour, familiar to most Delhiites. The body is drenched in sweat. In this heat, the city is ‘a jungle without trees’. Any thought of the shade of a gently quivering neem tree is foolishness, the poet tells himself. The heat sends him into a spiral of imaginings around a simple object, a clay pitcher.
The poet is Adnan Kafeel Darwesh. The poem, ‘Garmi ka ek din’ (‘A summer’s day’), from his collection Thithurte Lamp-post (‘Shivering Lamp-posts’). And the pitcher a magical, shapeshifting thing that responds, by turn, to the peculiarities of his thirst, his longing and his fears.
As he gulps down its cool water, it is as if he can hear—with preternatural keenness—a familiar but forgotten tune in the friction between the water and his throat. He looks lovingly at the pitcher. He lives alone. He converses with the pitcher as if it were a friend. The city heat plummets.
Sometimes, when he removes the lid and peers in, his mother’s image moves on the glassy surface of the water. The water even seems to carry her smell, faraway though she is in Garwar, Ballia on the eastern edge of Uttar Pradesh. In such moments, he picks up the pitcher, and caresses it fondly, as if it were a child.
The poem ends with his reverie rudely interrupted by ‘a strange voice/ falling on his ears like a lash’. He cannot distinguish whether it is from a ‘generator or a rifle’—‘in these dangerous times’, it is no longer easy to tell.
Darwesh asks us to consider a series of as ifs. This is what lyric poetry can do, illumining and enlarging our way of seeing something by likening it to something else. And while this sincere metaphorical act of the poet turns the clay pitcher into mother, baby, lover, friend, musical instrument, warning signal, he doesn’t allow us to forget that it is what it is—a pitcher made of clay.
As I look at it, both poem and object, I wonder about poetry’s unique ability to be a vessel for city-stories. What particular view of the city (any city) emerges when we look at it through a poem? What is poetry able to register and report that other genres of writing might not be able to? In other words, what do the images that appear in Darwesh’s little poem tell us about this megalopolis of ours?
In the poet’s moniker for Delhi—the ‘jungle without trees’—is a stand-in image for its densely built environment, the scariest scene of the Anthropocene, most visible in big cities. In the rippling image of his mother is the thread of a migrant’s memory, tenuously linking his hometown to the big city, softening the harshness of where he is now by harking back to where he was then.
In the fearful inability to distinguish between the sound of a rifle and a generator is the sense of the mounting, pervasive threat to his community, keenly registered and reported by a Muslim poet living ‘in these dangerous times’.
And so, this small poem becomes capacious in its ability to inscribe not just an event but its afterlife. It makes room for the emotional detritus that gathers around big or small eruptions of violence. It makes visible the impulses that guide our motivations, as lovers, city-dwellers, sons or daughters; as people belonging to a particular faith.
What often remains unsaid in big-type newspaper headlines finds proper lodging in a poem. As the city becomes increasingly inhospitable for many who thought it was their own, the city of poems becomes the place that can harbour their desires and deliriums, their wishes and visions.
In making room for such visions, the poet creates common cause with his people. The poem can no longer be read only as a private retreat, it becomes a public record for the stinging precariousness of an entire community.
In 'Year 1992', Darwesh marks the long shadow of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the cultural and political life of this country and its capital. He points out that thing, that ‘cheez…/ jo is mulk ke har musalman ke bheetar / ek khafeef aawaaz mein / na jaane kitne barson se musalsal gir rahi hai / jiske dhvans ki aawaaz / ab sirf svapn mein hi sunai deti hai’ (That ‘thing…/ which in every Musalman of this country / in the slightest voice / has been continuously falling for God knows how many years / whose crash / can now only be heard in a dream’.
This signature of an ever-present plane of fear, though not always verbalised, is something perhaps only a poem can hold.
Once you begin to listen through the ears of poets, you might find a different city within your given city. Composed of a different order of stimuli altogether—aural, visual, olfactory, tactile or gustatory—this poet’s city is also the people’s city, drawing us in with wide-open eyes and senses, showing us things which we are numb to, too deadened by habit to even register.
In the poet’s city, even darkness can assume a blessed form—as in Darwesh’s poem 'Pavitra Andhera' (‘The pure dark’)—sheltering young lovers from the skin-flaying crowds of Delhi, growing around them the ancient steps of a baoli, subsuming them in its magic circle, so they may sit close, very close.
In the poet’s city—as in Darwesh’s poem ‘Taariikhii Faisla’ (‘Historic verdict’)—lies that ‘aalaa tareen adalat’, the most supreme of supreme courts, whose one historic decision made the ‘fourth [spectral] dome’ of the Mughaliya masjid fall, this time, all on its own, and in utter silence.
In the poet’s city, this fourth dome of the mosque had held within it, all along, its last, resonant, bloodied call to prayer.
In the poet’s city—as in Darwesh’s poem ‘Babulal Chowkidar’—the headless ghosts of English soldiers killed in 1857 still float around the Mutiny Memorial in the dead of night, unbeknownst to the living guard who watches over it with his corporeal presence.
Most likely a migrant, like Darwesh, his most pressing concern and consolation is the small road passing by this monument on the northern ridge, looking at which he can somehow pass his day, and without which madness might descend.
When a city is built carefully, poem by poem, it is able to archive what often escapes or is wilfully obliterated from the record books—the silent fears, joys and anxieties of its citizens.
Darwesh, with the rare insight of his namesake dervishes, is able to see what lies beyond the iron curtains drawn by authoritarian regimes and the regimen of our routine lives. We will do well to consider this city that Darwesh slowly builds for us. It is kinder, more accommodative of difference, more resonant with stories and much richer with lovers than our ‘real’ city.
The city of poems is a teeming hospitable archive we may wish to own, detail by detail—in it lies a moral compass indispensable to navigate the Dilli we live in.
(Akhil Katyal is a poet, translator and teacher)