New Delhi: The opening stanza of Kamala Das’s poem ‘Someone Else’s Song’ (Summer in Calcutta, 1965) embodies, in some ways, how she went through life: “I am a million, million people/ Talking all at once, with voices/ Raised in clamour, like maids/ At village-wells.”
Kamala lived in multitudes. She spoke and wrote across languages (English and Malayalam) and gave herself various names. She took on the name ‘Das’ after marriage, preferring to be known by her first name before then. She is also Kamala Suraiya, the name she took after converting to Islam in 1999. She is also Madhavikutti, the pseudonym she gave herself when writing in Malayalam, and finally, she is also ‘Ami’, a pet name she reserved for herself in her memoirs.
The writing seems to have gushed out of Kamala, giving life to her many avatars. It’s no wonder, considering she was born into a family of writers on 31 March 1934. Her mother, Balamani Amma, was a writer of critical acclaim who published over 20 anthologies of poetry. Her uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, was also a poet and translator.
Having grown up in an environment rich with language and culture, Kamala began writing when she was young. She spent her childhood split between Calcutta (now Kolkata), where her father worked, and her ancestral home in Punnayurkulam, Kerala.
Disillusioned and miserable with school, and feeling distant from her family, Kamala explored writing full time instead, and married an older relative, Madhav Das, at age 15.
In an obituary, Shahnaz Habib (The Guardian) writes, “This early lesson in dislocation may have inspired many of her literary themes — the vulnerable child-woman trying to create meaning in an inconstant world; nostalgia for a serene, rural past; the unfair privileges of caste and wealth; and the contradictions of motherhood.”
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Life and writings
A brief history of Kamala Das’s life will tell you that she was a woman always looking to reinvent herself.
She is credited with unravelling the complexities of marital life, childhood, sex, love, and desire with her book My Story (1976), which thrusted her into a fierce public gaze — with time, it softened and began to appreciate her craftsmanship.
Kamala was among the first women in India to speak frankly about sex and negatively of marriage in a deeply conservative society. My Story instantly drew criticism after its release for being ‘obscene’ and designed to encourage adultery.
It also, however, drew support from literary critics who likened her style of writing to two major American writers — Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
The circumstances of her life inspired My Story: the ambivalent childhood, early and ill fated marriage, and the burden of being a woman. In confessional prose, she wrote of trysts with women, her husband’s sexual ineptness and preference for men, and her yearnings for requited love.
These themes spilled into her poetry, too. In visceral verse, she writes of providing bodily pleasure in ‘The Looking Glass’: “Gift him all,/ Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of/ Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,/ The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your/ Endless female hungers.”
‘Islam is not a lenient husband’
Kamala Das went on to publish two other anthologies after Summer in Calcutta — The Descendants (1967) and The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973). In ‘An Introduction’ from the latter collection, she wrote of the trials of early marriage: “When/ I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask/ For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the/ Bedroom and closed the door. He did not beat me/ But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.”
The nature of her writings — she published over 25 books and collections of poetry — reveals a woman unafraid of honest expression, and whose progressive stance on sexuality was ahead of her time.
In 1984, she was invited to the Adelaide Writer’s Festival, and went on in 1994 to read out her poetry in 3 universities in Germany. She also did readings in Jamaica, Singapore, and London.
In the same lifetime, she dabbled in politics, contesting unsuccessfully in the 1984 elections, and then converted to and embraced the rigidities of Islam.
“I have given up my freedom”, she declared in an interview in 1999, aged 65. “It has made me feel so shabby. Islam is not a lenient husband. Islam is rigid, very stern, I think of Allah as my master. I am his subservient handmaiden. I delight in being subservient.”
Her abrupt change of heart might strike some as odd, but it only reinforces an observation her son made of her, that the “only mind she felt compelled to obey was her own”.
Kamala’s writings earned her a steady stream of accolades and prizes — including a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. She won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award (English) in 1985.
Her works have inspired a biopic and, until as recently as last year, a Google Doodle celebrating the 42 years since My Story first went to press. The doodle pictured Kamala against a radiant purple background that fades to black, as flowers emerge and bloom from city houses.
She died in 2009 at 75, succumbing to a bout of prolonged pneumonia.
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