Indian Writing in English and Kamala Das
A Tribute to the Writer and Poet
By Rajdeep Pathak
Makarand Paranjape in one of his writings once remarked: “Indian English Literature is a contest over the nature, identity and ultimately the destiny of modern India. Of late, the realistic, modernistic, pessimistic mode of the first three decades of post-independence writing is giving way to a non-representational, experimental, self-conscious and optimistic literature. But the real challenge the writers of today face is the enforced homogenization and standardization of culture due to globalization and the new, easy and superficial internationalism which tempts Indian English writers to market themselves abroad”.
Having said this, it also needs to be mentioned that there has been a movement to take Indian writing across the globe. Fictional writings and even representations of nature and characters in its best form by writers like Amitabh Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie have taken Indian writing and writers to great heights. These are efforts of several generations of Indian authors writing in English that have resulted in international success, particularly since the publication of Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie. The Indian novel in English has finally been accepted as an important literary endeavour.
It could also be mentioned that Indian women writers have begun to gain recognition – thanks to Arundhati Roy winning the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things in 1997.
Prior to the rise of the novel, many Indian women composed poetry and short stories in Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. Women were the chief upholders of a rich oral tradition of story-telling, through myths, legends, songs and fables.
But the major movement in post-independence Indian English poetry has been modernism. Poets like Saojini Naidu, Toru Dutt, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, and later Nissim Ezekiel and even Henry Derozio came up to their own time in an unbroken sequence.
They were the modernists who preferred to think of themselves as the inventors of new poetics, a new generation without literary ancestors. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw poets like Dom Moraes, P Lal, P Nandy, A K Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, K N Daruwalla, Kamala Das to name a few, each having a style and craftsmanship of his/her own. Such poets such as Moraes frequently resorted to a variety of person or masks behind to hide themselves; others like Jayanta Mahapatra have repeatedly explored both external and internal poverty and sorrow with remarkable persistence.
Born into a literary family, Kamala Das’ mother, Balamani Amma and Uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon, were both leading poets. Das began writing only after her early marriage – only to cope up with – the emotional strain she was undergoing. She was born on March 31, 1934 in Malabar, Kerala. However, strong and true to her convictions, she made no compromises with her conventional society’s expectations from women.
Kamala Das originated a vigorous and poignant feminine confessional poetry, in which the underlying theme was the exploration of the man-woman relationship. This style was subsequently taken up by other women poets such as Gauri Deshpande, Suniti Namjoshi, and Chitra Narendran.
The poignant and provocative autobiography of Kamala Das, My Story contains an open statement about the poet’s efforts to define and expose the prison in which she finds herself trapped. The predominant theme is the difficulty of being a woman in Indian society and finding love. She says that women finds male lust and indifference, and, therefore, rejected the very institution of arranged marriage.
Critics felt that with her exclusive dealing with these problems, she at times seemed to be too preoccupied with love and sex.
Marriage did not offer her any solace, instead she found – and faced – a male-oriented world of sex and lust. Das herself wrote: “…every morning I told myself that I must raise myself from the desolation of my life and escape, escape into another life and into another country”.
Das’ protest against such a system made her turn a ‘rebel’. Her offended feminine self went on emotional wanderings attempting to explore an identity and freedom. Nevertheless, her traditional make-up of a conventional woman was a factor which persistently forbade her from breaking away completely from the role of a traditional wife. A conflict naturally arose between the passivity and rebellion against the male oriented universe. And the conflict persisted all through her life.
It was this conflict that caused shock time and again to the readers and people who were close to Kamala Das. However, her achievement as a poet was that her poetry gave a different definition of poetry altogether.
Her ‘feminine sensibility’ can be described as her personal self; her feelings as a woman, her physical desires and her evolution from teenage bride to an adolescent and a ‘mother figure’.
The poetry of Kamala Das gives a very less evidence to have been subjected to the recovery of wholeness and unity of being. Her poetry was concerned mostly with herself as a fiction of circumstances and sexual humiliations. Her voice was distinctly feminine intoning the organic mission of her female self’s longing for love.
With hot blooded sincerity, Das always expressed the need of the feminine self for love. And that is why her poetry gave the uninhibited picture of man-woman relationship with all its crude manifestations.
K R Sreenivasa Iyengar once remarked about her poetry that she treated her poetry as “An attractive, protective or defiant cover to hide the nakedness of the self, but more often than not an engine of catharsis, a way of agonized self-knowledge”.
Even with all the limitations of her poetic self, the poetry of Kamala Das took on herself the burden of the feminine self’s mission to grasp the world and be grasped by it in its totality.
Poems such as The Dance of the Eunuchs, provides a concrete hint to identity crisis that hers feminine arch poetic self encountered. The poem symbolized the ‘songs of melancholy’ of the emptiness. It was the manifesto of the poetic self’s unresolved tensions between the desire and the spasm.
On another occasion, what her poetic self encountered throughout the entire volume of Summer in Calcutta was the awareness of the hollowness of this hell rendering, ‘the heart an empty cistern, waiting for long hours’.
Further, The Freaks was only filled with ‘Coiling Snakes of Silence’. In Love exposed her ‘wandering lust’ as a sad lie. Here her sexual experiences complete sexuality. The sense of fulfillment dominated poems like Winters.
As a poet strongly committed to the sexual world, Kamala Suraiyya (Das) always tried to identify love with physical emptiness. To her this identification was an attempt to redefine her own identity and sustain a meaningful relationship.
It was her suffering that led her to seek place in another’s arm to knock at another’s door –“…yearned for a man from/Another town”, as she writes in The Wild Bougainville.
Readers were witnessed to a different form of writing in Introduction that was concerned with the question of human identity, and was related to the urges and inevitable predicament of encountering a problem: “What am I?” Here Das presented her rebellious stance against conventional hypocrisy.
In The Maggots from the collection, “The Descendants”, Das corroborated just how old the sufferings of women were. She framed the pain of lost love with ancient Hindu myths. On their last night together, Krishna asks Radha if she is disturbed by his kisses. Radha says, “No, not at all, but thought, What is/ It to the corpse if the maggots nip?" Radha's pain is searing, and her silence is given voice by Das. Furthermore, by making a powerful goddess prey to such thoughts, it served as a validation for ordinary women to have similar feelings.
Das once herself said in an interview to the Warrior, "I always wanted love, and if you don't get it within your home, you stray a little". Though some might label Das as "a feminist" for her candor in dealing with women's needs and desires, Das, according to many others has never tried to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism.
Poet Eunice de Souza claims that Das has "mapped out the terrain for post-colonial women in social and linguistic terms". Kamala Suraiyya Das had ventured into areas unclaimed by society and provided a point of reference for her colleagues. She had transcended the role of a poet and simply embraced the role of a very honest woman.
With her manifold experiences as a writer, a woman, a wife and above all a mother, Kamala Suraiyya Das has been credited as one of the few writers who understood feminism to the core.
With many books and verses to her credit, Kamala Das has published many novels and short stories in English, as well as in Malayalam. Some of her work in English includes the novel Alphabet of Lust (1977), a collection of short stories called Padmavati, The Harlot and Other Stories (1992), in addition to five books of poetry: Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), The Anamalai Poems (1985), and Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996); a collection of poetry with Pritish Nandy (1990) and her autobiography, My Story (1976). Some of her more recent novels in Malayalam include Palayan (1990), Neypayasam (1991), and Dayarikkurippukal (1992).
As Devindra Kohli once said, “Her poetry is a compulsion neurosis, so intense is her need to find release from her emotions” that she longs freedom and a much higher release of herself which she finds in God. Kamala Das herself says, “…as free from the last human bondage…”
Kamala Das lived alone in her world with feelings of loneliness and yet maintained her tradition, the security of her home. She always felt that poetry meant studying life and its objectivity in a very realistic way. Kamala Das died at the age of 75, leaving three sons behind after fighting a long battle with Diabetes.
Known for her frank and explicit expression on matters of sexuality, Kamala Das’ writings focused on love, betrayal and the resultant agony that often unsettled the orthodox readers. She leaves behind a legacy that is hard to be fulfilled, a legacy where she could touch human heart with her lucid and charming style and great economy of words.
The world of poetry and prose will miss her for long. Farewell Kamala Suraiyya Das.
Kamala Das: Indian poet and writer
June 13, 2009
Das: she had a "talent for expressing complex sentiments simply
and an unsettling, bewildering honesty"
Kamala Das – alias Kamala Suraiyya was one of India’s finest authors, the mother of modern English Indian poetry, and the first Hindu woman to write frankly about sexual desire. Admired by those seeking better living conditions and human rights for women, Das was a writer who could be tender and biting, sometimes in the same sentence.
She was favourably compared to Sylvia Plath, among others. Critics hailed Das for burying 19th-century diction, sentiment and romanticised love, as no Indian woman had done before. Her first collection of poems, entitled The Sirens, appeared in 1964 and won her the Asian Poetry Prize. In 1965, at the age of 31, Das published Summer in Calcutta, after which Oxford University Press declared that: “The mentors of sham manners and peddlers of decadent morality wound up their shops and ran out by the backdoor.” The Old Playhouse and Other Poems followed in 1973, defying taboos with poems about marital discord, sexual ecstasy, loneliness and longing.
In the mid-1970s her confessional memoir My Story brought her celebrity but also a degree of notoriety, a condition that sometimes entertained but more often dogged her life. My Story was an instant bestseller, read then for its comparatively open sexuality even though Das considered it to be “a very serious, very tragic story of an Indian girl who had been sacrificed by the laws of the land”. Acknowledging her creative and personal courage, the poet Balan Chullikkad called her “the first feminist emotional revolutionary of our time”. The Indian tabloids labelled her “the Love Queen of Malabar”.
Along with English poetry, memoirs and newspaper columns, Das wrote in Malayalam (the language of southwest India) stories, novels and plays under the pen name Madhavikutty. A celebrated autobiographical trilogy immortalised a vanished pre-independence rural world, and her contemporary stories reflected the tensions and turmoil buffeting the southwest Indian Keralites in their transition from the old world to the new. Malayalis of all ages and religions called her Amma, mother.
One of Das’s best-known stories, A Doll for the Child Prostitute, was inspired by a visit to a brothel. In it, two girls, barely even teenagers, play hopscotch. A man appears and the madam summons one of the girls who asks her friend to keep her hopscotch stone in its place. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she says. The story also tells how a police inspector gets free sex at the brothel and promises the girl a doll if she will be kind to him like, he says, his daughter is.
A novel, Alphabet of Lust, appeared in 1977, and in 1992 a collection of short stories, Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories, was published. Two collections of poetry, Only the Soul Knows How to Sing and Yaa Allah, appeared in 1996 and 2001 respectively.
Antara Dev Sen, a close follower of Das’s work and the editor of The Little Magazine, a Delhi-based literary periodical, summed up her contribution: “Her talent for expressing complex sentiments simply, her unsettling, bewildering honesty, and in-your-face sexuality made her not just a literary icon but a woman whom readers deeply loved.”
Following the publication of My Story, Das’s serious writing was hijacked by a press that sensationalised her life rather than celebrating her literary stature. Prurient and moralistic critiques persisted until the 1990s, when a new generation of writers and critics accorded her the honours due to one of India’s foremost poets and the woman whom the writer Shahnaz Habib eulogised, using vocabularly closely reminiscent of a W. H. Auden verse, as “noon, midnight, talk and song to those who came after her”.
Believing in the social responsibility of the writer, she established a free legal service for evicted wives. She also spoke publicly on behalf of the homeless, mentored young writers, sent disenfranchised women to college, supported orphanages, lepers, neighbours, welcomed everyone to her receiving room, and fought to enact and enforce laws to end the sexual exploitation of children, a cause she passionately espoused. In 1984 she made an unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the Indian Parliament
Das was born in 1934 in her ancestral home, Nalapat house in Punnayurkulam, in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, to an upper-caste Nayar family with a literary and royal lineage. She spoke English in Calcutta and Malayalam, the South Dravidian official language of Kerala, with her grandmother in Malabar, and had a gift for writing with lyric beauty in both languages.
At 15 she entered into an arranged marriage to an older relative who worked for the Reserve Bank of India and had three sons. In an interview in 1997 she explained the background. “My father was a patriarch, an autocrat. He roared at us and gave us no intimacy. He wanted always to control us or to send us away. My mother lay on her bed, writing religious poetry, not intervening in any way. I was desperate for love.
“To punish us, we were sent to boarding schools where we were treated with subtle forms of sadism. When my father could no longer do that, and after I had rheumatic fever, he called our relative Das and asked him to take me off his hands. So I married him.”
Recalling her formative years in verse, in a poem entitled An Introduction, she wrote: “. . . I am Indian, very brown, born in / Malabar, I speak three languages, write in / Two, dream in one . . .”
Das converted to Islam at the age of 67, and took the name Kamala Suraiyya. Some say she was converted by a visionary experience, others say she converted for love. It was the final grandly impulsive choice of a rebel who defied categorisation and mocked societal convention but who, drawing on tradionally based standards of purity, maintained her dignity and used her powerful celebrity in the service of others.
Das died in Pune, in northwestern India, where she had lived since 2007 near the family of her youngest son, Jaisurya. Her body was flown to her home state of Kerala, where thousands of mourners of all ages paid homage, weeping and placing flowers on her hearse during her funeral procession. The proceedings were covered live on television, and the procession stopped at public halls in Trichur, Cochin, Alleppey, Kollam and Trivandrum.
Her funeral at the Palayam Mosque in Trivandrum reflected her ecumenical spirituality: admirers of all faiths attended the service, party leaders spoke personally and non-politically, and for the first time in India women stood at the graveside in a Muslim service. Those attending were reminded of her lines, from Advice to Fellow Swimmers: “Go, swim in the sea, / Go swim in the great blue sea, / Where the first tide you meet is your body, / That familiar pest, / But, if you learn to cross it, / You are safe, yes, beyond it you are safe . . .”
Das is buried in a grove in the grounds of the Palayam Mosque, adjoining a temple, near a church. Newly planted neermathalam saplings, like those from her family’s snake shrine, will flower with the scent of jasmine by her graveside. She gave her ancestral land in Punnayurkulam to the Sahitya Akademi. On her last visit there she said: “I shall return as a kingfisher seeking the scent of the neermathalam, hovering above the ponds.”
Das is survived by her three sons.
Kamala Das, poet and writer, was born on March 31, 1934.
She died of acute pneumonia on May 31, 2009, aged 75
The word from Jaipur
Poetry is the cornerstone of civilisation
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