The many journeys of
Kamala Das

Life has turned full circle for her as she returns to being Kamala Das and writing poetry, her first love. The aliases she had nursed and nurtured like Madhavi Kutty and Kamala Suraiyya were cast away at one fell swoop once Kamala Das made Pune her new home. M.S. Unnikrishnan catches up with the author, a rebel without a pause

Kamala Das has used many aliases, taken many liberties, experienced a gamut of emotions, including a change of religion, in her 70 odd years of existence, that in the twilight of her life, she has veered round to the view that there is no greater joy than returning to her moorings, her roots. The world she was familiar with.

Best known for her bold and sensuous My Story, published in 1976, and her controversial conversion to Islam, Kamala Das has been tragically let down by the false gods whom she had worshipped. Acclaimed as one of the 10 best books of 1976, My Story’s rampaging sweep saw many respectable figures cowering for cover. And the cascading effect it had on her life was an unending saga of strife. When My Story was first serialised in the now-defunct Malayalanadu, a Malayalam periodical, as Ente Katha, the rather conservative society in Kerala was stunned into disbelief.

Candid picture

This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books but none of them provided the pleasure that writing of My Story had given me. This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books but none of them provided the pleasure that writing of My Story had given me.

The book was hailed as a "refreshingly candid, poignant and delightfully provocative" account of her life, as well as the lives of countless tormented and tortured women.

And Kamala Das boldly declared in the preface of the book that "My Story is my autobiography." She began writing it during her first serious bout with heart disease.

"The doctor thought that writing would distract my mind from the fear of a sudden death, and besides, there were all the hospital bills to be taken care of. I sent a telegram to an editor who had been after me to write such a book to be used as a serial in his journal. He arrived after a day, bringing with him the total remuneration for the serial. He was taking a risk as I was very ill and it did not seem likely that I would be able to write more than a few chapters.

"And yet, he agreed to the deal. From that moment, the book took hold of me, carrying me back into the past rapidly as though it were a motor boat chug-chugging through the inky waters at night. My recovery was such an anti-climax", she elaborated. Though the book made her an international celebrity, as it was translated into 15 foreign languages, prescribed as a text book in Japan and went into nine editions in Malayalam, her relatives were embarrassed beyond redemption. "I had disgraced my well-known family by telling my readers that I had fallen in love with a man other than my lawfully wedded husband. Why, I had even confessed that I was chronically falling in love with persons of a flamboyant nature. When I went for a short vacation to my home state, I received no warmth. In a hurry, I escaped back to Bombay. This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books but none of them provided the pleasure that writing of My Story had given me," she noted.

My Story, as well as several other of her past ‘sins,’ are now visiting Kamala Das to haunt her as never before, forcing her to retreat from her beloved Kerala. It may be recalled that when criticism mounted about her bold writing, she had made a disclaimer that My Story was a fictional account of her life and times. But nobody believed her. "My Story ruined my reputation," she confessed to this writer as she was preparing to move out of Cochin. She reiterated that My Story was not a truthful account of her life, but a mix-and-match effort.

"It was all a selling strategy. Readers would not have been interested in the prosaic life of Madhavi Kutty (the pseudonym she used for writing Malayalam fiction). So I had to pepper my prose with a lot of sensuous stuff. I had to make a living, being a middle class wife", she explained. When she wrote that "every middle class bed is a cross on which the woman is fall in lust, not love; women crash in real self-destroying love", the male ego was bruised. She was made an uninhibited target of vilification.

Moving away

Kamala Das has moved out of Cochin, bag and baggage, on the afternoon of February 21, to settle down on the sixth floor apartment No 605, Sun Shree Gold, NIDM Road, Pune-48. Her third son Jayasurya and his family will be living two floors below, but like always, she will have her own space in the new environ.

With Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan
With Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan

Kamala Das got so much hate mail these days-dirty, abusive and threatening-that she dared not open letters addressed to her. She lived surrounded by a heavy posse of police personnel detailed to protect her privacy and security by the Kerala government. "I got dirty, abusive and threatening letters all the time, from Hindus as well as Muslims", she says in a sad tone. "All sorts of people came to me and disturbed my peace. They talked of politics and other issues I am not interested in. I was fed up with life in Kerala. Kerala priding itself as the most literate State in the country is a vainglorious attempt", she continued.

On hearing about her imminent depature from the State, Kerala Chief Minister V. S. Achutha-nandan had called on her at her flat at Kadavanthara (Cochin) to dissuade her from going away. But she stuck to her decision as she was sick of the attitude of Keralites in general and the male species in particular. But she conceded that she would consider the CM’s request to return to Kerala often, but with the rider that "provided the state government gives air tickets and decent accommodation to me and my escorts whenever we choose to visit the state."

Paying for past

"I could not for a moment believe that all the dignified couples coming to my house to discuss politics and literature with my parents, could in the dark perform sexual acrobatics to get what my dear friend called the great orgasm. Was every married adult a clown in bed, a circus-performer?", she wondered. Married off at 15, to International Monetary Fund consultant Madhava Das, who was much older than her, Kamala Das’ own marriage, she wrote, was no bed of roses. "Until my wedding night, I did not have the slightest knowledge of what went on between men and women in the process of procreation. Sex was not a fashionable word then, as it is now, but its followers were certainly not inactive.

"What I remember most of my marriage day was that I let down my 18-year-old friend who had made me promise to sit near him during the evening’s kathakali show (at her residence). The kathakali started after everyone had had dinner and the moon was right above our house, circular and blazing. "My house emptied itself of people and I found myself alone with my husband who told me that it was not his intention to see the kathakali. Let us stay at home, he said pulling me to the bedroom where the gifts we had received lay scattered on the floor and the bedsheet was crumbled and untidy. The servants had forgotten to arrange the room before leaving for the show. "I took off my sari which was of heavy gold tissue and sat on the bed. Then without warning, he fell on me, surprising me by the extreme brutality of the attack. I tried unsuccessfully to climb out of his embrace. Then bathed in perspiration and with my heart palpitating wildly, I begged him to think of God. This is our wedding night, we should first pray to Krishna, I said. He stared at me in disbelief. Was I mad?

"The rape was unsuccessful but he comforted me when I expressed my fear that I was perhaps not equipped for sexual congress. Perhaps, I am not normal, perhaps I am only an eunuch, I said, and in pity, he held me close to him and said, even if that is so, we shall be happy living together...Again and again, throughout that unhappy night, he hurt me and all the while the kathakali drums throbbed dully against our window and the singers sang of Damayanti’s plight in the jungle. "I remained a virgin for nearly a fortnight after my marriage. He grew tired of the physical resistance which had nothing to do with my inclinations."

Fact or fiction, we never know, though it would have been terribly embarrassing for her husband when she continued in the same bold writing vein, "For him, such a body was an embarrassment, veteran that he was in the rowdy ways of sex which he had practised with the maids who worked for his family."

"Grow up mother, grow up," reacted one of her own sons on hearing of her conversion to Islam on December 23, 1999. But once she made up her mind, nothing deterred her from exercising her freedom to choose or change her religion. But living in a veil was nothing new to her. Perhaps it was destined to happen. In Authors Speak, edited by poet and former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi K. Satchidanandan, she talked about living out of a veil in the killing fields of Colombo years ago. "All along, I wore my Muslim burqa and pretended to be from Pakistan. So I managed to go and buy dal, atta and kept my husband alive (her husband was a consultant to the Sri Lankan Government). They would not have touched a Pakistani woman. I would go and do all that Inshaallah, Salam-alei-kum, perfectly. They said, You don’t have to worry, we will kill only the South Indians."

Gods of clay

Changing her religion, she has now realised, was a folly, afterall. "God has no connection with any religion. There is no respect for women anywhere. Women are just an object of sensual pleasure," she says.

"You begin to seek spiritual freedom after the end of the menstrual cycle as I was, but there was none. I give no importance to religion now. God has been appropriated by a few people for their own selfish ends, she says in a feeble voice.

Though she wrote seven odd novels, Kamala Das had often said that she was a failure in the genre. She made life difficult for herself through her bold writings, speeches and actions. Some people mistook her open and friendly demeanour for lasciviousness, which has upset her no end.

In the evening of her life, she wants to be reborn as Kamala Das and return to her first love, poetry that sustained her through her life. She believes only pain and suffering can create good poetry. She expects Sri Lanka and Kashmir to produce great poetry after the trauma they are passing through. And the pain and suffering she herself is going through will be the beginning of another fine poetic phase in her life.

Poetry beckons

"When I went to Kerala as a writer who wrote in English, I realised I became lonely. I didn’t belong there. There was no audience for my English poetry. Then I realised, for the first time, that without an audience, I would not be able to function at all as a writer", she had said. In Modern Indian Poetry in English, edited by (the late) K. Ayyappa Paniker, he said, "Kamala Das has less variety, but more intensity, though her celebration of the body attains ritualistic overtones." Born into the aristocratic Nalapatt Nair family in the Palaghat district (Malabar region) of Kerala, Kamala Das boasts a great lineage. Her mother Balamani Amma was a great poet herself, who won all the literary awards there were to win, including the Saraswati Samman and the Padma Bhushan, while her father V.M Nair was the Managing Editor of Mathrubhoomi.

Kamala Das started writing poetry at the age of six, and her first short story was published at the age of 10. PEN India published her first poems when she was 14 and she was awarded the Asian Poetry Prize of PEN in 1963. She was the poetry editor of The Ilustrated Weekly of India for several years.

It would only be appropriate to sign off this piece, with a verse from her oeuvre:

"I shall some day leave, leave the cocoon

You built around me with morning tea,

Love-words flung from

doorways and of course, your tired lust. I shall some day

take wings, fly around, as often petals do, when free in

air, and your dear one, just the sad remnant of a root,

must lie behind, sans pride, on double beds

And grieve. But I shall some day return, losing nearly all hurt by wind, sun and rain,

Too hurt by fierce happiness to want

A further jaunt or a further spell

Of freedom and I shall

some day see

My world, de-fleshed, de-veined, de-blooded, just a skeletal thing, then shut my,

Eyes and take refuge, if nowhere else,

Here in your nest of familiar scorn..."

What they say

M.T. Vasudevan Nair
M.T. Vasudevan Nair

U.R. Ananthamurthy
U.R. Ananthamurthy

In Authors Speak, edited by poet and former Secretary of the Sa hitya Akademi K. Satchidanandan, she said : "A man, not loving a woman, but only feeling lust, has no right at all to touch her and defile her. He should not enter her. I think it is like counterfeit money. The whole place is full of that. And that is precisely what I have written about nothing else, nothing more shocking." But the genius in her earned the approbation of many a literary giant and the cognoscenti.

Well-known Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair is one of them. "I admire her a lot. I am a great admirer of her writing, particularly her short stories with Bombay as the backdrop. She has a way with the words, a unique crafting style. Her themes, plots, language et al are very appealing. She uses plots and language she is familiar with to have an instant connect with her readers," said MT.

He said her decision to shift to Pune was primarily on account of her illness and loneliness she has been experiencing in Kerala. "In Pune, at least she would be in the company of her son and family", added MT, who is a family friend. Noted Kannada writer and scholar U.R. Ananthamurthy equated Kamala Das to the late poet A.K. Ramanujan and Marathi playwright Shri Pad Kolathkar. "All three put together make a formidable combine in bilingual writing. I don’t think we have many gifted writers like her. She is the most courageous writer I have come across-a woman capable of great love and compassion. I feel proud to be a contemporary of Kamala Das," he added.

Hindi and Sanskrit author, who is also a Malayalam scholar, Dr Sudhanshu Chaturvedi, has a different take on Kamala Das’ literary output. "There is maximum self expression in her writing, no doubt, but a writer should have vision, mission and message, which I am afraid, is not there in her prose," he said. "India’s culture is very deep-rooted, which does not reflect in her writing", Chaturvedi added. Kamala Das did not have any formal education after school. It helped in her writing career as she had no pre-conceived notion about writing. She spoke up for all women, like in those ‘Old Play Houses’, where "songs had been stilled and the lights put out". Her problems mounted after she became a Muslim and took on the name of Kamala Suraiyya, as it was the last straw for her fans and friends, and detractors too.