I knew Kamala Das much before I knew poetry. My father brought her home one day, packed in the tabloid Blitz. We lived in Jamshedpur, and Das and her antics were driving immigrants from what my parents referred to as “native place”, sick with worry. She was casting a slur on the entire Malayali clan spread all over the world.
Breaking barriers: Das converted to Islam in 1999 and changed her surname. Mahesh Harilal / The Hindu
At that time, Das thought she was going to die and decided to pen her swansong in the form of a lurid personal account incriminating not just herself, but also her family. Blitz called it “the most honest autobiography after Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth”. My mother was livid at the comparison.
Das pontificated in Looking Glass:
“Getting a man to love you is easy/Only be honest about your wants as/Woman. Stand nude before the glass with him/So that he sees himself the stronger one
And believes it so, and you so much more/Softer, younger, lovelier.../All the fond details that make/Him male and your only man. 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…”
The poet, who died on 31 May in Pune after a prolonged illness at the age of 75, was larger than her writing, which is often not such a good thing. But in her case, it also meant breaking many barriers as an Indian woman. She was one of the first Indian writers to explore sexuality in her work, and her 1976 autobiography, My Story, was a candid recollection of her own sexual coming of age that was translated into 15 languages. She represented the voice of oppressed women all over the country. She converted to Islam in 1999, later appeared to regret it, and said: “God has no connection with any religion. There is no respect for women anywhere.” She dabbled in politics, launching the Lok Seva Party, but failed to win a seat in Parliament.
Her death took me back to the days when, as a child, I wasn’t allowed to read her poetry. “Kamala Das is wonderful,” said an aunt visiting from Chennai. As the youngest of my mother’s siblings, she had been allowed liberties the older ones could never dream of. She worked at a publishing house that brought out a collection by Das called The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, and she got an autographed copy as a gift for my mother.
It became the only poetry collection we were not allowed to touch on the bookshelf, along with the purple prose of Harold Robbins. I finally managed to read the poems when I was in class IX, and Das has stayed with me ever since.
At that time she sounded like the aunts and cousins I met during summer vacations in Kerala. I imagined her sitting with her maids in the afternoon, oiling her hair with coconut oil warmed over an oven of burning wood and husk.
I met her only once. It was around the time that Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. My wife was on an assignment in Kerala, and we halted for the night in Kochi to interview Das.
She invited us home and put up a performance worthy of her reputation. She condemned meat eaters: “When you pass the butcher’s shop, don’t you see your own insides hanging there?”; and was a tad dismissive when I praised Roy’s book in her presence.
She pontificated on many more topics, which made me wish I had chosen to know her only through her poetry. That regret was strengthened when she converted to Islam a few years later and rechristened herself Kamala Surayya. She had arrogated even religion as an indulgence.
But years later, on another trip to Kochi, I picked up her collection Only the Soul Knows How to Sing and dug into an unfamiliar poem. The fiery poet seemed to have wizened, and somehow she could access my thoughts in Composition:
“I have reached the age in which/One forgives all./I am ready to forgive friends/their loving,/forgive those who ruined friendships/and those who forgave/and stayed on to love./But I shall give a lot to get/One of my foes today/For a quiet picnic/Somewhere./Not having met for ages/we shall have so much to say.”
Vijay Nair is a Bangalore-based playwright and novelist.
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