Kamala Das — Indian Poet and a Woman Ahead of Her Time

Kamala Das (1934 – 2009) started her career as a poet writing under the name of Madhavi Kutty. The renowned Indian author was bilingual and wrote in her mother tongue, Malayalam, as well as in English. 

Born in Punnayurkulam, India as Kamala Surayya, she was better known in her home state of Kerala for her short stories and her autobiography, and in the rest of the country, for her English poetry. Her explosive autobiography, My Story, written in Malayalam (her native tongue), gained her both fame and notoriety. Later, it was translated into English.

 

Background

Born into a family where her parents had a literary background, she naturally inherited a disposition towards writing. Married at the age of 15 to a bank officer, Madhav Das, who encouraged her passion for writing, she found herself writing in two languages. 

Kamala was fortunate to be located in the city of Calcutta, which in the 1960s afforded good opportunities for creative talent. She began to publish her work in cult anthologies, along with a budding generation of Indian English poets.

Kamala attended literary events in Germany, Jamaica, London and Canada, where she was invited to read her poetry. She also held literary positions in her state of Kerala and for a national daily. In 2009, the Times called her the “mother of modern English poetry.”

Among her many notable achievements are the Pen Asian Poetry Prize in 1963 and a nomination for the Nobel Prize in 1984. She also became a syndicated columnist expressing her views on women, children, and politics. 

Kamala lived by her own terms all of her life, which is clearly visible in her writings.

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A bold poet

The first published book of collected poems by Kamala Das, Summer in Calcutta (1965) featured the ups and downs of romantic love. She opted to publish all her six volumes of poetry in English — though she did complain, “Poetry does not sell in this country”  — referring to India.

Her poetic work could be classified under the genre of confessional poetry— not a common style for Indian poets, least of all women. She was quite the pioneer in this respect and also for using English to pen her verse. Her English poetry has been compared to that of Anne Sexton and won her both recognition and literary awards during her lifetime.

The poems cast a critical eye on Indian society, with its strong patriarchy and notions about how a woman should conduct herself.  Interestingly, while her poetry is replete with feminist yearnings, there is a strong sense of spirituality running through them. 

“Introduction,” is Kamala’s autobiographical poem in which she says she can recall the names of the men who dominate the politics of India and follows this up with a plea for her place in the sun, while likely stressing that her knowledge of languages indicates that she is as educated as a man.

I am Indian, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.

In subsequent verses, Kamala speaks of the angst of being told not to write in English, as it is not her mother tongue. These also suggest an interesting aspect of the ownership of language:

This language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions its queernesses,
All mine, mine alone.

The next verse explores her sorrow at being married to an older man whilst on the cusp of puberty, and how she felt used in the physicality of the relationship. The later verses bring out the sorrow of being forced to conform in all ways:

Be wife … be embroiderer, be cook … Fit in … belong …
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.

The later verses go on to explore her sense of frustration of being hemmed into the family of her in-laws where she has to conform, whilst the men, including her husband, can just be themselves.  She concludes:

I am sinner,
I am saint, I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself.

This poem to some extent sums up the essence of Kamala Das, who all her life looked for equality and didn’t find it. She pinned her faith on a kind of spirituality, where she sought God (Krishna) in the natural beauty around her. In her poem, “Only the Soul Knows How to Sing,” she wrote:

Your body is my prison, Krishna
I cannot see beyond it.
Your darkness blinds me
Your love words shut out the wise world’s din.

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My Story by Kamala Das

My Story by Kamala Das on Amazon*
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My Story: A controversial autobiography

Kamala’s autobiography is penned so poignantly that any Indian woman might identify with the trials, tribulations, and burden of expectations from a society steeped in patriarchy. She was certainly an iconoclast and managed to carve a niche for herself with the sheer honesty of her writings. 

The publishing of her autobiography, My Story, was originally in Malayalam called Ente Katha, brought her both publicity and criticism for its honesty about sexuality. Kamala did say later that she had adopted fictional elements in her story, but that didn’t prevent her from being censured for doing a striptease.

She replied in characteristic style saying that after she stripped off her skin and crushed her bones, people would perhaps be able to see “my homeless orphan, intensely beautiful soul, deep within the bone…”

Contributed by Melanie P. Kumar: Melanie is a Bangalore, India-based independent writer who has always been fascinated with the magic of words. Links to some of her pieces can be found at gonewiththewindwithmelanie.wordpress.com.

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kamala das

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