Saturday, June 06, 2009

Adieu Kamala Das aka Madhavikutty aka Kamala Surraiyya (1934- 2009)

Picture from The Hindu.

Kamala Das. Bilingual poet and writer. 1934 - 2009

She knew how to shock. Whether it was by writing about sexuality or the nudes she painted or her conversion to Islam. I remember the storm that her 'autobiography' My Days had created in the seventies. She was one among a handful of women writers who knew how to shock society.Take, for instance, these lines written by her when she was still known as Kamala Das:

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. Oh, yes,
Getting a man to love is easy but living
Without him afterwards may have to be faced.

Or these lines from the poem The Maggots from the book The Descendants:

At sunset, on the river bank, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left...

That night in her husband's arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?

By the time she converted to Islam and had become Kamala Surraiya she had suppressed her sexuality and had begun to believe that only Islam could give protection to women. I wonder what would have happened if she had met Tasleema Nasreen the Bangladeshi writer in exile. I am told that they had actually met once. Her conversion to Islam had shocked many. At the same time there were many who said that such behaviour was expected of her.

She wrote as Madhavikutty in Malayalam. In Kerala she was also known as her mother the writer Balamaniamma's daughter. Balamaniamma was a famous Malayalam writer and poetess. Her maternal uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon was also a well known Malayalam poet and he had encouraged her to write. So did her husband who she had married when she had turned fifteen. There were many who said that her husband at times treated her like a father his daughter or an uncle his niece.

I remember a weekly column she used to write in Karanjia's Blitz during the mid seventies. It could well have been the openness with which she wrote for she was one of the few writers who had a following all over India. There were better writers than her but she was extremely media savvy long before television became widespread throughout India. She had said that she had stopped writing poetry because poets were not paid well in India.

During the eighties there was a rumour that she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. But according to many this was not correct as the names of the nominees are never announced.

I feel that she was at her best when writing about the Kerala she saw in her childhood. Her foray into politics was brief and disastrous. She and Khushwant Singh were not the best of friends. He knew how to irritate her with his choice of words.

Farzana Versey's blog post on her. Click here

Kamala Surraiya on SAWNET. Click here.

Kamala Das at the Emory University Dept of English website. Click here.

Poet Vijay Nambisan's tribute to her in the Literary Review of The Hindu (June 2009). Click here.

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