The cross-media feeds buzzing around us sometimes produce mashups which suggest that the universe is intelligently designed. Last week, in a library, I happened upon a first edition of Kamala Das’s Summer in Calcutta, a book which I have not seen for decades. Its contents are included in the Penguin Modern Classics anthology of Kamala Das, but that isn’t quite the same thing. It was published in 1965 by a friend, the critic and editor Rajinder Paul, who was associated with Delhi’s Everest Press.
Coincidentally, as I read the foreword on yellowed paper, the phone in my pocket pinged, causing ice to form on the librarian’s upper slopes. It was a news app, letting me know that Vidya Balan is going to play the bilingual poet in a biopic.
It’s an eternally protean role, as Das described in the poem ‘An Introduction’, tucked away towards the end of Summer in Calcutta: “Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better/ Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to choose a name, a role.” The dramatic moment when a creative mind discovers its identity is so simply described. Who am I, the writer asks, and the deed is done. Das ticked “all of the above” and decades later, at the age of 65, she converted to Kamala Suraiyya, frightening the people whom she had discomforted all her life. One last hurrah, after a fashion. She did have a reputation for changing her mind, which her critics used to disparage as grandstanding, but till the end, the element of surprise was hers.
In the first edition in my hand, the page on which ‘An Introduction’ appears has been dog-eared by so many readers that the corner has fallen off. The poem and the book in which it appeared, Das’s first anthology of verse, established her reputation as a breakaway woman poet, who had left behind the decorous formalisms of her predecessors in English verse to speak frankly — or “boldly”, a word still applied to creative women who step out of line.
The foreword is by the remarkable Sophia Wadia, the Colombia-born New Yorker who was inspired to work for the Theosophical movement in India by BP Wadia, whom she married later. He founded a labour union in Madras, one of the first in India. She started the PEN Indian Centre and edited its journal. Just the previous year, in 1964, Das had won a PEN prize for poetry. Besides, Balamani Amma, Das’s mother and a poet, was Wadia’s friend. Along with the kind endorsements of young talent which were common in that graceful age, she also wrote: “I cannot perhaps enter into some of the moods and sentiments conveyed in these poems but all the same find the literary artistry of much interest.”
That’s putting the poems at arm’s length in the politest way possible. Poems like ‘In Love’: “Of what does the burning mouth/ Of sun, burning in today’s/ Sky remind me… oh, yes, his/ Mouth, and… his limbs like pale and/ Carnivorous plants reaching/ Out for me, and the sad lie/ Of my unending lust.” It was 1965, four years to go till 1969, when the world would change beyond recognition. Readers were tired of women writing in rhyming, high-minded English about pure, ethereal, deathless love and were almost ready to countenance tempestuous eroticism and carelessly spilled bodily fluids. India had unlearned Victorian morality, which insisted that even the legs of dining tables had to be clad to prevent civilisation from turning into one big transgressive sex romp. Change was in the air, sleeveless blouses and improbably high coifs made of hair borrowed from other women were in, and the Indian readership was almost ready to give ear to new voices.
First books tend to be autobiographical, and Summer in Calcutta obviously refers to Das’s early life, when her family lived in that city. Though he is remembered as an editor of Mathrubhumi, her father, Vadakkekkara Madhavan Nair, spent most of his working life at Walford Transport on Kolkata’s Park Street, then an importer of British marques like Rolls Royce, Bentley and Humber.
The many vignettes in this volume are in sharp visual detail, like childhood memories often are. But despite the location which the title gives to the book, they could be from almost anywhere in India. Das writes of Punjabi songs, which suggests Delhi. She writes of Banjara carts on Strand Road, but is that the Kolkata road skirting the old East India docks? Strand Road could be in any colonial port town. In ‘An Introduction’, Das wrote of the peculiar problem — or perhaps strength — of several Indian writers and poets: “I speak three languages, write in/ Two, dream in one.” And that dream could be set absolutely anywhere in India. It is a caution against reading too much autobiography into first books.