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Monday, October 25, 2021

Not a well-behaved woman

Kamala Das wrapped herself in many provocative selves,but she was always a singular force

Written by Geeta Doctor |
June 5, 2009 12:50:50 am

She was a true Princess of Malabar. Self appointed,maybe and willed into being by the extraordinary energy with which she invented the legend around herself as a poet,a writer of note in two languages,Malayalam and English and as a target for self appointed moralists. When Kamala Das died earlier this month on a fine June morning that she herself might have chosen,the streets of her birthplace in Thrissoor,all the way to Thiruvanthapuram,were lined with the very people she had both loved and delighted in shocking. What was even more astonishing was that she came into the world as Madhavikutty,the daughter of a distinguished Hindu clan and was lowered into the earth as Surayya in the grave next to a mosque to the murmur of melodious prayers intoned by the local mullahs.

In the many roles that she spun around herself,Kamala Das was only the best known of them,there was one that she enjoyed the most,that is in constantly defying expectations. There is lovely story told by an American academic. She was meeting Kamala after her conversion to Islam. For an apparently free-spirited woman who had celebrated every physical detail of her body from the “musk scented sweat” that attracted her so-called lovers to the slithering emanations with which she described the indignities of childbirth as they took place in her ancestral home in Kerala in the most famous of her books,her autobiography My Story (1976),voluntarily donning the purdah could only be seen as a strange choice for Kamala. Was this,wondered the academic,the beginning of a complete reversal of choices from total freedom to total repression and would she be meeting a black veiled woman of totalitarian inhibitions? She need not have worried. When Kamala-Surayya came into the room she was wearing a burkha all right,but it was in the most brilliant shade of pink. She had again subverted the most austere of garments and made it entirely her own invention.

Creating a series of different personas,or masks for herself and documenting them with the obsessive gaze of the artist,Kamala is a Frida Kahlo of the intellect. She uses words and imagery to both adorn and display her body like the rich fruit that she compares herself to in the mirrors of her bedroom,no less than her soul. The sensuality that she revelled in talking about may have been a pose. As Eunice de Souza remarked in an introduction to her anthology of Nine Indian Woman Poets: “While Kamala Das plays out her various roles in the poems,unhappy woman,unhappy wife,reluctant nymphomaniac,she also talks of the ‘sad lie / of my unending lust’,a line which cautions us against thinking we have got at the ‘truth’ of this apparently forthright persona.”

At the same time it’s this very fantasising that borders on blatant exhibitionism that proved to be liberating. By continually pushing the boundaries of what she could say or “embroider” as a poet,as a writer of stories,as a fabulist,Kamala may have created a cocoon of words around herself,or even a series of cages whose bars she could only rattle with a certain impotent dependency. It’s as if she were not really engaged in getting out the many layers of her personality; they were too exotic for her to ever want to shed,only flirting with the idea of giving herself wings. It’s however in that act of creating these fantasies that she achieved her unlikely transformation. The very purity of her experiments with herself made it possible for a new generation of feminist writers and poets to prise open their own desires and exult in their sexuality in ways that she might have only dreamt about but which they made strident. She allowed others to liberate themselves through her singularity.

It has also to be said that while the intellectual Kamala tilted at the many social taboos that she came across on the feudal landscape that she inhabited after she returned to Kerala (she was a metropolitan woman who was at home both in Kolkata and Mumbai,where she edited the poetry section of the Illustrated Weekly for some time) she did so with the patrician gaze of her Nair background. She obliged with the conviction not only of the noblesse of the Nallapat family to which she belonged,but supped with the literati of her day. She belonged to a literary aristocracy. Her father V.M. Nair was managing director of the popular Kerala publication Mathrubhoomi. Her mother Nalapatt Balamani has always been cited as a better poet in Malayalam. Aubrey Menen was her Uncle; does anyone remember him and his Pavillion of Women today? Her rebellions came within a secure framework. That is perhaps what makes her special. She may have blinked many times,but she did so with a certain charm and warmth that made her all woman,a child-princess of her times.

The best revenge is that like her or not,Kamala Das will continue to be read.

Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer

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