Monday, September 17, 2012

A Bird In Search of A Nest

“This is not a revolt against religion, or a plea for any religion. This is only a wailing. This is only a cry.”
These are the last few lines from one of Kamala Das’ short stories “An Incomplete Love Story.” It is a sad love story about a love between a Muslim and Hindu, which was first published in Malayalam and then translated into English by the author herself.
Being short-listed for Nobel Prize in1984, Das possessed a significant position in the Indian literary scenario. Writing in English and Malayalam, Das authored many autobiographical works and novels, several well-received collections of poetry in English, numerous volumes of short stories, and essays on a broad spectrum of subjects. Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, Summer in Calcutta in 1965, Das has been considered an important voice of her generation who exemplified a break from the past by writing in a distinctly Indian persona rather than adopting the techniques of the English modernists.
In her life, Kamala Das was also put into controversy for her inclination for Islam and for the man behind this inclination, Sadiq Ali, who was an Islamic scholar and a Muslim politician who became an MP from Malabar. Needless to say, there was a strong love relationship between them despite a significant difference in age and a bar of religion in between them. Eventually, they decided to marry and for that, Kamala Das changed her religion and then became known as Kamala Suraiya. The wedding hall had been booked and plans had been made for a ceremony but strangely enough, Ali absconded before their wedding day.
Kamala Das had written “An Incomplete Love Story” before the failure of the scheduled marriage but ironically, her last love actually did become an incomplete one.
Here, we will discuss the pathos fate of female sexuality with respect to Kamala Das alias Kamala Suraiya’s life.  The poetess herself describes the myths and facts regarding female sexuality through this autobiographical observation in one of her poems:

“I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.
When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully.
Then … I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.”

[‘Composition’ by Kamala Das]

An Introduction to Kamala Das

Poet K. Satchidanandan elaborated on Das’ views explaining that “the woman cannot change her body; so the poet changes her dress and tries to imitate men. But the voices of the tradition would force her back into sarees, the saree becoming here a sign of convention. She is pushed back into her expected gender roles: wife, cook, embroiderer, quarreler with servants: the gender role also becomes a class role.” (Satchidanandan, K., “Transcending the Body” Only the Soul Knows How to Sing by Kamala Das. Kottayam [DC Books, 1996])
Merrily Weisbord, a Canadian non-fiction writer wrote a book in 2010, The Love Queen of Malabar:  Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das (ISBN: 0773581413, 9780773581418, published by McGill-Queen's Press) based on her decade-long friendship with Das and in a chronological narration which travels through pain, desire, hope and despair, has documented a riveting decade in the life of the great Indian poetess. Weisbord first met Das through her poems and found the verses resonating with a kindred spirit. In a brave moment, she decided to pursue a further connection and visited Das in Kochi in1995. In return, Das visited Canada twice.  Weisbord visited Kochi six times between 1995 and 2005 with the idea of writing a book on her friend poetess. In the process, she got closer to the writer and the woman in Das like no one else.
Nominated for the 2010 Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize, this book is not only an intimate portrait of Kamala Das but also a truly original example of cross-cultural adventuring, typically with an Asian focus. In these memoirs, Weisbord pries open a hermetic Asian culture and exposes it to broad view with real understanding and style.
Who Was Kamala Das?

Daughter of the renowned Malaylam poet Balamani Amma, Kamala Das had writing in her genes and was further deeply influenced by her uncle Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Her formal education was limited to a short span of schooling – a European School in Calcutta. Married to a quite matured man (more than double her age) shortly before her 16th birthday, Das never enjoyed sex with her husband, though became mother of three children from that marriage.
According to Weisbord, her husband consummated the marriage with a penis longer than most and consequently, Das bled profusely and needed surgery. What Das experienced in her sexual life is not new for many women. At this juncture, we are reminded of Sylvia Plath, another woman writer who also underwent the same trauma as Das did. In one of my stories in Odia “Doora Pahadara Chhabi” (the story is yet to translated into English), I describe how the protagonist gets raped by her lover husband during their first night mating, causing bleeding of her vagina.
Most women are taught to suppress their libido and it is thought to be the conspiracy of patriarchy in order to maintain its hierarchy. Women are valued for their unique qualities and "rulers," either from the religious or socio-political spheres, tell us, in essence, what a woman should think and do. Once again, the question of women empowerment deteriorates into another form of what it is intended to eliminate. Direct about sex and uninhibited, a woman cannot approach a male if she so desires. She doesn't need the hierarchy to tell her when it is right. She doesn't play games, because the games are meant to limit her to begin with. Taboos and myths are shattered. The truths about sexuality are not important for a woman; they are only meant for men.
Das had a very vague idea about female sexuality in her teen days before her marriage. In my college days, like Kamala, I was not taught what ‘sex’ actually was. Madhav Das, the husband of Kamala, was actually a homosexual who brought boys to his bed but would also introduce her to his bosses to help him to get job promotions and encouraged her to share their beds with her; he would ask detailed questions later about her activities with them. When Kamala was 37, her ovary was removed for constant hemorrhage and she was under the treatment of estrogen hormones, which lead her to experience a heart attack at a young age.  (Weisbord, M, The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, McGill-Queen's University Press | September 30, 2010 |)
She was not an academic nor could she be placed with enlightened writers if we measure her writings from a metaphysical point of view. What we can say is she was a trendsetter in her own style and her own conviction.  She was an original poet and writer known for the intensity of her emotionally charged diction. Even Linda Hess, a ruthless critic of Das, also concedes the poetess had “a genuine poetic talent” in her poems. (Linda Hess’ essay "Indian Poetry in English," Quest 49 April - June 1966, 37-38).
We cannot catagorise Das with her contemporaries. She is not a feminist if we apply feminist methodology to all her poetic works.  Rather, we can place her along with this articulation of feminine concerns.
Examples from Das’ Works Regarding Her Identity as a Woman

Kamala Das’s poems are a very strong expression of her femininity:

“I am every woman
who seeks love
I give a wrapping to their dreams
A woman voice
And a woman smell”

[‘Glass’ by Kamala Das]

Her poems “Jaisurya” and “The White Flowers” are expressions of her maternal instinct and celebration of filial love. The poem which best expresses her consciousness of identity as a woman is titled “Gino.”  As a patient lying in a bed, she is ‘dreaming of home’ and imagines herself performing all traditional feminine chores and roles:

“I shall be the fat-kneed hag in the long bus queue
The one from whose shopping bag the mean potatoes must roll across the road
I shall be the grandmother-willing away her belongings, those
Scraps and trinkets
More lasting than her bones.”

[Gino by Kamala Das]

The same tone can be encountered in her prose. She writes:

“First I will strip myself of the clothes and ornaments. Then I will peel off this light brown skin and shatter my bones. I hope at last you will be able to see my homeless, orphan, intensely beautiful soul, deep within the bone, deep down under, beneath even the marrow…will you be able to love me, will you be able to love me someday when I am stripped naked of this body…” (from “Ente Katha,” the Malayalam version of “My Story”)

Das on Religion

Kamala Das was seriously and creatively concerned with her own identity as woman. She met the definition of ‘confessional poet’ who pours out her agonized heart, tortured feelings, sufferings, and psyche in her prose and poems. When we read her writings, we encounter a common woman’s life.  Her entire life and writings were a quest for true love which she could neither get from her husband nor from any other lover. Her concept of love was all-inclusive where she wanted not only physical but also emotional and spiritual fulfillment as well.
For her, religion didn’t have any distinct meaning. To her, there were no differences between Krishna or Mohammad. She once told an interviewer she was going to take Krishna from the Guruvayur temple, rename him Mohammed, and make him a prophet. She relied more on Krishna than his lovers because she never found true love from any man. She only agreed to convert herself to the Muslim religion because Sadiq Ali, a much younger man, came into her life and assured her he would marry her if she joined Islam.  What attracted Das, however, was not really Islam but the love for which she longed her whole life.
After her conversion to Islam, Das wrote the following letter to her aforementioned friend Weisbord:

Dearest Merrily,
Life has changed for me since Nov. 14 when a young man named Sadiq Ali walked in to meet me. He is 38 and has a beautiful smile. Afterwards he began to woo me on the phone from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, reciting Urdu couplets and telling me of what he would do to me after our marriage. I took my nurse Mini and went to his place in my car. I stayed with him for three days. There was a sunlit river, some trees, and a lot of laughter. He asked me to become a Muslim which I did on my return home. The Press and other media rushed in. The Hindu fanatics, Shiv Sena, and the RSS pasted posters all over the place, “Madhavi Kutty is insane. Put her to death.” I refused the eight policemen sent to protect me. There are young men, all Muslims, now occupying the guest flat and keeping vigil twenty-four hours a day. I have received court orders restraining me from going out or addressing more than six people at a time. Among the Muslims, I have become a cult figure all dressed in black purdah and learning Arabic.
My Hindu relatives and friends keep a distance from me. They wish to turn me into a social outcast. My sister visited me twice but wept all the time. I cannot visit my old mother. Otherwise life is exciting…
Kamala Das (Suraiya)

But alas! Das couldn’t marry Ali. Here again, patriarchy was at work. Ali could sleep with a 67-year-old woman when he is 38 but could he marry such an old lady? Personally I can never differentiate anything between Madhav Das and Sadiq Ali. And I can realize the pathos of her poetess heart when she wrote:

“The only secrets I always
Are that I am so alone
And that I miss my grandmother.”

(“Only the Soul Knows How To Sing,” page 23)


Monika Pant said...

I have always found Kamala Das to be India's Sylvia Plath. The impassioned lines and confessional tone, the deep sexual anguish in a society which believes in farces dictated by the male sex, has stirred me into resonance with her thoughts.

To categorise her as a feminist writer would be not wrong, I think, though I believe that all women writers are writers first and then, a feminist.

Annie Finch said...

thanks for a very illuminating post!

Annie Finch said...

thanks for an illuminating post!

Vp Ahmed said...

This is purely a personal account. I cherish reading her literary works too much.

sangeeta singh said...

Kamla Das was a pure soul untouched by religion or gender hierarchies. Her religion was love.But she couldn't find it in her relationship with men in her life. Only her Grandmother could respond to her unconditional love which was not tethered to the worldly definitions.She was unfit to live by the rules of this world which is fettered by binaries of moral/immoral. She was above such things. A pure soul indeed who lived by the dictates of the love in her soul. Alas!she couldn't find a soul mate in this world.May her soul rest in peace and eternal love.
sangeeta singh

Nabanita said...

For some strange reason I find the anguish in Kamala Das's life a larger mirror to what women in our country go through. Some not so much, but still they do. Sometimes I wonder what being a feminist is? The general trend is to brand anybody who voices opinions in support of women as one. After reading this account, I feel a sort of heaviness in my heart. Our so called society and its norms are the reasons women have had to suffer for generations. And come to think of it, they still do in varying degrees. Of-course, I also feel reaffirmed in my belief that we women are capable to take in any sort of tortures. Perhaps other than the patriarchal buffoonery that has been going around, this is another reason why society keeps throwing sludge bags towards us.Its sad that women have to fight and put up with nonsense if they desire to lead their lives according to their wishes and fancies. All she wanted was love and everything else was temporal and transient. Thanks for such a wonderful article Sarojini Ma'am; for acquainting me with Kamala Das.

Joyce Yarrow said...

A beautifully written and illuminating post, Sarojini. You exlore many dimentions of Kamala Das with compassion and insight.

She was a complex human being who needed to be loved for herself in a society structured to reward role-playing and submissiveness. Like many of us, she was vulnerable and placed her trust in those who did not deserve it.

Thank you for sharing this moving piece.

Bhavna Sharma said...

I don't know whether I am a suitable person or not. I had read Kamala Das during my post graduation studies in 2000. Afterwards I couldn't read her works. But the impression of this writer is everlasting. With my very little knowledge, I want to see her as a writer who is a woman and having common womanly problems. I don't want to categorize her in any of the classes. No writer wants to limit her in any boundary as Shashi Deshpande too doesn't like herself to be confined as a feminist writer. So, same is the case with Kamala Das: "She has never tried to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism" (Raveendran 52). I find her poems as the expression of self focusing on her emotional needs, depression, death wishes and need for security. She wanted true love in her life but unfortunately couldn't get it. She loved her body as much as her soul. Like any ordinary woman, to her sex is more related to emotion as you have expressed the same opinion in your essay' Pleasure on Par'. Her emotional dissatsfacation finds expression in the form of her works. But her poetry can't be confined to the issue of sex only. Her poems like "My Grandmother's House" is based on chidlhood memories. Her agony of shifting her innocent childhood to the harshness of the real world of adults truly finds space in her poems. That aspect of child psychology should also be considered. But I really salute her for her courage to express the tabooed emotions. She is a pathbreaking writer. In her poems like "The Stone Age", "the Old Payhouse" and "The Sunshine Cat" she rejects the venomous ideology of male dominance and has objected the gendered roles provided by our society quite openly. As a true representative of women in general, she is also unique in her candid expression of her feelings. Poems were a real source for her emotional outlet. As far as religion is concerned she seeks spiritual as well as emotional support in it whether in the shape of Krishna or Mohammad. We should not confine her personality as well as her writing abilities in any of the boundaries. She wanted to live life fully and did so irrespective of her physical and mental sufferings. But society never likes such human beings who say no to any social or moral codes.


I went through your article, marvelous. Your observations on the key issues of Kamala Das's poetry reveal an uncanny combination of the heart of a creative writer and the analytical skill of critical perception. to be honest, whatever little I have read of Das' poetry, I fully endorse your views. She cannot be categorized with her contemporaries and labeled as something. She is remarkably an individual, thoroughly distinct in her emotional thrust, a lone voice starving for love all the time. She was denied her rightful due which gets revealed in her poetry. No exhibition of scholarship, no academia, no imposing philosophy or metaphysical content, but a natural and spontaneous expression of the pangs of despair in love. She is not a branded feminist but the poetry is an expression of repressed sexuality, quite natural, and she is very honest about its delineation. The depiction of minute details of inter-personal relationship is unique. She is not a sex maniac but any wounded heart would have behaved and responded likewise. True, she can be appreciated along with Sylvia Plath. The personal elements mostly govern her poetry. She is a religious, even though religions played a devastating role in her life. the honesty and candid expressions are the significant traits. a very interesting poet indeed.
Prof. Suman Mahapatra
Retired Director of Higher Education, Odisha

Dr Sushilla Gopaul said...

Congrats on the Kamala Das's article.
She has been compared to other wellknown feminist poets and inspite of her non-academic stance she is a great poet of depth.
She has worked on her lived through experience of loneliness in a poetic and concrete way.