Nishat Haider – Award Winning Academic, Poet, Writer, Editor, WE Awards Judge

Remembering Kamala Das

Poets are edible

material, even one at

death’s door can provide

a research scholar

a memorable feast.

(Das and Kohli, Closure 62)

Kamala Das, an Indian bilingual writer, who “mapped out the terrain for post-colonial women in social and linguistic terms,” died on 31st May 2009 in Pune (de Souza, Nine Indian Women Poets 8). Indian women poets in English, notwithstanding an occasional Toru Dutt or a Sarojini Naidu, could develop their individuality as “new women” in the post-Independence period, when Kamala Das made her fiery entry into this realm. The poetry of Kamala Das can be interpreted as the aesthetic negotiations of the manifold axes of her identity: the “Queen of Erotica,” “the paparazzi’s dream girl” who has “pre-empted Shobha De in verse” (Prabha 224-25), the maverick poet, writer, painter or merely an activist. Kamala Das, born on 31 March 1934 in Punnayurkulum, in South Malabar Kerala, in an affluent matrilineal, matriarchal family of the Nalapat Nayars, crossed yet another frontier by becoming a Muslim on 16th December 1999 at the age of sixty one. Much to the chagrin of progressive Muslim women and her own community, Kamala (Surayya) wore the burqua with great élan for it gave her the anonymity she had always craved for (Pathiyan 1) and acted as “bullet-proof dress,” an armour against “the piercing eyes of men.” (Kaur 160). In her childhood Kamala Das lived with her “puritanical” (32) grandmother who fed her on the myth of Krishna as her “greatest friend” (de Souza, Talking Poems 36). She started writing at the age of six inspired by her suppliant and indifferent mother, Balamani Amma, who was a Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith Award winner, and the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nayars. Her father, V. M. Nair, was a successful executive in an American firm in Calcutta and later the editor of Matrabhumi. Das’s achievements extend well beyond her verses of poetry. Das has published many novels and short stories in English, as well as in the Indian language of Malayalam under the name “Madhavikutty.” Some of her work in English includes the novel Alphabet of Lust  (1977), a collection of short stories called Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories (1992), six books of poetry, Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), The Anamalai Poems (1985), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996), a collection of poetry with Pritish Nandy (1990), Ya Allah, Closure (2010) and her autobiography, My Story (1976). Some of her more recent novels in Malayalam include Palayan (1990), Neypayasam (1991), and Dayarikkurippukal (1992). She has also authored a syndicated column in India. Das also dabbled in painting, fiction and even politics.

As Kamala Das belonged to the Kerala Nayar community, her writings steeped in its cultural ethos have to be located and understood in this chronotopic context (Jaidka). From early times the gender equity found in Kerala appears to have grown out of the attitudes and beliefs of the indigenous Malayalee population later (more than one thousand years) to become Nayars living in Taravads. Nayar women had greater personal freedom than most women to make decisions regarding marital and sexual relations. Nayar women played a crucial role in making household decisions, the decision-making role being invested with great authority— inheritance was through them, and it was they who were the bearers of the family name. The birth of a girl in a Nayar household was welcomed; it was far from being considered a disaster as in other parts of India (Ramachandran 279). R. Parthasarathy has attributed the forthrightness in Das’s works to her Nayar background (50). Her credentials as a formidable Indian woman writer in two languages (English and Malayalam) is a well acknowledged fact. The poet, Carol Rumens, finds it interesting that this bilingual writer “uses both Malayalam and English for her fiction, but English only for her poetry” and “the voice operates between idiolect and dialect. It is outside standard norms of poetic diction, yet inward enough with the language to conjure a sense of these more familiar dialects, sometimes assimilated, sometimes hovering at the edge” (35). Despite the vernacular oddities in her poems, Das has spared us the “colonial cringe” (de Souza, Nine Indian Women Poets 8). Among her poetic works, Ya Allah poems, written under the name Kamala Surayya, are the only exception, having been originally written in Malayalam. She writes in free verse to probe female desire within and outside a conventional arranged marriage, interrogating male power, and playing concurrently with female infidelity, women’s bisexuality and lesbian identity. She has also held positions as Vice Chairperson Kerala Sahitya Academy, Chairperson in Kerala Forestry Board, President of the Kerala Children’s Film Society, editor of Poet Magazine and Poetry editor of Illustrated Weekly of India. Kamala Das has been the recipient of such famous awards as the Poetry Award for the Asian PEN Anthology in 1964, Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries, Muttathu Varkey Award, Vayalar Award, Ezhuthachan Award, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for the best collection of short stories in Malayalam, the Chaman Lal Award for fearless journalism and the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award in 1988. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan, in 1984. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have included Kamala Das as the only representative from Asia in their Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. She was also shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984, along with Lessing, Yourcenar and Gordimer. She travelled extensively abroad to read poetry. Her works are available in many languages, including, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Japanese.

Some of the most important aspects of Das’s life, which have left their mark on her poetry, include, among others, her Nair heritage (characterized by matrilineal descent and frankness in matters of sex) and her relationship with her father, her disillusionment with marriage as a child bride and her extra–marital affairs in search of genuine love. Kamala Das bitterly recalls that her father was autocratic and treated the members like “menials” because he was the “family bread–winner” (de Souza, Talking Poems 32). In her autobiography My Story, Das in very unequivocal terms describes how her parent’s vacuous relationship and frequent nocturnal fights behind the facade of a happy marriage left her confounded and unhappy. In the poem, “Glass,” Das ascribes her failure in love to her constant search of a father figure:

… I’ve misplaced a father

Somewhere, and I look

For him now everywhere.

(The Old Playhouse and Other Poems 22)

In projecting paternal image on her lovers, she seeks fatherly love and affection. This creates a disastrous schism between desire and realization, which results in catastrophic restiveness and futile search for an ideal lover. Writing about her search for an ideal lover, Kamala Das says, “The ones who loved me did not understand why I was so restive. ‘You are like a civet cat in a cage’, said a friend of mine looking at me walk up and down biting my nails” (My Story 180). The poem, “Glass,” very evocatively brings out the poet’s anguish:

I no longer care

Whom I

Hurt with love and often without ?

(The Old Playhouse and Other Poems  21).

Expressing her disenchantment with all her lovers in “Glass,” Das admits:

                        I enter other’s

                        Lives, and,

                        Make of every trap of lust

                        A temporary home.

                        (The Old Playhouse and Other Poems 21)

In place of love she encounters lust, which cannot satisfy her soul’s longing. The conflict between passivity and rebellion against the male-oriented universe is predominantly the theme of much poetry by Das. She writes to break the silence about her relationships with men, she writes in anger, and she writes to tell her story. In the poem “Composition,” expressing a keen desire to articulate her intimate thoughts, Das says:

I must let my mind striptease

I must extrude

Autobiography. (The Descendants 31)

For Kamala Das this self-expression is a means of liberation from the malicious clutches of men and sterile relationships.

Kamala Das’s poetic spectrum is characterized by: feminine sensibility, confessional mode, and compulsive yearning to give vent to her innermost feelings. Expressing her poetic credo, Das says, “Poetry for me is very personal and private. It is like prayers. I don’t want to share it with the public.  I write a lot in my private diary and only a fraction of it has been published” (My Story 58). Kamala Das’s frankness and self-assertion in her poetry have very much the same quality as are found in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Judith Wright, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, Margaret Avison, Rosemary Sullivan and Susan Griffins. The works of these poets reveal uninhibited expression of the ‘lived’ experiences, personal feelings, and intimate mental and physical facts of their lives. In this respect a number of critics such as Devindra Kohli, Sivaramakrishna, Eunice de Souza, K. Ayyapa Panikar and E.V Ramakrishnan have applied the label of “confessional” poet to her and she has consistently been compared with Sylvia Plath albeit in a loose manner. Akin to these confessional poets, death is a recurring metaphor in her poetry. But with Das, it was as if whenever she seemed at a loss for a theme, she tried to invoke death in some form or the other, almost with a gay abandon (Closure ix). For instance, these lines from her poem “A Request,” which according to Suresh Kohli, could serve as her epitaph:

When I die

do not throw

the meat and bones away

but pile them up

and let them tell

by their smell

what life was worth in the end. (Peeradina 85)

The theme of pain, however, is perceptible even in Das’s more celebrated love or romantic poems. Elaborating on the distinguishing features of confessional poets, E.V Ramakrishnan in his essay on “Kamala Das as a Confessional Poet” rightly points out that such poets “have in common a capacity for ruthless self-analysis and a tone of utter sincerity” (202). Vrinda Nabar, however, believes that though Das “…may share certain confessional characteristics with these poets she does not have their range of self-analysis and their formal variety” (95). She may be utterly sincere and make confessions, which are unquestionably courageous in the Indian context, but they do not add up to a credo.

Poetry for Kamala Das is not a profession but the very spirit, which imbuesher self. Expressing her commitment to raw nerve experience and focus on the ‘self’, she says:

… by confessing

by peeling off my layers

I reach close to the soul

and to the bones`

supreme indifference. (The Old Playhouse and Other Poems 7)

Das’s poetry is an articulation of a “fiercely feminine sensibility that dares without inhibition to articulate the hurts it has received in an intensive largely man-made world” (Iyengar 680). Having been jilted in relationships, Das’s faith in the mythic Krishna prevents her from sinking into despair, depression and sickness. The search for human love turns to love for the immortal one, that is, ‘Lord Krishna.’ Expressing her desire to be united with Krishna, in the poem ‘Radha,’ Das cries out:

Everything in me

Is melting,

even the hardness at core

O Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting

Nothing remains but You. (The Descendants 9)

However, disillusioned with her traditional faith and its divinities and tormented by perennial questions concerning self and existence, Das converted to Islam in 1999. Talking about her conversion, Das says,

Two plain reasons lured me to Islam. One is the Purdah. Second is the security that Islam provides to women. In fact, both these reasons are complementary. Purdah is the most wonderful dress for women in the world. And I have always loved to wear the Purdah. It gives women a sense of security. Only Islam gives protection to women. I have been lonely all through my life. At nights, I used to sleep by embracing a pillow. But I am no longer a loner. Islam is my company. Islam is the only religion in the world that gives love and protection to women. Therefore, I have converted. (SAWNET)

Embracing Islam marked a true turning point in her poetic career and thinking. While the poems published prior to the conversion are filled with images of death and horror, her Ya Allah poems inhabit a world of light and sunshine; while her earlier poems sprang from a sense of utter despair and gloom, the later ones represent the repose and equanimity of her mind. In a personal conversation at her residence, she told Thasneem that had the light of Islam reached Plath, she would not have committed suicide. Describing her new faith, she says:

 My beloved is body-less.

 When the body and the soul fade away,

He will remain the Reality.

Oh Wayfarer, do you want to partake of

My joy?

(Ya Allah 25)

The poems in the Ya Allah volume are evocative instances of the serenity of mind that Das achieves after embracing Islam. However some reviewers criticized her recent poems as devoid of the violent energy that characterized her early poems. This does not, however, indicate a “deadening of spirit,” as critics like Taha have pointed out, but rather a recovery of it (qtd. in Thasneem 14). However, in one of her last poems, “The Munafique,” Das says,

Now at seventy-five

I have neither beauty

nor poetry to befriend me,

only a walker

to support my legs.

I discover all the emptiness

of a life ill spent,

and the absence of a God

I can truly count on.

(Closure 28)

In a conversation with Suresh Kohli, Das says, “The only religion I know is the religion of love. I fell in love with a Muslim after my husband’s death. He was kind and generous in the beginning. But now I feel one shouldn’t change one’s religion” (Closure 73). For Das, faith devoid of love brings no consolation:

I cannot fold

my wayward lines to crawl into

coffins of religions.

I shall die, I know,

but only when I tire of love;

tire of love and laughter.

(Closure 72)

With the passage of time a mellower Das has realized: “love is the only religion” (“March of the Mercenaries,” Closure 43), sex and passion lose their intensity gradually, and that love “comes in different forms… spreading out, touching many people” (Pathiyan 1).

The entire poetic corpus of Kamala Das is a compelling rhapsody of the female essence breaking free from the barriers erected by men. The act of writing poetry, the language of revolution in Kristeva’s terms, renders the death wish inevitable. However, here the desire for death is the desire to unite with the maternal and the semiotic, paying the price of having a voice. Das’s corpus is the first feminist discourse of defiance (in terms of both theme and syntax) in Indian English women’s poetry. Being unable to express her woes and pain in the patriarchal language embedded in phallocratic codes, Das questions:

Why not let me speak in

 Any language I like? The language I speak

Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness,

All mine, mine alone.

(“An Introduction,” Summer in Calcutta 59)

Hers is the first authentic Indian female voice in English poetry, which emerged as a potent and effective non-canonical enunciation, which challenges the institutional hegemony of patriarchy. The poem, “The Looking Glass,” foregrounds the female desire:

     Of his limbs, his eyes reddening under

      Shower, the shy walk across the bathroom floor,

      Dropping towel, and the jerky way he

      Urinates. All the fine details that make

      Him male and your only man..…

      (The Descendants 25)

By revealing in her poetry that which has been overlooked and concealed as shameful by Indian culture, Das revalues parts of female experience devalued within society. In the poem, the desire of the female persona is a site of resistance, an observation echoed by Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “It is at the level of sexual pleasure in my opinion that the difference makes itself most clearly apparent in as far as woman’s libidinal economy is neither identifiable by a man nor referable to the masculinist economy.” By writing through her body, Kamala Das envisions a new aesthetic, which reconceptualizes the female body as a subject for poetry and as a mode of knowing.

Works Cited

Cixous, H. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1991. 334-349.

Das, Kamala. The Descendants. Rev. ed.Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1991.

—. My Story. Trans. K. Das. Rev. ed. New Delhi: Sterling, 1976. Rpt. of Ente Katha. 1974.

—. The Old Playhouse and Other Poems. Mumbai: Orient Longman, 1973.

—. Summer in Calcutta.New Delhi: Everest P, 1965.

—. Ya Allah. Calicut, India: Islamic Publishing House, 2002. (All excerpts from Ya Allah in this study are Umer O. Thasneem’s translations from Malayalam).

Das, Kamala and Suresh Kohli. Closure: Some Poems and a Conversation. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2009.

De Souza, Eunice, ed. Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1997.

—, ed. Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1999.

Iyengar, K.R. Srinivasa.  Indian Writing in English. 5th ed. New Delhi: Sterling, 1999.

Jaidka, Manju. “Kamala Das.” South Asian novelists in English: An A-to-Z Guide. Ed. Jaina C. Sanga. USA: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Kohli, Devindra. Kamala Das. New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1975.

Kohli, Suresh. “Poetic Craft of Kamala Das.” Thought 20 (1968): 17-78.

Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.

Nabar, Vrinda. The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das. New Delhi: Sterling, 1994.

Parthasarathy, R. “Indian Verse: The Making of a Tradition.” Alien Voice. Ed. Avadesh K. Srivastva. Lucknow: Print House, 1991.

Pathiyan, Priya. “Interview with Kamala Das.” The Times of India Sunday Review. 1 Apr. 2001.

Peeradina, Saleem. Contemporary Indian Poetry in English. Madras: Macmillan, 1972.

Prabha, M. The Waffle of the Toffs: A Sociocultural Critique of Indian Writing in English. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH, 2000.

Ramachandran, V.K. “On Kerala’s Development Achievements.” Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives. Ed. Dre’ze, Jean, & Amartya Sen. New Delhi: Oxford U P, 1997.

Ramakrishnan, E.V. “Kamala Das as a Confessional Poet.” The Journal of Indian Writing in English 5:2 (1977): 29-34. Rpt. in Contemporary Indian English Verse: An Evaluation. Ed. Chirantan Kulshrestha. New Delhi and Atlantic Highlands: Arnold Heinemann, 1981.

Rumens, Carol. “Dislocated Carnality.” Poetry Review vol. 83.1, Spring (1993): 35.

SAWNET.  <>.

Sivaramakrishna, M. “Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: An Approach.” Opinion Literary Quarterly 1.4 (July 1974): 39-57.

Thasneem, Umer O. “Two Souls in Search of an Oasis.” The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 25.2 (2008): 1-15.

Dr. Nishat Haider is a Professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (India). She is the author of Tyranny of Silences: Contemporary Indian Women’s Poetry (2010). She has served as the Director, Institute of Women’s Studies, University of Lucknow. She is the recipient of many academic awards including the Meenakshi Mukherjee Prize (2016), C. D. Narasimhaiah Award (2010), and Isaac Sequeira Memorial Award (2011). She has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and her essays have been included in a variety of scholarly journals and books. She has conducted numerous conferences, seminars, workshops on gender budgeting and gender sensitization. She has worked on various projects funded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF, UGC and other agencies. She has lectured extensively on subjects at the intersection of cinema, culture and gender studies. Her current research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Translation, Popular Culture and Gender Studies.