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Still a rebel writer


Writer and poet Kamala Das on her works and why she writes.

Zest for life: Kamala Das. Photo: Vipin Chandran

WE finally finished the talkie portion of the film in her sparsely furnished apartment in a remote part of Kochi. It was a great relief, for I had to use all my patience to avoid showdowns during the different schedules.

The shooting over, we came to the question which normally comes easy to me — What to call the film? After everybody who was anybody threw up suggestions, I decided to wait till the first cut was ready. Merrily Weisbord, her Canadian biographer, would call almost every second day and bounce one idea after another. None seemed appropriate. Back in Montreal, Merrily sent me a clincher, the simple "Kamala Das: An Introduction".

Spellbinding impact

For those who do not know, "An Introduction" is Kamala Das's most famous confessional poem — a classic of sorts in her own lifetime. In fact, after a brief two-and-a-half-minute biographical sketch, the film opens with lines from this famous poem. And the impact was spellbinding because after this reading, her face comes into view with the opening lines.

"If I had been a loved person, I wouldn't have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being." She stops, as if to ponder, to collect her thoughts. "I suppose I started writing because I had certain weaknesses in my system. I thought I was weak and vulnerable. That's why we attempt poetry. Poets are like snails without the shells, terribly vulnerable, so easy to crush. Of course it has given me a lot of pain, each poem. Each poem is really born out of pain, which I would like to share. But then you live for that person, the sharer of your pain, and you don't find him anywhere. It is the looking that makes the poet go on writing, search. If you find someone, the search is over, poetry is over."

I cannot fold/my wayward limbs to crawl into/coffins of religions./I shall die, I know,/but only when I tire of love;/tire of life and laughter./Then fling me into a pit/six feet by two,/do not bother to leave/any epitaph for me.

Thus writes the 71-year-old Kamala Das in one of her recent poems. Though troubled by various health problems, she hasn't lost her zest for life. The doorbell hardly seems to stop ringing, especially before lunch. Nothing can be more frustrating than to be disrupted, especially when the subject is making a profound statement:

"I suppose by writing poetry we are forming a crust over us. Over the essence. The essential self. But even then I think it is like breaking the back of a cockroach at night. Without knowing people unwittingly crush our backs, crush our egos. They walk around crushing us. It is a sad occupation but I wouldn't choose another. Looking back, I would write about the calm. I would write about the happiness and a lovely love life. To want to live so that it would be an incentive to life. But there is always a new personality. There is always regrowth. When I believe in the impermanence of things, I also believe in the permanence of life."


She always had the will, and, therefore, managed to find her way. That's Kamala Das, the rebel Indian English poet. Or Madhavi Kutty, the firebrand short story writer in her native Malayalam. The author of My Story — a book that has not stopped selling since it was first published in 1975. She talks about her beginnings:

"I started writing stories when I was 17. I wrote my first story and sent it to Mathrubhumi. It was published, and I got Rs. 12 for it, ... I would publish a story every month. My first story was a love story. I published it under the name of Madhavi Kutty (Madhavi because I was Madhava's wife, and Kutty because I was just a child) because I did not want my grandmother to know. And since then there has been no stopping me. I write about the poor and the disadvantaged. They are voiceless... little maidservants who get beaten up, little 12-year-olds fetching pails of water, who do not even get proper salaries. I wrote a story about a child prostitute after visiting a brothel. K.P. Kumaran has made it into a beautiful film."

Since her stories have been made into films. A number of films have also been made on her life. Her works have been translated into nearly 30 Indian and foreign languages. Hardly a sentence written by her has not found a place in newspapers, periodicals and books.

"Kamala Das's poems epitomise the dilemma of the modern Indian woman who attempts to free herself, sexually and domestically, from the role bondage sanctioned by the past," wrote Prof. Syd Harrex while attempting to introduce her work to an Australian readership. Such universal critical acclaim now seems passé. "She came of age surrounded by claustrophobia and cramping aestheticism," writes Merrily Weisbord, whose biography of Kamala Das will hit the bookshops later in the year.

First Madhavi Kutty. Then Kamala Das. Then Kamala Suraiya after she embraced Islam some years ago, inviting the wrath of the conservative Malayali Hindu society. "I fell in love with a Muslim after my husband's death. He was kind and generous in the beginning. But I now feel one shouldn't change one's religion. It is not worth it. Also, I have been accused of being feminist. I am not a feminist, as it is understood. I don't hate men. I feel a woman is most attractive when she surrenders to her man. She is incomplete without a man."

Melancholy refrain

Summing up her past, she once again becomes the poet of the heart and the soul, complete with the melancholy refrain: "My poetry today is an answer to the question that plagued me all my life. Right from my childhood to now. My poetry today gives the answer. No groping around. Nothing can scare me. No ghost in my mansion. Somehow forever I am trying to be rid of my past, to unshackle myself. To move away farther and farther away from my past. I don't think the past was as interesting as the present. I sold my past. I distributed it. I called everyone for dinner and I said eat a bit of my past, all of you. Drink a bit of my past. And they drank the wine of my past, and they ate the flesh of my past. And I feel battered, weaker for it."

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