Kamala Das – Her Literary Life and Her Works
Born on March 31, 1934, in Malabar, Kerala, Kamala Das’ love of poetry was ignited by watching her great uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon, a prominent writer of his time. She would watch him work all day and felt that his life was one of bliss as he was able to live out his life by writing all the time. The poetry of her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, as well as the sacred writing of the Nairs, a matriarchal community of Kerala, also influenced her.
Das spent her childhood between Calcutta where her father was employed and the ancestral Nalapat home in Kerala. Given private tutoring till the age of fifteen and then married at a young age, she found great support for her literary inclinations in her husband. K. Madhava Das, who always felt proud of her achievements in spite of all the controversy that surrounded some of her writing. Having spoken about her sexual experiences and dissatisfaction with a husband who was years older than her, she would still always claim that he was her greatest support in all her literary endeavours.
Although she was encouraged by her husband to write and to augment the family income, being a woman with three sons and a household to run, she could not emulate her great uncle and write blissfully from morning to night. She could only sit down at the kitchen table to her work at night after her family had fallen asleep. However, although this was quite exhausting and resulted in poor health, she viewed it optimistically as her illness forced her to stay home and she could therefore write more. Wanting to fill her life with varied experiences that went beyond writing poetry, Kamala Das tried her hand at painting, fiction and politics. Having declared that poetry was not a very profitable proposition in India; Das started writing a syndicated column in which she talked about all topics under the sun.
Born into a conservative Hindu family with royal links, in 1999, she announced her decision to convert to Islam and took on the name of Kamala Surayya–another topic of controversy. Her act was dubbed as another of her histrionics meant to grab attention but she defended her decision saying that it gave her a secure feeling to don the Muslim veil. However, later, she also opined that it was not worthwhile to change one’s religion. Although with no family background of politics, she contested for a Parliament seat in 1984 after launching the Lok Seva party but was unsuccessful.
On 31 May 2009, at the age of 75, Kamala Das breathed her last in a Pune hospital. Her body was taken to Kerala and buried with full state honours.
Just around the beginning of the post-Independence era, the second wave of Indian poetry in English emerged, after the romantic tradition in writing showed signs of having receded. The publication of R. Parthasarathy’s Ten Twentieth-century Indian Poets gave voice to these poets. The poems that drew a lot of attention in this volume was the bold writing of Kamala Das who, with her protest against patriarchy, her fervent endorsement of the matriarchal system and the articulation of female desire and sexuality, established herself as an icon of Indian feminism. In the words of a well-known critic, K. R. Sreenivasa Iyengar, Das was perceived as being “aggressively individualistic”. Her writing has been termed as confessional in which private grief and humiliation has been expressed without reservation, with perceptive self-analysis and sincerity of tone and purpose.
When one reads the poetry of women writing before her–Sarojini Naidu or Toru Dutt for example, one is struck by the huge difference in tone, subject matter and use of linguistic and poetic devices. While Naidu is noted for her romantic imagery, mastery over English metrical forms and native view of Indian exotica and Dutt is recognised for her lyrical romantic poetry that upheld moral vision through the use of myths, Kamala Das ventured into the depths of the feminine sensibility and, by using everyday expressions and symbols, conveyed the thoughts of an Indian woman living in a patriarchal society.
Kamala Das’ first volume of poetry in English was The Sirens, published in 1964. This was followed by Summer in Calcutta in 1965. Being bilingual, Das could express herself with ease in both Malayalam and English. She wrote poetry in English and fiction in Malayalam. Her daring autobiography was also first published in her mother tongue. As she ventured into ‘forbidden’ territory by speaking about topics that were considered out of bounds for women, she broke new ground and established herself as a powerful voice in both languages.
In her later years, she wrote a syndicated column and characteristically, expressed herself with candour on a number of topics. She was spontaneous–even whimsical-and reserved the right to change her mind. Although this may have irked her critics, it allowed her to explore life and ideas with all their contradictions and paradoxes honestly and with emotional integrity. She is noted for writing in a distinctively Indian voice without blindly imitating the West in her expression. Her poems are provocative and unflinching in their explorations of the self and female sexuality. She is also concerned with urban life, women’s roles in traditional Indian society, issues of postcolonial identity, and the political and personal struggles of marginalised people.
Kamala Das’ major works include The Sirens, Summer In Calcutta, The Descendants, The Old Playhouse And Other Poems, My Story, Alphabet of Lust, The Anamalai Poems, Padmavati The Harlot and Other Stories, Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, Yaa Allah, Pakshiyude Manam, Dayarikkurippukal, Neermathalam Pootha Kalam, Madhavikkuttiyude Unmakkadhakal. Kamala Das won recognition around 1965. However, it was with her third volume of poems The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), that she gained an international reputation as a strong feminist in Indian poetry in English. Critics like K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar compare her ‘confessional’ poetry with that of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Judith Wright.
Das was nominated and shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1984. She was a recipient of the Asian Poetry Prize, the Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries, the Asian World Prize, the Ezhuthachan Award, the Sahitya Academy Award, the Vayalar Award and the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award, among others.