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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

Tribute: Kamala Suraiya - Femme Fatale of Indian Literature

Saturday 13 June 2009, by N A Karim

With the death of Kamala Suraiya at Pune at the age of seventyfive, Indian literature has lost a rare and remarkable writer of multi-linguistic, multi-personal and multi-literary identities and sensibilities. As a strong self-willed child she grew up in Malabar and Calcutta jealously guarding her rights and furiously defending her various identities, particularly the feminine identity, in the face of attacks from genteel society. She has never been apologetic about any one of them. See how forcefully and unsparingly Kamala Das, the Indo-Anglian poet (not a good expression), fortified her linguistic freedom and identity in the face of attacks from all quarters:

I am Indian, very brown, born in

Malabar. I speak three languages write in

Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English. They said,

English is not your mother tongue. Why not leave

Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, Every one of you?

Why not let me speak in

Any language I like? The language I speak

Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness

All mine and mine alone …

(An Introduction)

If you listened to her lisping in her mother tongue, Malayalam, in ordinary informal talk, you would think that she is an alien to that tongue. But when she wrote her beautiful short stories in Malayalam, the language became a fine spun, one with a rare romantic evocative quality that has no parallel in modern Malayalam literature. As in personal identities, she had her characteristic multiplicity of names. Christened at birth as Kamala, she used her other name Madhavikkutty for writing short stories in Malayalam. When she married Madhva Das, ‘her Dasettan’, she became Kamala Das which she used to write prose and poetry in English. In addition she had a pet name, ‘Amy’.

¨

It was her English poems that brought her to public notice in India and abroad and received critical attention first. After tentative beginnings in Indian PEN and other journals and periodicals, in 1965 she published her first book of fifty poems under the title Summer in Calcutta. She had lived in that megalopolis for a long time with her father, V.M. Nair, who later on his return to Kerala became the Managing Editor of the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi. Her mother was the famous Malayalam poet, Balamani Amma. Her uncle, Nalappat Narayana Menon, was a poet and writer of considerable repute whose love of literature seems to have exerted considerable influence on Kamala. The metropolitan city of Calcutta with its characteristic ugliness and beauty seemed to have made a deep impress on the mind of the highly sensitive girl during her formative years. The sticky, oppressive climate, the din and noise of the city, the relentless urban ways of life, the protected urbane life of the professional upper class of the city‘s Park Street—all seemed to have etched on her impressionable mind images the influence of which are evident in her poetic imageries in the first two collections, A Dozen Poems and Summer in Calcutta. There is nothing juvenile in these and other early poems.

Most of her compositions were in the confessional mode. The personal in the poems was not to be taken literally as unalloyed autobiographical facts and experiences. She melted her personal experiences in the red-hot fire of her romantic imagination and remoulded them into memorable, evocative imageries without any inhibition of the genteel kind of feminine writers. At the same time in her personal life and attitudes she was highly polished in behaviour and sophisticated in manners, full of love, affection and generosity. My Story, the first prose writing of Kamala Das in English, created considerable furore in the literary world and a great shock in social circles. With the personal embarrassments of her parents and relatives when she openly but sensitively delineated her apparently personal experiences including those with sexual over- tones, a strong critical storm enveloped her. However, she not only stood her creative ground but also seemed to enjoy it. Soon the blast blew over, and the readers and critics learned to understand her writings on her own honest terms in matters of sex, man-woman relationship, woman’s autonomy in life etc. etc. She was unconventional, defiant and radical without being self-consciously so. She wrote as thoughts came red hot without any conscious effort to

………. search for pretty words which

Dilute truth, but write in haste of

Everything perceived, and known and loved.

Of the multiple sensibilities of Kamala Das, the strongest strand was indeed the feminine one. The poems in The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, published in 1973, reinforced this aspect of her poetic personality in an unmistakable way. The essence of this strong streak of her poetic persona has been variously interpreted as the outcome of a kind of romantic decadence to the Malabar Nair racial feminine trait. Like other bilingual writers Kamala Das did not keep a corridor between her two worlds of English and Malayalam. It appeared that she used to enter them through independent outside access. Therefore her readers would not think, as in the case of other bilingual writers, that had she concentrated on one she could have contributed more to literature. Her division of creative energy between Malayalam and English did not in any way diminish the richness or fecundity of either.

There have been serious studies and doctoral theses on her works in both these tongues. Prestigious prizes and awards in both these categories have been won by her. Kamala Suraiya was sensitive to the sufferings of the deprived sections of the people, particularly destitute women in distress; she made sincere attempts to ameliorate their conditions with organised socio-political work of her own style. Ten years ago when she converted herself into Islam there was threat to her limb and life. She was living in an apartment at Kochi where she used to get letters and phone calls threatening her for using her personal freedom to accept the faith of her choice. That storm also she braved like the literary and social storm that she had to face when she published her My Story. A woman full of love squandered the entire fund of it in a lavish manner till the end of her eventful life.

Dr N.A. Karim is a former Professor of English and an erstwhile Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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