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

Tribute to Kamala Das: Love in the Time of Pain

Saturday 13 June 2009, by T J S George


As a writer who combined originality with daring, Kamala Das had no equal in Indian literature. The originality established her as a poet in her teens. The daring made her an international sensation, making waves from Canada to Japan.

Man-woman relationship was her theme. She wrote about it with no sense of taboos—a quality that is applauded as ‘modern’ in men. Women modernists usually approach the theme from a feminist angle, seeing man as an adversary, even enemy.

Kamala was no feminist. She of course dismissed the idea of male dominance, but she cherished the idea of man and her right to do so. She set out to demolish the notion that women had no right to enjoy their emotions. The result was a celebration of life which some interpreted as lustful, many saw as courageous, but all enjoyed as literature of quality and stylistic freshness. This qualitative excellence was all the more remarkable because she never had formal education beyond the primary level.

Kamala was bilingually talented. English made her works prescribed texts in some universities abroad. Malayalam made her a topic of hot debate in Kerala where she was occasionally attacked as a “loose” woman. (Loose men were never an issue.) When she died in Pune last week, good finally prevailed over evil and her greatness was unhesitatingly recognised by friend and foe alike. People turned out in tens of thousands to pay homage as her cortege travelled from Kochi airport to Trivandrum’s main mosque for Islamic burial. For Kamala Das had become Kamala Suraiya ten years ago.


Many thinkers said many things about the literary eminence and the sociological importance of Kamala Das—that she was an eternal child, that she was a revolutionary social force. The best way to know her and what she stood for is to read her. A random sample:

• If I had been a loved person, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being.

• Each poem is really born out of pain which I’d like to share. But you have to live that person, the sharer of your pain—and you don’t find him anywhere. It is the searching that makes the poet go on writing. If you find him, the search is over, poetry is over.

• I sold away 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.

• When I love somebody I do so whole-heartedly. I experience acute emotions in the wee hours. Poetry flows out. Once all the poetry has come out of me, my heart goes empty. All the emotions I felt for a person evaporate. That person becomes just a corpse then.

• In India women can get old in a dignified manner. After 35-40 everyone calls you Elder Sister. After 45-50, everyone calls you Amma. Can women in America get such respect? There women’s status depends on their beddability. They have to sustain their beddability with silicon implants and things.

• Every embrace is a fullness, a completed sculp-ture.

• Interviewer: Who was your first lover? Answer: Srikrishna.

• Ya Allah! Punish me at least now. I loved him more than I loved you. Cut off my hands that melted into his body in search of treasures. I am a sinner who worshipped man. A servant thirsting for penalisation, that’s this Suraiya.

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