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Taking poetry to India's young readers - with Kamala Das

New Delhi, April 3 - Prose has for long edged poetry to the margins of contemporary Indian literature. It is only natural that the new reader is not familiar with the late Kamala Das or her bold feminist oeuvre of poetry and short story that gave her cult status in India like Sylvia Plath in the West.

Now a new series to promote contemporary Indian poetry by publisher Harper Collins-India has begun with a celebration of the Kerala-born bilingual poetess with a 'small documentary' on her life and a panel discussion about her relevance on her birthday March 31.

'This is the first of the promotion series to take poetry to young readers. On April 12, we will launch writer Tishani Doshi's volume of poetry. We publish three volumes of poetry every year,' V.K. Karthika, publisher and chief editor of Harper Collins, told IANS.

Das' life was ahead of her times. She began writing about love, freedom, sexuality, people on the sidelines and the parallel lives of women at a time when society was rigid and resisted voices of change. Later, she explored genocide and politics in her poetry, giving her work a strident aggression and contemporary edge.

Born Kamala Madhavikutty in 1934, Kamala converted to Islam at the age of 65 at the behest of young 38-year-old Muslim paramour Sadiq Ali - and became Kamala Suraiyya. The move created a furore in the Islamic community.

Before that she had been married for several decades to Madhava Das and was the mother of three children. Her romantic dalliances were the staple of literary legend.

She expressed her lust for love in words in her controversial autobiography, 'My Story': 'He talks turning a sun-stained cheek to me/his mouth a lark/...Hand on my knee, while our minds are willed to race towards love....'

Kamala was born to literature and progressive thinking. As the daughter of V.M. Nair, the former managing editor of the popular Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi and noted Malayali poetess Nalappatt Balamani Amma, she was baptised into poetry very early. Her uncle Nalappatt Narayana Menon, also a poet, taught her the craft. She lived in Kolkata.

After her wedding, husband Madhava Das, a bank employee in Mumbai, encouraged her to write. But Kamala's spirit raged. She chafed against the rigid chores imposed upon her as a housewife - and began to write serious poetry to reconcile her life as a householder with the creative zeitgeist.

She also served as the editor of the poetry section of 'The Illustrated Weekly of India'. She wrote her poetry in English and short story in Malayalam.

'But she did not identify with the feminists of today. She said, 'I think a woman is not complete without a man',' filmmaker and long-time friend Suresh Kohli told IANS. Kohli made the biopic, 'An Introduction to Kamala Das' in 2006.

'Her poetry was controversial and honest in the contemporary times...she was the first woman in a male-domiated society to write courageously. I knew her for 40 years,' said Kohli, who had co-authored a book of poems with Das, 'Closure', a few months before the death of the poetess in 2009.

'She fought multiple problems, including a heart problem. It was unthinkable that a married woman from a middle class background could write 'Summer in Kolkata' (an anthology of poems in 1965).'

Son M.D. Nalapat remembers Kamala as 'my mother'.

'And that role was everything. I have never analysed her role as a writer... One person who has not received his due in all her stories and poetry is my father. My father loved her very much and they had an amazingly loving relationship. He accepted her as she was. We felt her literary life was like that of a movie star..,' Nalapat said.

Poet C.P. Surendran first met Das when he was 12 years old.

'I wanted to show one of my poems to Kamala. I read the poem to her - after stuttering and stumbling - and realised that she was not listening to me. Then I met her in Cochin as a young man, we went to meet her at home to discuss literature and returned again at 2 a.m. to carry on the discussion (she did not open the door),' Surendran said.

Das later wrote for Surendran when he edited the 'Metropolitan Saturday'.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)


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