Being Kamala

(Eunice de Souza, poet, literary critic and Kamala Das’ contemporary, writes of the “special debt of gratitude” that women writers owe Kamala Das. This article is reprinted with the permission of the author and the Mumbai Mirror, as it appeared on June 07, 2009.)

It’s a pity that a kind of voyeuristic interest in the late Kamala Das’s life has tended to distract from her poetry. The editor of a major newspaper once asked me whether she really had those affairs or was fantasizing. Prissy academics have disapproved of her “endless female hungers,” while pompous ones have lamented her concentration on self, and concluded it arises from “a paucity of experience.”Kamla Das
All of which leads me to make a trite and obvious point: it’s the way the experience is fashioned into a poem that matters, not the experience itself. In some of Kamala’s best poems, she uses a playhouse as a central image, masks, lies, pretence, role-playing. There is a theatrical element even in her autobiography My Story, translated from the Malayalam, which should give us pause. In any case, the relationship between person and persona, even in “confessional” poetry which supposedly bares all, is never a simple one. And had critics known their “Indian culture,” they would not have been shocked at all by her “revelations”. Women, and sometimes men writing in the voices of women, have been extraordinarily forthright about sexual matters and relationships from Vedic times onwards. Think of those 6th century Buddhist nuns rejoicing because they were free of husbands and housework!
In a conversation with Kamala, in Cochin, for the book Talking Poems, she said, “I’m not a physical person. I never wrote about women’s lust because I never felt it. I wrote about men’s lust. Celibacy suits me… Sex is a messy job but if you have to produce children you have to go through it. At the time I wrote it was necessary for women to write like that. Now it’s no longer such a brave gesture.” In a mischievous aside about My Story she added, “I’ll not swear everything in that book’s happened to me…If it’s red, make it redder. It’s the artist’s freedom to deepen the colour.”
Women writers owe a special debt of gratitude to Kamala Das. She opened up new territory for them, both in social and linguistic terms. She didn’t suffer from a “colonial cringe”. She spared us what in some circles, especially expatriate ones, is the mandatory, politically correct “anguish” of writing in English. In her best poems she speaks for women, certainly, but also for anyone who has known loneliness, pain, inadequacy, despair. She can create poems of brooding intensity, and of quiet power. “Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind/Old fat spider, weaving webs of bewilderment/Be kind.” (‘The Stone Age’). “Love-lorn/It is only /Wise at times, to let sleep/Make holes in memory, even/If it/Be the cold and/Luminous sleep banked in/The heart of pills.” (‘Luminol’). She could be acerbic, as in ‘The Proud One’, in which the speaker observes her man “Lying nailed to the bed in imitation/Of the great crucifixion.”

In the interview with her in Kochi, Kamala said, “By being yourself you are helping society. My mother is now senile, but she graces the place. There she is. I can’t imagine the house without her. She matters by being who she is. Because of my writing many people feel they can come and talk to me.” In the two days I was there, she received several invitations to attend functions, give speeches, pose with orphans. “I’m a part-time activist,” she said. “It should not become chronic, the everyday climate of my life. Garnish with misery. Don’t make it a meal. I like fun. I want to be able to help too.”