Kamala Das, a pillar of Indo-English Literature, an artist and a versatile Malayalam writer has passed away today in Pune. In Kamala Das' death the country has lost a great writer who in many ways was often misread, misunderstood and mistreated.
From her book The Descendants -
When I die
Do not throw the meat and bones away
But pile them up
And let them tell
By their smell
What life was worth
On this earth
What love was worth
In the end.
Kamala Das wrote with such passion, her poetry remains iconoclastic, defying norms yet daring you to read. I found her book 'My Story' at the AH Wheeler Book Shop in Gwalior Railway Station. The Autobiography is prose-poetry, like peeping into shadows, a whiff, now here, now gone.
Pritish Nandy collaborated with Kamala Das to bring out poetry collections titled 'Tonight this Savage Rite' and included her in all the anthologies he edited from 1972 to 1977.
I was fortunate to buy her celebrated book, 'The Descendents' from Professor P Lal's Writers Workshop at Lakeside Gardens in Kolkata in 1989.
Another one from the Descendants -
Our bodies after love making
Turned away, rejecting
Our words began to sound
Like clatter of swords in fight.
Yes, I was thinking, lying beside him
That I loved, and was much loved.
It is physical thing, he said suddenly,
End it, I cried, end it, and let us be free
After that love became a swivel door
When one went out, another came in.
Then I lost count, for always in my arms
Was a substitute for a substitute.
Oh, What is the use, explaining -
It was a nameless, faceless crowd.
We have lain in every weather, nailed, no, not
To crosses, but to soft beds and against
Softer forms, while the heaving, lurching,
Tender hours passed in a half dusk, half dawn and
Half dream, half real trance. We were the yielders,
Yielding ourselves to everythingï
She spoke to the newspaper Hindu -
"If I had been a loved person, I wouldn't have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being." She stops, as if to ponder, to collect her thoughts. "I suppose I started writing because I had certain weaknesses in my system. I thought I was weak and vulnerable. That's why we attempt poetry. Poets are like snails without the shells, terribly vulnerable, so easy to crush. Of course it has given me a lot of pain, each poem. Each poem is really born out of pain, which I would like to share. But then you live for that person, the sharer of your pain, and you don't find him anywhere. It is the looking that makes the poet go on writing, search. If you find someone, the search is over, poetry is over."
She wrote -
I cannot fold
my wayward limbs to crawl into
coffins of religions.
I shall die, I know,
but only when I tire of love;
tire of life and laughter.
Then fling me into a pit
six feet by two,
do not bother to leave
any epitaph for me.
"I suppose by writing poetry we are forming a crust over us, over the essence, the essential self. But even then I think it is like breaking the back of a cockroach at night. Without knowing people unwittingly crush our backs, crush our egos. They walk around crushing us. It is a sad occupation but I wouldn't choose another. Looking back, I would write about the calm. I would write about the happiness and a lovely love life. To want to live so that it would be an incentive to life. But there is always a new personality. There is always re-growth. When I believe in the impermanence of things, I also believe in the permanence of life."
Since her stories have been made into films, a number of films have also been made on her life. Her works have been translated into nearly 30 Indian and foreign languages. Hardly a sentence written by her has not found a place in newspapers, periodicals and books.
Summing up her past, she once again becomes the poet of the heart and the soul, complete with the melancholy refrain: "My poetry today is an answer to the question that plagued me all my life right from my childhood to now. My poetry today gives the answer. No groping around. Nothing can scare me. No ghost in my mansion. Somehow forever I am trying to be rid of my past, to unshackle myself. To move away farther and farther away from my past, I don't think the past was as interesting as the present. I sold 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."
Thank you very much for your critical appreciation and admiration of Kamala Das which I am happy to read it. But there is something to share with you and to be said with reservation that we often like to hear, go by the words of Kamala, but not those of her husband. Had we something on his part then justice could have been reached at least. Kamala as a writer draws from D.H.Lawrence, Judith Wright, Sylvia Plath and so on Western feminists and the writers of a confessional slant. Even the summer which she describes in the poem entitled Summer in Calcutta, God knows what summer is it? There is nothing of the season, not even the heat and dust swirling and playing with into the streets. It may be certainly her modern style, but the summer hints towards otherwise. Bodily lust, hunger and craving are the things of her poetry and there is nothing more. Apart from it, she is media-savvy, who can do it all for to be in the media glare and limelight. The summer of the body is the favourite season of hers. To see it otherwise, she is a spiritually sick child. Vatsyayna, Freud and Rajneesh seem to the best choices of hers. A writer of bodily love, she is not Mira or Radha, though we call her. The other thing too is this that we heaped research dissertations on her slender and slim books rather than appreciating the whole genre in full.
Bijay Kant Dubey
Thank you for a sensitive write-up Dr. Mitra.