Saturday, 29 October 2011

An Introduction -- Kamala Das

The first poem of Kamala Das I read was An Introduction in my degree. Kamala Das is no more and Ramamani, the teacher who taught us the poem, is also no more. She was the one who brought interest about Kamala Das during our college days. May both rest in peace.
Kamala Das
She was one writers whom we all admired during our college days for her non-conservative voice. The respect towards her increased manifold while reading her poetry in my PG classes. I read her autobiography My Story and had wondered about her frankness. She had not only created controversy with her unorthodox views, but also with her frank and explicit expression on matters of sexuality, which even our teachers felt embarassed to explain. She focused on love, betrayal and the resultant agony in her writings that unsettled not only the orthodox readers. She had sought to expose the hypocrisies of a society living in an illusory world of pseudo morality, oblivious of the stark realities around. She never compromised with the aesthetics of medium, always succeeding in portraying characters and situations in a touching, lucid and charming style with great economy of words. Her major English works include Summer in Calcutta, Alphabet of Lust, Descendants and Collected poems, many of which stand out for their originality of theme and symbolism. The most sensational her work in English was her memoirs My story, which was a tell-all personal reminiscences of the 1970s.

Kamala Das hit the headlines when, though born in a conservative Hindu Nair family in Kerala with a royal lineage, embraced Islam in 1999 at the age of 65, assuming the name Kamala Suraiya. The conversion, just as the themes of her stories, generated much heat and dust in social and literary circles. Whereas Kamala Das saw Lord Krishna in Allah and converted to Islam, she reportedly regretted for converting to Islam, which was told by none other than controversial exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen who met Kamal at her Kochi residence in August 2002.

The feminist author of Bengali book Lajja is in Kerala in connection with the release of the Malayalam translation of four of her books that were released in Thrissur on August 24.

“I don’t go to the streets, instead I write and that is my way of protest. I was born in a Muslim family and Muslim women suffer under Islam. No one told me to fight against oppression. It was inside me. Women are treated as slaves, sexual objects and childbearing machines,” Nasreen had said.

Contrast to that Kamala had said in an interview: “The purdah (Islamic face veil) that I wear protects me. I like the purdah which Muslim women wear. I like the lifestyle of Muslim women. Purdah is a wonderful dress. No man ever makes a pass at a woman in purdah. It provides her with a sense of security.”

According to Nasreen, Kamala Surayya, who was Kamala Das before she converted to Islam, had now realised that she had made a mistake in converting to Islam. She had met Surayya. “When I asked her if she regrets becoming a Muslim, she said ‘yes’. She has realised that Islam does not give equality,” said Nasreen.
Kamala Das had been admitted to a private hospital in Pune on April 18 following a complaint of respiratory distress. She had settled down in Pune a few years ago, leading a secluded life.

The writer who loved to tread the unorthodox path, had also made a foray into politics and floated ‘Lok Seva Party’, aiming at social and humanitarian work, providing asylum to orphaned mothers and to promote secularism. She unsuccessfully contested a Lok Sabha election in 1984.

Critics often place her Malayalam short stories, penned under the pseudonym Madhavikutty, much higher than her English writings by dint of their choice of themes, style and stunning impact.

An Introduction
By Kamala Das

I don’t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I amIndian, very brown, born inMalabar,
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 queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, halfIndian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.
WhenI asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully.
Then … I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love … I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants. a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him . . . the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me . . . the oceans’ tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I
In this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

An Introduction, a poem included in Kamala Das's first volume of poetry, Summer in Calcutta (1965), begins with a statement that shows her frank distaste for politics, especially in politically free India ruled by a chosen elite. The poet asserts her right to speak three languages, and defends her choice to write in two--her mother-tongue, Malayalam, and English. She doesn't like to be advised in this matter by any guardian or relations. Her choice is her own: authentic and born of passion. The poet looks upon her decision to write in English as natural and humane.

From the issue of the politics of language the poem then passes on to the subject of sexual politics in a patriarchy-dominated society where a girl attaining puberty is told about her biological changes by some domineering parental figure. As the girl seeks fulfilment of her adolescent passion, a young lover is forced upon her to traumatize and coerce the female-body since the same is the site for patriarchy to display its power and authority. When thereafter, she opts for male clothing to hide her femininity, the guardians enforce typical female attire, with warnings to fit into the socially determined attributes of a woman, to become a wife and a mother and get cofined to the domestic routine. She is threatened to remain within the four walls of her female space lest she should make herself a psychic or a maniac.

But the poet is an individual woman trying to voice a universal womanhood and trying to share her experiences, good or bad, with all other women. Love and sexuality are a strong component in her search for female identity and the identity consists of polarities. The poem ends with repetitions of the 1st person sigular I to suggest vindication of the body and the self.

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