Recognized as one of India’s foremost poets, Kamala Das was born Kamala Madhavikutty on March 31, 1934 in Malabar in the state of Kerala (Dwivedi 297). Her love of poetry began at an early age through the influence of her great uncle, Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Das remembered watching him “work from morning till night” and thinking that he had “a blissful life” (Warrier interview). Das was also deeply affected by the poetry of her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, and the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nayars (India World). She was privately educated until the age of 15 when she was married to K. Madhava Das (India World). She was 16 when her first son was born and she said that she “was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born” (Warrior interview). Her husband often played a fatherly role for both Das and her sons. Because of the great age difference between Kamala and her husband, he often encouraged her to associate with people of her own age. Das said that he was always “very understanding” (Warrier interview).
When Das wished to begin writing, her husband supported her decision to augment the family’s income. Because Das was a woman, however, she could not use the morning-till-night schedule enjoyed by her great uncle. She would wait until nightfall after her family had gone to sleep and would write until morning: “There was only the kitchen table where I would cut vegetables, and after all the plates and things were cleared, I would sit there and start typing” (Warrier interview). This rigorous schedule took its toll upon Das’ health, but she viewed her illness optimistically. It gave her more time at home, and thus, more time to write.
In an interview with Shobha Warrier, Das indicated that her husband was the greatest supporter of her progressing career. Even when controversy swirled around Das’ sexually charged poetry and her unabashed autobiography, My Story, Das’ husband was “very proud” of her (Warrier interview). Though he was sick for 3 years before he passed away, his presence brought her tremendous joy and comfort. She stated that there “shall not be another person so proud of me and my achievements” (Warrier interview). This depiction of her husband differs from his description in Merrily Weisbord’s biographical work that was published after Das’s death.
Das’s achievements extend well beyond her verses of poetry. Das says, “I wanted to fill my life with as many experiences as I can manage to garner because I do not believe that one can get born again” (Warrier interview). True to her word, Das dabbled in painting, fiction (Warrier interview), and even politics (Raveendran 53). Though Das failed to win a place in Parliament in 1984, she was later successful as a syndicated columnist (Raveendran 53). She moved away from poetry because she claimed that “poetry does not sell in this country [India],” but fortunately her forthright columns did (Warrier interview). Das’ columns sounded off on everything from women’s issues and child care to politics.
In December, 1999 Kamala Das converted to Islam, creating a furor in the press. Less than a year later, Kamala Surayya announced plans to register her political party ‘Lok Seva,’ (see articles available through the section on “related links”).
Das passed away on May 31, 2009 in a hospital in Pune, Maharashtra, India.
Womanhood in Das’ Poetry
Das’s uncanny honesty extended to her exploration of womanhood and love. In her poem “An Introduction” from Summer in Calcutta, the narrator says, “I am every/ Woman who seeks love” (de Souza 10). Though Amar Dwivedi criticized Das for this “self imposed and not natural” universality, this feeling of oneness permeated her poetry (303). In Das’ eyes, womanhood involved certain collective experiences. Indian women, she argued, did not discuss these experiences in deference to social mores and Das consistently refused to accept their silence. In her work, feelings of longing and loss are not confined to a private misery, but rather they are invited into the public sphere and acknowledged. Das insisted that these feelings had been experienced by women across time. In “The Maggots” from the collection, The Descendants, Das illustrated just how old the sufferings of women are. She framed the pain of lost love with ancient Hindu myths (de Souza 13). On their last night together, Krishna asks Radha if she is disturbed by his kisses. Radha says, “No, not at all, but thought, What is / It to the corpse if the maggots nip?” (de Souza 6-7). Radha’s pain is searing, and her silence is given voice by Das. Furthermore, by making a powerful goddess prey to such thoughts, Das makes the case for ordinary women to have similar feelings.
Eroticism in Das’ Poetry
Coupled with her exploration of women’s needs was an attention to eroticism. The longing to lose one’s self in passionate love is discussed in “The Looking Glass” from The Descendants. The narrator of the poem urges women to give their man “what makes you women” (de Souza 15). The things which society suggests are dirty or taboo are the very things which the women are supposed to give. The “musk of sweat between breasts/ The warm shock of menstrual blood” should not be hidden from one’s beloved (15). In the narrator’s eyes, love should be defined by this type of unconditional honesty. A woman should “Stand nude before the glass with him,” and allow her lover to see her exactly as she is (15). Likewise, the woman should appreciate even the “fond details” of her lover, such as “the jerky way he / Urinates” (15). Even if the woman may have to live “without him” someday, the narrator does not seem to favor bridling one’s passions to protect one’s self (15). A restrained love seems to be no love at all; only a total immersion in love can do justice to this experience. Much like the creators of ancient Tantric art, Das makes no attempt to hide the sensuality of the human form; her work seems to celebrate its joyous potential while acknowledging its concurrent dangers.
Das once said, “I always wanted love, and if you don’t get it within your home, you stray a little”(Warrier interview). Though some might label Das as “a feminist” for her candor in dealing with women’s needs and desires, Das “has never tried to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism” (Raveendran 52). Das’ views can be characterized as “a gut response,” a reaction that, like her poetry, is unfettered by other’s notions of right and wrong (52). Nonetheless, poet Eunice de Souza claims that Das has “mapped out the terrain for post-colonial women in social and linguistic terms” (8). Das has ventured into areas unclaimed by society and provided a point of reference for her colleagues. She has transcended the role of a poet and simply embraced the role of a very honest woman.
Das has published many novels and short stories in English, as well as in the Indian language of Malayalam under the name “Madhavikutty” (de Souza 7). Some of her work in English includes the novel Alphabet of Lust (1977), a collection of short stories called Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories (1992), in addition to books of poetry including Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), The Anamalai Poems (1985), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996), and Yaa Allah (2001), a collection of poetry with Pritish Nandy (1990), and her autobiography, My Story (1976). Some of her fiction pieces from the 90s in Malayalam includes Palayan (1990), Neypayasam (1991), Dayarikkurippukal (1992), and Chekkerunna Pakshikal (1996). After 2000, she has published several works including Chandana Marangal (2005), Madhavikkuttiyude Unmakkadhakal (2005) and Vandikkalakal (2005) .
Three Poems from Nine Indian Women Poets
The Dance of the Eunuchs (from Summer in Calcutta)
It was hot, so hot, before the eunuchs came
To dance, wide skirts going round and round, cymbals
Richly clashing, and anklets jingling, jingling
Jingling… Beneath the fiery gulmohur, with
Long braids flying, dark eyes flashing, they danced and
They dance, oh, they danced till they bled… There were green
Tattoos on their cheeks, jasmines in their hair, some
Were dark and some were almost fair. Their voices
Were harsh, their songs melancholy; they sang of
Lovers dying and or children left unborn….
Some beat their drums; others beat their sorry breasts
And wailed, and writhed in vacant ecstasy. They
Were thin in limbs and dry; like half-burnt logs from
Funeral pyres, a drought and a rottenness
Were in each of them. Even the crows were so
Silent on trees, and the children wide-eyed, still;
All were watching these poor creatures’ convulsions
The sky crackled then, thunder came, and lightning
And rain, a meagre rain that smelt of dust in
Attics and the urine of lizards and mice….
The Maggots (from The Descendants)
At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?
The Stone Age (from The Old Playhouse and Other Poems)
Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind,
Old fat spider, weaving webs of bewilderment,
Be kind. You turn me into a bird of stone, a granite
Dove, you build round me a shabby room,
And stroke my pitted face absent-mindedly while
You read. With loud talk you bruise my pre-morning sleep,
You stick a finger into my dreaming eye. And
Yet, on daydreams, strong men cast their shadows, they sink
Like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood,
Secretly flow the drains beneath sacred cities.
When you leave, I drive my blue battered car
Along the bluer sea. I run up the forty
Noisy steps to knock at another’s door.
Though peep-holes, the neighbours watch,
they watch me come
And go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,
And sleeps. Ask me why life is short and love is
Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price….
- Das, Kamala. “An Introduction.” de Souza 10.
- —. “The Maggots.” de Souza 13.
- —.”The Looking Glass.” de Souza 15.
- —.”The Stone Age.” de Souza 16-17.
- —. “The Dance of the Eunuchs.” Ray, David, and Amritjit Singh. India: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983. 156-157.
- Eunice de Souza, Ed. Nine Indian Women Poets. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- —. “Introduction.” de Souza 7-9.
- Rediff on the Net. Web. <http://www.rediff.com/style/das.htm>
- Dwivedi, A.N. Indo-Anglian Poetry. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1979.
- Raveedran, P.P. “Text as History, History as Text: A Reading of Kamala Das’ Anamalai Poems.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29 n2 (1994): 47-54.
Merrily Weisbord’s biography of Das
Author: Preeti Bhanot, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2017