One of the most puissant feminist voices of the postcolonial period, Kamala Surayya Das holds a prominent place amongst the modern poets of India. She influenced a generation at a time when it was hard to imagine a woman even speaking up for herself.
As she wrote, "Like other women writers of my class, I am expected to tame my talent to suit the comfort of my family..."
Well, suffice to say she didn't, but what she did was – she dared to stray away from the norm, building herself into an exemplar who doesn't bow down in front of any man.
"Be honest about your wants as a woman," Das asserted.
Born on 31 March 1984, the seminal poet would've been 88 years old today.
Born in Kerala during British rule, she wrote in both Malayalam and English, which is how she came to be known by her pen name Madhavi Kutty for her Malayalam readers.
Das was born into a family of artists, a family that was considered a literary royalty of the state. Her mother Balamani Amma was a popular Malayali poet and her uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon a well-respected writer. Das' childhood was, in her words, a culturally enriched one.
Feminism in Kamala Das' writings
"This has always been
Someone else’s world not mine
My man my sons forming the axis
While I, wife and mother
Climbed the glass panes of their eyes"
(An excerpt from A Widow's Lament, where Das talks about living in a male-dominated world)
Safe (or unsafe?) and sad to say that a woman from the current generation will still relate to this,
"But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me..." (Lines from "An Introduction")
However, a woman from the current generation will also be grateful to Kamala Das for engendering the custom of verbally and boldly expressing herself. It paved the way for the supposed 'lesser' gender to not feel that way and with time, it rendered strength to them to fearlessly speak up, and do whatever made them happy.
Das was married off at the age of 15 to an RBI employee, and she had to struggle to even write for herself.
"My husband... allowed me to write at night. After all the chores were done, after I had fed the children, fed him, cleaned up the kitchen, I was allowed to sit awake and write till morning. And that affected my health," she wrote.
In the poem The Stone Age, and before I go ahead, I want to reiterate that this was written in 1973 (some 50 years back), she talks about the life of an oppressed woman whose husband is set in his ways. She confesses about her extra-marital affair, slavery in the house of her in-laws, and her failed marriage.
"Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind ...You turn me into a bird of stone, a granite dove"
I don't have to explain the evident objectification that women are subjected to, as narrated in the above lines. She talks about men who colonised the minds of women and subjugated them, keeping their wives as showpieces. But the writer wants her readers to remember that it is a granite, after all, which can explode when tested, breaking down into finally standing up for herself.
Das' last book, published posthumously – The Kept Woman and Other Stories – featured translation of her various short stories.
In an interview, when asked if it would've been better to be a man, she admitted that being a male writer was easier in every manner.
"My mother's uncle was a writer, quite well known too. Nalapat Narayana Menon. He had nothing else to do but write and I have watched him work from morning till night. I think that was a blissful life," she responded.
If you're wondering how her mother was able to write and she wasn't, it was because, as Das explained, her father was an 'old-fashioned' gentleman who had employed servants around his wife to take care of the children and work in the kitchen.
"She did not have to do anything other than write. And I think she must have enjoyed it. She brought out several books when she was young," she expressed.
Das' writings included bold descriptions of love, menstruation, puberty, infidelity, physical intimacy and so much more that would surprise the reader in awe of the writer.
She introduced the concept of female sexuality to her readers, a notion pretty much nonexistent at the time. She confessed about lesbian encounters she experienced, sexual intimacy with her partner during her extra-marital affair, lust, and so much more.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that Das was one of the most honest and authentic writers of her time, who did not embellish her work to suit certain opinions or to entice the many eyes in the society.
Surrounded by Controversy
Whether it was her decision to convert to Islam in her later stages of life, or turning her writings into some nude paintings, it seemed that whatever Das did only won disapproval from her state's audience – a mere cost of attaining the title of 'revolutionary' or 'legendary' in my opinion.
While things she did stirred controversy, it also won hearts of countless people and inspired innumerable lives.
Das took pride in being a strong woman, rebelled against the rigid conventions and was unapologetic for the choices that she made. Some of her works jolted the audience into shock, and Das had a slapping answer to this,
"They were pretending to be shocked to prove their ‘innocence’," she hurled. Explaining the reason behind the controversies, Das had mentioned in an interview,
“[It is] probably because I have some courage to be what I am, and I don’t see my faults as faults – I see them as characteristics; strengths too. Why not, if you realise that you are only a human being?”
A Celebrated Life
No matter what society looked like then, Kamala Das was appreciated in her own time too.
She garnered numerous accolades and earned international recognition through her works. She was nominated for the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984, won P.E.N.’s Asian Poetry Prize, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her short story Thanuppu (Cold) and National Sahitya Akademi Award.
Das' work and acumen, being extremely well-renowned today, has been translated into a number of foreign languages and people from all around the world appreciate her for the literary genius she was.