On her own terms
SURESH KOHLI discovers the same intense spirit in the firebrand writer, Kamala Das.
Kamala Suraiyya. Photo: H_Vibhu
SHE ALWAYS had the will, and, therefore, managed to find her way. At the very top, despite a variety of handicaps. The worst, being a woman of rare courage and strong convictions. That's Kamala Das, the rebel Indian English poet. Or Madhavikutty, the firebrand short story writer in her native Malayalam. Or the bold, courageous essayist. The author of the trendsetting "My Story" - a book that refuses to stop selling ever since it was first published in 1975. A book that not only brought her instant fame, or notoriety, but also opened up a can of troubles. The controversial Dr. Suraiya Begum - after she embraced Islam some years ago, inviting the wrath of the conservative Malayali Hindu society but braving it the way she knows how to do it.
And sit back, and bask in the glory as well. For the doorbell outside her house hasn't stopped ringing ever since. Interviewers, researchers, filmmakers continue to throng her threshold. More documentaries, both by Indians and foreigners, have been made on her than a popular film star, or a powerful politician. 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. Most of them repeatedly anthologised, and collected and published under different titles. But none of it has made her arrogant, or unapproachable. There are those who hate her, and there are those whose response to her borders on worship. One has seen it, time and again. In Delhi, Mumbai, and now in Kochi.
When an invitation from the University of Calicut threw out the chance of meeting her after a long gap, I could only grasp it eagerly and made the five-hour drive with anticipation. Goodness gracious, one could discern the enthusiasm in her voice. Lunch was served almost instantly, "I am famished", she said. But one was hungrier for words. One made her read out one of her newer, more introspective, but spontaneous poetry utterings:
"I wore a mock wedding ring
for these past few years,
a married woman
Life crowds you out
and truth strangles
the reality of your mind;
in the final analysis
made of sepulchral
he would become
a good father
a competent poet,
Neither age, nor the related ailments seem to hold her spirit down, though physically slowed down by the rhythm of time. At times she seems disillusioned even by her new identity, but does not know how to shed it now. And that's rather unlike both Madhavikutty and Kamala Das.
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