Remembering and celebrating Kamala Das not only as a friend but as a poet who drew courage and strength from the writing of poetry. DEVINDRA KOHLI
‘R emember me,/under a pillar of rain/thinking goodbye' are among the 54 miscellaneous lines and six sketches Kamala Das inscribed in my copy of The Old Playhouse and Other Poems in July 1978 when we first met in her flat in Bank House, Back Bay Reclamation, Mumbai. That was 11 years after my articles on Summer in Calcutta and The Descendants, and three years after my book on her poetry appeared. Barring four letters we had exchanged we had never met before.
We met again in Mumbai in October 1978 and April 1980, and subsequently several times in Delhi and in Kochi. In 1994, after her poetry reading at the South Bank Centre, London, Kamala stayed with us in Germany (November 6-19) while she gave poetry readings at the University of Bonn (where I was teaching) as well as at the German Foundation of International Development, Bad Honnef, and the universities of Duisburg and Essen. The last time I saw her was in August 2006 in Kochi after she telephoned me in Delhi and asked me to meet her.
Sadly, after she moved to Pune, we could not meet owing to restrictions placed by illness on my own travel. We stayed in contact by telephone or by e-mail messages conveyed through Jaisurya, her youngest son. “The bond…that exists between us shall go on,” she said in a letter (February 26, 1982). Our correspondence came to a halt with her wobbly handwritten letter of July 31, 2008 from Pune, announcing: “Arthritis has stopped my writing. A new spirit has come to live in my body.”
Such interplay of metaphor, humour, and sadness that characterised Kamala's letters also enlivened her conversations through what always struck me as her “bird-in-flight' voice. We saw this during her stay with us in Essen. Although suffering from health problems and uncomfortable in cold weather, she remained in good humour. “I had a marvellous time at your place,” she wrote, and a “sense of security”. Later, back in India, she genially remembered how she had relished the German cheeses, the pretzel (“the cumbersome thing”, not like potato wafers as she had expected), “the little loaves resembling rocks with barnacles sticking to their sides”, and of course sekt – the German equivalent of champagne – that always brought a smile to her! I remember the evening after her reading at Bonn when, travelling in the restaurant of the train to Essen, we imbibed the silvery sekt while the timid November sun filtered through our glasses.
In 1968, 10 years before I first met her, in response to my rather harsh criticism of some of the poems in The Descendants in comparison with what I considered the more accomplished Summer in Calcutta, Kamala wrote to me attributing the falling-off of her poetry, paradoxically, to a “curled like an old mongrel” contentment in love. Significantly, this posited a connection between discontentment and poetry.
Is poetry, and love poetry in particular, nourished by dissatisfaction, a sense of unattained or unattainable love and happiness? The question, “ Does the imagination dwell the most/ Upon a woman won or woman lost?” haunted W. B. Yeats throughout his poetic career; and Maud Gonne, his unrequited Muse, applauded him for making “beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that”.
Love as a muse
To take another example, Robert Graves attributed his poetic “health” to his “mistrust of the comfortable-point-of-rest”: his best poems inspired by Laura Riding read like poetry of dissatisfaction. In similar vein, instead of folding “ my wayward limbs to crawl into/Coffins of religions”, Kamala mythologised absent or lost love, “the only religion I ever recognised”: “ When I loved,/I became pure love,/when I lost/I became pure loss, /nothing else”. She explored this through the polarities between the body and the soul, lust and love, words and silence; and these reflect the ambivalences of the individual in relationship with her parents, husband, lover, and children, as well as to social and cultural norms.
“It is the looking that makes the poet go on writing, searching. If you find someone, the search is over, poetry is over,” Kamala once remarked. Her personal search, as she told me, might have ended on at least two occasions; in the 1970s and 1990s. In an uncollected poem, “Hairpins and Rubber-Bands”, which she had sent me for The Indian Literary Review (Vol. III, No. 2, April 1985), her longing for a love, “jinxed by fate”, its rawness and its fantasy, all come alive in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Hardy:
All through the past sobering years, krait-like/I shed dead cells of skin and found at last/In the oldest of bonds most attractive/Legitimacy. And yet, when I comb/To unsnarl my greying hair at night, soothed/By solitude, your slim body's pressure/On mine is felt, all is remembered then:/Your leonine tresses, the sparkle of/That smile and the passion that lingered throughout/A jasmine-scented season. Yes, I jinxed/Your life, …/There was then no choice/But to flee your orbit in haste, put your/Love away and grow older, and silent./The hair that sailed backward does not move now,/When I walk the same darkening shore,/Although the wind rises from the sea as before./I've learnt the use of hairpins, rubber-bands.../In virginal sleep your body's slimness/Intrudes and a vast hunger racks my limbs like a storm.
In some of her later poems inspired by another love in the 1990s and published in Encountering Kamala (2008) and Closure (2009), once again ‘the woman glimmers in the noonday sun' like a ripened field of paddy. And in “The Maples are Green Still”, both the sexual and spiritual energy of the ‘hurricane of desire' achieves a synthesis of the inner and outer landscapes that is characteristic of Kamala Das at her best.
Kamala's likening of poets to ‘snails without the shell' may have been subjective, but essentially her notion that the search for the absent or unattainable love was the main impulsion behind her poetry was not. She was more like the swallow of one of her poems who constantly pushed against the bars of the cage and tried to make it a bit bigger. She became a role model not only for Indian women writers but also for post-colonial women poets outside India such as Shirley Geok-Lin Lim who wrote to me: ‘I never met her, but her poetry and life story had a major influence on my way of thinking.' I wonder how Virginia Woolf would have viewed her, considering that Kamala did not actually possess ‘a room of her own', having gifted away even her ancestral house in Thiruvananthapuram to Kerala Sahitya Akademi. For someone who began writing poetry only as tool to win love, it must have been both a painful and rewarding journey to conclude: ‘It [writing poetry] is a sad occupation but I wouldn't choose another?'
I remember and celebrate Kamala not only as a friend but as a poet who drew courage and strength from the writing of poetry. It sustained her even when nothing else did, while from ‘the ruffled sea of my past' she fished out poetry that “ can cut/Precisely the gut/To wake you/Out of dreams”. I believe it is Kamala's poetry ultimately, which was her richest belonging and will remain her abiding legacy.
Kamala Das' birth anniversary
falls on March 31.
Kamala mythologised absent or lost love, “the only religion I ever recognised”...