The bi-lingual creativity of Kamala Das

Is it in Malayalam or in English that Kamala Das felt most comfortable as an author and poet? What made her opt for a particular language while narrating a story or crafting a poem?

January 28, 2016 10:52 am | Updated September 23, 2016 11:10 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

B-141,  KOCHI-310501, MAY 31, 2009:  Kochi: Well-known writer Kamala Surayya,died at a hospital in Pune on Sunday. PTI Photo

B-141, KOCHI-310501, MAY 31, 2009: Kochi: Well-known writer Kamala Surayya,died at a hospital in Pune on Sunday. PTI Photo

Kamala Das is a writer who eludes definitive reading. She resists closure, moving freely between different sign systems and meanings. The multiple identities and the fragility of meaning in Kamala Das baffle her readers, but she has no quarrel with them and goes on to contradict herself with happy abandon. Her quarrel is only with those who look for consistency and pattern in her works.

Who is the “I” who speaks in the works of Kamala Das? Is it in Malayalam or in English that she feels most comfortable? The unreliable nature of any textual evidence to fix the identity of the one who speaks across languages could be the reason for the tension we discern between the many selves of Kamala Das, who freely uses narrative strategies like shifting between two languages, mixing registers, genre-bending and subversive narrative voices that counter the normative.

Though it is not easy to draw conclusions from the shifting textual ground of Kamala Das, it is reasonable to surmise that Kamala Das is a writer in search of a language. Gleaning impressions from the early childhood of Kamala Das, divided between colonial Kolkata and feudal Punnayoorkkalam, one is inclined to say that she was never at home in any one language. The choice of a particular language for Kamala Das was inextricably linked with the moment of her entry into the symbolic. Kamala Das was forever caught between the imaginary and the symbolic. The series of fictional life narratives she wrote in the latter half of her career re-creating those figures who showered her with love in early life, or the passionate outpourings in her last love poems testify to this conjecture.

In her works, desire is associated with absence, loss and significantly, with language. This gap between hope and its fulfillment is where Das locates the origins and workings of desire. What is the fundamental connection between desire and language? How can we best determine its function and form? To answer this question with reference to Kamala Das, we must grasp the paradoxical nature of both language and desire. If the issue of bi-lingualism in Das still baffles us and escapes easy answers, it is because the temporal and spatial spheres where desire is enacted is located in language. Desire constructs the subject and shapes the language, be it English, be it Malayalam.

It is important to note how Kamala Das as a writer assumes particular subject positions in a language and culture where sex and sexuality are produced and sustained. It is easy to surmise that the creative genius of Kamala Das was constantly striving to blur the boundaries between languages and cultural taboos. Das consciously employs the linguistic devices of masking and unmasking or making and breaking to negotiate the disciplinary mechanisms that are built into the language in terms of the sexed self. For a creative writer to be truly bi-lingual is not to consciously opt for one language or another. It is to foreground the act of writing. The act of writing here becomes a struggle that is always testing the limits of its regularity, transgressing and reversing an order that it accepts and manipulates.

( G.S. Jayasree is head of the Institute of English, University of Kerala, and Editor of Samyukta .)

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