Kamala Das: many selves, many tongues

Be it in Malayalam or English, Kamala Das’ works in prose and poetry gave readers glimpses of her many selves.

April 02, 2015 04:18 pm | Updated 04:23 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Kamala Das

Kamala Das

To Kamala Das (1932-2009) writing meant a celebration of the self. In her poetry, she allowed us to have a glimpse of her many selves – poet, lover, devotee, child, woman, wife, mother, middle-aged woman, urbanite, Keralite – one can go on listing.

Das’s poetry in English, characterised by unflinching candour and astonishing sensitivity in the portrayal of the female sensibility, iconoclastic for a poet of her generation, has earned her the label of a feminist writer and the epithet, “the mother of modern English Indian poetry”; on the other, her prolific writing in Malayalam, largely short fiction and memoirs under the nom de plume Madhavikutty has given her a perennial place in the annals of Malayalam literature and a well-deserved one in the hearts of all Malayalis.

One is fascinated by the ease and thrill with which she blurred boundaries, seasoning her Malayalam with English turns of phrase, spicing her English with a flavour of the Indian and the vernacular, garnishing both with a hint of urban Hindi. She moulded her fiction in poetic lyricism and cast her poetry in stark, unadorned prose, the modalities of one crossing over to the other – all of which render her writing more ‘interlingual’ than bilingual, as K. Satchidananan stated at a recent ‘Symposium on Kamala Das and the tradition of bilingual creativity’ conducted by Sahitya Akademi and University of Kerala at the Institute of English, Thiruvananthapuram. The Symposium traced the trajectory of what constitutes the bilingual in Kamala Das.

Many agree that Kamala’s bilingual creativity is a stamp of true genius and that it lends a complexity and inexplicable charm to her imagination, which escapes monolingual rigidity.

Yet they are mystified by her choice of language for creative expression – English for her explicit poetry, which she published in her own name, and Malayalam for her fiction and memoirs in which she exercised restraint yet, intriguingly, chose to mask herself behind a pseudonym! Was it all a deliberate, subversive act to challenge the hypocritical society she wrote for, one wonders. Attempts to get to the root of this baffling linguistic preference only draw you deeper into the enigma that Kamala was.

Malayalam was in her very blood, coursing through her veins – she could not help writing in her native tongue, the language that her grand mother – the one who made her feel the most loved in the world, used. Kamala entered the Malayalam literary scene with her sensational autobiography Ente Kadha , initially serialised in the now-defunct Malayalanadu and later published in book form in 1973, and never had to look back.

It is nothing short of a prodigious accomplishment, the many marvellous worlds of the mind that she spun out with such sheer magic and élan in her stories and memoirs – Balyakala Smaranakal, Varshangalkku Mumbu, Neermaathalam Pootha Kaalam, Thanuppu, Nashtapetta Neelambari, Chandanamarangal – making do with the barest minimum of Malayalam words. One is struck by the felicity with which her Malayalam metamorphosed from the starched and stiffened prose of Ente Kadha to the nuanced and delightful use of Malabar dialects in Januvamma Paranja Kadha , an answer indeed to those who charged her early Malayalam writing of a kind of minimalism born of ineptitude in the tongue.

Perhaps the greatest “work” of hers is the alter self whom she created, this mysterious and puzzling, ambiguous and sphinx-like “persona” that is Kamala Das, who emerges from her writings taking Protean forms – to fascinate and charm, to tease and torment, to hold and enthral, and to reveal her world anew with each new reading.

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