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The histrionics of Kamala Das


At 65, is Kamala Das's conversion her final, flamboyant gesture, asks HAVOVI ANKLESARIA.

KAMALA DAS's conversion to Islam on December 16, 1999 and the advertising of it, is not, as some have suggested, empathising with a minority, nor championing the cause of the underdog, but simply the most recent in a series of flamboyant gestures that have characterised her life and writing. Her reputation rests on a few acclaimed collections of verse, My Story, an autobiography which was advertised as "delightfully provocative", a collection of short stories and a series of articles in newspapers and periodicals all of an entirely personal and whimsical nature. A significant chunk of her poetry - Summer In Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1970) and The Old Playhouse And Other Poems (1973) was published before the bulk of her journalistic and other prose pieces were written. This is important, because the kind of response that her poetry elicited may have encouraged her to write an exclusively contentious prose.

The impact of Ms. Das's poetry has never been in doubt. She was a pioneer among Indian women poets writing in English who expressed a profound dissatisfaction with their situation as women. Her first book, Summer In Calcutta was a promising start. She wrote chiefly of love, its betrayal, and the consequent anguish, and Indian readers in 1965 responded sympathetically to her guileless, guiltless frankness with regard to sexual matters. Ms. Das abandoned the certainties offered by an archaic, and somewhat sterile, aestheticism for an independence of mind and body at a time when Indian women poets were still expected to write about teenage girlie fantasies of eternal, bloodless, unrequited love.

That was the only kind of love,

This hacking at each other's parts

Like convicts hacking, breaking clods

At noon. We were earth under hot

Sun. There was a burning in our

Veins and the cool mountain nights did

Nothing to lessen heat ...

Convicts, The Old Playhouse And Other Poems, p.25.

The passionate lovelessness of the preceding lines stand in stark contrast to the fascile Victorianisms of Sarojini Naidu or the fairytale trivialities of Toru Dutt.

In spite of this early promise, Ms. Das never matured into the outstanding poet that she showed signs of becoming. She claims always to have been a notebook poet, sometimes writing a poem a day, and this becomes obvious in the uneveness of her talent. "The Dance of the Eunuchs" begins with a long and cumbersome description which shows little regard for the inherent discipline of poetic form:

It was hot, so hot before the eunuchs

came.

To dance, wide skirts going round and

round, cymbals

Richly clashing, and anklets jingling,

jingling,

Jingling ... Beneath the fiery gulmohur

with

Long braids flying, dark eyes flashing

they danced, and

They danced, Oh, they danced till they

bled ... There were green

Tattoos on their cheeks, jasmine in

their hair, some were dark and some

were almost fair.

But the poem itself is saved by the concluding images:

... They

were thin in limbs and dry, like half-

burnt logs from

Funeral pyres, a drought and a

rottenness

Were in each of them ...

The sky cracked then, thunder came,

and lightning

And rain, a meagre rain that smelt of

dust in

Attics and the urine of lizards and mice ...

Her creative energies so memorably focused on the striking, but fragmented, image and the flash of insight, also suggests a mind that is incapable of rising above the immediate. Individual poems disintegrate into chaos or trail off into uninspired prose. But in spite of the obvious technical problems, there is enough concentrated energy and intensity of feeling to carry individual poems through to their conclusion. In the prose however, her inability to formulate a consistency of thought even in a single paragraph becomes much more palpable producing an autobiography that is flabby and unrestrained.

My Story was published in 1976 and presumably written a year earlier. We cannot be certain because no dates are mentioned, not even the date of her birth. In the preface she claims that the book had caused her some pain but she wished "to empty herself of all her secrets, so that I could depart when the time came with a scrubbed out conscience". Yet there is nothing conspiratorial about the writing; it is almost disappointingly bland. The narrative presents two conflicting images of the author - Ms. Das as iconic of the sexless and victimised is juxtaposed with Ms. Das as the highly desirable, emancipated, women. She claims to be "ready for love, ripe for a sexual banquet". Numerous male cousins grab and kiss her, she receives attention from her husband's colleagues. A famous Indian novelist living abroad and her father's friends give her lecherous looks. Lesbianism and rape are also played out at predictable intervals - in school, young girls fall in love with her and while travelling in a train, a college student creeps into her berth. She is also chaste, demure and misunderstood by husband and relatives. She frequently weeps and her companions rush to comfort her. An editor who had arrived to negotiate a contract held her hand, which had "a green and withered look". Her doctors, teachers and friends hold her hands. Carlo, her Italian pen friend takes her to a restaurant where she cannot manage the cutlery, but Carlo holds her hand "tightly in his ... please do not change, please do not change into a Bombay bitch". Later she goes to his room weeping because she is miserable. Carlo comforts her, while she holds his hands, and then he takes her home. Parting at the door, Carlo says, "you pick up innocence as you go along". But a pattern does emerge from this somewhat inconsequential series of anecdotes: Ms. Das as the "femme fatale" in a social gathering never takes the initiative - she is vulnerable, gentle, passive and incapable of denying another pleasure.

For Ms. Das, every fluctuating mood and private whim is worthy of being articulated so that her prose, particularly her autobiography, is an erratic record of meandering, discursive fantasies. But even when she is at her most professional, she has always used her literary pursuits to embroil the public in her household disputes. As with the writing so with the recent conversion. It is essentially a personal choice sensationalised to make it a subject of public debate. To what extent her conversion is a matter of conviction remains to be seen. Ms. Das, alias Surayya Begum claims that she had been yearning to convert to Islam for 27 years; she is lonely, finds freedom an encumbrance and needs the solace of a protective religion like Islam and a merciful God like Allah. Her comments in her autobiography and other writing seem to suggest that she may have longed for a more circumscribed existence for some years now:

Before I was the rebellious type. I used to move around a lot, involve myself in various activities: most of the time taking risks and living dangerously. Now I have changed. I have become a virtuous, clean woman. A puritan in all senses who prays daily, wears white clothes and is conservative in thinking. (Sunday Observer, October 2, 1983)

The only not so significant difference between this statement made in 1983 and her description of her present situation, is, that she has traded a white sari for a black burqa.

But should one expect any consistency from Ms. Das? In 1984 in an interview with Shobha Wariyar for Eve's Weekly, she made the following statement: "Yes, I know, yesterday I might have been against liberation, today I am for it. Tomorrow I do not know what I would say, and how I feel". Is the conversion Ms. Das's final, flamboyant gesture? The timing seems to be a propitious one. At 65, partially immobile and helped by a nurse, her conversion coincided with the end of a supposed millennium - a time of apocalyptic endings and new beginnings. She has little to to lose at this stage of her life by choosing purdah. And if she wishes to trade freedom for the security of a more ascetic lifestyle, if she wishes to protect herself from a somewhat messy reality, it is her personal choice, relevant exclusively to her situation. But Ms. Das seeks public approval for her personal decisions by interviews with the press, the wearing of burqa. She has begun writing poems in a very rudimentary Arabic and is sniffy about freedom and feminists, implying that in some way they were a corrupting influence in the past: "Who listens to these feminists? Who wants freedom?" But how would she have defied the strictures that religious orthodoxy imposed on her at 35 without the moral support of those much maligned feminists:

... They are lucky

Who ask questions and move on before

the answers come, those wise ones who

reside

In a blue, silent zone, unscratched by

doubts

For theirs is the clotted peace embedded

In life, like music in the Koel's egg.

Like lust in the blood or like the sap in a tree

...

"Nani", The Old Playhouse And Other Poems, p.40.

How would she have reconciled the competing demands of her temperament, the "wombs silent hunger" with living in a blue silent zone, unscratched by doubts and incarcerated in a clotted peace? Ms. Das's uncertainities seem to have little, if anything, to do with religious affiliation but more with an insatiable need for public acknowledgment that has produced some great lines of verse, a few good poems, some very bad prose and a series of contentious statements that have little consistency of thought and little regard for the consequences incurred in the publicising of a private decision.

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