Kamala Surayya. Her conversion to Islam at the age of 65 was understood and accepted by her family and close friends while it angered several sections of her admirers.
MADHAVIKKUTTY, Kamala Das to the aliens, was the last of the golden icons we Malayalis nourished with our sleazy gossips and affectionate tears. Excuse us if we become too possessive when it comes to our dear writers, even if we do our bit to make their lives somewhat unpleasant while they are alive and at times even kindly drive them out of home. In this fever of possessiveness we sometimes tend to ignore their contributions in other languages, endearing them to people of diverse lands, and their creative dimensions little known to us.
But we do compensate for it in the end as those glued to the Kerala television channels on those gloomy days after Madhavikkutty’s demise must have known: it was a funeral procession fit for a queen of letters that she really was, and finally when her body, which she had both celebrated and spurned, was interred under a tree in the precincts of the Juma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram, we decided to come together to mourn the legend, burying with her bones, if only for a while, our caste feuds, religious rivalries and party battles.
This unique writer, though no Fernando Pessoa to write in four distinct names and styles, did have many voices all strung together by her disarming frankness that unwittingly shocked a conservative society so much that it left the complacency of its status-quoist beliefs to undertake painfully difficult inward journeys. In the end, it would realise, even if vaguely like Eliot’s Magi, that there was certainly a new birth, and a transformation of the order was afoot.
Her many identities were in a fruitful dialogue with one another and coalesced into one at the point of realisation: Amy, the beloved of the aristocratic Nalappatt family in South Malabar where she was born and the dearest and the most generous of friends to the small circle of intimate companions to whom she opened her heart completely; Kamala Das, the radical Indian poet writing in English who did not mind sacrificing the sterile aestheticism of older poetry for the freedom of the body and the mind and managed to “gatecrash into the precincts of others’ dreams” (Anamalai Poems); Madhavikkutty, the Malayalam fiction writer who redefined the very genre of the novel and short story in the language and gave it singing nerves and Kamala Surayya who sought refuge for her tired wings in the total surrender to Allah, who was to her the very embodiment of the love she had sought all her life.
She was honest in the deepest sense of the word, but was not naive and foolish as many seem to imagine: she was strong-willed and could interrogate her society as few Indian women writers before her had done. She could be naughty and mischievous when she wanted and had a great sense of humour and irony evident in her memoirs as well as her poems. She continued to laugh at religious superstitions even after her conversion and was openly critical of the Malayali inhibition and hypocrisy in man-woman relationships.
I had (forget ‘we’ now), as an adolescent schoolboy, first known her as Madhavikkutty, a Malayalam writer of a novel kind of fiction that bordered on poetry that kept appearing in the Mathrubhumi Weekly, which in those glorious days of the publication under the editorship of N.V. Krishna Warrier, the scholar-poet, and later of M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the fiction writer and film-maker, used to feature all our beloved poets and fiction writers. Her first story, Kushtarogi (The Leper) had appeared in the Mathrubhumi Weekly in 1942 when she was a little girl and I was yet to be born; with the publication of Mathilukal (The Walls), her first collection in 1955, she had already established her place in Malayalam short story.INWARD EVOLUTION
She belonged to a generation that includes M.T. Vasudevan Nair, T. Patmanabhan and Kovilan, who had all gone beyond the socialist realist mode employed by their predecessors to explore the tormented psyche of the solitary human beings haunted by guilt, pain and lovelessness. These writers – with Vaikom Mohammed Basheer as their forerunner – travelled from the outer drama of social events to the inner drama of emotions; the states of mind became more important to them than the states of the community to express, which they developed a taut and cryptic lyrical idiom. The narrative content became so thin in their stories and the form so much an organic part of it that they could hardly be retold in another voice.
In Madhavikkutty, this inward evolution touched its peak; her stories most often developed from a central image and expressed a mood or a vision. Even the titles of her stories sounded like the titles of paintings or poems (she herself practised painting for a while, her female nudes too shocking for the prudish section of the Malayalis prone to be startled at the very mention of sex, their secret obsession): ‘The Red Skirt’, ‘The Red Mansion’, ‘The Child in the Naval Uniform’, ‘The Father and The Son’, ‘The Moon’s Meat’, ‘Sandalwood Trees’, ‘The Secret of the Dawn’, ‘Boats’, ‘The Smell of the Bird’, ‘The King’s Beloved’, and ‘A Doll for Rukmini’.
Kamala Das with daughter-in-law and grandchild in Kerala in 1991. She denounced the extreme forms of feminism as she could not imagine a world without men or think that replacing male hegemony with female hegemony would create an egalitarian world.
Her vocabulary was limited as she had little formal education and had mostly grown up outside Kerala; but she turned this limitation to her advantage by her deft and economic employment of those few words in her stories that were always spare and crisp to the point of being fragile. Many of her stories were not longer than two or three book-pages, including the famous ones like ‘Padmavati, the Harlot’.
Here a harlot, like in the Arun Kolatkar poem where a prostitute longs to be photographed with Vithoba and Rukmai, goes to the temple, requests god to accept her ragged body that was like a river that does not dry up even if thousands bathe in it, meets her god who is growing old and gets dissolved in him for a while to return purified. In her later stories like ‘Pakshiyude Manam’ (The Smell of a Bird), ‘Unni’, ‘Kalyani’, ‘Malancherivukalil’ (On the Mountain Slopes), and ‘Karutta Patti’ (The Black Dog), the element of fantasy grew stronger; they became more and more compressed often taking the form of brief monologues.STORY AS POETRY
At times her stories became pure poetry, just emotional contexts with no narrative content. Look at ‘Premattinte Vilapakavyam’ (An Elegy for Love): “You are my beloved. You are the old sweet mango tree for my jasmine creeper to wind round. You appear before me with the sad halo of a banished king. I longed to have you in my lap, heal your wounds and ease your weariness. You are fortunate and you are the fortune. You are pure, unmixed manliness. Woman’s soul is the garden where you roam. You are inside me and outside me. You rest on the banks of the sanguine streams inside me like a king tired of hunting. You trample my nerves with your boots, thinking they are the roots of the wild trees long ago dead….”
In some stories, especially those around the character Janu, a housemaid, Madhavikkutty employed the dialect of her Valluvanad to great effect. Thus the stories collected in her seven volumes in Malayalam show great thematic and structural diversity while being linked together by their essential femininity, their sisterhood with nature (her stories are full of birds and trees, sand and fields and moonlight) and the presence of her rural locale, either as a real setting or as a nostalgic landscape.
She is one with the modernists such as O.V. Vijayan, Anand, M. Mukundan, Sethu, Kakkanadan and Punattil Kunhabdulla in urbanising fiction in Malayalam, but she had her own way of doing it: her urban women are mostly schizophrenic, torn by conflicts and desperate for real love while her rural women, mostly drawn from the lower classes, are less inhibited and openly critical of the master-race and patriarchal interventions. They also seem more at peace with themselves as they feel the presence of a community and of comforting nature around them. Women and nature here appear to fertilise each other. Even in the city, the woman feels pacified by the soothing touch of the tender mango leaf on the terrace. Ammu, who in ‘Sarkara Kondoru Tulabharam’ (An Offering with Jaggery) visits Guruvayur for the offering with her husband, Biju, cured by her prayers and refuses to go back with him to the city, attracted by her farmer-cousin in the village living in harmony with nature, sums up this attitude.HER STORY
Probably, her autobiographical writings grew out of her monologic tales. Ente Katha (My Story) that was written during her treatment for leukemia created a sensation when it was serialised in Malayalanadu Weekly. Her father, the powerful V.M. Nair who was the Managing Director of the Mathrubhumi group (whom Kamala Das remembers in a poem on his death as her occasional visitor ‘who came with banana chips and abuses’), asked the editor to suspend its publication, but the proud author would be the last to yield. The readers were drawn into a charming and threatening life of love and longing, of desire and disloyalty. Her readers, in the typical Malayali fashion, lapped up the story of forbidden delights and then condemned her “moral aberrations”. And she, the eternal Sphinx, kept them tantalised by dropping contradictory hints, first confessing that it was nothing but truth and then declaring that it was just a wish-fulfilling fantasy, an alter-life she created for herself.
She wrote other memoirs too: Balyakalasmaranakal (The Memories of Childhood), Varshangalkku Munpu (Years ago) and Neermatalam Poottappol (When the Pomegranates Bloomed). It is safe to view all her works as part real and part fantasy as she was adept at genre-crossing. Her novels – there are seven of them if we follow the publishers’ categorisation, including Chandanamarangal (Sandalwood trees) that obliquely deals with same-sex love – are long stories, most of her stories are like poems, the style of her poems is often not very different from her stories’ and the one-act play Memory Great Moody Sea combines all these genres.
I came to her poetry later, reading, in 1968 her Summer in Calcutta (1965) and Descendants (1967) together, being charmed by her eloquent images and her unconventional attitude to the art of poetry. I had already started corresponding with her by now and had received generous praise from her – she was the Poetry Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India then – for my early poems like Anchusooryan (Five Suns), though we began meeting occasionally later, mostly in public functions.
Now, I began following her poetry closely and read her later collections such as Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1976), The Best of Kamala Das (1991) and Anamalai Poems (1992). I knew how much she trusted me only when she insisted on my writing the introduction to her collected poems Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. I undertook the mission with genuine involvement, finding in her poetry unnoticed nuances and muted voices that transcend the narcissistic obsession with the body and with herself often attributed to her. This transcendence comes partly from her political engagement and partly from her secular spiritual concerns.
“I am a million, million people/talking all at once, with voices/raised in clamour…/I am a million, million silences strung like crystal beads/onto someone else’s song…”– these lines seemingly so uncharacteristic of a poet of solitude ever in search of intimacy betray Kamala Das’ intense desire to identify herself with the silenced victims of oppression, patriarchal as well as political. Kamla Das’ very first collection of poems, Summer in Calcutta, broke new ground in Indian poetry in English dominated until her entry by men from Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes to Adil Jussawallah and A.K. Ramanujan who had already de-romanticised poetry and liberated it from its earlier flamboyance and verbosity.
Here was a voice that was feminine to the core, often confessional in vein, which spoke uninhibitedly about woman’s desire and her unending search for true love. She had little respect for tradition and yet many traditions went into the making of her poetry: the rebellious spirituality of the women Bhakti poets, the sonorous sensuousness of the Tamil ‘Sangam’ poets, the empathy with the downtrodden and the hatred of violence central to the great poetry of her mother, Balamani Amma, the melancholy tempered by a larger vision of life characteristic of the poetry of her uncle Nalappatt Narayana Menon (who was also the translator, of Victor Hugo, of Havelock Ellis too).
‘An Introduction’, her most discussed and paradigmatic poem with its defence of her trilingualism, her opposition to male power, her rejection of the traditional roles of the housewife and the cook, and her longing for love was a clear announcement of her arrival on the scene. “I am every woman who seeks love/… I am the sinner, I am the saint. I am both the lover/ and the beloved. I have no joys which are not yours,/ no aches which are not yours/we share the same name, the same fate, the same crumbled dreams….” The direct kinship with her reader that she establishes here, the identification of female physicality with female textuality, similes drawn from nature, the opposition to feudal norms and manmade hierarchies, the quest for intimacy and an almost clinical exploration of the landscape of the self and the interrogation of the family as an oppressive institution became the hallmarks of her writing in the years to come.
Kamala Das denounced the extreme forms of feminism as she could not imagine a world without men or think that replacing male hegemony with female hegemony would create an egalitarian world; she never wanted to master anyone including herself. She is deeply aware of her difference as woman but would see it as natural rather than glorify it. Her Radha melts in the first embrace of Krishna until only he remains (Radha). In the panic of surrender, Radha tells Krishna: “Your body is my prison./I cannot see beyond it/Your darkness blinds me/Your love words shut out the wise world’s din.” But she also wants to escape: “As the convict studies/his prison’s geography/I study the trappings/of your body, dear love,/for, I must some day find an escape from its snare.” Poetry to her becomes an organic extension of the body as also a means to ultimately transcend it.
Her poetry soon showed a widening of concerns and an extension of empathy to embrace the victims of all forms of tyranny and discrimination. If to begin with the personal was the political for her, later the political became personal as in her poems like ‘Delhi 1984’, a severe indictment of the genocide of Sikhs in Delhi and the new cult of hatred and senseless violence it implied, turning “the scriptural chants into a lunatic’s guffaw”. She denounced terrorism in no uncertain terms: “If death is your wish, killing becomes/an easy game.”
Kamala Das, in 1991.
In ‘Toys’ too, her indictment is unambiguous: “Doomed is this new race of men who arrive/With patriotic slogans to sow dead seeds…” The killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka grows into a metaphor of collective violence in her poems such as ‘Smoke in Colombo’, ‘After July’ and ‘The Sea at Galle Face Green’. She sees here the macabre re-enactment of the first holocaust: “Hitler rose from the dead, he demanded/Yet another round of applause; he hailed/The robust Aryan blood, the sinister/Brew that absolves man of his sins and/Gives him the right to kill his former friends….” (After July) She bemoans the loss of innocence: “We mated like gods, but begot only our killers./Each mother suckles her own enemy/And hate is first nurtured at her gentle breast..” (Daughter of the Century).
In her last poems, old age, death, nothingness and the desire for transcendence become recurring presences. “At my age there are no longer any homecomings” (Woman’s Shuttles). She sees death as “life’s obscure parallel”. The encounter with physical decay forces the poet to look beyond death into a state of spirituality that has little to do with conventional religion. “Bereft of soul,/My body shall be bare;/Bereft of body, /My soul shall be bare” (Suicide). The Anamalai Poems are full of references to this tortuous inward journey. “There is a love greater than all you know/that awaits you where the road finally ends”. Its embrace is truth and she seems to have found this great love in Allah as her poems in Ya Allah testify.REVERING ALLAH AS KRISHNA
Her conversion to Islam at the age of 65 was understood and accepted by her family and close friends while it angered several sections of her admirers including feminists and even some leftists, not to speak of the Hindutva spokesmen, though on different grounds. Kamala, now Surayya, again confused them by attributing different reasons at different times to her conversion, from a friendship misunderstood as love to the indifference of the Hindu scholars who never introduced her to the scriptures even while criticising her and a desire for ultimate peace. She, however, continued to be what she was but for occasional compromises so that she might not hurt her Muslim sisters and brothers (like refusing to meet Taslima Nasreen when she visited Kerala) and declared that god is one for all religions and women receive no respect in any religion.
She wanted to launch a political party, Lokseva, to serve the causes of destitute women and of secularism. She found no contradiction between loving Krishna and revering Allah as Krishna was a lover and Allah was the supreme God (Rediff Interview, 1999). She was working on two books then: From Malabar to Montreal, a collaborative work on women’s empowerment and a book on Islam for HarperCollins, though she feared her failing eyesight and poor health might not allow her to complete them. They may still be incomplete, but the tasks she completed in her lifetime are enough to guarantee her a place among the most iconoclastic writers of our time, a beacon and a model especially for every honest woman writer with a story to tell, a song to sing or a shackle to break.
Perhaps, she has realised that great love she spoke of in the last of the Anamalai Poems, a love above “the random caress or the lust that ends in languor” that “erases even the soul’s ancient indentations so that some unknown womb shall begin to convulse to welcome your restructured perfection”.•
K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet and bilingual critic and former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.
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