Kamala Das is known for being one of the earliest voices for Indian female sexuality as well as her honest, risqué confessional poetry. A lot her writing deals with her conflicts and dilemmas about love, but there was one love-affair in her life that never ended: Her affair with language.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Kamala Das, popularly known by her one-time pen name Madhavikutty was an Indian poet in English as well as an author in Malayalam from Kerala, India. Her popularity in Kerala is based chiefly on her short stories and autobiography, while her oeuvre in English, written under the name Kamala Das, is noted for the poems and explicit autobiography. She was also a widely read columnist and wrote on diverse topics including women’s issues, child care, politics among others. Her open and honest writing about female sexuality gained her both popularity and criticism. She was considered iconoclastic not just for her time but even today she is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the Indian feminist movement and the godmother of liberated female sexuality in India.
Many young feminist writers of the modern age cite Kamala Das’s free-form, fearless confessional writing as inspiration for their own work. However, as open and transparent as she was in her writing, she was deeply conflicted about the concept of love, which to her was a struggle she was still wading through when she died in 2009. To understand this conflict we must first take a look at her life itself. She grew up between Calcutta and Kerala in a family littered with poets and writers. At the age of 15, she was married to Madhav Das with whom she had three children over the course of 43-years of marriage. While encouraging of her work, her work became a bone of contention between then when at the age of 42, Kamala wrote her autobiography titled “My Story” which included details of her sexual dalliances with other men. Though she later claimed many of the stories in her autobiography were fictionalized, it is believed she did so on the insistence of her husband. While they remained married, the changes in their relationship are evident in her poetry past this period. Of her autobiography, Kamala Das has said:
“Some people told me that writing an autobiography like this, with absolute honesty, keeping nothing to oneself, is like doing a striptease. True, maybe. I, will, firstly, strip myself of clothes and ornaments. Then I intend to peel off this light brown skin and shatter my bones”
The intensity with which Kamala writes about the act of writing itself, is an indication to the intensity of love she craves, and it can be argued that the only thing Kamala was ever able to truly love was writing. After the death of her husband in 1992, Kamala made the choice to convert to Islam in 1999 for her 38-year old lover and Muslim League MP, Sadiq Ali. Of late, propelled by the 2018 biopic of her life titled “aami” even this has become a source of conspiracy after members of a nationalist political outfit tried to have this film banned on the grounds that it depicted “love jihad”. While the supreme court ruled against the ban, her relationship with Sadiq is still rife with conspiracy in the minds of many Indians, a lot of whom you can find on Quora talking about her as if she is part of the history of love jihad (seriously, you guys). Though they never married, Kamala Das died behind a purdah in Pune. Of her conversion that occured in one minute in her living room, she is quoted as having said to an interviewer:
“Islam is the religion of love. Hindus have abused and hurt me. They have often tried to scandalize me. I want to love and be loved.”
Even her quest for religion was ultimately based in a deep desire for love, and her concept of love is best discussed through this lens even in her poems.
In her poem ‘An Introduction’, a few interesting points are raised about her idea of love. As a young girl she is conflicted not only about her identity and weighing it against a social-messaging system but also about her body. She says,
“When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask for, he drew a child of sixteen into the bedroom and closed the door.”
The key element here is that she asked for love because she was unaware, as yet, of the various methods of expressing love. What she asked for was not an evidence of desire, however upon receiving that in response to a request for love, her life-long conflation of love and sex began. The poem also delineates the eventual loneliness that follows her despite being “loved” in a sexual manner. She does not display any confident possession of anyone she loves in her poetry, not in the way she does for language when she says,
“The language I speak becomes mine. Its distortion, its queernesses. All mine. Mine alone.”
This statement alone speaks to the kind of love in which she felt confident, the love of pure possession and intimate familiarity. Of which she could truly say, “This is mine.” Which is not to say that Kamala Das did not feel sexual desire, throughout her poetry, “Malabar” has been used as a symbol for ‘wildness’. In her poem, “A Hot Noon in Malabar” she talks about her affinity for the heat, dust and noise of the town others abhor but she loves. She longs for the hot noon in Malabar because she associates it with the wild men, wild thoughts and wild love. It is a torture for her to be away from Malabar. The quality with which she talks of love has the straightforwardness of Sylvia Plath coupled with the wild mysticism of Anais Nin. Kamala’s own conflict with choosing desire over love, perhaps even in a effort to gain love, distorts her concept of love even further. She might even trick readers, with her infinite skill, into thinking of her as an eternally confused wide-eyed innocent.
Her idea of love, or at least the love she craves is somewhat clarified in the poem “My Grandmother’s House.” A more mature, and maybe even a more bitter Kamala writes about her grandmother’s home where was taken care of and adored. This sentiment is at the heart of the love she craves, one that is not governed by the giving (or taking) of her body but dispensed onto her by someone for the sheer delight of loving her. She uses symbols of darkness like death, snakes and despair to describe the house almost as a representation for her own body and soul which were once hopeful and pure in some way, and is now infested with a distorted perversion of love. In the closing lines of the poem she says,
“Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved…. I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?”
She talks of herself as a beggar for love because while many men have made her feel sexually desired, none have yet made her feel cherished or loved. There is also in this poem a hint of self-loathing that Kamala carries through a lot of her later writing. She seems to have harboured at one time an idea that giving her body would get her love, and for that idea she grew to resent herself later. Although, even as we discuss the conflicts of Kamala Das we must remember that she is not a confused, helpless girl who is satisfied to be a victim of love, she may be conflicted but her primary purpose was always to turn her conflicts into art. While lacking in love, she was never lacking in self-awareness or skill which is why she managed to so effectively communicate her conflicts of love, many of which we feel even today, onto us through her writing and ensure we are still discussing them even long after her death.
Her self-awareness is most visible in her poem ‘The Sunshine Cat’ where she explores the concept of love by gender. She declares that the lack of reciprocation of love from her husband led her to find it elsewhere but even from there she returned empty-handed because where was willing to give the entirety of her love, men did only offer her kindness. She is trapped in a world where her measure for love is based on how useful she is to men. In this poem, Kamala is perhaps at her most resentful but also instead of taking it all upon herself she puts both men, and love itself on trial. She uses the phrase ‘they let her’ as opposed to the use of first person she usually employed in her poetry. She seems to conclude that it is not she who is unworthy of love but men who cannot love and while this final interpretation is personal, I’d like to believe that upon concluding she was never going to be of use to a man again, she was able to find it in her to finally love herself.
Ultimately Kamala Das’ understanding of love is a struggle between sexuality and purity, and does see the two coexisting in the ideal form of love but at some point she acknowledges this idea of love she has might be the unattainable Platonic form of love. In the politics of sexuality love is the victim not Kamala Das and she proves this by continuing to chase love to the very end of her life. However, the type of love she yearns for contains the sultry wildness of Malabar as well as the purity and unconditional nature of her grandmother’s love and I would argue that this love she might have only found in writing itself. Writing was clearly the greatest love-affair of Kamala Das’ life.