Nationality: Indian. Born: Kamala Nair in Malabar, South India, 31 March 1934; took name Suraiya in 1999. Education: Studied privately. Family: Married K. Madhava Das in 1949; three sons. Career: Poetry editor, Illustrated Weekly of India, Bombay, 1971–72, 1978–79; former editor, Pamparam, Trivandrum, Kerala; former director, Book Point, Bombay; former president, Jyotsha Art and Education Academy, Bombay; former member Governing Council, Indian National Trust for Cultural Heritage, New Delhi, and State Planning Board Committee on Art, Literature, and Mass Communications. Independent Candidate for Parliament, 1984. Chair, Forestry Board, Kerala. Awards: P.E.N. prize, 1964; Kerala Sahitya Academy award, for fiction, 1969; Chaiman Lal award, for journalism, 1971; Asian World prize for literature, 1985; Indira Priyadarsini Vrikshamitra award, 1988. Hon.Doc.: World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan, 1984. Address: Royal Stadium Mansion, Gandhi Nagar, Cochin 20, India.
Summer in Calcutta: Fifty Poems. Delhi, Everest Press, 1965.
The Descendants. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1967.
The Old Playhouse and Other Poems. Madras, Longman, 1973.
Tonight This Savage Rite: The Love Poetry of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy. New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1979.
Collected Poems. Privately printed, 1984.
The Best of Kamala Das. Kozhikode, Bodhi Publishing House, 1991.
Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. Kottayam, D.C. Books, n.d.
Alphabet of Lust. New Delhi, Orient, 1977.
Madhavikkuttiyute munnu Novalukal (three novels; for children). Trivandrum, Navadhara, 1977.
Manomi. Trichur, Current Books, 1987.
Chandana Marangal (The Sandalwood Tree). Kottayam, D.C. Books, 1988.
Katalmayuram: Munnu Ceru Novalukal. Kottayam, Current Books, 1991.
Pathu Kathakal (Ten Stories), Tharisunilam (Fallow Fields), Narachirukal Parakkumbol (When the Bats Fly), Ente Snehita Aruna (My Friend Aruna), Chuvanna Pavada (The Red Skirt), Thanuppu (Cold), Rajavinte Premabajanam (The King's Beloved), Premathinte Vilapa Kavyam (Requiem for a Love), Mathilukal (Walls). Trichur, Kerala, Current Books, 1953–72.
A Doll for the Child Prostitute. New Delhi, India Paperbacks, 1977.
Ente Kathakal. Calcutta, Mathrubhumi, 2 vols., 1985.
Palayanam: Kathakal. Trichur, Current Books, 1990.
Padmavati, the Harlot and Other Stories. New Delhi and New York, Sterling Books, 1992.
Driksakshi Panna (Eyewitness) (for children). Madras, Longman, 1973.
My Story. New Delhi, Sterling, 1976; London, Quartet 1978.
Bhayam Ente Nisavastram (Fear Is My Nightgown). Calcutta, Mathrubhumi, 1986.
Balyakala Smaranakal (Childhood Reminiscences). Kottayam, D.C. Books, 1987.
Varshangalku Mumbu (Years Ago). Trichrur, Kerala, Current Books. 1989.
Nirmatalam Puttakalam. Kattayam, D.C. Books, 1993.*
Critical Studies: Kamala Das by Devindra Kohli, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1975; Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das by Anisur Rahman, New Delhi, Abhinav, 1981; Kamala Das and Her Poetry by A.N. Dwivedi, New Delhi, Doaba, 1983; Kamala Das, Bedford Park, South Australia, Flinders University, 1987; Untying and Retying the Text: An Analysis of Kamala Das's My Story, New Delhi, Bahri Publications, 1990, and Feminist Revolution and Kamala Das's My Story, Patiala, Century Twentyone Publications, 1992, both by Kaura Ikabala; Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: With Special Reference to the Poetry of Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan, and R. Parthasarathy, by P.K.J. Kurup, New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 1991; The Poetry of Kamala Das, by K.R. Ramachandran Nair, New Delhi, Reliance Publishing House, 1993; The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das, by Vrinda Nabar, New Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1994; "Self Revealed and Self Mythified: The Autobiographies of Maya Angelou and Kamala Das" by D. Maya, in Literary Criterion (India), 32(3), 1996.
Kamala Das comments:
(1970) I began to write poetry with the ignoble aim of wooing a man. There is therefore a lot of love in my poems. I feel forced to be honest in my poetry. I have read very little poetry. I do not think that I have been influenced by any poet. I have liked to read Kalidasa. When I compose poetry, whispering the words to myself, my ear helps to discipline the verse. Afterwards, I count the syllables. I like poetry to be tidy and disciplined.
(1974) My grand-uncle is Nalapat Narayana Menon, the well-known poet-philosopher of Malabar. My mother is the well-known poetess Nalapat Balamani Amma. I belong to the matriarchal community of Nayars. Our ancestral house (Nalapat House) is more than four hundred years old and contains valuable palm leaf manuscripts like the Varahasamhita, Susrutha Samhita, and books of mantras.
As I have no degree to add to my name, my readers considered me in the beginning like a cripple. My writing was like the paintings done by "foot-and-mouth" painters or like the baskets made by the blind. I received some admiration, but the critics, well-known academicians, tore my writing to shreds. This only made my readers love me more. All I have wanted to do is to be real and honest to my readers.
(1999) I embraced the religion of Islam in December 1999. I shall visit other lands to propagate Islam. I relinquished the freedom granted by lenient Hinduism to serve my master Allah. I am happy at last.* * *
Kamala Das is bilingual, and she writes poetry in English and fiction and autobiography in Malayalam and English. Her first book of poems, Summer in Calcutta, with its spontaneous speech rhythms and individual tone of voice, established her as a distinctly contemporary and refreshingly original poet. As an expression of a married Indian woman's search for "an identity that was loveable," her poetry has opened up new possibilities for other Indian women writers.
At the age of fifteen Das was forced into a traumatic arranged marriage, one devoid of love and companionship. This experience brought the rebel in her to the surface. In "The Blood-Stained Moonlight," a chapter of her autobiographical My Story, she reveals the powerful link between her marriage and her need to write poetry. Thus, "confessing / By peeling off my layers" or by "letting my mind striptease," she wrote with an uncompromising honesty poems that "flaunt a grand, flamboyant lust." To see this aspect of her poetry as mere sensational self-dramatization is to overlook its underlying sensitivity; she suggests this herself when she declares, "I'm too emotional to be pornographic." Her frequently quoted poem "An Introduction" is doubtless confessional to a degree, but it is also an assertion of a writer's freedom. It transforms an Indo-English woman writer's alienation from "critics, friends, visiting cousins"—who, as spokesmen of the patriarchal culture, tell her not to write in English and advise her to conform—into a larger and more universal alienation—sexual, social, and artistic—that is perhaps at the heart of any attempt at self-exploration and self-integration:
… I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him … the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me … the ocean's tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself
I; in this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath.
Das has often been criticized, ironically by her own countrywomen, for not conforming to the norms of traditional grammar and for not being conscious of technique. Indeed, she lacks an academic background, and she rarely revises her poems. One looks in vain for literary echoes in her work. On the positive side, however, her style derives its authenticity precisely from its linguistic "distortions" and "queernesses" and from her innate rhythms, which are part of the process of the Indianization of English that Raja Rao prophesied in his preface to Kanthapura (1938) as being both desirable and inevitable.
Das's favorite theme has always been the shadowy borderline between fulfillment and lack of fulfillment in love, between the point where lust ends and spiritual love begins, as experienced by a married Indian woman. Poems such as "In Love," "Summer in Calcutta," "The Freaks," "The Fear of the Year," "A Relationship," "An Apology to Goutama," "Winter," "Spoiling the Name," "With Its Quiet Tongue," "The Sea Shore"—all from Summer in Calcutta— demonstrate this amply. In these poems Das synthesizes the changing reality of her private passion and the apparently unchanging reality of the Indian sun and landscape.
Das's concern with disease, illness, aging, fragmentation, and death—dominant themes in her second volume, The Descendants— recurs in many of her later poems, including "Life's Obscure Parallel," "Death Is So Mediocre," "The Sensuous Woman, III," "Woman without Her Shadow," "Words Are Birds," and "I Shall Not Forget." In the latter, memories of happiness and the sense of imminent death are interwoven to produce a more focused and mellow acceptance of life as it is.
In the 1973 volume The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, however, Das deals with the way in which a broken marriage makes a woman conscious of the need to create a space of her own. In "The Stone Age," for example, the husband, an "old fat spider weaving webs of bewilderment" around the female persona, turns her into "a bird of stone, a granite dove." He becomes an unwelcome intruder into the privacy of her mind: "With loud talk you bruise my premorning sleep, / You stick a finger into my dreaming eye." Other men who haunt her mind "sink / like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood." She drives along the sea and climbs "the forty steps to knock at another's door." At this point, the act of defiance having taken place and the dull cocoon of domesticity assaulted, the poem becomes alive with energetic questioning, and the theme of winning and losing asserts itself.
Under Das's deceptively simple surfaces lies a complexity that is imperfectly controlled, and she defies categorizations that are not heavily qualified. While she empathizes with the rebel, she can also celebrate her rootedness in her tradition. Outspoken about her womanhood, she does not, however, typecast genders. When she speaks of love outside marriage, she is not recommending adultery but merely searching for a relationship that gives both love and security and preserves her individuality. Her focus is not on the sexual act. In "I Shall Some Day" she visualizes taking refuge in the cocoon the husband builds around her with morning tea, "in your nest of familiar scorn," after her world has become "just a skeletal thing." Some of Das's better poems deal with the memories of her childhood, of her grandmother's house and of "the warmth that she [her great-grand-mother] took away," in contrast to "the great brown thieving hands [that] groped beneath my / Clothes, their fire was that of an arsonist's, / Warmth was not their aim …"
Das is capable of intense detachment and can empathize with the larger world of ordinary people, the victims in one way or another of the same system. Her rebellion is evident in such early poems as "The Child in the Factory," "The Flag," "Someone Else's Song," "The Sunshine Cat," "Forest Fire," "A Hot Noon at Malabar," and "Visitors to the City." The social awareness of some of her later poems, including "The House Builders," "The Lunatic Asylum," and poems provoked by the politically charged ethnic situation in Sri Lanka, all from Collected Poems, is evidence of the same quality of detachment.