Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"My Story" by Kamala Das

Year of first publication: 1973 (in Malayalam), 1988 (revised edition in English)
Genre: memoir
Country: India

American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser once said "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open". What Rukeyeser recognized was a certain unspeakability of the feminine world, in comparison with a narrative that for centuries had been exclusively male. Reading the autobiography of Kamala Das, one of the foremost poets of the Indian subcontinent, one really has the feeling that with a simple act of sincerity the world would indeed split open, letting out demons and demons. When this book came out, in fact, the prudish Indian society was scandalized at the outspoken woman who could so freely talk about her extramarital affairs and her teenage lesbian crushes. The effect for the reader is now somehow softened by the dozens of women writers who have recently made sex and desire the subject of their books, even in squeamish India (see Shobhaa De, whom I haven't read and whom I will not rush to read, not because I'm prudish, but for the same reason that I don't read Sophie Kinsella!).
Kamala Das never revealed if the content of her autobiography was the honest truth or if it was fruit of her longing for a different life (a dilemma that makes me think of Janet Frame's autobiography). The preface by K. Satchidanandan (I have an Indian edition of the book) says that "the writer, ever mischieviously enigmatic, kept them [the readers] tantalized by dropping contradictory hints, first confessing it was nothing but truth and then declaring it was just a wish-fulfilling fantasy, an alter-life she has created for herself" (p.vii). Kamala Das had an apparently normal life: she was born in Malabar, Kerala, and was forced to move very often, following her husband and family to Calcutta, Bombay and several other cities within the boundaries of India. In this book she denounces the phobia of the Nair community for sex and intimacy ("No wonder the women of the best Nair families never mentioned sex. It was their principal phobia. They associated it with violence and bloodshed. They had been fed on the stories of Ravana who perished due to his desire for Sita and of Kichaka, who was torn to death by Draupadi's legal husband Bhima only because he conveted her", p.23) and the roughness and stupidity of certain men (of a student leader she was in love with, she writes "I tried to wear flowers in my hair. But all he said was that I should without wasting any more time, begin to read Marx and Engels", p.61). 
The book is filled with poetry, the simple prose actually better than the real poems at the beginning of each chapter. The author of the aforementioned introduction quotes a passage from the first version of the book, written in Malayalam: "I like to call this poetry even if my words lose their music when, after raising in my innards a beautiful liquid turbulence, they come to surface in the relatively solid contours of prose. I had always longed for the strength necessary to write this. But poetry does not grow ripe for us, we grow ripe enough for poetry" (p.viii). When the author lingers on her everyday life, the tale remains sketchy: it is the simple story of a woman scribbling poetry or writing stories in her spare time, after the children have gone to bed. She never mentions, except once in passing, other important writers she spent time with, so the book does not read like the tale of the famous writer's glamorous life, but more like the story of a restless woman, who felt very lonely and longed for a lover who could make her happy and satisfy her sensual and intellectual appetite. Because the book was published in 1973 and then revised in English in 1988, it doesn't mention one the most controversial issues of Kamala Das's life: her conversion to Islam in 1999 and her later repentance. 
While I sometimes rolled my eyes at the endless line of imaginary or real lovers in the book, I was hungry for the parts where the poet reflects on what it means to be a woman, a mother and a writer in a conservative society. I'll finish with one of Das's most striking considerations: "Wherever a writer goes, her notoriety precedes her. The non-writers do not normally trust the writers. This is because they are entirely dissimilar except in appearance. The mind being an invisible limb, is not taken into consideration. Even birds have their own particular heights. The land birds who do not rise far into the lonely sky, often wonder why the eagles fly high, why they go round and round like ballerinas. The essence of the writer eludes the non-writer. All that the writer reveals to such people are her oddities of dress and her emotional excesses. Finally, when the muscles of the mind have picked up enough power to read people's secret thoughts, the writer shies away from the invisible hostility and clings to her own type, those dreaming ones, born with a fragment of wing still attached to a shoulder" (p.169-170).   


  1. Oh what an interesting life! Or imagined life,anyway . .

  2. Indeed. A poet who should be read more.

  3. I have read only few books of her, but she is a beautiful and an intelligent writer who had the courage to speak the feelings of women