Kamala Das is one of the three most significant Indian poets writing in English today, the other two being Nissim Ezekiel and Ramanujan. Her poetry is all about herself, about her intensely felt desire for love, for emotional involvement, and her failure to achieve such a relationship. Hence a knowledge of her life and personality is essential for an understanding of her poetry.
Mrs. Kamala Das–her maiden name was Madavikutty–was born at Punnayurkulam in Malabar in Kerala in 1934. Both her parents were poets, and so poetry was in her blood so to say. She constantly speaks of her Darvadian blood and of her Nair heritage. She was educated mainly at home. It seems that her grandmother showered a lot of love and affection on the growing child, and she is often remembered in her poetry as in “A Hot Noon in Malabar” and “My Grandmother’s House”. She looks back to her happy days in her company with nostalgia and yearning. Her parents are seldom remembered with such love and affection. Whenever she has gone and wherever she has lived, she has remembered her early girlhood, cherished and nursed by her grandmother.
Mrs. Kamala Das was educated mainly at home and denied the advantage of regular school and college education. This is surprising as both her parents were poets and should have encouraged their talented daughter. She was married at the early age of fifteen, now has three children, and settled in Bombay. Like that of Nissim Ezekiel her marriage has not been a happy one; in it she has failed to find that fulfillment which a woman craves. The result has been frustration and disillusionment and this bitter personal experience colours all her poetry. It has been a hollow-relationship, she can neither endure it nor can she untie the marriage knot. Her husband is not unkind to her, indeed, he has been a good friend to her and has allowed her every freedom, but as she herself tells us, it is love which she craves for, and not freedom. The poignant story of her life, of the psychological traumas she suffered, is narrated in her autobiography My Story serialized in The Current Weekly from January to December, 1974, and it makes poignant reading. Similarly, autobiographical is the short prose-piece, entitled I Study All Men–I Had to published in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1971. It contains a candid account of her early marriage, her husband’s boast of ‘sluts and nymphomaniacs’ he had reportedly known, his feeling that she was inadequate and incompatible, and her consequent launching into ‘a hectic love life with small capital–just a pair of beautiful breasts and a faint musk-rat smell in my perspiration…….’ The end reads like this: “Last week the editor of a Kerala Weekly, a well-known capitalist offered in return for my autobiography, a month’s holiday at the most expensive hotel…… I was thrilled. My husband said; Why not take ‘K’ along with you as a diversion? You seem to find him attractive. After working hard, I shall not grudge you a bit of relaxation. This is what I mean by friendship. It is hard to find a friend as good as my husband.” This is the tone of all Kamala’s poetry. It is entirely unconventional and rather shocking in the Indian Context. But Mrs. Das is always sincere, always true to herself both in her prose and her poetry. As a wife she was expected to look to the comforts of her husband, to minister to his needs, in short to play the conventional role of Hindu wife, and this has dwarfed and stinted her own personality:
You called me wife,
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea, and
To offer at the right moment the vitamins,
Beneath your monstrous ego. I ate the magic
Became a dwarf.
Happy or unhappy, Kamala Das continues to live with her husband and continues to write both prose and poetry, both in English and Malayalam. She is thus bilingual, like most other Indian poets writing in English. Her poetic output in English is rather thin. It consists merely of three slender volumes, Summer in Calcutta, 1965, The Descendants 1967, and The Old Play house and Other Poems, 1973. The last volume includes many of the poems published in the earlier volumes. Still she has made her mark, is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest of Indian poets writing in English, one who had the courage to express her essentially feminine sensibility, honestly and sincerely, without any reserve or inhibitions. Concentration entirely on one theme gives her poetry the power, the intensity and the urgency that has cast its spell on all her readers. Says Eunice De Souza, “In her best poems, it is impossible not to be moved by and involved in the passionate curve of the rhythm, the haunting and telling images of sterility (Dance of the Eunuchs), the ultimate resilience in the face of any relationship that threatens to devastate her vital and potential self.” There is too the unforced pathos of a woman, who seems to snatch at odd moments of happiness,
Drive fast to town and
Lie near my friend for an hour.
and whose encounters in her search for love often fail, and who is forced back to,
you built around me with morning tea,
Love-words flung from doorways and of course
Your tired lust to the bitterly ironic consolation.
It will be all right if I put up my hair,
Stand near my husband to make a proud pair…….
and to the bleakly realistic:
I am the type that endures. . . . . .
She has published eleven books in Malayalam. Her prose, whether in English or Malayalam, is all auto-biographical. Her short stories such as Frigidity and Sepia-tainted Photograph clearly deal with her personal experiences and with the theme of love and the emotional discontent which seems to be inseparably bound up with such experiences. Her miscellaneous essays such as “I Studied All Men”; “What Women Expect Out of Marriage and What They Get”; “Why Not More Than One Husband?”; “I Have Lived Beautifully” have fixed in the mind of the reading public the image of Kamala Das projected by her poems in Summer in Calcutta…. “feminine but forthright, unconventional but honest, ebullient but sad, impetuous but insecure.” She has been contributing to a number of journals and literary Magazines including Opinion; The Illustrated Weekly of India: Poetry East and West; Debonair; Eve’s Weekly; Femina; Imprint; Weekly Round Table and Love and Friendship.
Her many literary merits have been recognized and her poems find an honourable place in all anthologies of Indo-English poetry. She was given the Poetry Award of The Asian PEN Anthology in 1964 and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1969 for Cold, a collection of short stories in Malayalam. Her poems have appeared in Opinion, New Writing in India and Young Commonwealth Poets’ 65. With a frankness and openness unusual in the Indian context, Kamala Das expresses her need for love. What is overpowering about her poems is their sense of urgency. They literally boil over. With a slender corpus of poetry, she has secured prominent place among the immortals of literature. This is so because as Devendra Kohli points out “Courage and honesty are the strength of Kamala Das character and her poetry; and the courage lies in not only being able to admit that one has aged, when one has, but in also being able to assert in the face of it that in the analysis one has no regrets and that one has lived beautifully in this beautiful world”, and that one can,
“………… look at my maker if at all that is possible with no apology for my past exuberances, no extenuations, for deep inside I know well that I have lived beautifully in this beautiful world………..”