Kamala Das (Kamala Surayya A.K.A., Madhavikutty): Literary World Remembers with Fondness on her tenth death anniversary
Known by many names such as Dr. Kamala Das, Kamala Surayya, Madhavikutty (Pseudonym) and Aami, the legendary poet, short story writer and novelist in Malayalam and English, the book lovers fondly remember one of the most influential feminist writers of contemporary literature on her tenth death anniversary.
Dr. Kamala Das, the official name, till she converted to Islam on December 11, 1999 at the age of 65 and became Kamala Suraya, was born at Punnayoorkulam, Thrissur in Kerala, who is one of the handful of writers from Kerala who was at ease with both Malayalam and English. She was born on March 31, 1934 in the renowned Nalapat family and breathed her last in Pune, Maharasthra on May 31, 2009 at the age of 75. Before getting to know about her literary achievements, let us see her childhood, education and family.
Documentary about Madhavikutty by Doordharshan, Video FB Madhavikutty Kamala Surayya.
Born to VM Nair, the then Managing Editor of Malayalam newspaper, Mathrubhumi and the renowned Malayalam poet, Nalapat Balamani Amma, Kamala grew up partly in Kerala and partly in the then Calcutta (Now Kolkata), where her father was then working in Walford Transport Company, dealers of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. As the Nalapat family was known for its members’ contribution to the Malayalam literature including her great uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, who was a prominent literary figure and of course her mother, Balamani Amma, it was nothing but natural for Kamala to pick up the cudgels of writing at a tender age. She did show the writing flair from her tender age.
Having forced to live at a time when orthodoxy and conservatism was the way of life, Kamala did not have much choice other than to agree to marry at the age of 15. Madhav Das, a banker married Kamala. Mercifully, her husband was very liberal when it came to his spouses’ literary flair and encouraged young Kamala to write both in Malayalam and English.
The then Calcutta, during the ’60s was undergoing a time of confusion, especially for arts. That was the time when the young Kamala began writing anthologies in English and eventually became a rage and a cult figure among the group of Indian English poets. Although, Kamala has written novels, poems, narratives, features and other forms of writing in Malayalam and in English, she had clear preference for writing poems in English and she has six published poetry collections to her credit.
English poetry recital by Kamala Das, video: FB
In the Malayalam literary world, Kamala is more known for her short stories, which she wrote under the pseudonym, Madhavikutty. Kamala was also a syndicated columnist and her columns were immensely popular ranging from women’s issue to parenting, child care, social issues, politics and more. In fact, Kamala was once quoted as saying, “Poetry does not sell in India, but my forthright columns do sell.”
In the English genre, Kamala’s first work on poetry was Summer in Calcutta was received well by the readers, for, it gave a whiff of fresh air in Indian English Poetry. Her poems were themed mostly of love, betrayal of love and the resultant anguish. At a time when Indian poets were engrossed with the 19th century diction, sentiment and romanticized love, Kamala was the anti-thesis of all these, while she not only discarded the certainties guaranteed by the age-old and mundane aestheticism but also opted for freedom of mind and body.
For instance, in her poem, The Looking Glass, when she writes:
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers..,” her forthright way of calling a spade a spade was instantly recognized by the discerning readers and they even compared Kamala with Sylvia Plath and Margueritt Duras.
When she established herself as a poet in the Indian literary horizon, at the age of 42, Kamala made a splash by publishing an explosive autobiography, titled: My Story. Written in Malayalam with the title, Ente Katha, Kamala later translated the same into English.
The book sent shock waves and later in her life, Kamala said that all the elements that was there in the book were not true and many of it were figment of her imagination. Kamala, while touching upon the rules of autobiography, she wrote in her book: “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. At last, I hope you will be able to see my homeless, orphan, intensely beautiful soul, deep within the bone, deep down under, beneath even the marrow, in a fourth dimension.”
In Malayalam, she wrote many short stories and the topics ranging from a poor old servant to sexual disposition of upper middle class women living near a metropolitan city or in the middle of the ghetto. Kamala’s outstanding stories include Neypayasam, Pakshiyude Manam, Thanuppu and Chandana Mararangal. Out of the few novels she had written, Neermathalam Pootha Kalam is the all time popular one.
Kamala, during her formidable days, did travel a lot to read her poetry. Few of the renowned destinations Kamala had visited included University of Duisburg-Essen, University of Bonn and University of Duisburg universities in Germany; Adelide Writer’s Festival, Frankfurt Book Fair, University of Kingston in Jamaica, Singapore and South Bank Festival in London, Concordia University in Montreal, Canada and more. Kamala’s works have been translated into Spanish, French, Russian, German and Japanese languages. A confessional poet, Kamala’s poems are being kept on part with those of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.
Kamala Das has also been heading many an eminent positions such as Vice Chairperson of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Chairperson of Kerala Forestry Board. President Children’s Film Society of Kerala, Editor of Poet magazine and Poetry Editor of the now run down Illustrated Weekly of India, owned by Bennett and Coleman. A rare distinction, in 2009, The Times daily termed her as ‘The Mother of Modern English Indian Poetry.”
On the family side, Kamala and Das had three sons, Madhav Das Nalapat, Chinnen Das and Jayasurya Das. The eldest son, who married to Princess Thiruvathira Thirunal Lakshmi Bai, daughter of Princess Pooyam Thirunal Gowru Parvati Bai and Sri Cembrol Raja Raja Varma Avargal from the Travancore Royal Family, held the UNESCO Peace Chair and was a professor of Geo politicas the Manipal University.
Later, MD Nalapat also worked in the Times of India as its Resident Editor. Kamala’s last work, The Kept Woman and Other Stories featuring transaltion of her short stories was published after her death, which happened on May 31, 2009. She died in Pune and Kamala’s body was brought to Thiruvananthapuram and later interred at the Palayam Juma Masjid with full state honour.
Although, born in a conservative Hindu Royal Family of Nalappat, later after her husband’s death and when the children too were grown, Kamala had a change of mind and converted to Islam on December 11, 1999 when she was 65. Kamala Das changed her name to Kamala Surayya. When she died, Kamala’s body was interred at the mosque itself. As a mark of respect to the literary luminary, on February 1, 2018 Google Doodle by Artist Manjit Thapp, celebrating the work she left behind, provided a window into the world of an engrossing woman. Last, but not the least, a biopic on Kamala Das, titled: Aami, directed by Kamal was released on February 9 last year.
1963: PEN Asian Poetry Prize
1968: Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Story – Thanuppu
1984: Shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature
1985: Kendra Sahitya Academy Award (English) – Collected Poems
1988: Kerala State Film Award for Best Story
1997: Vayalar Award – Neermathalam Pootha Kalam
2006: Honorary D.Litt by University of Calicut
2006: Muttathu Varkey Award
2009: Ezhuthachan Award
1976: Alphabet of Lust
1976: My Story
1977: A Doll for the Child Prostitute
1992: Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories
1964: The Sirens
1965: Summer in Calcutta
1967: The Descendants
1973: The Old Playhouse and Other Poems
1977: The Stranger Time
1979: Tonight, This Savage Rite (with Pritish Nandy)
1984: Collected Poems
1985: The Anamalai Poems
1997: Only the Soul Knows How to Sing
1999: My Mother At Sixty-six
2001: Yaa Allah
1964: Pakshiyude Manam (short stories)
1966: Naricheerukal Parakkumbol (short stories)
1968: Thanuppu (short story)
1982: Ente Katha (autobiography)
1987: Balyakala Smaranakal (Childhood Memoirs)
1989: Varshangalkku Mumbu (novel)
1990: Palayan (novel)
1991: Neypayasam (short story)
1992: Dayarikkurippukal (novel)
1994: Neermathalam Pootha Kalam (novel)
1996: Kadal Mayooram (short novel)
1996: Rohini (short novel)
1996: Rathriyude Padavinyasam (short novel)
1996: Aattukattil (short novel)
1996: Chekkerunna Pakshikal (short stories)
1998: Nashtapetta Neelambari (short stories)
2005: Chandana Marangal (novel)
2005: Madhavikkuttiyude Unmakkadhakal (short stories)
2005: Vandikkalakal (novel)