Kamala Das: The Poetess Who Taught Me It Was Okay to Not Sound Perfectly English


Kamala Das: The Poetess Who Taught Me It Was Okay to Not Sound Perfectly English

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I have spent several evenings of my childhood paddling my bike to a petrol pump in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park which doubled as a Crossword bookstore. Scouring books of poetry and consuming them cover to cover became the defining activity of my adolescence. What I did not find within the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson would be searched for in the lyricism of Christina Rossetti. I was ravenous with the search for something; a voice that I did not discover until my college years. As part of my syllabus, I was made familiar with Kamala Das’s life and works. She was the first Indian poetess that I had laid my hands on, unbeknownst that I was being introduced to a mélange of flavours that were not foreign from my tastes.

Das is vastly celebrated in both the Malayali and the English literary world. Eighty seven years since her birth, she is still widely read by people of all ages (especially women) because of her characteristic autobiographical style and feminist themes. She wrote under a plethora of nom de plumes such as Kamala Das, Madhavikutty, or Ami until her conversion to Islam in 1999 after which she was officially known as Kamala Suraiyya. Due to her raging popularity and the niche that she had carved for herself, Das appropriated the title of “the mother of modern English Indian poetry.” Her work and style was often compared to that of confessional poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell. But her contemporaries failed to have the impact as her vulnerable and vernacular writing had on me.

I spent my childhood in the quietness of shadows, trying to make myself invisible so that I would never impede somebody’s path. Being bullied invariably takes away your ability to stand up for yourself. But that’s the tricky thing about adulthood, reflecting on your past self is often accompanied by the disbelief of your own naivety. Das’s honesty in “Punishment in Kindergarten” was a cruel reminder of my own journey.

“My mind has found

An adult peace. No need to remember

That picnic day when I lay hidden

By a hedge, watching the steel-white sun

Standing lonely in the sky.”

But Kamala Das’ contemporaries failed to have the impact as her vulnerable and vernacular writing had on me.

When I made my foray into the poetry writing world, it was her style that spoke to me. It had no airs about it, no wish to sound perfectly English. Not unlike many Indian students, I grew up speaking a cocktail of languages. While I learnt to speak Hindi and English in tandem, my Nepali house-help would pepper my vocabulary with sentences in her native tongue. Everything I wanted to say in one language was repeated in two others, as a means to fortify my grasp. My parents and grandparents spoke Punjabi, and when we moved to Mumbai, I was forced to learn Marathi. In the 8th grade, I started learning a very Indianised French which I then corrected by formally pursuing the language. Safe to say that I was constantly grappling a new identity, trying to fit in with the person a language asked of me.

“I speak three languages, write in

Two, dream in one…

The language I speak,

Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses

All mine, mine alone.

It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest…”

Das’s “An Introduction” spoke to me politely and encouraged me to write beyond watertight compartments. Her style itself was a language that I had adopted vis-à-vis the person I chose to be on a particular day.

Growing up reading mostly male poets, their voice often eclipsed mine as I subconsciously tried to emulate their style. But what have men ever known about the female experience? John Keats would talk about nature and William Shakespeare was the posterboy of love and betrayal. Even Nissim Ezikiel went only so far as to bring home the quintessential “Indian” experience. This is exactly why Kamala Das’s work stood out for me.

In “The Looking Glass”, she explores ideas that would be borderline scandalous for her time:

“Gift him all,

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.”

However, this never kept her from writing about women’s issues, female desire, abuse, and the intricate relationships with men. As a teenager and then as a full-fledged adult, I had my own relationships with men – platonic and otherwise – that were convoluted at best. When she unabashedly detailed her own bonds that were messy and often incomprehensible, I found in them a middleness. I did not have to conform to feeling just one kind of disarray; the hybridity of my feelings was validated. It’s not like I was impeded by the “acceptable” poetic themes but engaging with her work made me open doors that I didn’t even realise were shut. It is this thematic range that inspired many young women much like myself to write characters stemming from personal encounters, however odd they may be. She wrote about harlots, about coming to terms with the “other woman”, and the ineffability of the human condition.

I no longer have to turn to works of poets whose names sit awkwardly on my tongue.

In her viral TED talk from 2009, the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the dangers of a single story. She says, “Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.” Until I deep dived into Das’s works, I was writing about countries I hadn’t visited and cultures I hadn’t experienced – an excellent exercise for my imagination and a very poor one for my sense of identity.

Das, in her essence, was a master of all trades: a writer, a poet, an essayist, a memoirist. She was a woman with several names. Hence, she perfectly encapsulated every imperfect woman – “the sinner, the saint, the beloved, the betrayed”. I could be all or I could be just one. I no longer have to turn to works of poets whose names sit awkwardly on my tongue. Kamala Suraiyya has brought poetry back home to me.