A writer who shocked the custodians of conventional values, Kamala Surayya Das has been a dissenting but poignant voice of wounded womanhood against the value systems of a male-dominated society.
Whether in her poems in English or highly-appreciated short stories in Malayalam, Kamala had sought to expose the
hypocrisies of a society living in an illusory world of pseudo morality, oblivious of the stark realities around. However, in doing so, she never compromised with the aesthetics of medium, always succeeding in portraying characters and situations in a touching, lucid and charming style with great economy of words.
An artist who refused to be governed by accepted norms in art as well as life, Kamala's life was as sensational as her
works, and, often faced the barbs of the orthodox society for her decisions such as embracing Islam well past the middle-age and appearing in public wearing burqua.
"She stands out on account of her resourcefulness, imagination and uncanny ability to tell the tale," critic and academic M N Karassery said.
Her major English works includes Summer in Calcutta, Alphabet of Lust, Descendants' and Collected poems, many of which stand out for their originality of theme and symbolism.
Perhaps, the most sensational of the writer's work in English was her memoirs My story, which was a kind of tell-all personal reminiscences by the standards of the 1970s. But on that work, she later said, that it was as literary a creation as any other piece and the central character of the narrative had been the creation of imagination.
Critics have often placed her Malayalam short stories, penned under the pseudonym Madhavikutty, much higher than her
English writings by dint of their choice of themes, style and stunning impact.
Kamala was born in the ancient Nair 'Tharvadu' Nalappat in Punnayurkkulam in Thrissur district. The head of family at
the time of her birth, Nalapat Narayana Menon, was a literary stalwart of the time who, apart from his own works, translated
Victor Hugos French classic Les Miserables into Malayalam.
Her mother Balamaniyamma was a noted poet, whose works were appreciated for their exploration of various aspects of
motherhood. Kamala spent her childhood in Mumbai and Kolkata, where her father V M Nair was top executive in leading
companies, who later became the managing director of Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi.
After a rather unpromising academic life, Kamala was married to Madhava Das, an executive of Reserve Bank of India,
who predeceased her by several years.
Critics have often pointed out that the writer in Kamala was born out of her emotional strains to adjust to traditional
family and societal values which attached very little concern for women and children.
Many of her early poems were published in Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1960s and later she also served as the
honorary poetry editor of the weekly. Kamala had penned hundreds of short stories in Malayalam and considered as a path-breaker of a new literary sensibility, which she shared with stalwarts like Jnanpith laureate M T Vasudevan Nair.
As in writing, in real life also she created flutters ruffling the feathers of the guardians of the established values by converting herself to Islam and donning the burqa, at a time when the harmony of the society was under assault from fundamentalist elements.
Similarly, her decision to gift to the Kerala Sahitya Akademy a small patch of land she inherited as her matrilineal property with a serpant grove as part of it, stirred a controversy with some Hindutva elements protesting the move on the grounds that serpant graves are held sacred by the Hindus in Kerala and its transfer to a secular institution was a sacreligious act.