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Kamala Das: Celebrating the faithless

Last updated on: June 08, 2009 12:47 IST
I first met Kamala Das in Bank House on Backbay Reclamation. The flat was quite close to what is today my office in Nariman Point (in Mumbai). I had come from Kolkata, where I lived in those days, to speak at a literary seminar in Bombay and suddenly, on a lark, decided to call Kamala who was one of my favourite poets.

She was a strange kind of literary figure, very controversial and much hated by the conventional academic poets who found her poetry too loud, melodramatic and obsessively self flagellant.

She wrote of her warm menstrual blood flowing, her carnal desires and unfulfilled sexual fantasies, her lost childhood, of men she had loved and left behind. She wrote of what it was being a woman, a poet, a person torn between two tongues, two cultures, faithful to neither.

In fact, faithlessness was the key to understanding her poetry and her persona.

Kamala believed faithfulness was the most boring thing on earth and shunned it as one would shun stupidity.

She was warm on the phone, very excited and promptly called me home and said she would get together a group of friends and fellow poets to meet me and listen to my poems too.

She called her group Bahutantrika and it met occasionally to share poems, stories, ideas and experiences, casual conversation about nothing at all. Very much like the Coffee House addas we in Kolkata were so used to. Only the decibel level was lower in Bahutantrika because it was inside a home, and that too a banker's home.

Kamala's husband worked for the Reserve Bank and that explains why the building she lived in was called Bank House. He was a gentle, adoring, man who did his 10 to 6 job at the bank and came home to meet his wife's countless admirers in a literary environment that was incredibly intense and magical.

He was always proud of her and never felt insecure even though Kamala, writing as Madhavi Kutty, had shocked his very conservative Kerala society with her poems and sexually explicit autobiographical pieces in Malayam.

I guess he heaved a sigh of relief when Madhavi Kutty became Kamala Das and began to write in English. But that relief was short lived. Because Kamala became as famous and as notorious, if not more than Madhavi Kutty. She also became a far better writer in English.

She never wrote the English that others expected her to. She wrote it as it came to her. It was an unlearnt, unkempt language which turned into magic in her hands. It was the true language of poetry and it made Kamala Das what she was, one of the finest and truest poets of her generation.

Even her impossible sexual fantasies rang true. They provoked her critics to become even sharper and the stupid academics got angrier and more shrill in their denunciation of her work. But I loved her poems and short stories, and so did thousands of others who swore by poetry, not purity of language or form.

In fact, Arnold Heinemann, one of the most successful publishers of poetry in those times, put her love poems and mine together in a book called Tonight, This Savage Rite which was first published in 1979 and sold out six editions in a single year! Not bad for poetry, I guess. Gulab Vazirani, who ran Arnold Heinemann and brought out some of my most successful books of poems, was over the moon.

But this was long before all that. I turned up for the Bahutantrika group at Bank House that fated evening and read my poems out to Kamala's friends and others out there. Most of them were strangers to me and, apart from Kamala, I didn't know a soul. But it was an evening that changed my life. Bombay morphed before my eyes. The boring business city suddenly came alive. Others read their poems too. Some sang.

I sat in a corner with an amazingly beautiful woman from Ahmedabad and we spoke of poetry, music, dance, movies, magic, dreams and so many other things that evening. I called her to Kolkata to experience a city of the arts. She said, Why don't you come to Ahmedabad first? I did. And thus began another story, another whirlwind romance, another book of poems.

Kamala took credit for midwifing this torrid romance. She and I became friends. No, we did not meet that often. But we shared poems, talked to each other occasionally and she began to write for a little magazine dedicated to poetry that I occasionally brought out in those days, whenever I had the money and a few ads.

My friend Octavio Paz, who was then Mexico's ambassador in Delhi, fell in love with her poems. So did many others, from many parts of the world, till the Indo-English literary establishment had no option but to recognise her talent, her genius. Her books began to sell out. A new language of poetry began to emerge. The old orthodoxy was challenged by a new breed of writers who wrote in a living language and refused to follow the traditions of British poetry that ruled the academic establishment of those days.

Poetry flowered. Alan Ginsberg had already come to Kolkata and opened up our hearts to a new kind of poetry, a new kind of literary experience. We all began to live in defiance. Publishers from all over the world started bringing out our books, in tiny, handcrafted editions printed in home presses. It was Renaissance Times.

But too much fame could be tiring. It tired me out for sure. I guess it did the same to Kamala. I burnt my journals and migrated to journalism and this big, bad city. Kamala became quieter, more introspective. A bit cynical too, I guess. And then, some years later, she quietly went away. New poets came onto the scene. The scene became quieter, gentler, The limelight shifted away. Publishers moved onto other kinds of books.

Kamala wrote little and barely stayed in touch. Her sons grew up. The family scattered and I lost touch with her as indeed I had lost touch with poetry. I had seen another, less solipsistic world and was desperately keen to change things around me. Journalism seemed like an answer for a while.

Then came television. After that, politics and Parliament. And, finally, movies -- the ultimate opiate of the people. Life took so many mysterious twists and turns that I forgot where I began. I forgot Kamala too, till one day I read she had adopted another faith and called herself Suraiya.

No, it did not surprise me. Nothing that Kamala ever did surprised me. I had implicit trust in her. I knew she did things because she believed in them, however briefly. I read somewhere, in some magazine, that it was a young man who stole her heart and her faith. He was a Muslim. It was so typically Kamala. She never did anything half heartedly. She always went all the way, chasing her dreams. I hope she found comfort in her new religion. I hope she was happier in the burqa she chose to wear. I hope she found poetry as a friend in the end.

All I know is that she was one of the few people I knew who I admired unquestioningly. That evening at her Bahutantrika changed my life in many ways. I thank Kamala for that as well.

I only wish I had a copy of the book we did together. Gulab Vazirani's gone. So has Kamala. I wonder where I can find a copy. But then, I have no copies of most of my books any way. One more wouldn't make such a difference.

Pritish Nandy is a journalist, poet and film producer.

Pritish Nandy