FROM AN INTERVIEW
SREEDEVI K. NAIR
Kamala Das can best be described as a superb artist and a literary phenomenon. An incomparable poet, a painter, a short-story writer and a novelist. She is a good juggler as well. She juggles dexterously with her own experiences feelings, with the so-called ‘reality’ and even with other people’s rationales.
Is a deep knowledge of the vast world essential to make great writing? Jane Austen has proved that one could work wonders with “one inch of ivory’. Kamala Das achieves the same feat. Her writing, like roses spring from the soil of her mundane experiences.
“You write both poems and stories. Is it that you change the mode of writing to suit your subject?’”
Certainly not. I think the subject of all my writing is basically the same- my own experiences, man-woman relationship, sex etc. In Malayalam, my stories are preferred, but in English the market is for my poems. More than that, I can write freely and boldly in English. I don’t have to fear my English audience. Unfortunately,1 can’t do that in Malayalam. The essence of my writing, I should confess is in my poetry.”
Most of the women writers make meager journeys into the outside world. But the lengthy entourage into the innermost caverns of their minds compensates for the shortness of the distance they travel in kilometers. The fascinating sights they see ‘within’ and their experiences clothed in colorful imagination, churn out literature, which sometimes soothes like the gentle breeze and sometimes scorch the flesh. However, the magic lies in transforming the minor irritants of daily life into dazzling pearls of priceless literature. Perhaps. Kamala Das can be taken as the best representative of all women writers who availed of no formal education and who consistently draw from their own lives to write.
Writing about one’s own experiences is hazardous in the sense that one is constantly at the risk of contradicting oneself. Perceptions vary at different times, thoughts evolve and opinions change. Kamala Das has been
charged with outrageous inconsistency, fickleness of the mind and even with waywardness. No doubt her mind, like a kaleidoscope, offers different images of the same object or person on different occasions. In her My Story (Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, 1988. P.91), she calls her father “an autocrat”. In ‘My Childhood Memories’, she describes him as a stern father before whom his children like street-dogs had to shy away, tucking their tails. But later in her poem ‘Too Late For Making Up’ which she wrote after his death, she laments,
“Should I have loved you, father
More than I did,
That wasn’t so easy to do
If I have loved others, father,
I swear I have loved you the most.”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, DC Books, Kottayam, 1996. P.40)
Evidences are plentiful if one wants to charge Kamala Das with inconsistency of feelings for her near ones- father, mother, brother etc. But whether she merits the criticism is doubtful. It is only natural to forgive the shortcomings of our dear ones after they are gone. That which is lost becomes dearer. Maybe, the understanding of a father who put on a very stern exterior was not easy for Kamala Das in her youth.
On the other hand, her loving Granny was her greatest friend, dearest companion and perhaps the one who left the deepest void in her mind when she died. In her poem ‘The Captive’, while speaking of her Granny, Kamala Das admits, “she was the first I loved”. In another poem ‘The Composition’, she says touchingly
‘The only secrets I always
Are that I am so alone
And that I miss my grandmother.”
(Only the Soul Knows How To Sing, p. 23)
A poet, and that too a very sensitive one, becomes acutely aware of what is happening inside her all the time. Her words hence depict the mood of the moment rather than a permanent feeling. Any sane person will realize that his feelings for another undergo constant transformation. A child’s need for its mother is certainly different from a grown up’s love. But while an ordinary person’s thoughts remain mostly opaque even to him, the poet’s heart is rather transparent, can be seen through and can consequently be raved at by almost anybody. That may be the reason why Kamala Das’s momentary flare-ups against her family members have been pointed out as grave misconduct and inconsistency. Anyhow, her devotion to her Grandmother compensates for whatever wrongs she has committed towards the others.
“Your Grandmother appears to be the one whom you loved a lot more than your own mother. In many of your poems like ’My Grandmother’s House’, ’Blood’, ’Composition’ etc. there is the all-pervading presence of the Grandmother. You lived with your own mother and spent only your vacations with your Granny. Then how is it that you loved her so much?”
“It’s true that I loved my Granny more than anybody else. Even today when I look back on my past, it seems I have loved her more than even the men in my life. She used to touch me, caress me. She expressed her love without any reserve. But my mother was different. She rarely spent time with her children. My father did not allow her to do any work. Writing poetry was the only thing she did. On the other hand, Granny was quite a simple woman. She showered us with love.”
The charge of inconsistency is not a complementary one. Yet, inconsistency is another name for change, which signifies growth. Just as ‘firm’, ‘obstinate’ and ‘pig-headed’ all refer to the same reality of sticking on to one’s own opinion without yielding to others’, ‘inconsistency’, ‘change’ and ‘growth’ are different aspects of the same reality.
All over the world, women writers conscious of their female selves use myths for specific purposes. They either consciously place themselves within existing myths or re-construct them to suit their goals. The Radha — Krishna myth has found innumerable representations in Kamala Das. Many of her fabulous poems are woven around the image of Krishna. She often sees herself as Radha, sometimes as Krishna the indefatigable lover himself and at times even as Vrindavan -the scene of immortal love-play.
In her poem ‘Krishna’ she says,
“Your body is my prison, Krishna
I cannot see beyond it.”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P.67)
As in many other poems, this kind of obsession is noticeable in the poem ‘Radha’ as well.
“……….. Everything in me
Is melting, even the hardness at the core
O, Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting,
Noting remains but
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P. 63)
Yet, at times, there is the realization that she herself is both the lover and the loved one, the beloved and the betrayed. In ‘Ghanashyam’ are the following lines.
“- each time my husband,
His mouth bitter with sleep,
Kisses mumbling to me of love,
But if he is you and I am you,
Who is loving who
Who is the husk who the kernel
Where is the body where is the soul
(Only the Soul Knows How to Sing, P. 94.)
Vrindavan too is no fairyland for her. She mows exactly where the place is. “Vrindavan lies in every woman’s mind”
(Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P. 101)
To an Indian woman, the love for Krishna is not forbidden. Hadn’t Mira Bai, a historical figure turned into a mythical one with her infinite passion for the dark-skinned God? Hadn’t she been revered, worshipped for her mad devotion to Him? A woman may be ostracized if she falls often in love with ordinary men. But it may be different if she loves the element of Krishna. Consequently, Kamala who falls in love regularly declares that she yearns only for the mischievous, eternal lover in men. In My Story she describes an encounter with one of her lovers :
“You are my Krishna. I whispered kissing his eyes shut. He laughed. I felt that I was a virgin in his arms. Was there a summer before the autumn of his love? Was there a dawn before the dusk of his skin? I did not remember. I Carried him with me inside my eyelids, the dark God of girlhood dreams……….Oh Krishna, Oh Kanhaiya, do not leave me for another.
………we stood together to look at the sea. The sea was our only witness. How many times I turned to it and whispered, Oh, sea, I am at last in love. I have found my Krishna….”
(My Story, Sterling Publishers Pvt Ltd., New Delhi, 1988)
But is it possible for one to see Lord Krishna in ordinary, mortal men?
“Isn’t Krishna a fabulous myth.”
“To me He is not. Even now He is with me — as my friend, lover and protector… I remember having gone to Poonthanam’s illam to attend religious function. The organizers took me around the house. Pointing to a pillar from a distance, they told me “That is where Lord Krishna appeared before Poonthanam”. I tried to be very skeptical and asked, “Isn’t Krishna a mere myth?’ But when I reached the spot, I felt my hair standing on ends. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I rushed to the stage and began my speech with ‘Oh, Krishna…”. I don’t know what all I said. But within a few minutes, the whole audience was profoundly moved. They were literally seething in the ocean of devotion. When I stepped down from the dais, many rushed to we and touched my feet. They might have taken me for Krishna’s Radha.. .. I might be her….. ”
Effectively mingling fact and fiction, myth and reality, dreams and daily occurrences, she makes confusion most confounded for her readers who are wont to keeping these territories distinct. She, on the other hand, believes in the co-existence of parallel worlds. Even from her early childhood, she used to think of Krishna not as one who lived in the azure skies above but as a dear childhood friend. In her book When The Neermathala Bloomed Out she describes how she made her little sister too believe Krishna to be the friend who would come down to chat with her and to present her with small gifts.
“When my little sister was just three or four years, I created a world of fantasy to amuse her. Below the staircase, there was enough space for one to sprawl comfortably. It was pitch dark there. When I sat there, I was rather invisible. Between the staircase and the window there was a gap of about six inches. Through that I offered sweets, sugar cakes and grapes to my sister. Sitting on the staircase she talked to me through the six-inch gap. I knew to alter my voice. I made her believe that I was Sree Krishna and that the world below the staircase was Vrindavan. So, many a time a day, she sat on the staircase and called out loudly -“ Unni Krishnan, come, 1et”s play”.
She told Krishna of her daily routine. She insisted that He brought her grapes, jaggery and sugar cakes. When I returned from the school she used to tell me, ‘Today. Unnikrishnan did not come to play with me. I called him so many times……………
Afterwards, I began dyeing my fingers blue.
“ Why this colour on your fingers?”
“Don’t you know that I am blue-coloured?’, I asked.
‘Unnikrishnan, you speak just like Amy Oppu.”
“ Who is this Amy Oppu?”
“ She is my elder sister”
“ If you say I talk like girls, I wouldn’t come here anymore”, I protested. She started sobbing. Then I said,
“ Now stop crying. And, don’t mock me again, Okay? I forgive you this time.”
Thus alongside the world of reality, there came to exist within my mind, its twin world-that of fantasy. In it I saw novel colours, which never met the real eye. In it I heard ditties, tunes and melodies which never pleased the mortal ears.”
(When The Neermathala Bloomed Out, DC Books, Kottayam, 1993.Page 97-98)
In My Story also she describes how she once again brought down Krihshna to play with her son ‘Monoo’.
“.. I began to share my bedroom with my son Monoo.We had divised a form of amusement, which was unique. I would hide under the bed behind the hanging counterpane and talk to the child disguising my voice. I am Krishna, I would tell him. I have come from Vrindavan to talk to you. And Monoo would believe it and begin a long conversation with the God-child…….. Often I would hold up a packed gift of sweets saying it was a gift from Vrindavan. He would only see the tips of my fingers, which would have been painted blue with blue ink. Won’t you come to my birthday party, Monoo asked Krishna and He said of course I shall be there…
There was an imaginary life running parallel to our real life. I filled his childhood with magic and wonder. Always he smiled with sheer happiness of being alive. He sat on my knee looking like the infant Krishna….”
(My Story, Page 107-108)
Even a few months ago, when this interview was held, she was waiting for Krishna to waft her up to the azure skies as his beloved. She had said,
“In my girlhood days, Granny used to tell me stories -stories of Krishna and Radha. Then, I often fancied that Krishna would come to marry me… Wonder whether he will still come. Have I become too old now? But still I am a graceful lady, aren’t I? My Lord may some day come to fetch me off…”
Things have drastically changed in the course of the week following the one in which this interview was held. A mere Kamala Das transformed herself to the twinkling star, Suraiya. Now whether she wants Krishna to come in his own name or disguised as Mohammed can only be pondered upon.
Yet, there is no doubt that Krishna has remained an intimate part of her long life. As a child, He had been her playmate. When she grew up, she realized that He , like a koel has built his nest in the arbour of her heart. Her fascination for Him has long remained a complete feeling, very strong and rooted in the depths of her very being. Then how could she, who had all along sung passionate praises of Krishna denounce Him all on a sudden? At least, wasn’t she afraid of public criticism? May be not.
Hasn’t she been ostracized nastily for writing MyStory ? Yet was she regretful?
“Do you feel sorry for having exposed your life thoroughly through your writings? Have you ever felt that you should not have wrtten My Story?”
“I have never regretted anything I have done or written though I should admit that the responses to ‘My Story’ were a bit too harsh. When I came to Trivandrum after its publication, people flocked outside the hotel where I stayed and shouted “Prostitute”, “Slut”, “Madhavikkutty go back” etc. Yet I have outlived all that. The very same people honour me now. I think, I am simply proud of myself. Every day a number of people come to meet me at my house, to bow to mc and to obtain my blessings. What more should I crave for? Perhaps, I am the luckiest woman in Kerala.”
Kamala Das, no doubt, has been and is still the most controversial and the best loved woman writer in Kerala. But readers often find her nonchalance quite disturbing. How could she, born in a conventional nair family challenge age-old customs and traditions with total indifference? If people like her turn a deaf ear to malicious outbursts, what would happen to the self appointed judges of morality? Kamala Das is blissfully oblivious of all the uproar she creates. She appears even happy to be able to provide topics for heated public discussions all the time, without fail.
“Please let me ask you an oft-repeated, stale question. Are the events and incidents described in ’My Story’ real or imaginary?
You see, ‘My story’ need not be one’s own story. It could also mean ‘the story one has written’.
Besides you wrote it at a time when you were heavily drugged.”
“I have always said that those stories were true. But my dear father told many people that I wrote them under the effect of tranquilizers. 1never said so. I have been in love several times…. 1 loved so many. So many loved me too.1 do consider that as a blessing. Recently somebody asked me whether I believe in the ‘sanctity of marriage ‘. I told them I believe only in ’ the sanctity of love’.”
Kamala Das thrives in contradictions. In the twinkling of an eye, she a devout Hindu becomes a stubborn Muslim. Kamala Das cum Madhavikutty turns Suraiya. Krishna is re-named Mohammed. Things seem very simple and easy on the world of Kamala Das/Madhavikutty/Suraiya.Is it that she is fickle or even slightly mad? In one of her poems she has said,
“Madness is a country
Just around the corner.”
(My Story Page.111)
But is she plain mad or is there a method in her madness?
“Love appears to be a perennial passion in all your writing….?
I believe in the supreme worth of love. What is life without love? Every woman needs a man to declare her his precious possession. Same for men too. I am reminded of unclaimed parcels when I see bachelors. Even at this stage, 1 realize the worthlessness of life without the love and guardianship of a man. I am thinking of getting married once again….”
“The society would be shocked.”
“Who cares? If it is going to be soooo… shocked, isn’t it simply because it conceives of marriage as purely a physical affair? Can’t one marry for emotional needs? If the society doesn’t know it yet, let it learn now.”
Whether the person we are talking about is Kamala Das or Madhavikkutty or Suraiya, she is a wonder to marvel at because of her writings, her life, her nonchalant attitudes, her knack of being in the lime light by hook or by crook, her ability to laugh at the people, at the society and at the times. She has created world-class literature from the scanty experiences of a meek but too sensitive woman in a conventional society. Kamala Das is quite conscious of her status as a writer.
“How do you rate yourself as a writer?”
“I am the finest short story writer in Malayalam at present. To be frank, I don’t think there would be any real rival for me in the next fifty years. I am the most highly paid writer in Malayalam as well.”
”Yet, don’t you think you owe your initial immediate acceptance to your reputed family name?”
“Not at all. There were so many members in the Nalappat House. How is it that none of them became famous if the family name could have helped? I Got recognition because of the quality of my writing. Tell me, could you think of anything, which would excel or even barely equal the beauty and splendor of “The tragedy of the Sparrow’ in Malayalam till today?”
Kamala Das, he own captive, is a wonderful writer who plunders her miraculous memory to write. Her greatest asset is her mind that sees and hears and is aware and her language ‘half English, half Indian, funny perhaps but honest”. Undaunted by the harsh darts of criticism, she makes fancy’s lotuses bloom in the waters of her dreams with wonderful ease.
To those disturbing gang of persistent well-wishers she asks good humoredly-
“……………. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you?”
(‘An Introduction’, Only The Soul Knows How To Sing, P.96)
Like an expert hypnotist who fools and baffles the spectators but smiles on them kindly. Amy/Kamala Das/Madhavikkutty/Suraiya beams graciously on her readers/critics, pleased with her own performance of leaving them utterly confused with her attitudes, life and writing.