Translating Life: Language and Cultural Politics of the self in Kamala Das’ ente katha and my Story

Abstract: The reasons behind the growing interest in life writing are many and varied, but one important factor is that autobiography, in its various guises addresses many of the contemporary concerns regarding the status of the subject in relation to questions of gender and ethnicity. An analysis of the objects documented in Kamala Das is autobiography Ente Katha in Malayalam and her own translation of the same as My Story in English yields interesting insights into the cultural politics that informs the process of female subject-formation in both these languages. Language is not a culturally neutral entity. The contours of a language are mapped in terms of the admissibility and taboo associated with the cultural milieu which shapes that particular language. A lose reading of Kamala Das’s Ente Katha and My Story clearly demonstrates that in the language register employed, in the values that are taken for granted, and in the handling of perspective and point of view, both these texts assume readers positioned in their own respective cultural realms. The construction of the affective interiority or “I” in both Ente Katha and My Story seem to have been informed by the author’s cultural imaginary of her readers in Malayalam , and English. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics of action and submissionsilence and speech, which Kamala Das has arrived at while working through the complexity of her victimisation in Ente Katha and My Story and its larger socio-cultural implications.

Keywords: cultural politics, affective interiority, fixated ego, cultural imaginary

The real author of an autobiography often faces questions such as the extent to which the incidents depicted in the narrative are true or fictive. But now, with the blossoming of theoretical discourses on life writing and a simultaneous shift in focus is perceptible. Autobiographies written from a specifically female perspective or from the perspective of members of ethnic minorities have attained an implicit value, and the genre, has become a fertile ground for much socio- cultural scrutiny. The reasons behind this interest in life writing are many and varied, but one important factor is that autobiography, in its various guises addresses many of the contemporary concerns regarding the status of the subject in relation to questions of gender and ethnicity. An analysis of the subjects documented with in Kamala Das’s autobiography Ente Katha in Malayalam and her own translation of the same as My Story in English yields interesting insights into the cultural politics that informs the process of female subject formation in both these languages.

Language is not a culture neutral entity. The contours of a language are mapped in terms of the admissibility and taboo associated with the cultural milieu which shapes that particular language. The dynamics of action and submission silence and speech, which Kamala Das has arrived at while working through the complexity of her victimisation in Ente Katha and My Story attains special significance against such a context.

Kamala Das was born in 1934 at Punnayurkulam, a small village in Kerala as the daughter of V. M. Nair, an automobile company executive who later went on to become the managing editor of Mathrubhumi, a famous Malayalam magazine and Nalapat Balamani Anima, a distinguished Malayalam poet. Her grand-uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon was a prominent Malayalam writer. A bilingual writer, she wrote extensively in English and her mother tongue Malayalam. Her short stories and memoirs in Malayalam, published under the penname Madhavikutty, are admired for the beautiful and lucid prose style of their author. In English she is better known as Kamala Das, the famous poet of love. However, all her writings, both in English and Malayalam, have an underlying lyrical quality informed by a deep sense of melancholy, a gnawing sense of frustration and disappointment, deprivation and isolation.

Kamala Das wrote Ente Katha while she was undergoing treatment for suspected leukemia in a hospital, awaiting a predicted death. It first started appearing in serialised form from 1972 onwards in the Malayalam magazine Malayalanadu and its book form came out in 1973. Ente Katha depicted episodes from the author’s childhood days which were spent between her parents’ home in Calcutta and her tharavadu at Punnayurkulam, a small South Indian village, where she lived with her grandmother who was her greatest friend. It also narrated her marriage at the age of sixteen to her relative Madhava Das, a Reserve Bank employee who was much older than her, her experiences as the mother of two sons by the time turned eighteen, the writer’s emotional incompatibility with her husband, their loveless marriage which hinged on compromise, her relations outside marriage and her search for an essential inner truth that remains unchanged in the flux of these experiences. Ente Katha with its narrative detailing of controversial themes such as feminine desire and fantasy projected the image of a tormented female self engaged in a constant struggle to situate herself within or against the accepted societal norms and it did so within a grand narrative of victimisation. Thematically similar to the Malayalam version, the English version appeared for the time in 1976 as My Story. But the radical variations in tone, structure, poetic or literary descriptions of people and places, ordering of events to create certain effects are noteworthy.

Language and the Use of Imagery

While subjecting Kamala Das’s autobiographies in Malayalam and English to a close scrutiny, the fact that Kamala Das has resorted to an opulent use of images in Ente Katha when compared to My Story which follows a relatively direct narrative strategy seems to call for a more nuanced understanding. This appears to be an area that seems to have been overlooked by the numerous critics of the texts. Kamala Das’s Ente Katha opens with the metaphorical description of a sparrow, accidentally wandering into a room to be hit by an electric fan to bleed to death. She writes-”Today let this paper receive my dripping blood. Let me write like one not in the least burdened by the thoughts about the future, turning each word into a negotiation with my life lived so far” (viii). This episode is conspicuously absent in My Story. It is equally intriguing that in the Malayalam version one comes across highly metaphoric chapter headings like “The Fall of a Sparrow,” “The Undiscovered Continent” etc. In “The Undiscovered Continent,” the third chapter in Ente Katha, the undiscovered continent stands for the unchartered boundaries of the author’s mind which the author says she wants to illuminate for her readers through her words in order to make them see her soul that lies uncared for like a mossy stone statue in museums. But the writer soon adds that she feels like a leper who is forced by circumstances to write with his decomposed hands when it comes to expressing her emotional turmoil. In other words, in Ente Katha readers come across a Kamala Das who feels an extreme poverty of adequate words in her efforts at the constitution of an affective interiority in language. This in turn invites attention to another statement made by the writer in My Story that women of reputed Nair families “never mentioned sex”(23). This implies there was no possibility that Kamala Das could see a literary predecessor in Malayalam that could guide her through her emotional history of female sexuality of an upper middle class Nair woman, the group to which she belonged. The constantly inward looking subject that gets signified in Ente Katha was also not something that the Malayali reading community had encountered so far. Therefore, the author had to resort to new literary idioms in order to secure an aesthetically satisfying narration of her self in Ente Katha which she did mainly by the variation in syntax that lent her language an extreme lyrical quality and the introduction of disturbing images like that of the falling sparrow. These innovations definitely helped her to overcome the sense of lack inherent in the language to a significant extent. However, in English we find a Kamala Das who is more at ease and confident regarding the language of her creative expression. It needs to be noted that English language had by then been populated with the extremely individualistic autobiographies like that of Isadora Duncan which gets mentioned by Kamala Das herself in her autobiography to be one of her favourites.

In English she could have also turned to images that could pierce like the edge of a razor blade as those found in Sylvia Plath and Marguerite Duras with whose her works are often compared. Therefore, by writing Ente Katha in Malayalam, Kamala Das was unconsciously taking up a larger historical project of creating a new set of literary idiom for a set of emotions and experiences of a set of people till then marginalized as trivia.

However, how a language loaded with cultural significations gained on through centuries challenges a female writer in her efforts at intimate self expression becomes evident in Ente Katha and My Story even at the level of imagery. For instance, the Radha-Krishna archetype is an outstanding one in the Indian mystic tradition, where the married Radha’s love for Krishna is viewed in terms of the divine and eternal and that too in a society which never forgives adultery on the part of women. Kamala Das has well explored the scope of this mythical love in My Story. In Ente Katha too the mythical love of Radha and Krishna are evoked, but not couched in so much sexual and amorous terms as in My Story. In Ente Katha Krishna is more of a friend and a God, but in My Story it seems different: “Through the smoke of the incense I saw the beauteous smile of my Krishna. `Always, always, I shall love you,’ I told him, not speaking aloud but willing him to hear me, `only you will be my husband, only your horoscope will match mine`.. .” (87). Hence a close reading of the two texts clearly demonstrates that in the language register employed, in the values that are taken for granted, and in the handling of perspective and point of view Karnala Das’s Lute Katha and My Story assume implied readers positioned in their own respective cultural realms.

Interiority as a Contested Location

A radical rewriting of the self has evidently been taken place in the process of translation which can be seen as part of Kamala Das’s attempt at positioning her narrative selves in the specific cultural milieu of which they form part of. Both the texts become the Lacanian mirror that keeps on reconstituting the identity of the narrator in terms of the readers who go through it (Harris 32). In other words, Kamala Das’s construction of an affective interiority or “I” in both Ente Katha and My Story seem to have been informed by the author’s cultural imaginary of her readers in Malayalam and English and her understanding of their tastes and preferences to a great extent. For instance in Ente Katha the affective interiority of the author is constructed in a language of utmost intimacy. The tone adopted is that of an orphaned self weighed down by her enormous suffering. It is the voice of a victim who loses its energy, on the threshold of its personal suffering. In Ente Katha, the genealogy – oppressive forces that are responsible for the suffering are not put under critique whereas in My Story, the construction of the interiority has happened in a more inclusive manner. The subject signified in My Story is more socially and historically situated.

In Ente Katha the process of self articulation involves just giving expression to the feelings of a tormented soul and that soul is situated within the home and the family restricting the interiority to that realm. Thus, Ente Katha loses much of its vitality in its attempt to create an affective interiority palatable to the Malayan reading community by choosing to keep the privacy and anxiously guarded interiority of the bourgeois psychological subject. In scripting the affective life of the soul and for mapping its boundaries, the associated culture comes to play a very crucial role. In My Story, the self and its interiority is a more privileged and contested location, a competing mode of vision that engenders intense debates and repeated challenges to public authority. Against this context the voice of the woman writer that gets told in the narrative of My Story assumes importance. In My Story, the way an affective interiority gets constructed involves the positioning of the self in a larger canvas revealing the permeability of psychic interiority in relation to the material world. The narrator in My Story comes, makes itself felt first and foremost as the exceptional self of a writer, especially a woman writer, and her problems arise from her being a writer and a woman at once.

Writing became my only hobby. I wrote almost two stories every week and mailed them, borrowing money for stamps from my husband. The Mathrubhurni sent me twelve rupees per story. Each story took me one full night to finish, for it was not possible for me to write when the children were awake. I would put the finishing touches to a story at about six when the family rose from their sleep. (132)

The nature of prejudices that the publishing world holds toward woman writers also become the topic of examination within the text:

“Whenever a story appeared in a journal, I ran with it to my bedroom to lie down and read it, for my heart used to thump up so with excitement to see my name in print. I used to publish poems in the Illustrated Weekly but under the name K. Das because I suspected the editor to be prejudiced against women writers” (131). There are many instances in the text where the woman narrator discusses the editors and publishers who are prejudiced against writings by women. With subtle and pointed irony, the narrator depicts such incidents: “I typed nearly a thousand words a week. I wrote about the subjects the editors asked me to write on, fully aware that I was uneducated by usual standards and that I have no business meddling in grave matters” (202). The narrator here takes a dig at the editor’s notion of the kind of topics that a woman writer is supposed to deal with. In the text the narrator also points to the limitations that are associated with her for her being a female writer. A female writer has to turn inward to produce her narratives.

While analysing the cultural politics that informs the formation of subjectivity in Ente Katha and My Story, another important aspect that comes to light is the fact the difference in rhetoric characterises the subjects of both the texts. The shame such as the narrator feels at the rejection of her body by her husband and the insensitive treatment of the child Kamala at the hands of her elders serve as an indirect justification for her the simultaneous narrative of transgressions in Ente Katha. Shame is the painful feeling of embarrassment or disgrace, a feeling that something unfortunate or regrettable has happened. Unlike guilt, shame does not blame its own heart. Shame repeats the question why?” Guilt coming from a confessional self is always accommodated by traditional society as guilt always places the blame on the individual rather than the institution as shame is the victim’s awareness of being the target of undeserved cruelty. The troublesome questions stemming ‘from shame and outrage pose uneasy questions which institutions would rather avoid.

For instance, in Ente Katha the author terms a woman’s act of entering into physical proximity with a person other than the one whom she loved for the first time as tragic (daarunam). Daarunam is a actually a Sanskrit word and the noted Malayalam critic Sukumar Azhikode in Preface to Madhavikkuttiyude Krithikal Sampoornam, Vol I has traced the frequent use of the word in Sanskrit tragic dramas of Bhavabhuti(9) By using the word for describing an act of transgression, the author has effected a complete defamiliarisation of the whole situation for the reading public. But in My Story, the tone of self exploration subsumes the tone of shame. In My Story, we come across such a narrator who feels the shame of the victimised, but not the guilt of the subject: “If my parents had talked to me and pointed out the wrong path and the right I would still have led the life I led. I sincerely believe that knowledge is exposure to life” (204).

This has to be viewed in the larger contexts of the cultural politics of emotions. In Ente Katha, Kamala Das describes the wider readership enjoyed by the narratives that located the origin of sin in innocence in Kerala in which the deviant society was blamed for the sins forced upon the subject. The Malayali reading community could view such kind of narratives with sympathy. Narratives of this sort used to appear in mainstream literary journals like Mathrubhumt weekly and Malayalam literary giants like S. K. Pottekkad and P. C. Kuttikrishnan had won the hearts of Malayans with such narratives. The rhetoric of shame in Ente Katha appears to be one catering to such an audience. But the fact that it created great controversy had its origin in the label autobiography under which it appeared and that the author was a female. Autobiography of the nature of Ente Katha appeared to be threatening to the self declared social saviours of societal morality and the dynamics of referential process that happened engendered a whole set of discussions on the degree of truth and fantasy in the book so that they can somehow judge and do away with the author forever.

Going Beyond Genres

The restrictions imposed by the paraphernalia of language, whether it be English or Malayalam, when it came to narrating subjectivity that wanted to peel off the externalities to look into the deeper inner world draw attention to the genre – crossing tendency that is found in Kamala Das. Many of Kamala’s poems are structured like prose and many of her prose pieces have the musicality of poems, though an underlying lyrical quality and a note of melancholy characterises all her works. Many of her poems in English, when translated by the author into Malayalam, became prose pieces or stories. In her attempts at ultimate and truthful self expression, she effortlessly navigated between prose and poetry, between languages, without worrying for anything in the least but what she understood as the essential musicality of her inner most self. She did not care for the externalities of genres and language.

Why not let me speak

In any language I like? The language I speak,

Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness

All mine, mine alone.

It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest… (147)

In the DC edition of My Story, the author’s poems supplement her narration from chapter 27 onwards and another case in point being the striking instance of her famous poem “Composition” that appears as a prose piece in My Story. The last lines of the poem runs:

To crumble

To dissolve And to retain in other things

The potent fragments

Of oneself. The ultimate discovery will be

That we are immortal, The only things mortal being

Systems and arrangements (Only the Soul Knows How to Sing 27)

The lines appear as such without much transformation in the 49th chapter of her autobiography, My Story.

There is a hunger in each of us to feed other hungers, the basic one, to crumble and dissolve and to retain in other things the potent fragments of oneself. But ultimately we shall discover that we are immortal and that the only mortal things are systems and arrangements (210). As such, Kamala Das was unconsciously problematising the whole concept of genre through her works. Kamala Das’s bilingual status must have also made her innately aware of the arbitrariness of the concept of genre itself as the boundaries that demarcate genres differ with each language. In the case of a writer like Kamala Das, languages and genres become just different routes taken by the author to approach her real inner world: “One’s real world is not what is outside him. It is the immeasurable world inside him that is real. Only the one who has decided to travel inwards, will realise that his route has no end”(103). At this point, it is important to consider that the narrator in Ente Katha feels the musicality of her inner soul lost in the solid contours of prose. The matter assumes special significance when it is viewed against the fact that Kamala Das the writer had always found the essence of her writing to be in poetry. In Ente Katha, she states:

I like to call this poetry even if my words lose their music when, after raising in my innards a beautiful liquid turbulence, they come to surface in the relatively solid contours of prose. I had always longed for the strength necessary to write this. But poetry does not grow ripe for us; we have to grow ripe enough for poetry. (Preface to My Story, Relocating My Story viii)

These lines are strikingly absent in My Story in which she leaves behind the structural framework of the genre and goes on to explore the lyrical possibilities of the language in her ultimate project for expression of her essential inner self the author. The narrator in My Story does not feel the music of her words lost in prose as the language as such seemed attuned to a more lyrical expression of the self.

Writing as Healing

Through her life writings, Kamala Das always sought to catch the attention and love of her audience which evaded her during her childhood days in a colonial India with its strong racial prejudices. By her own admission, it interfered with her self esteem in a negative way. Writing, for Kamala Das, then appears to be psychotherapeutic, a sort of sublimation. The fact that in most of her personal writings we come across a fixated ego assumes special significance against this context. Fixation is a state in which an individual becomes obsessed with an attachment to another person, being or object. Kamala Das, the narrator, is fixated to her childhood days she spent in Nalapat House:

How often I think of going

There, to peer through blind eyes of windows or

Just listen to the frozen air,

Or in wild despair, pick an armful of

Darkness to bring it here to lie

Behind my bedroom door like a brooding

Dog. You cannot believe, darling,

Can you, that I lived in such a house and

Was proud and loved… (133)

It needs to be noted that the fixation to the happy childhood in Nalapat with her grand mother was a defensible expression of love for Kamala Das. Tracing the genealogy of the fixated in Ente Katha and My Story is one imbued with great cultural implications. The humiliation that the child-narrator faces along with her brother at the time of their ego formation points to the primary narcissistic subject getting shamed and wounded at the initial stages of subject formation. “We must have disappointed our parents a great deal. They did not tell us so, but in every gesture and in every word it was evident” (5).

The sense of being punished for no fault of her is recurrent in chapters depicting childhood experiences. Each of the crucial incidents which are described in the tone of transgression within My Story and Ente Katha curiously refer back to father as the reference point: “My father has always been a teetotaler. He has often told me that liquor should never be served in one’s house. All the commandments engraved on the columns of my mind gradually faded, the fierce winds rising out of the Ganges devoured their words and I changed into a disobedient daughter” (146).

The association between the father and the law, name, authority, makes the father an abstract disembodied principle. Patriarchy is wounded on the father’s authority. In My Story in which the ethos of an unloved daughter has been carried to its extreme when compared to Ente Katha. It may be because in English there has been such a tradition like that found in Sylvia Plath to associate the father figure with all that is threatening and violent that has come handy to Kamala Das. To strike back at the father in words amounts to writing away the repressed fears towards all insensitive societal institutions: “It was evident on the days when my father roared at us and struggled to make us drink the monthly purgative of pure castor oil. . . “ (5).

The failure to bond adequately with her father and the inability to move beyond narcissistic wounding is apparent throughout the narrative. The neglect from society, when compounded by the neglect from home, seems to have fixated the ego of the narrator: “My father was always busy with his work at the automobile firm where he was employed. . . . My mother, vague and indifferent, spent her time lying on her belly on a large four-poster bed, composing poems in Malayalam” (1). The representation of the betraying parent within language as a belated weapon against mother’s neglect and a father’s sadism are evident in the narration. The unsympathetic elders, with their mindless partiality, have a negative effect in the formation of the subjectivity of the narrator. An arrest in psychosexual development, in terms of fixation due to unrequited love at the time of ego formation, is thus quite visible within the narratives of both Ente Katha and My Story. When her grandmother was alive in her Nalapat House she could become her beloved grandmother’s Kamala to face the extreme situations of lovelessness in big metropolitan cities of her residence. But when it was no longer possible, the process of writing became psychotherapeutic in the sense that it helped the author to relive the happy experiences from her childhood, confront the repressed and unpleasant aspects of her childhood and adult life and thus arrest them within the pages of the book to go in search of a happier future. For instance after coming to know about her husband’s homosexual affair with his friend the author plunges into a state of emotional delirium. Then she “lit the reading lamb in our sitting room and began to write about a new life, an unstained future:

Wipe out the paints, unmould the clay.

Let nothing remain of that yesterday…” (99)

Writing gave the implied author in both Ente Katha and My Story the confidence to face the future. However, Kamala Das has openly stated on many occasions that she does not have to be afraid of her English audience whereas she is more cautious while writing in Malayalam. This points to how the cultural imaginary of readers associated with particular languages regulates the possibilities of self expression in the case of a writer. The sense of closure and the note of optimism which found in My Story appears to be missing in Ente Katha assumes special relevance in this context.

The narrative structuring of Ente Katha has a pervading sense of pessimistic gloom about it. Ente Katha presents a chaotic rendering of the narrator’s memories. The self that is constructed within its textual world is more contingent, fluid and mercurial and one that contends With fragmentation at different levels-temporal, intrapersonal, interpersonal, sensory and ontological. But the voice of suffering that comes through My Story is by and large the voice of resistance. In My Story the readers come across a more confident subjectivity that dares to critique the fragility of the morals that defines the accepted norms of being in this world.


The importance of women’s autobiographical narratives often gets trivialised by those believe only in the importance of master narratives of history. They fail to recognise that the intensely personal narratives of woman who have been subject to direct and indirect discrimination n a patriarchal culture have got an intrinsic value of their own as social documents too. When an individual describes and critiques the cultural matrix in which his/her ‘self’ gets constituted, it assumes the bearing and vibrancy of an oral history. Hence the textualisation of personal suffering has an important socio-cultural dimension to it, for when a narrative of suffering like that of Kamala Das’s scribing of her life in Ente Katha and My Story enters public consciousness, questioning the moral order to which it appeals, they attain an implicit value.


Das, Kamala. Ente Katha. Trichur: Current, 1973. Print. .

Madhavikkuttiyude Krithikal Sampoornam, Kottayam: DC , 2009. Print. .

My Story. Kottayam: DC, 2009. Print.

. Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. Kottayam: DC, 1996. Print.

Harris, Judith. Signifying Pain. Albany: State U of New York, 2003. Print.


ANU LEKHSMI U.G. Is Doctoral Research Scholar at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

Default image
Is Doctoral Research Scholar at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124