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On heart's call

“None of my family members ever had the ability to speak from their heart. The dwellers of that home were like Chinese jars the lids of which were shut tight – they lived without ever letting the other know of their scent or taste”
- Kamala Das (Memoirs)

Women writers in India usually are generally treated as a work in progress or agents-provocateur for things unpopular. They don’t count unless their sexuality is out in the open and its salacity is ridiculed in public and enjoyed in private. The writers’ gender creates an instant compromise of “aesthetic” setting for their readers.

Arundhathi Roy is an unwelcome name in many literary and other quarters. Although there are tons of left leaning activists like her, she invites special attention for having been a writer of semi-autobiographical fiction. Her predecessor, Kamala Das is another writer who courted controversies like night gowns and scythed the vulnerable gender sensitivity of Indian readers. Besides selective residue of her writings in public memory, her public and private uttering blitzed media and social circles.

That her private life being debated threadbare even after she had turned seventy three should give us enough insight into the iron cast template for an Indian writer who happens to be a woman. However if you stick to her writings, especially her poems, short stories and the memoirs from Childhood and later, you would be amazed at her uncanny ability to capture the subtle and nuanced social hierarchy and personal relationships among women and the disarming honesty in portraying human condition in general.

“When we returned from the royal palace, Ammamma (grand mother) told me, that we didn’t have the right to touch any of the residents over there. Ammamma explained to me that their caste and ours were different.

‘What will happen if I touch her highness?’

‘If you did, she would have to undergo ablutions. Aren’t we Nair? Folks belonging to the caste Nair can’t touch them’

Ammamma explained to me about the differences in Hindu castes. Most prominent in the pantheon are Nampoothiri, followed by Thamburan; under them Nair, Thiya, Vettuvar, Pariah, Nayadi (tribes). Poor Nayadi, they could only address us from far away across the rice field without ever making themselves seen: ‘Oh! Her Highness from Nalappat!’

Nayadi were like those unseen birds singing among the wide branches of tall trees. I wanted to see them. However our maidservant of the Thiya caste wouldn’t take me to them as she walked out to dole out rice for charity on our behalf.

‘Little mistress, you’ll shriek in terror if you see them. They look like the crow pheasant, the one that cries out loud all the time. Little mistress, Atiyan (me-the-lowly-one) would never do that.’

Once while serving dinner, when Ammamma leaned over to put poppadum in my plate, I said: ‘Atiyan doesn’t need poppadum.’

Ammamma broke into laughter.

‘Kamala, why do you say Atiyan? You should say ‘I’’

‘But didn’t Valli call herself Atiyan?’

‘Isn’t she of Thiya caste? Kamala is not a Thiya girl.’

‘What is Kamala’s caste?’

‘Haven’t you learned what your caste yet? Well, if you haven’t understood what your caste is, no one would ever be able to make you aware of it.’

I do realize the meaning of her statement now.”

- A childhood in Malabar – A Memoir.

Anyone who could write about untouchables and yet let one’s craft and humanity shine through deserves serious reading. Although Kamala Das has been writing a lot of poems and short stories mostly in English, it was her provoking and controversial autobiography ‘My Story’ took the reading public by storm and probably for the first time, Indian consciousness was needled by feminine assertiveness. Gender politics began to color perception and writer’s personal trivia and utterances took center stage.

That she shocked readers with her bare-it-all amorous adventures and went on to write fiction on lesbian lovers, parallels had been drawn from Kate Chopin to Anais Nin. Kamala Das herself made much of her personal account of own life fictional that it was difficult for a layman to notice the disconnect between a volatile and smoldering personality and the jigsaw of the same writer as a lady of aristocratic and literary lineage, wife of a high official and mother of accomplished professionals. It is also worth knowing that her great uncle Nalappattu Narayana Menon was a renowned Malayalam poet who happened to write a well researched book on sex. Another usual folly is to have been misjudged her to be a feminist writer. It’s rather easy to find how she ingenuously picked her genre and succeeded. Given how fragmented and localized feminism as a movement, imposing activism on gender-specific writing on Kamala Das is missing her sources of creativity and spontaneity of her responses.

Kamala’s memoir on her childhood spent in Calcutta and the traditional and idyllic ancestral home in Malabar – A childhood in Malabar was a book that revealed a rare voice. It spoke about adults’ world through the eyes of a child as it retained the magical frills around the everyday reality of life and living in rural and urban India. One could almost feel the palpable warmth and anxiety of a troubled mind exploring channels to communicate. In that sense, Das wrote with a lot of heart and never shied away from being heart-broken.

She is a rare breed of writer who rode on her heart’s call and boy! weren’t the risks worth taking for the sake of her readers!


Mallika said…
I would like to refer another powerful feminist Indian Writer Sarojini Sahoo .I have gone through her novel "Mithya Gerosthali "(translated in Bengali) and found a tremendous significant voice with a poetic sensibility.Readrs should inquire about her .
Nisha Abraham said…
Very nice post. I read 'My Story' when I was in my teens and was deeply moved by it. I had a few friends who were ashamed of my reading tastes then.
You describe Kamala Das's writing very well.

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