Kamala Das, formerly known by her pen name, Madhavikutty, was a prominent Indian poet, author, and columnist who made a lasting impact on both Indian and world literature. Her life and works continue to be celebrated for their bold and unapologetic expression of female sexuality and her distinctive voice in poetry. Let's delve into the life and legacy of this remarkable literary figure.
Kamala Das was born on March 31, 1934, in Punnayurkulam, Kerala, India, to V. M. Nair, a managing editor of the widely circulated Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, and Nalapat Balamani Amma, a renowned Malayali poet. Her family background was steeped in literature, with her great uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, being a prominent writer. It was within this literary environment that Kamala developed her passion for poetry from an early age.
Her childhood was divided between Calcutta, where her father worked as a senior officer in a company that sold luxury cars and her ancestral home in Punnayurkulam. This unique blend of experiences in both urban and rural settings would later influence her writing.
Kamala Das's literary career was characterised by her fearless exploration of love, sexuality, and societal norms. She began writing and publishing in both English and Malayalam at a young age, and her works soon gained recognition. She played a significant role in the emerging Indian English poetry scene during the 1960s and 1970s.
Her first collection of poetry, "Summer in Calcutta," was a refreshing addition to Indian English poetry. In her poems, she delved into themes of love, betrayal, and the emotional turmoil that followed. The publication of "The Descendants" was even more explicit, urging women to embrace their feminine qualities and desires unapologetically.
In 1976, Kamala Das published a daring autobiography titled "My Story." The book was initially written in Malayalam as "Ente Katha" and later translated into English. It was an honest and candid account of her life, although she later acknowledged that certain elements of the autobiography were fictionalised.
Kamala Das's poems are known for their bold and frank expression. Her works touch on themes of freedom, love, and protection, often challenging societal expectations and taboos. She wrote passionately about the plight of eunuchs in her poem "Dance of Eunuchs," shedding light on their inner turmoil and struggles.
Her legacy is also marked by a rich collection of short stories and novels, such as "Neermathalam Pootha Kalam," "Alphabet of Lust," and "Padmavati the Harlot," all of which received critical acclaim.
Kamala Das married Madhav Das at the age of 15, and the couple had three sons. Despite her marriage, she continued to pursue her passion for writing and literature. In 1999, at the age of 65, she converted to Islam, adopting the name Kamala Surayya. This decision stirred controversy and criticism, with some accusing her of changing her religion for love. Kamala Surayya, however, remained unapologetic about her choices.
Kamala Das passed away on May 31, 2009, at the age of 75, after battling pneumonia. Her body was flown to her home state of Kerala, where she was interred at the Palayam Juma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram with full state honours.
Kamala Das is celebrated for her contributions to Indian English poetry and her fearless expression of female sexuality and empowerment. Her poetry and writings continue to inspire readers and writers alike. In 2018, Google honoured her with a Doodle, acknowledging her significant impact on literature.
Her literary works have been translated into several languages, making her a global literary icon. Kamala Das is remembered for her unapologetic voice in a society where such frankness was often discouraged, and her legacy as a trailblazing poet and author remains strong.
Throughout her career, Kamala Das received numerous awards and recognitions, including the PEN Asian Poetry Prize, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Story for "Thanuppu," and the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for English poetry. She was also shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984.
Kamala Das's impact on the literary world and her unwavering dedication to free expression continue to be celebrated, making her one of the most influential poets in modern Indian literature.