Born in 1934 in Kerala, Kamala Das was the author of several novels, collections of poetry and short stories in English as well as Malayalam in which she wrote as Madhavikutty.
Nominated in 1984 for the Nobel Prize for literature and winner of several literary prizes in India, she drew admirers and critics in equal measure, especially when it came to the way in which she chose to live her life, with a fearless disregard for mindless convention and sheer courage of conviction.
When she died in May 2009, she left behind a body of writing that will continue to inspire and move generations of readers in the future.
The Rediff Interview/Kamala Das
'Manipulation is not a bad word all the time'
Kamala Das has always been daring and forthright.
She has criticized the tradition-bound, conservative society which, of course, was always harsh on her unconventional life style.
One thing is sure: She was far ahead of many other Indian writers in her ideas, unconcerned about what others thought of her.
Excerpts from an hour-long interview with Shobha Warier. Ladies and gentlemen, Kamala Das in inimitable style!
You expressed your feelings through different media -- poetry, short stories, painting. Can we categories these as different faces of a woman, or the different roles that she has to don, like that of a wife, mother, lover etc.?
I think it is very difficult to separate any person. A person is the sum total of her experiences. I went on experimenting with painting, poetry, fiction, drama.
I am also a columnist. I think I have become a professional writer as it is difficult remaining a poet because poetry doesn't sell in this country.
I have to become a columnist to survive. It has been quite a hard life for me. That must have helped me survive and to keep myself afloat. I don't have any regrets. Some people felt I should have concentrated upon one single medium.
You don't think so?
I don't think so. It would have bored me. I wanted to fill my life with as many experiences as I can manage to garner because I do not believe that one can get born again.
So I want to experience everything right here, be a painter, be a poet, be a good friend, be a good mother.
Do you think differently when you are a poet, a columnist and a painter? Your poems are so much different from your short stories, and your paintings are different from your columns. Sometimes one feels they are not done by the same person at all.
To become a columnist, I had to gain some kind of a reputation as a writer because no newspaper would come forward and offer the job unless they know what the author is capable of.
You have to let them have faith in your capabilities. So, I think some years of maturing is necessary to become a columnist.
Then, I suppose it is like standing for an election. If you are sure, you can have a following, you get votes, you stand for elections.
I think if you are assured of a wide readership, you can start writing a column as you can start being a social worker.
Because an author can manipulate the thoughts of her readers, her devoted readers at any rate. Manipulation is not a bad word all the time.
You could give some kind of guidance without getting directly involved with his or her unseen reader. That is the way authors gather strength, strength to later go in for social work, for politics. It hasn't been a bad life although in the beginning I had problems.
Problems in what sense?
In the sense that I had the wrong gender for this occupation. Because women were expected to confine themselves to the realm of the kitchen and it was not a role entirely accepted by society.
A woman had to prove herself to be a good wife, a good mother, before she could become anything else. And that meant years and years of waiting.
That meant waiting till the graying years. I didn't have the time to wait. I was impatient. So I started writing quite early in my life.
And perhaps I was lucky. My husband appreciated the fact that I was trying to supplement the family income. So, he allowed me to write at night.
After all the chores were done, after I had fed the children, fed him, cleared up the kitchen, I was allowed to sit awake and write till morning. And that affected my health.
You said you were born in the wrong gender. Do you feel it would have been easier for you as a writer, had you been a man?
Yes, I am sure. My mother's uncle was a writer, quite well known too. Alapati Narayana Menon.
He had nothing else to do but write and I have watched him work from morning till night. I think that was a blissful life.
What about your mother? How did she manage to write so much?
Mother was given the chance to write, to be a full time writer. It was easy for her because my father was a very old fashioned gentleman, so he gave her plenty of servants to look after the children, servants to look after the kitchen. She did not have to do anything other than write. And I think she must have enjoyed it. She brought out several books when she was young.
Do you remember, you once told me about the pathetic condition of a woman writer who does not even have a writing table. The dining table has to serve as her writing table once it is cleared.
I was thinking about the middle class woman who plans to become a writer. I was talking about myself, of course.
There was only the kitchen table where I would cut vegetables, and after all the plates and things were cleared, I would sit there and start typing. That was my work area.
Work are normally would remind you of the grinding stone, or the mixite or something, but in my case, it was the typewriter and plenty of paper.
Then I would sit there for hours and hours while the house was asleep because nights became my domain.
I could find freedom only at night when I could ignore my family and become an independent person. I felt like myself only in the quiet hours of the night.
Could you manage to perform all the roles together and distance yourself away from all the trappings at night?
I had to. I was a very emotional person, and I was attached to my children and my husband although not in the conventional way.
But then I could forget, I could set it aside just like I set aside the kitchen utensils and everything to make place for writing.
I could set aside everything and command an area for myself that became my own arena where I could write stories and stories and write columns too till the milkman's cycle clanked besides my window.
Was it not very tiring for you to work so hard at night and also during daytime as two different identities?
Yes, it was tiring. It really ruined my health. But a little bad health has its compensations.
Then, you can't go in for an athletic kind of life but have to be tied to the home. If you are tied to the home, you have to spend your time writing. I did a lot of writing.
'Poetry died within me'
They say, behind every successful man, there is a woman. But don't you feel it is the other way round. Even now behind every successful writer, there is an encouraging and supporting husband. Is it necessary to have such a man in a female writer's life?
If my husband had not been sympathetic to some degree, I would not have been a writer at all. I know of women who decided to become writers or artists, but then change their mind later because of the interference from the husbands.
Mine not only turned away but welcomed. He took some pride in my writing which was a great help to me.
How did you evolve and grow yourself as years went by, from a young bride to a wife and a mother? How did these roles or changes in life help you grow as a person and creative writer?
Growth is certainly gratifying because you need to have many avatars, avatar Amin one life. I had to experience, I had to see things, I had to hear things and I was in a hurry. Another point is, Shobha, we might grow old and not know it.
Others know it. Others are conscious of the fact that I have aged. I am not. Within oneself, one doesn't feel aged at all. Within oneself, one is ageless. That'll remain so, ageless.
Did those roles you had to play help you or not help you in your creative writing?
It helped me. Sometimes consciously, deliberately, I would even adapt a kind of role because I wanted to write about such a person. So I would act out the role before I wrote the story about such a person.
Do you think like that person?
I would be that, more or less. I would think like that, act like that. If you were to ask me, which of my characters is the strongest, I would say myself.
When I wrote about myself, I brought out a very strong character, and that character cannot get rubbed away so soon!
Is there a part of yourself in all your creations?
Sure. I certainly believe that a creator leaves a part of himself or herself in the creation. You can't escape that.
You remain there, trapped within your creation and that is the most vital part in creation. So certainly in my poetry, in my stories, in my paintings, a part of myself is there.
Did you ever feel that you should have been somebody else, doing something else in your life?
I must have felt. When I was about twenty, I felt I should have been a doctor. I should have tried, I felt. Later on, I accepted my role as a writer, settled down to it.
Do you enjoy yourself being a writer?
I think so. I have enjoyed myself. Now, not so much. Now I don't get enough time to devote myself to writing. I have to write columns, I have to meet people.
If you become well known, you naturally have visitors all day long, and my energy is frittered away in talking to strangers. So I have very little time for creative writing.
When did you decide to become a professional writer, which is quite different from creative writing?
I found it difficult to mange with my husband's salary, so he said I start selling stories. Then I became a good contributor to the family income.
Later on when my husband retired, he told me that I should stop thinking of writing poetry.
It doesn't sell anyway. I should write things that sell. Short stories, may be. Or long stories or columns. Columns are the most paid.
When he spoke about the need to get someone to support him, it is only with some guilty conscience that I could scribble verse.
So, I gave up poetry. Poetry died within me because I cannot think without feeling guilty that I am wasting time, and it's not going to help my husband.
Didn't you feel sad?
Yes, I felt sad. I do feel sad. Almost every year, I am invited to some place or the other in the world.
And when I go abroad, I realize that I am accepted there only because I am a poet. Then I feel I should strengthen my poetry. But financially I was very weak.
But your husband worked in very high positions inside India and also outside. He might have had a very good salary.
We never could save (money). Probably because he had the wrong kind of wife. I believe in giving away gifts and money to people who are in need.
So I never could keep any money. I never could become rich; may be I was not good enough or clever enough.
'I don't think any genius can survive caught in the machine of formal education'
Have you written any poems recently?
When I was in Canada six months ago, my hostess gave me a study, plenty of paper, a Dictaphone and asked me to do some work at night.
Then I wrote 23 poems for her! I was staying in a country home in Quebec and it helped.
I felt happy and relieved. I felt the way was cleared and I could go back to poetry. Coming back to India, again no time at all. Poetry got shelved again.
Do you feel like going somewhere like that to write poetry?
Yes, I do, I do. If someone's there to fund my holiday! I would come back with a book of poems.
But do you think there is anyone who considers my poetry to be worth such a fund? I have no idea at all.
You have had very little formal education. But your poems are being taught in various universities all over the world. Do you sometimes feel amused about it?
I feel amused, blissful. I feel if I had completed my education, if I had gone to university to learn and not to each as I am doing now, I would have been an excellent professor of English! That's all.
This way, it's soothing to find my verse being taught. So when I go to universities, I go to lecture on poetry.
And I am picking up an honorary D Lit here and there (laughs). That's also very good.
Anyway, I didn't cost my parents any money. I think this is more satisfactory than any formal education.
I feel formal education here makes mediocrity's out of everybody. I don't think any genius can survive caught in the machine of formal education.
It works like a bulldozer with which everybody is brought to a low level. They won't tolerate brilliance, they won't tolerate independent thinking.
I don't believe that one can be a pundit, great scholar, by digesting what other scholars have written. I think we must find our own conclusions from our experiences.
Did you feel the same as a child also?
As a child, of course I wasn't very happy in school because I could not manage mathematics.
That became quite a hell for me. I was good in English, History.. Now I wouldn't dream of visiting any school.
When colleges and universities call me, I go and lecture but when schools call me I shy off. I am still afraid of math’s teachers! They haunt me, they frighten me.
How do the students of those universities where you go to lecture receive you? What kind of questions do they ask?
I don't know what they expect to find in me. They certainly find me refreshing. Probably they have had all these scholars visiting them.
Fortunately, I am quite different because I don't do much reading. After I think, Rachal Crompton and Louisa Alcott, I stopped reading.
So I was not influenced by the big minds. When you present something to the readers, you are not going to complete it. Every perfect piece is incomplete because it is for the readers to complete it.
I leave certain gaps deliberately so that the reader will fill the gaps with his or her experience and make something perfect out of it.
So, you feel lack of formal education has helped you in many ways.
I am sure. For my kind of writing, it certainly has been helpful. Well, I see some scholars getting awards, being honored because they have quoted from scholarly works.
I don't like to write such books. I have always been short sighted. I have weak eyes. I feel am a little more interesting than most of the people they write about.
So, it is enough for me to delve into myself and come out with some conclusions, some judgement, some revelation. And I surprise myself. I do, sometimes. That is why I don't feel my age.
I don't do things that are expected of an old woman. My neighbors wonder why I don't go to the temple in the mornings and smear my forehead with sandal paste.
It is not that I don't have devotion to God. My faceless God will not reside in one place alone.
'They are not willing to accept the fact that a Hindu woman can be unconventional'
Do you believe in God?
Of course, I do.
In what form?
I believe that God is there is a very cell of my body, your body, every cell of this world. Some kind of power, that is how I think of God. That God is good enough for me.
I don't need Gods trapped in mausoleums, temples, churches, mosques. I don't need such Gods who can be imprisoned.
You are quite unconventional in your writings, lifestyle and opinions. May be because of that, you created a lot of controversies too. Do you enjoy being a controversial figure?
No, I don't enjoy it at all. I suffer from such controversies. It don't know the mind of society so well so, sometimes I astonish them by my frankness and they are not willing to accept the fact that a Hindu woman could be unconventional and not-so-traditional.
Probably because I have some courage to be what I am, and I don't see my faults as faults -- I see them as characteristics; strengths too. Why not, if you realize that you are only a human being.
You have spent most of your life in Calcutta and Bombay. How was it like moving from Bombay to Kerala after your husband's retirement?
It was really a disappointment for me. But my husband insisted on coming back. His argument was that we had to be cremated in the southern compound, like any traditional Nair.
He said, let's go back to the place where we are going to be cremated ultimately. But I didn't want cremation to take place so soon.
At first I tried to make friends with the so-called intellectuals of the state. And I felt, well, I was accepted, I was one of them although I was a divergent intellectual by nature.
But later on I began to realize that they did not have strong bonds of affection. They were not capable of loving the way the common, ordinary person can.
Then I began to write a column in a very popular weekly, Malayali Manorama, and the intellectuals came to me and said, don't stoop so low, please don't write for such a magazine. Yet, I went on writing.
And I realized that my world was growing. Because now whenever I step out of the house, the shop man, the autorickshaw man, everyone would come forward and say, 'Amma, do you want me to help you?
Do you want tea? May I bring a chair?' So, I feel I am picking up sons and daughters wherever I go. It delights me. I never could have expected such a warm reception from the intellectuals.
These people have accepted me and professed to love me. That was my idea when I started to write, I wanted to be loved. That is my prime motive. Now I am successful. I am love, I am called Amma, my world is growing.
When I went to Houston for a public reception, the young people came up to the stage one by one and kissed me. Well, they are all my sons and daughters. I felt very strong. This is what I wanted to be. To be loved, that's come quite late in my life. But it has come all the same.
Didn't you feel loved when you were young?
Not enough, really. That's why I leapt into several relationships which were not very correct, probably hoping to be loved.
Because there was this capacity in me to love, to envelop something with love, and there wasn't anyone strong enough to reciprocate adequately. Now I feel this is the best phase of my life.
It is unbelievable, it is like waking at four o'clock or so and suddenly finding the sky getting brighter: a new dawn. Unexpectedly, in the afternoon! I never expected this kind of glory.
Emotional repose. I am very lucky. For an Indian to be so lucky in her sixty fourth year, I think, is incredible. I have no complaints.
You mentioned about relationships. You wrote so many beautiful poems, great stories and articles, but people still talk about that one book you wrote, My Story. Does it sadden you?
No. It brought lots of money, and it helped my husband. It brought in a lot of money for my children. I don't have any qualms of conscience.
I have read that you wrote My Story when you were not well, and you needed money for treatment and you didn't expect to get well....
That is true. I wasn't well. But it was his idea that I give it to a publisher who was at the hospital, bargaining for it. I don't have any regrets.
The only person who should have complained was my husband, but if he hadn't asked me, I wouldn't have done that.
That is the reason why my marriage stayed stable and became a great success ultimately. I would do what he wanted me to do.
In that book you have written about several relationships that you have had. Were they figments of your imagination, just a fantasy, or real?
Not really (fantasy), Shobha. I was a very attractive young woman. And I don't blame the men who fell for me. I enjoyed it. That was the season for loving and I was young.
'I have not glorified lust
Was your husband jealous of all the attention you got?
Not at all. As long as I went out with an umbrella when it rained. I used to get headaches walking in the sun so he asked my escort to carry a sunshade or tell them, see, she doesn't walk in the sun. That's all.
He was much older, and he felt that I should move about with people of my age. He was very understanding about it.
He didn't want to go to the theatre or for a drive, so he would choose a very harmless looking young man and ask him to take me out.
No complications. It was not as if I was leading a wicked life. If I went out, I went out with my children too. We all had a good time.
Now Shobha De writes about sex and nobody criticizes her. When you wrote about love...
Shobha De is different. Shobha De writes what probably she enjoys. I may have written about love affairs, but I have not glorified lust. There was nothing obscene about love.
My love was fashioned after the love of Radha and Krishna. There is something very beautiful about love. I cannot think of it as something horrible.
Then, why is it that people got shocked when you wrote, My Story?
No, they did not get shocked. They pretended to get shocked. That is to prove to others that they are innocent, that they have never stepped out of the confines of their sacred marriage. Nobody got shocked. These things have been happening for years and years.
I come from a feudal background. I know how men go around at night and walk into the houses of the very poor and ravish the daughters of the poor. If they became pregnant, they were drowned.
All these things have happened, and we are aware of that. But this happens only at night. I have never killed anybody, never hated anyone. I always wanted love, and if you don't get it within your home, you stray a little.
I have read that you first son was born when you were just sixteen and you grew up with your first two sons. How was it like growing up with your sons?
I was mature enough to be a mother only when my third son was born. Otherwise we were like friends, we must have quarreled a little.
You know, when they wanted a new dress, I also wanted a new dress and the three of us would go to father. That was how we grew up.
A woman performs various roles in her life, mainly for the sake of her husband and children, most of the time forgetting about her own identity. In your case too, you wrote at night after all the work was done for the family. Don't you feel a woman experiences a kind of vacuum in the end? Or, do you think men too feel the same?
Men also should be feeling the same, but then I don't think they can adore children the way mothers can adore.
We have an unbroken conceptual chord, so all the time we are in touch with our sons. It is like the bond between you and your creator.
Of course, there is a vacuum. But you try to fill it up with painting or some occupation.
A working woman can manage what I want. Then I went back again to writing. Now I can't paint because my grandchild comes and dips her hands in paint.
Do you miss the presence of a daughter in your life?
I don't know. Frankly; because I never had a daughter. I do miss having a woman around the place.
Sometimes I wish I had a daughter, but then I don't know being a very possessive person I would have felt jealous of the daughter.
Because maybe her husband would have concentrated upon her, and I would have lost the first daughter role which I had played for years successfully.
I was a daughter too to him. I wouldn't have liked someone to come and use up my place.
You lived with your husband for many years, and he might have become a habit for you. Do you miss him now?
I miss him terribly. I miss seeing him in the hall. He would be in white, and I miss that white blur.
Because I open the gate and walk in, I could see that white, like a white smudge upon the canvas, a tired aging man.
He was sickly for three and a half years before he died. And yet his presence used to delight me.
The fact that I could go back to him and that he would welcome me. So from every foreign trip I would go back anticipating his welcome.
There was always such happiness on his face seeing me. I don't think any individual has shown so much of happiness on seeing me. I am grateful to him.
He was everything to me. He was father, brother, husband so they say, friend. Another point was he didn't care what I wrote really. He did not even read it. It was not consciously done.
He disliked reading poetry. But he accepted my poetry. She's a great writer, she's a great poet, he would tell people, almost embarrassing me. But he was very proud of me.
That is why I lost someone who was very proud of me. There shall not be another person so proud of me and my achievements. There was only one.
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