Kamala Das was one of the most prominent feminist voices in the postcolonial era. She wrote in her mother tongue Malayalam as well as in English. To her Malayalam readers she was Madhavi Kutty and to her English patrons, she was Kamala Das.
On account of her extensive contribution to the poetry in our country, she earned the label ‘The Mother of Modern Indian English Poetry’. She has also been likened to literary greats like Sylvia Plath because of the confessional style of her writing. On the occasion of her birth anniversary, we look into the remarkable life of this literary icon.
Writing under the pen name, ‘Madhavikutty’, she is one of the foremost short story writers in Malayalam. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, along with literary personalities such as Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Her widely acclaimed stories include Pakshiyude Maranam, Neypayasam, Thanuppu, and Chandana Marangal.
Her first English poetry was ‘The Sirens’, published in 1964, followed by Summer In Calcutta. She received many awards and accolades including Asian Poetry Prize, Kent award for English writing from Asian countries, Asan World Prize, Sahitya Academy award and Vayalar award. She has ventured into the restricted and unclaimed territory and set a point of reference for her colleagues.
Her major works include:
- The Sirens
- Summer In Calcutta
- The Descendants
- The Old Playhouse And Other Poems
- My Story
- Alphabet of Lust
- The Anamalai Poems
- Padmavati The Harlot and Other Stories
- Only The Soul Knows How To Sing
- Ya Allah
- Pakshiyude Manam
- Neermathalam Pootha Kalam
- Madhavikkuttiyude Unmakkadhakal
Born into a conservative Hindu family, Kamala Das converted to Islam at the age of 65. She is now working as a syndicated columnist.
Early Work and the Struggles of a Female Writer
She was married off to Madhava Das, an employee at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) at the age of 15 and moved to Bombay with her husband. At a very young age, she had to find a way to pursue her passion for writing while being weighed down by the expectations of her husband, her family and the society at large of her ‘duties’ as a wife and mother. On being a female writer in that day and age, she said:
“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 until the greying 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, cleaned up the kitchen, I was allowed to sit awake and write till morning. And that affected my health”.
With her poems, she tried to give voice to a generation of women who were confined to their households and considered a commodity to be exchanged through marriage. She portrayed the women in her poems as human; with desires, pain and emotions just like men.