Kamla Das: A Confessionary Poet

Kamla Das: A Confessionary Poet

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Kamala Das was a renowned poetess whose work speaks about the timeless passions of femininity. A confessional poet, her writings were far forward to a conservative society yet she took no heed to slow down or stop. She wrote in Malayalam and English. She was born in an affluent family with a history of great writers in Malayalam.

Kamala Das, who died at the age of 75, was a renowned Indian poetess, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and memoirist. She was also known as Madhavikutty, the pseudonym she used when writing in the Malayalam language. Then there was Ami, the pet name with which she referred to herself in her memoirs. Much later in life, she gave herself yet another name, Suraiyya, to mark her conversion to Islam. Straddling many names was one way in which Das straddled multiple identities.

She was born in a literary family. Her mother, Balamani Amma was a well-known Malayalam poet and her great-uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, was a writer and translator. Das was home-schooled and most of her education came through extensive reading. Her childhood was divided between Punnayurkulam, her ancestral village in Kerala, in the south-west, and the north-eastern city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), where her parents lived. This early lesson in dislocation may have inspired many of her literary themes – the vulnerable child-woman trying to create meaning in an inconstant world, nostalgia for a serene, rural past, the unfair privileges of caste and wealth, and the contradictions of motherhood.

In 1949, when she was 15, she married Madhava Das, a bank official. While still in her teens, she started writing and publishing. Along with other poets of her generation, Das was at the forefront of a new movement in Indian English poetry, a shift in focus from the colonial experience to the personal. However, unlike most of her contemporaries, she was actively writing fiction in her mother tongue at the same time. Throughout her writing career, Das would move adroitly between genres (poetry, fiction, and memoir) and languages (English and Malayalam). “I speak three languages, write in two, dream in one,” she wrote in An Introduction, a poem from her first collection Summer in Calcutta (1965).

She began to break taboos with her early poetry, in which she celebrated her sexuality and advised women to “Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of/ Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,/ The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your/ Endless female hungers …” (The Looking Glass, from The Descendants, 1967).

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