Sinner And Saint, Beloved And Betrayed: The ‘Story’ Of A Woman

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By Somrita Urni Ganguly:

Book: My Story
Author: Kamala Das
Autobiography
India: Harper Collins, 2009
232p
Rs. 250 (paperback)

my storyMy Story is the best possible introduction to Kamala Das, the person, the poet, and her poetry, illustrating the subjects and motifs that recur consistently in Kamala Das’s works; illuminating, in an unconventional way, nearly forty years of her controversial life, her loves, lusts and her literature.

The autobiography has been divided into fifty chapters – the short length of each chapter eggs the reader to proceed on to the next, making the book a fast read. A preliminary glance at the contents page will reveal the overwhelming theme of Das’s autobiography – and this is indeed the dominant theme of her entire body of poems: an uninhibited, explicit, brutally frank discourse on love, sex, desires and womanhood. We get a panoramic view of the whole trajectory of My Story from its contents page.

Yet, like the person herself, My Story is not only about sex, love, passion, infidelity and a woman’s cravings, though obviously that also. The author takes the reader by surprise with her sensitive comments on death and poignant observations on old age. Das had lived through the deaths of a number of people she loved and revered. That leads her to a sensitive understanding of old-age and death –

“The old are destined to be dumped like unwanted luggage …
and left to perish. How often I have remembered my sweet
frail great grandmother and prayed to God that I would not
meet with her fate but die early…” (- Chapter 33)

Long philosophical passages are interwoven into the fabric of the book, with factual details ranging from her eldest son’s ill health to her pregnancies, from her first menstrual experience to her turning non-vegetarian. From suffering from chronic depression, to attempting suicide, Kamala Das can eventually in the last chapter of her autobiography proclaim –

“It is just that I have stopped fearing death… I have come to believe
that life is a mere dream and that death is the only reality.”

This is the path traced by Das’s novel – this maturity of a frustrated being into a fearless individual. The book closes with moving passages on Das’s desire to live on vicariously after death, through her “descendants”. Her second anthology of poems was called The Descendants and we realise that though Das refers to her progeny as her descendants quite literally, metaphorically of course, her works will remain her true successors, her real epitaph. Her desire recalls to mind Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ where the poet asserts that there is no man who does not wish to be remembered after death, “nor cast one longing, lingering look behind.”

Das uses the platform of this autobiography to talk to her readers about her intellectual curiosities, her poetry, and her relationship with her readers. As a child, Das writes, all her poems made her cry; she wrote about “dolls that had lost their heads and would have to remain headless for eternity.” Das was genetically endowed with a gift for poetry. She had a strong literary background. Her grand uncle was the famous poet-philosopher, Narayana Menon. Her mother, Balamani Amma, composed in her mother-tongue, Malayalam. Her father, V. M. Nair in his later years turned to journalism and became the Managing Director of one of the oldest Malayali dailies, Mathrubhumi. However from her account it appears that the young Kamala was most influenced by the works of her great grandmother’s younger sister, Ammalu. Kamala was disturbed by the writings of this poet. She confides in her readers –

“I read her verses only thirty years after she died… Most of the poems
were about KRISHNA…” (- Chapter 5)

There is a curious echo of Ammalu’s works in Das’s own poems. After her failed marriage and futile attempts to search for love, Das turned to Krishna and he appears in her poems mostly as a lover as in the Bhakti tradition, but also, occasionally as her son. One is inclined to wonder whether Das indeed read Ammalu’s works thirty years after the old woman’s death or whether she had set her eyes on them before she started her own compositions; one is struck by the uncanny resemblance between the creations of the two women who worshipped Krishna, the modern day Meera bai.

Das uses a remarkable strategy in her autobiography. Having spoken to her readers of her quest for love in a blisteringly candid tone, she eventually tells them of her return to her ancestral home, the Nalapat House. Her marriage was on the rocks. Her husband either raped her at night or indulged in homoerotic escapades with his friend. She couldn’t divorce him because public opinion was given primary importance in her society; “a broken marriage was as distasteful … as an attack of leprosy”. She couldn’t remarry. She was not qualified enough for any job. She could not opt for a life of prostitution. Her first born was severely ill. The strain was more than she could bear. At the height of this intense climax Das screams out –

“…I was going mad.”
(- Chapter 25)

And then, she found her therapy in poetry. As in tragedies, where after a violent tempest, there comes peace, so too, poetry led to the sensitive, tormented, tortured woman’s catharsis. For the first time in the twenty-fifth chapter in the book, Das writes a poem –

“Wipe out the paints, unmould the clay.
Let nothing remain of that yesterday…”

She sent the poem to the journal of the Indian P.E.N. and thus began her new journey – that of a poet, of a woman striving and succeeding, reasonably, to be heard and understood. Before this moment, in her autobiography, she had only written of poetry, her own amateur ones or that of others; henceforth she writes poems for her readers. Once the dam breaks at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter, Das begins each of the remaining twenty-five chapters of her autobiography, save the last and the twenty-sixth one with a poem. The narrative gains a new momentum after that water-shed moment in her personal life.

Das employs a marvellous narrative mode in her autobiography. The voice of the older narrator, Kamala Das, the celebrated Indian poet, is constantly undercut by the voice of the younger self of this bold persona – the technique is thoroughly effective, as in, for instance Joyce’s ‘Araby’. The voice of the older narrator is juxtaposed with the voice of the young boy in Joyce’s story of adolescent love and quest for ideal beauty. Here too a similar device is used. The voice of the young Kamala takes the reader into its confidence. She confesses of her adolescent infatuations and yearnings with the naiveté of a teenager, looking back at her gullible self sometimes in condemnation, sometimes in amusement -

“Why did he not kiss me? … I asked my friend in school… You
never told him you loved him, she said. It is only when a man
knows that a girl loves him that he kisses her.” (-Chapter 18)

This tone of sheer innocence is reminiscent of Eunice De Souza’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ –

“At sixteen, Phoebe asked me:
Can’t it happen when you’re in a dance hall
I mean, you know …
getting preggers and all that, when
you’re dancing?
I, sixteen, assured her
you could.”

As expected of a noted author, Das gives her readers glimpses of her daily schedule, and talks of her publications. Yet, years after being recognised as one of the leading literary figures of contemporary India, Das retained some of her child-like excitement; her heart thumped on seeing her name in print. She began publishing under a sort of pseudonym – “K. Das” – because she suspected the editor to be prejudiced against women writers. By mentioning this Das universalises the situation, taking us back to the literary history of women’s publications and the rise of women writers. Did not Maryann Evans have to hide under the masculine name of George Eliot? Did not the Bronte sisters have to take refuge under the androgynous names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Austen published anonymously; Ann Radcliffe used the title of Mistress (Mrs.) to divert the male gaze away from her single, unmarried status. Das is a part of that extended tradition.

The autobiography would remain incomplete without the preface. It is here that Das notes why she undertook this activity of chronicling her life. She is unassuming enough to acknowledge that she thought the book, when published, would help to take care of her hospital bills. This modest confession throws open the perennial debate of the commercialisation of art. She adds, later that the book was also a cathartic way of emptying herself of “all the secrets”. The book had cost her heavily. She embarrassed her relatives, disgraced her family. Das is at pains to unmask the hypocrisy of society. She writes, and in no flattering terms, of the Nalapat women and their “conservative, puritanical and orthodox” ways. She is in scathing criticism of her father and his Gandhian ways. After the wedding he had made his wife remove all her gold ornaments from her person and wear austere khaddar clothes. Yet, there was rampant discrimination in his household – a scavenger who came to their house to beg for alms was made to drink tea from an enamel mug which was kept aside for him. The Gandhian man could not quite embrace the pariah. This same man also indulged in extreme opulence when it came to getting his daughter married off, because marriage was the best platform to make an exhibition of one’s wealth. “There was nothing remotely Gandhian about my wedding”, writes the author, foregrounding the irony of the situation.

My Story is not only Kamala Das’s story. It should not merely be treated as a personal chronicle – brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed the book transcends the factual realms of an autobiography to achieve the status of a fascinating literary work. It is the story of every woman attempting to establish her identity and autonomy in a predominantly male, conservative society.

Title borrowed from Das’s poem, ‘An Introduction’.

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10 comments

  1. fascinating write-up urni! m buying the book NOW!literally!
    on a more serious note, i loved the way you situated Das in the extended tradition of 19th century british women writers. i have only a smallish nag abt ur use of the words “genetically endowed” while describing her gift of poetry writing. but once again,this is an extremely minor complaint in an otherwise awsum piece. :)

    • Thankee, mate. I feel so personal about KD that any person that I’m able to convert brings me immense joy! The book won’t disappoint you. And yes, I just wanted to establish that she had a literary background, but I know what you mean about the “genetically endowed” bit! Haha! Have you read her poetry?

      • yes sm of them, in a very stray way, but nt enuf to gv an opinion. :) feel free to suggest n advise.

        • Urni Ganguly

          Start perhaps with her collection ‘The Descendants’. If you read her works chronologically, anthology by anthology, you’ll get an idea of her greater project. But it’s a great idea to read her stuff randomly as well. It’s exciting. It keeps us engaged. Begin also perhaps with ‘An Introduction’ =)

  2. Arindam

    “There was nothing remotely Gandhian about my wedding”! Catharsis. Splendidly well written, Urni Ganguly. The kind of magic that you associate with the elusiveness of Sylvia Plath.

    • Thank you Arindam. And I did not mention Sylvia Plath for deliberate reasons – the connection would be far too obvious. Of course they write the same kind of confessional poetry, and of course they liberater women like us at many levels!

  3. Priya

    i gotta read this book after such a wonderful review..

    • She’s a fascinating woman, Priya – never fails to excite me! And, thank you!

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