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Book Review: My Story by Kamala Das- an intense autobiographical account

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Anushri Mondal:

An autobiographical account (as the title of the book suggests) of a rebel woman etched out in black, on a little more than 200 pages. The entire account written in the format of a novel is captivating with all the intimate details of her childhood followed by her youth and middle age. Born with skin not so fair–a dusky complexion to be precise, Kamala portrays herself as an inquisitive child who faced the triggers of race especially when India was gripped by the British imperialists. Brought up in convent schools Kamala faced discrimination at an early age when the word “racism” probably did not enter her vocabulary. Struggling through her life amidst the parochial, patriarchal society, Kamala had to submit when she had to marry an almost brutal man against her wish, that too, at the tender age of sixteen. Almost molested and raped by this insensitive man in the name of a husband, Kamala makes an attempt to find happiness in the world of her own–the world inhabited by the muses of literature enabling her in poetic and prosaic compositions. It will be wrong to say that she found bliss only in the world of creation. This is because, frustrated and exasperated by husband’s treatment and doomed in an unhappy marital bond, Kamala determines herself not to be tied up by the established norms of a‘pativrata naari’(a women devoted solely to one’s husband) and makes every attempt to respond to the charms bestowed upon her by other men. In this manner, she is shown to have a string of short and long term relationships, perhaps in own her way of being the rebel in a society of the late 20th century when traditionalism was the established norm and rebellion, that too among women, was considered a taboo. The scenario has remained almost the same in the present day to a large extent. Such acts reflect the spirit of boldness and a complete disrespect for the societal norms.

Nevertheless, her life meanders through several cities from metropolitan Delhi to the ancestral Nalapat house in Kerala.

The novel also predominates with the metaphor of disease and sickness that she herself undergoes, along with her eldest who seem to be a chronic patient, falling prey to the tentacles of grave diseases fearing impending death but miraculously surviving with care and treatment. The symbols of illness is a portrayal of aberration in her life–a life that is devoid of peace and tranquility, a life that is forever rocking in the sea of turbulence, seeking an anchor but finding none, strives to stay afloat in those disturbed waters of turmoil and trepidation.

The novel comprising of 50 chapters, consist of self composed poems expressing the core of meaningfulness or meaninglessness pervading her life at large. The poems occurs in the last 13 chapters (from chapter 27 onwards) when her life becomes preoccupied with greater responsibilities and when she starts fearing the presence of the Spiritual power controlling all our lives, the power whom we are unable to fight with our meager human prowess. Other than the relationship with her husband at home with whom she starts inhabiting from an early age, her relationship with her great grandmother is given prominence. For her, the figure of the great grandmother is portrayed as a silent listener who listened to her disturbed soul without any interruptions as she was unable to move under the burden of perpetual paralysis that confined her to the bed. But such a lack of response didn’t prevent her to develop an intimate relationship. This was precisely the reason that helped in nurturing the relationship in a way she wanted. The old lady due to her paralyzed state was the only one whom she could trust and open her heart out without the fear of being punished for her actions.

To conclude it all, it is doubtful, as all autobiographies are, whether in some way or the other, the entire account is genuine or there are parts of fabricated episodes as well. Without making much conjectures about the authenticity of the events, it will be more advisable to take up the book from the bookshelf and puruse the pages for an interesting read.

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  1. suresh

    kamala das my story is not a real autobiography.it is a fabricated story like basheer”s mathilukal.she described this story from her own family atmosphere.some facts might be added.but all things are not true.any how she was a bold lady.

  2. Rita Banerji

    Anushri, In her later interviews she said part of it was based on other people’s stories. But that could also have been a defense. I find women in India very hesitant to even verbally speak out now. But strangely it was not like this earlier! In my research on feminism in India, I was astonished by how many women wrote their autobiographies before India’s independence. How badly they were treated as wives, widows, women. Their sexual exploitation and or repression. Powerful protests. But there was a very strange trend. Soon after independence these voices fell silent. Look around, we have every form of violence on women in India — dowry, witch lynchings, killing of infant girls, — women in middle and upper class homes too face immense violence. But no one is writing! In fact in my work with The 50 Million Missing Campaign, I’ve found women from villages and slums are far more likely to want to tell their stories, share their pain. But many of them can’t read and write, or not enough to be able to write. But women in middle and upper class homes are very silent. Before independence it was largely the middle class women, with education who were writing. Check out ‘Women Writing in India.’ in two volumes.

  3. Radhika R Nair

    Yes…….autobiography must be true and in my view,autobiography can publish after the death of author.it will inspirate author for present his life experiences frankly with readers.

  4. Rashmi Varun

    आपके लेख और social site के comments में कितना फ़र्क़ है जहां एक शानदार poet को यह कर abuse किया जा रहा है कि उसने अपने से 32 साल छोटे मुसलमान लड़के से शादी की थी।

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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