Born into a humble middle-class family to a father who was an editor of a leading newspaper and a poetess mother, Kamala Madhavikutty, took the literature world in India and the world by storm in the 1960’s. Kamala gained quite a reputation for not just her extremely personal poems but her open-minded and straight-forward nature.
She is the recipient of several prizes and awards: the P. E. N. Asian Poetry Prize, Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for fiction, Asian World Prize for literature, Kendra Sahitya Academy Award etc. She was short listed for the Nobel Prize along with Marguerite Yourcenar, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer.
Her poetical collection includes: Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), Collected Poems I (1984), The Best of Kamala Das (1991) and Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996).
Kamala Das’s English poetry has been published in Europe in French, German, Swedish, and Serb-Croat translations. She “wrote chiefly of love, its betrayal, and the consequent anguish, and Indian readers . . . responded sympathetically to her guileless, guiltless frankness with regard to sexual matters.”
Married at a young age of 15 and encouraged by her husband to continue writing, Kamala would write away in the night after her family went to sleep. Her poetry was aggressively individualistic. She wrote about sexuality and longing in a way that was never written before by Indo-Asian women authors, drawing comparisons to the likes of Sylvia Plath.
By discussing her private feelings of love, lust and discussing sexuality through her poems, she invited the public into the private miseries of her experiences. There is a spirit of rebellion in her poems and it is seen as much in her introduction of herself :
“I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages,
Write in two, Dream in one.”
Her erotic poems expressed the deep-rooted need to be loved, to be fulfilled emotionally and sexually. It earned her the sobriquet ‘The Queen of Erotica’. Through her poetry she confessed of just being physically in love with her husband while not being satisfied emotionally or spiritually. Despite such personal poetry of hers being published, her husband continued to remain her biggest supporter.
Kamala’s poetry in itself was a reflection of her life, the way she saw it and experienced it. She was fascinated by love and to her it meant being honest. In her poem, ‘The Looking Glass’, she urges woman to give the man she loves, everything that makes her a woman.
“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.”
This honesty in expressing things which the society considered taboo earned her a lot of criticism and appreciation alike. She has been labeled a ‘Femme Fatale’ who consistently delves into love, sex and loneliness.
“……….I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?”
In her later years, after her husband’s death she shocked everyone when she converted to Islam and became a Muslim. She changed her name to Kamala Surayya and continued writing and dabbling in politics as well. She passed away in 2009 leaving behind quite a legacy for being bold and unafraid.