Rise and fall of Kamala Das

Master of words

Rise and fall of Kamala Das

Her life has been written, talked and gossiped about, there’s nothing left to be said. She was so much in the picture that even when she left it, people thought what remained was she. It was a complicated life. Young poets prayed they could live, write and be noticed like her, but when they saw the price she paid, the price of pain, they backed away into their known shadows of comfort, knowing that sunshine burns.

Visibility can hurt. Filmstars are proved that again and again. Kamala Das lived a life of visibility. If she slipped now and then into the shadows, she made sure she returned with a vengeance. While a poet’s vision is made from bright dreams wrought in dark corners, the poet’s ambition sees those dreams changing the world, and the world changing and charging his life. We now live in such times. But she’d always lived ahead. This poet was a creature of memory and mood, of dissatisfaction and desire, a poet uncomfortable with her times. Which is perhaps why she had to prove herself again and again.

Later, when she lay in bed, unable to move, unable to express herself as well as she wanted to, disgusted with her pain, she looked around and found plenty of practical help — relatives, admirers and old friends willing to empathise — but nothing that would explain her suffering, no response in any of those faces that would show her the reasons for life’s failures.

I spoke to people who’d visited her then. She’d been crabby, angry, dissatisfied, she remembered old moments with love and longing, she blamed other people, including relatives and politicians, she was reluctant to let visitors leave, she was restless and didn’t seem to know where she was going. She was suffused with memory.

Seated under a tree in her matriarchal ancestral home, aglow with culture and the soft brush of free-flowing nature, what else could she have grown into? Poets are born, and die every day, in such surroundings. With the rich lineage of wisdom and poesy, with the provocations of a simple, heart-warming daily routine, she grew as a poet because she was nurtured. She wrote because that primeval provocation made her spirit restless and she wanted release; words are the anchor you throw deep into the womb of the earth to register your presence and your prescience, your preoccupation with the world around you.

Kamala Das certainly grew. There was a mother, lover, wife, wandering woman within her, and they all became startling presences in her poetry. When she faced the world with her verse, the world demanded more. Or so she thought! She poured out her story in painful fits, an outpouring of yearning and loss, of discovery and disillusionment, an epic offering of a life sustained, yet disdained; so stark was her perception of a wolfish world with its wily whispers relentlessly shadowing her free spirit that lines soon dissolved; even the hope in her poetry couldn’t resuscitate her life.

And life mirrored her deepest anxieties. Now that she’d invited the world into her boudoir, the world took over. It lauded her, rushed her into a futile queue to receive the Nobel Prize, squeezed her into lists of eminent world poets, compared her; bared, squared and quartered her. For she did, didn’t she, belong to the world. It was her fault, it was she who’d invited the world into her boudoir!

Now, with this active engagement with the world at large (and not just the enjoyers of her poetry), she lunged and sparred, defending herself by growing larger than her own life, becoming master of the dramatic moment, even taking offence before it came. There was soon observed a dichotomy, a divide between the sensitive, sharp-eyed, forever yearning woman of the poems and the sharp-tongued woman of the world. Like a schoolboy running home to his mother from a fierce and painful fight, then returning next day with renewed spirit, Kamala Das engaged stridently with the world, returning to her poetry again and again to lick her wounds and seek succour.

Religion is often our strongest crutch. She wrenched out a part of herself that had coloured her poems and nourished her soul, replacing one God with another, trying to replace one faith with another, and ending up with deep regret that stunned those who met her in her dying years. She was broken by her own decisions as much as by the surveillance of the world. She stumbled into politics and then shuddered out, not humbled, but struck by its meanness. She had sought affection, recognition and a place in the sun, and was burnt almost beyond recognition.

The sensitive poet surfaced without her bearings. The last, lost years of her life were spent in pain, perhaps dreaming of transporting herself and her poetry to a more favourable place.

Kamala Das died a year ago. Let’s pray she’s happier where she is, and still creating poetry.
(The writer is the author of ‘Maria’s Room’)

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