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Kamala Das was a renowned Indian poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and memoirist. She was also known as Madhavikutty, the pseudonym she used when writing in the Malayalam language. 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 into a literary family in Kerala. Das was home-schooled and most of her education came through extensive reading. 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, memoir) and languages (English and Malayalam). "I speak three languages, write in two, dream in one," she wrote in ďAn Introduction,Ē 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. IN MY STORY (1976), she recounted the trials of her marriage and her painful self-awakening as a woman and writer. She became an icon for women, in India and elsewhere, struggling to liberate themselves from sexual and domestic oppression. Das's rebellions were more multidimensional than she was given credit for. Her female protagonists were not simply in pursuit of sexual freedom, they were in search of poetry, intimacy and divinity. A prolific writer, Das wrote more than twenty books. These include several collections of short stories and poems as well as six novels and three memoirs. In her later years, she also wrote a syndicated newspaper column, in which she held forth with typical candor. Her topics ranged from religion to politics to the beauty secrets of Nair women. In the 1980s she dabbled in painting and politics. While she attained some acclaim as an artist, her political career did not take off. She stood unsuccessfully for the Indian parliament in 1984 and later launched a short-lived political party, Lok Seva (public service). One of her final acts of reinvention was her conversion to Islam in 1999, a move especially bold because of her aristocratic Nair lineage. Ten years later, she was laid to rest in the mosque where she had taken her vows.
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- by Kamala Das


I donít know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Donít write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, donít
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.
When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully.
Then Ö I wore a shirt and my
Brotherís trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Donít sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Donít play pretending games.
Donít play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Donít cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love Ö I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants. a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him Ö the hungry haste
Of rivers, in meÖ the oceansí tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I
In this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.


Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind,
Old fat spider, weaving webs of bewilderment,
Be kind. You turn me into a bird of stone, a granite
Dove, you build round me a shabby room,
And stroke my pitted face absent-mindedly while
You read. With loud talk you bruise my pre-morning sleep,
You stick a finger into my dreaming eye. And
Yet, on daydreams, strong men cast their shadows, they sink
Like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood,
Secretly flow the drains beneath sacred cities.
When you leave, I drive my blue battered car
Along the bluer sea. I run up the forty
Noisy steps to knock at anotherís door.
Though peep-holes, the neighbours watch,
they watch me come
And go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,
And sleeps. Ask me why life is short and love is
Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its priceÖ.