Kamala Surayya aka Kamala Das, who died in a Pune nursing home early on Sunday morning at the age of 75, loved to shock. The sexually explicit passages in some of her writings. the outrageous comments she sometimes made to interviewers, as well as some of her provocative actions – like her conversion to Islam in 1999 – alienated many.But those who absorbed the shocks and managed to look beyond them all agreed that she was also an extraordinarily gifted writer, whose work stands at the forefront of Indian literature in two languages – English and Malayalam. Her poetry, mostly in English, has been compared to the likes of Sylvia Plath; her prose fiction, mostly in Malayalam to M.T. Vasudevan Nair and other greats.
Born into a literary family – her mother Balamani Amma and an uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon were both leading Malayali poets – Das began writing only after an early marriage, to cope, by her own admission, with the emotional strain she was undergoing. A recurring theme of her early poetry is of women abandoning their identity once they come under the influence of men:
Until I found you
I wrote verse, drew pictures,
And went out with friends
Now that I love you,
Curled like an old mongrel,
My life lies content in you.
Her poems were unsettling enough, but it was her 1976 autobiography My Story that made her notorious. Not only did it openly discuss her far from satisfactory sex life with her husband — Madhava Das, a senior Reserve Bank of India official — it also dwelt upon her relationships with, and feelings for, other men. It was translated into 15 languages and serialized widely.
At the same time she was also writing, under the pseudonym of Madhavikutty, a host of poignant, sensitive short stories in Malayalam and a few novels. The themes were similar to those of her poems, though their treatment was somewhat more subtle.
She won a number of literary awards, including a few international ones. Das’s sudden conversion to Islam, at the ripe age of 65, once again shocked many. “Purdah provides a great deal of liberty, and you feel well protected within it,” she proclaimed then. But later she seemed to have second thoughts.
In an interview to Hindustan Times five years ago, she candidly admitted that conversion had been a mistake. “I converted to end my solitary life,” she told this correspondent. “I expected a lot of love. But I was disappointed.”
She retracted her statement in writing soon after the interview appeared in print. But in 2007, when the celebrated Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen called on her, she repeated the same words.