Woman who wrote of passion and created a stir Poet, painter and politician

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 1.06.09

Kamala Suraiya, also known as Kamala Das and whose poems of love and longing opened a bold new chapter in women’s writing in India, was a path-breaker.

She died of pneumonia and complications from chronic diabetes at a hospital in Pune early on Sunday. She was 75 and is survived by three sons.

Madhavi Kutty, as she was known in Kerala, will be laid to rest at the Jamaath cemetery here with full state honours on Tuesday.

Kamala Das lived controversially. Her autobiography My Story — though she later admitted it was more a work of fiction — shook the conservative Indian mind when it was published in 1976. It brought to the surface suppressed passions and emotions, telling a puritanical world how a woman felt about herself and the rest of society.

Her uncanny honesty extended to her exploration of womanhood. “I always wanted love,” she said, “and if you don’t get it within your home, you stray a little.”

She could look at the world like an innocent child and comment on it unfettered, says women’s rights activist Sara Joseph, who grows a temple plant on her premises out of love for the poet.

The title of Kamala Das’s memoirs, Neermathalam Pootha Kalam, translates into “When the temple plant bloomed”.

Her first book of poems, Summer in Calcutta, reminisces about her childhood days in the city where her father V.M. Nair was employed.

Kamala Das, whose ancestral home was at Punnaryurkulam in Thrissur, was privately educated until the age of 15 when she got married to K. Madhava Das, an RBI official 15 years her senior.

She was 16 when her first son was born. She later said she “was mature enough to be a mother only when my third child was born”.

Given their age difference, her husband often played a fatherly role. Even when controversy swirled around her works and her autobiography, her husband was “very proud” of her. There “shall not be another person so proud of me and my achievements”, she once said.

She, however, “never tried to identify” herself with any particular version of feminist activism, though some might label her a “feminist” for her candour in dealing with women’s needs and desires.

Winner of several national and international awards — like the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Asian Poetry Prize and Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries — Kamala Das switched to short stories and novels because, as she said, poems had little market in India.

“I am an admirer of Kamala Das. I have never known her personally, but she has won the hearts of many Indians through her poetry,” said author Sunil Gangopadhyay.

“She is a well-known poet abroad too. And that’s because she wrote in English. Hers is pure poetry. She wrote about women and their issues,” he added.

In December 1999, Kamala Das converted to Islam, creating a furore. She also floated a political party, Lok Seva, contested elections but lost.

“I wanted to fill my life with as many experiences as I could manage to garner because I do not believe that one can get born again,” she once said.

She was also a painter and many of her works fetched high prices at exhibitions.

Education minister M.A. Baby said arrangements were being made to bring her body to Thiruvananthapuram. The minister has left for Pune to oversee the arrangements.

Two years ago, when she shifted to Pune to be with her youngest son Jayasurya, she had teased her fans into believing that she wanted to breathe some fresh air as Kochi, her home for nearly 17 years, had begun to choke her.

But she was being practical. She knew she couldn’t live alone in her flat at Kochi.