The heat sentences you to the darkest room, the air soggy with a salty tang, alternating between the scent of sweat and ripened summer fruits. Such afternoons, I’d argue, is the best time to revisit Kamala Das. I fumble across rooms, resuscitating from cobwebs, her oeuvre. When did she move away from the ‘happening city’ that’s my writing table and retire to the suburban nooks of bookshelves?
Years have passed since we grew apart but the imagery she summoned in my teenage mind stays vivid. Until I found you, I wrote verse, drew pictures. Now that I love you, Curled like an old mongrel My life lies, content, In you. Why is love for another human being and love for oneself pitted against one another to a point of torment even for the greatest minds?
A sense of discomfort prevails in these sweltering afternoons, discomfort which is also characteristic of her writing. Her Radha longs to melt in Krishna. Your body is my prison /I cannot see beyond it/Your love words shut out the wise world’s din. Would I be a hack if I pretend to not relate to the giddiness of being blindly in love? Would I cringe if I read this poem unhinged from its timeline? The lapse between Das’s time and ours is almost a sliver, the time taken for a strand of hair to grey, for a mango sapling to bear fruit of its own, yet in my mind she seemed dated. As someone who was also uprooted from a metropolis, she helped me understand the landscape of being lost and taught me the language of being an outsider. We were inseparable; I read her on crowded public buses, secretly during class, even took her to friend’s houses. “You are too young to read Madhavikutty,” my friend’s mother said, picking up the book from their table with a dramatic urgency and stuffing it back into my bag. As if the mere mug-shot of this wavy-haired woman possessed enough voodoo to corrupt her 14-yearold cherubic daughter who, unknown to her mother, was already caught in a school-time puerile love triangle.
I pause midway through the chapter where she watches the house-help stain the walls red during an attempted self-abortion. Her stories pass through me physically like the weather, it made me moody through the evenings, irritable even. I look up this long-forgotten classmate on Instagram. There she was, with a new last name, a toddler in one hand and a picture book in the other. I go back to my feed and look at it as a third person; books, cats, and a vacant chair that filled in for my absent partner. Her mother would blame it on my choice of books. I wonder if my mother would now nod along, and regret being cool.
Stand nude before the glass with him So that he sees himself the stronger one|Gift him what makes you woman, the musk of sweat between the breasts, The warm shock of menstrual blood. The worst thing a child can pick up from reading Kamala Das is not how to satisfy a man, rather, it is the destructive idea that love is devotion. As if our mothers hadn’t done a great job of it already.
It is impossible to imagine today how difficult it must have been for her to critique marriage and use the word ‘rape’ to describe her wedding night. Frankly, the affairs bother me even more. It was not to gather knowledge of yet another man that I came to you, but every Lesson you gave was about yourself. As a woman of 30, I want to extend advice; Oh Kamala, stop being attracted to men with the sad aura of a king in exile and please don’t take on lovers who don’t have the capacity to love, just so that you can fill up what they don’t say with what you wish they would. If she could talk back, believe me she’d have a few retorts for me. Half way through her short story, Little Kitten, I remember another girl, a classmate from college, a merit student who, a lot us remember best for being slapped by her boyfriend in the middle of the bustling cafeteria, for what I can recollect was not adjusting her dupatta. I don’t have it in me to google her up, but I fear they did end up together. Rage, might be misdirected, for he too is capable of change.
In an ideal world, women wouldn’t be judged for who they loved, or for how long. Let’s put the blame of irrational choices on our genes or pheromones or evolutionary science, all of which probe us to sometimes fall for douchebags. Sarah Pascoe, has a wonderfully entertaining book about this. When the drama disintegrates Kamala suddenly appears frail, almost ordinary. It takes me sometime to realise that every story takes me to another woman I once knew. She serves up all kinds of women; rebels, conservatives, schizophrenics, forsaken, unloved, prostitutes, wronged, and the sick who from their hospital beds continue to apply red lipstick and pine for love. “I am a million, million people/talking all at once, with voices/raised in clamour/I am a million, million silences strung like crystal beads/onto someone else’s song.”
Sometimes I think how much easier kids have it today, they see examples every day of women who stand up for themselves and their tribe. They know they do not need to see a man as a door into a better life. Although I sometimes don the Jessa Crispin hat, and wonder if social media/ performative feminism can really penetrate deeper and help deal with trickle-down misogyny. It still makes me glad that young girls, perhaps privileged, don’t shy from adding feminist in their character-limited bios. Roxanne Gay echoes the worries of a generation when she writes, “The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human individuality”. But Kamala was ahead of her times in detaching the militant perfection that is often associated with being a feminist. With her confessional vein, she didn’t just normalize taboos, she taught us that it was okay to be confused and unfiltered, that feminism is pluralistic.
As a woman bordering on a ‘viable dieable’ age, I can see what my teenage Hollywood meet-cute bred younger self couldn’t grasp. Sure, her Radha wants to melt into Krishna but she is also planning a jailbreak. “As the convict studies/his prisons geography/I study the trappings/of your body, dear love/for, I must someday find an escape from its snare.”
The wind nudges the window shut and darkness devours all that’s written, making me move to the verandah that is weighed down by the anticipation of a summer shower. “Feminism tastes like soggy cardboard. I am bored of it all”, she wrote in her last days. Yet we can’t help but worship her because we have all bloomed in the light of her courage. Before we learnt the syllables, or gathered experiences and courage to tell our story, she wrote for all of us an anthem.
This is part of a series on feminism and its discontents
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE