Controversy followed her about like her pet poodle, yet, she couldn’t do without creating it, sometimes almost consciously. Kamala Das is one of the greatest poets of the century; but it is her autobiographical sketches in ‘My Story’ that shot her into the limelight in the literary arena. Its outspokenness and frank portrayal of extra-marital relations led on to the book becoming a cult classic. Since then this book has been known widely and read for all the wrong reasons.
Kamala is believed to have portrayed her own life in My Story. The story thread is that of a young woman writer who is much younger than her highly-placed husband; not much educated formally but with such a literary background that the formal education ceases to matter. The protagonist exposes her bored life and the very physical affairs she has with men outside the marriage, and how she is disillusioned with the male gender in general. This is the first book in India which speaks so openly of the sexual desires of the average Indian woman, the subject which is always hastily swept under the carpet even now.
The story is undeniably close to her life, except for the confession part on the extra marital affairs which could be or could not be the truth. The book first came out serialized in a popular Malayalam weekly and created shock waves across the prudish Malayali community; especially since her family is a much respected one. Her father, who was one of the most influential people in Kerala, and the owner of a prominent newspaper even tried to stop the publication, but her publisher knew the value of what he was on to. He continued with the piece and a cult classic was born.
My Story was banned at most homes, and decent men asked their women folk not to read it for fear of it being read astray. It was therefore read secretly by many women, with a stupendous frenzy, and eagerly awaited each week. The serial was soon compiled into a book in Malayalam and then rewritten in English with a few more chapters thrown in. The book was eagerly awaited and even more successful in English. It has been read eagerly ever since its first edition in 1977.
Kamala Das went on to be a loved and admired poet with a huge fan following across the globe with her poems in English, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1984. In spite of her admittedly limited vocabulary in Malayalam, she became the darling of the highly critical Malayali readers with her excellently crafted stories in Malayalam, written under the name Madhavikutty. She lived in Kerala in those days and was a popular invitee on all literary and non-literary stages. And during one of these days, she denied My Story saying that it was fiction and all imagination. She has since played hide and seek with the nature of the book, sometimes claiming it as a figment of imagination having been written purely for money, other times admitting it as a real auto biography.
Still My Story has been never forgotten even when she courted controversy time and again with words and actions including converting to Islam and taking on a new pen name, Kamala Suraiyya. Her intense romance with religion and her deteriorating health never took away the physical quality of her writing.
Kamala passed away in 2009 and the so called autobiography is still on the shelves and reading this after so many years, makes one wonder at her boldness in a time when taboos were the norm. The book still reads well and is a work to cherish, not for the literary quality but for the feminine strength it exudes.