Remembering Kamala Das

Merrily Weisbord Just when we thought the last obituary on Kamala Das had been written, and had listened to the last of her theatrical confessions, here is a new book on her by Merrily Weisbord, a Canadian film maker and writer. Ms Weisbord has based the book on her decade-long friendship with Kamala Das and in a chronological narration that travels through pain, desire, hope and despair, has documented a riveting decade in the life of one of the greatest poets of India.

The Love Queen Of MalabarShe first met Ms Das through her poems and found the verses resonating with a kindred spirit. In a brave moment, Ms Weisbord decided to pursue the connection further and visited Ms Das in Kochi in 1995. Ms Das made a visit to Canada twice, but Ms Weisbord landed at Kochi six times between 1995 and 2005 with the idea of a book on Ms Das. In the process, she got closer to the writer and the woman in Ms Das like no one else. Armed with a tape recorder and an infinite concern for her friend, Ms Weisbord is said to have been entrusted the task of saying it all to the world without reserve, a privilege Ms Das had withheld from almost all her Indian interviewers. The result: a book with an extraordinarily revealing account of Ms Das’ life is titled The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das.

Once confirmed in a relationship that moves from an admirer to friend to sister to biographer, in a near Boswell-Johnson style, Ms Weisbord and Ms Das got to know each other’s worlds very well. While Ms Das worried why Ms Weisbord did not marry her live-in partner of 18 years, Ms Weisbord wondered how Ms Das could claim to have loved her inconsiderate husband. With a solicitous and caring Ms Weisbord as hostess in Canada, Ms Das found her poetry sprouting wings again. Ms Weisbord’s sensitive prose gives us several glimpses of Kamala the human being.

Ms Das’ life trapped in patriarchal hegemony was not extraordinary; what made her narrations different and news-worthy was her excellent prose. The writer extraordinaire in Ms Das knew how to tell a story so that it gets noticed. But Ms Weisbord is a non-Indian and her cultural sensibilities cannot deign to accept the early marriage, the rape-within-marriage or the homosexual husband who later becomes her strongest supporter, as complacently as might the Indian reader. In a vivid contrast, one is shocked by the act, and the other is shocked by the talk about it. Yet, Ms Weisbord takes time out to understand this intriguing woman poet. She gets as near as anyone possibly can; she records Ms Das’ insatiable need for love across the 266 pages of the memoir.

Ms Weisbord also talks repeatedly about Ms Das’ self-confessed celibacy after she reached her early forties. Yet, to the world, she was this celebrated sexual liberator. The author also records that Ms Das had developed a romantic and physical love for a young married Muslim man when she was 65. The consequent unrealised promise of marriage is supposedly the reason for her apostasy; this is dealt with in detail in the book. She later has a serious liaison with another man, a surgeon, and this time it’s Ms Weisbord who warns her against marriage in view of jeopardising her sons’ legal claim to her property.

The book was deliberately withheld from publication till Ms Das’ death by her wish. And now like a replay of the seventies, when the controversial autobiography My Story was published; in The Love Queen of Malabar, Ms Das, in absentia, repeats the shock factor by being explicit about her husband’s homosexuality, among other revelations. The book also deals with how she dealt with her life after apostasy. Hounded by demands for constant public appearances and confused about the decision that she once celebrated with pomp, Ms Das is shown as ill and helpless. The author quotes, “Religion cost me too much, cost me dearly.”

Merrily Weisbord reads from and discusses The Love Queen of Malabar

A reader in India cannot forget that Ms Das had mastered the art of controversy. Literary citizens have learnt to discern her confessions. Ms Das was known to cunningly use her loquaciousness to convince the other person that she has revealed her inner self. Yet, she lived behind a veil of words, at all times. Ms Weisbord obviously has genuine trust in Ms Das. It’s the author’s belief in Ms Das and her affection for her that comes across in clear tones in the book. But one wonders why these “revelations” are necessary, especially when the “discussed” are not all around to defend. Ms Weisbor answers in Ms Das’ own words: “I want you to write about me and clear the misconceptions that my countrymen have regarding me.”

The author has kept her word, and the book is honest in tone, but one remembers that the book is after all about Kamala Das, the woman who has been known to “celebrate beautiful lies” about herself.

Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das
Merrily Weisbor
McGill-Queens University Press
280 pages; $27.95

Originally published in the Business Standard which you can read here.


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