[Note: Starting this month, the ‘Weekend Poem‘ will be published on Fridays instead of Saturdays.]
Where does one start with the story and legacy of this remarkable Indian poet and writer? Controversial throughout her life for breaking many barriers, she addressed taboo subjects and themes related to sexuality, independence, child care, politics, etc. with a breathtaking candor, even for today’s India.
During her lifetime, she was courted and respected by the West, giving lectures and talks as her works were translated into French, Spanish, German, and more. At the same time, the Indian media, and even some of her Indian contemporaries dismissed her as an attention-seeker, prone to theatricality.
In her early-sixties, she took a decades-younger Muslim lover and converted to Islam for him, even taking the veil and changing her name to Kamala Suraiyya (though, she decided later that religious conversion was going a bit too far, even for love).
Also rather late in life, she ran as an independent candidate in the parliamentary elections but was badly defeated, prompting her to speak out, as was her wont, against hypocrisy and corruption in politics.
Das was born in pre-Independence India in a progressive family of intellectuals, the only daughter in a brood of five children. Her father was a daily newspaper editor and her mother was a Malayali poet who educated her daughter at home. There was also a great-uncle, Nalapatt Narayana Menon, a prominent writer, who provided early encouragement and mentorship. They split their time between Calcutta, where her father worked, before his editorial job, in a high-ranking position with the Walford Transport Company that sold Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to the upper-most social classes who could afford them.
Yet, she was married off at age fifteen, around the time that India gained her Independence, to a much older man, who is believed to also have been an uncle. They lived mostly in Bombay and this husband, K Madhava Das, encouraged her literary efforts though he faced lifelong criticism for doing so. That said, theirs was both an indulgent and brutal relationship, which she wrote about in My Story: A Memoir.
Her first book of poems, Summer in Calcutta, was ground-breaking. First, she was a woman writing in English, which, in the early-1960s of post-Independence and nationalistic India, was rare. Second, rather than sticking with the 19th-century poetic traditions and the popular subjects of nationalism, didacticism, and sentimental, romanticized love, she preferred Western aesthetics (similar to the confessional and explicit poetry of her Western counterparts like Plath, Sexton, Duras et al.) Of course, all the criticism and dismissive knockdowns provided more grist for the mill as she stood resolutely up to the patriarchy, critics, and political conservatives with her journalism, poems, fiction, and autobiography.
If we judge by today’s standards, Das’ oeuvre is certainly uneven and, as much as she may have tried, romanticization and sentimentality do show up all too often. But, given that she was entirely self-educated and writing under very different circumstances from today, her work stands out sharply against that of her Indian (mostly male) contemporaries. And it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that Das is one of the literary ancestors of that other famous Keralian writer, the Booker-winning and considerably more well-known Arundhati Roy.
Indian poetry began going through its most experimental phase post-Independence (see a previous Weekend Poem for more). There was also growing discontent with how Indian poets and writers writing in English were being labeled. The accusations were many: that such writers were writing for a foreign audience and their former Colonialist rulers; that only an Indian language could fully and authentically express Indian experiences; that expression in a non-Indian language was over-stylized and unnatural, hence limited in creativity; that those who chose to write in English had no respect for or were rejecting their own origins and traditions (and, therefore, by implication, disowning their own country and culture); that writing in English was only possible for the upper middle classes, therefore elitist; and so on. These debates continue to this day and I’d like to highlight a couple of them here as they give more context to Das’ story and writing.
In 1963, two years before her aforementioned first poetry collection came out, the Bengali critic, Buddhadeva Bose, dismissed “Indo-Anglian Poetry” in The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry as “a blind alley lined with curio shops, leading nowhere”.
This wasn’t taken quietly by the Indian literati, particularly P Lal, who was Das’ contemporary and a teacher, poet and translator. Lal championed Indians writing in English by setting up a publishing house called ‘Writer’s Workshop’, which is still going strong today. Each book published carried a highly-provocative (for that time) declaration that the writers “agree in principle that English has proved its ability, as a language, to play a creative role in Indian literature through original writing and through transcreations.” When Lal sent Bose’s comments around to hundred-plus Indian poets writing in English, Das’ response was simply that she wrote in English because she found it easier. But she bristled, in personal life and in her poems, such as ‘An Introduction‘, about this.
Almost thirty years later, in 1992, Arvind Mehrotra, who edited the anthology, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, wrote:
Indians have been writing verse in English at least since the 1820s and it goes under many ludicrous names — Indo-English, India-English, Indian English, Indo-Anglian, and even Anglo-Indian and Indo-Anglican. ‘Kill that nonsense term’, Adil Jussawalla said of ‘Indo-Anglian’, ‘and kill it quickly’.
Mehrotra quotes another poet, Agha Shahid Ali, as saying:
I think, we in the subcontinent, have been granted a rather unique opportunity: to contribute to the English language in ways that the British, the Americans, the Australians, also the Canadians, cannot. We can do things with the syntax that will bring the language alive in rich and strange ways, and though poetry should have led the way, it is a novelist, Salman Rushdie, who has shown the poets a way: he has, to quote an essay I read somewhere, chutnified English. And the confidence to do this could only have come in the post-Independence generation. The earlier generations followed the rules inflicted by the rulers so strictly that it is almost embarrassing. They also followed models, especially the models of realism, in ways that imprisoned them. I think we can do a lot more. What I am looking forward to — to borrow another metaphor from food — is the biryanization (I’m chutnifying) of English. Behind my work, I hope, readers can sometimes hear the music of Urdu.
Fast forward to 1997, when the aforementioned Rushdie wrote, as co-editor of an anthology of Indian prose in English, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing: 1947-1997:
. . . the prose writing — both fiction and non-fiction — created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.
. . .
One important dimension of literature is that it is a means of holding a conversation with the world. These writers are ensuring that India, or rather, Indian voices (for they are too good to fall into the trap of writing nationalistically), will henceforth be confident, indispensable participants in that literary conversation.
He went on to qualify those statements, including the challenges of translation between the vernacular languages, let alone into English. [That entire preface is filled with classic Rushdie sharpness and erudition and worth the price of the book.]
That said, even Rushdie admitted, at the time, that the quality of Indian poetry in English, with a few exceptions, did not match that of Indian prose in English.
One of those exceptions is the poet, Manohar Shetty, who, in 2009, wrote an essay titled ‘Bards on the Run’ on the state of Indian poetry in English today.
These responses sum up the general attitude towards English language poetry in India: excruciatingly patronizing, inferior to the novel, a ‘time-pass’ hobby to be browsed through again ‘next week’, and only the old and the venerable are worth knowing.
. . .
When it comes to publishing, the attitude amplifies into supreme indifference or an avuncular pat on the bum for the bum who has the temerity to write poems and actually wants to publish them. Apart from the sadly defunct Ravi Dayal Publisher and an honorable mention or two to Viking and Penguin India, most publishers treat poetry like a contagious disease. Even if they reluctantly agree to publish, for the poet, another journey, full of lurking dangers, has just begun. After five or six years of immense labor that has produced about thirty-five to forty usable poems, what will the book eventually look like? Will there be equal space between the stanzas? Will the couplets end up as quatrains? Will printing errors alter the very meaning of a poem? Will the polished free verse plummet into a disastrous free-fall? The fears are invariably well-founded. A recent anthology published by the National Book Trust has as many as twenty errors — and errors in the punctuation, that artful weapon of poetry, were not even counted. Another poet complained that his publishers had left out the entire title of a poem. Yet another poet found that his carefully-wrought five-line stanzas had been cannoned into a jagged six-line configuration followed by a verse in eleven lines. His beautifully-crafted couplets had been mangled into two chunks of prose-like paragraphs. The cavalier cruelty left him numbed and speechless for days.
. . .
For many poets, the times have come full circle to a return to the small press which flourished in the mid-seventies and early eighties, especially in Mumbai, the foundry of English language poetry in India.
. . .
Distribution may be a problem, but with a maximum print run of a thousand copies, it is not an insurmountable one. Many of the copies will be sold by word of mouth. Some will be sent out for review -with the prayer that the book does not fall in the hands of a vindictive or ignorant reviewer. Some will go to libraries, a few to fellow poet friends.
It is worth noting that, during the same year as Shetty’s essay, the Jaipur Literary Festival, India’s most famous literary event, then about three years old, had seen its biggest jump in attendance, going from 2500 in 2008 to 12,000 in 2009. So things were and are improving for Indian literature overall. In 2014, there are many small presses in India working hard to turn the tide. And the Internet is making things easier for that “word of mouth”. Still, from what I’ve seen, the quality of Indian poetry in English is, as Rushdie said in 1997, nowhere near that of prose. This excludes, of course, the handful of poets who have been educated at Western institutions or who now live and write in the West. Of course, Indian prose in English continues to thrive in many genres, as this latest Guardian podcast on ‘New Indian Literature‘ highlights, with many writers spread out all over the globe and cheerfully mingling various cultural influences to create new, interesting stories.
Now, let’s return to almost fifty years before Shetty’s essay — back to this weekend’s poem.
The Malabar region is on the southwestern coast of India, along the Arabian Sea and consists of the northern half of Kerala and parts of Karnataka. Throughout history, it has been one of the most cosmopolitan settlements of the Indian subcontinent due to the open, easy coastal access. The port cities, even today, boast of a rich, varied history of mingled races and cultures. Geographically, it is also one of the wettest regions during the monsoon season due to the Western Ghats, the rugged mountain ranges that border its other side. Das’ ancestral home was located in one of the many coastal villages within the Malabar region. She mentions Malabar in several works, including an entire memoir called A Childhood in Malabar. Also, after she died, one of her friends, Merrily Weisbord, wrote a memoir titled The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das.
Summer, or, rather, the heat of summer, is a recurring motif in Das’ works. It represents different things depending on the poem or story, but, for the most part, it stands for the inner fires or desires of the narrator or character. That is also the case here. A South Indian summer, just before the monsoons, can be the most oppressive kind. The heat rises thickly like some kind of ethereal presence as the day dawns and, by noon, it has penetrated every available corner and crevice and enveloped every surface.
The poem starts with a long procession of the many itinerant visitors who made the rounds on such muggy, hot, dusty afternoons in the speaker’s village. Such people were like traveling gypsies, going from village to village, calling out about the wares and services they were selling. They’d knock on doors of an afternoon, certain to find the women in, taking a breather from their housework, the heat having made them languid and drowsy. Some of these descriptions may sound exotic to non-Indian readers, but, even today, such pedestrian vendors travel around villages and towns, and, sometimes, in the suburbs of large cities like Mumbai.
The speaker begins with the most frequent and common uninvited visitors — the beggars — who knew that the noontime, right after the people of the house had eaten, was the best to bag choice leftovers before they were thrown to the domestic animals. And beggars who whined and wheedled their way into courtyards were rarely turned away for fear of bad karma. In Hindu folklore and mythology, beggars were often portrayed as Gods or demons in disguise and turning one away empty-handed could bring all kinds of misfortune.
The next popular kind of visitor, especially in that part of India, was the fortune-teller with his trained and caged green parakeet(s) and twenty-seven Tarot-like fortune cards. Generally, these men sat under trees in main thoroughfares but, during hot afternoons, when people preferred to stay indoors, the fortune-tellers went to them. The cards had pictures of Hindu deities, but, sometimes, icons or figureheads from other religions too. When a patron was reeled in, the fortune-teller would stack or fan out his cards and open the cage for a parakeet to walk out and peck out a card. Some made an entertaining and highly-watchable performance of this, starting with a lively exchange between man and bird where the man wheedled, cajoled, threatened the bird, who then sauntered around, preened feathers and, often, squawked out a few choice words before picking a card and slowly and thoughtfully walking back into the cage. Then, based on the card picked, the fortune would be revealed. The reference here to “men who come from the hills” suggests that these were not foreigners who came by sea but the local tribals who came from the hills, looking to make some money in the only few ways they knew how or that were available to them.
“Kurava girls” refers to the ancient hunting and gathering gypsy clan that lived in the foothills. During Colonial times, they were labeled ‘Criminal Tribes’ for their barbaric rituals and traditions, and, though that label no longer exists, the stigma has continued to this day. Over time, they had to find other means of making their livelihoods and, because of their air of mystery and mysticism, fortune-telling was one such. Here, they read palms in beguiling voices.
From the lure of fortune-telling astrologers and gypsies, we move to the dazzle of the bangle-sellers. These men (almost always men) traveled with their large cases or handcarts of colorful glass, plastic, and metal bangles and brought them to the housewives who did not have the time to make it to the more expensive and distant shops. The description of these vendors being covered in dust and walking barefoot for miles is interesting — “devouring rough miles” implies a long, hunger-driven journey. And further, in that parched heat, their heels have become terribly cracked and hardened, with their thick calluses hitting the floor with a grating sound.
The speaker describes the curious strangers who, having nothing to sell, could not resist twitching curtains at open windows to get a peek in. But, the sun, so bright and high in the sky, had blinded them so that they could barely make out anything of interest indoors. So, they turned, instead, to look at the wells (most well-to-do village homes boasted their own wells), which promised cool, thirst-quenching water for their heat-parched, dry throats.
In the final part, the speaker imagines that some of the strangers, the quiet and mysterious ones, with their loud, wild and rough voices when they suddenly spoke, cut through the thick, afternoon heat. And we wonder if the heat isn’t altering our speaker’s perceptions as well.
That’s when she pivots unexpectedly to reveal why the afternoon has filled her with a wild, torturous desire. She is, presently, not in Malabar and all of the strange men and encounters described have come from her sense-memories. And, with them, has risen also, the sultry longing to be back in that faraway place, to give herself up to the consuming heat, the stirring dust and, yes, the rough familiarity of those uninvited strangers.
Hot Noon in Malabar
This is a noon for beggars with whining
Voices, a noon for men who come from hills
With parrots in a cage and fortune cards,
All stained with time, for brown kurava girls
With old eyes, who read palms in light singsong
Voices, for bangle-sellers who spread
On the cool black floor those red and green and blue
Bangles, all covered with the dust of the roads,
For all of them, whose feet, devouring rough
Miles, grow cracks on the heels, so that when they
Clambered up our porch, the noise was grating,
Strange . . . This is a noon for strangers who part
The window-drapes and peer in, their hot eyes
Brimming with the sun, not seeing a thing in
Shadowy rooms and turn away and look
So yearningly at the brick-ledged well. This
Is a noon for strangers with mistrust in
Their eyes, dark, silent ones, who rarely speak
At all, so that when they speak, their voices
Run wild, like jungle-voices. Yes this is
A noon for wild men , wild thoughts, wild love. To
Be here, far away, is torture. Wild feet
Stirring up the dust, this hot noon, at my
Home in Malabar, and I so far away . . .
~ Kamala Das, from Summer in Calcutta
— An excerpt from Merrily Weisbord’s memoir, The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das