My Story – Kamala Das

Kamala Das, during her Madhavikutty days, reminds me of the actress Jalaja.

I think it is because they both remind me of childhood afternoons spent watching slow Malayalam movies on national television. Maybe, even then, I realized that I could understand a language that was not native to the Tamil land I inhabited and that therefore there was a hidden identity within me. It was an exciting feeling, something not different from belonging to a secret club or a clique.

Kerala for me then was a silhouette of a land and culture, viewed askance from the wonderment of childhood spent outside Kerala. Dark-skinned women with curly hair in slow-burning movies, faint echoes of political movements filtered through the limited conduits of national television, rented VHD tapes from the corner of the shop where no one goes, stacks of yellowing Malayalam monthly women’s magazines waiting to be sold to the paper collector.

I still wonder how that India morphed into the current nation-state that I am familiar with today. That state then seemed to be grappling with themes of political and social ideas, sexuality, and nature, with furious passion, poised to pivot into something radical, something tremendously poetic.

Even today, though Kerala is conservative in many ways, somehow what little progress that has been achieved seems to be intentional. Unlike the facade of progress seen in other regions, the debates, and the literary and movie traditions, indicate that somewhere lessons were learned better in the southern state.

My vague impressions of Kerala, superimposed by more recent field trips to Trivandrum, made relocating Kamala Das’ My Story interesting.

How common was Kamala Das’ angst among Malayali women then? Her husband, Das, seemed to have easily handled her potent cocktail of flights of fancy, fiction, facts, and fantasies, her trysts with men, her self-hating relationship with sex, her wild searches for love in the arms and words of various men. How did he view Kamala?

I am glad though that her words persist. These are works that produced future generations of women writers, who do not dare question anything through their actions but spit fire on paper.

I do not pretend that I understand anyone. Kamala Das’ auto-fictional explorations seem to be unapologetic about their centrality, in staying within the radius of truth of her mind. She seems to be Duras-like in writing about her youth – with an abandon, a sensuality, and a wanton hell-raising quality.

Ever since I moved back to India, my context for reviewing books has taken on a slightly harsher tone. Authors indulging in fantasy come across as less flexing their literary muscles and seem more to be desperate in avoiding reality. A lack of details is not a broad stroke of characterization, it is an inability to sketch out a million hues of humanity on display here.

It is not just the past and the distant that I find bewildering. Even closer home, I am more baffled than reassured about everyday life.

Take Kasthuri for example.

I have known Kasthuri for around 13 years now, ever since I met my wife. Kasthuri works as a domestic help at the in-law’s house. Since she speaks Tamil, I have always found it easier to talk to her and inquire about her well-being over the years whenever I visit Bangalore.

She has a separate plate and a glass under the pretext of hygiene. She is expected to report to work every day, and the employers fight cats and nails if she asks to be excused for even a day. A few much-deserved monetary help delivered to her years ago grants the house almost feudal ownership over her life.

For years now, my wife and I discuss how our capitalist employers fuck our lives up by not being empathetic to the demands of life outside work.

“How do they expect us to come to work when we are not well? Do they not understand how we feel? Are we not humans?” we keep arguing indignantly many evenings. We agree among ourselves that when we are in positions of power, we will be better employers, and yet, I heard a demand to come in to work in the evening when Kasthuri was all decked up to go to Church for her first Sunday Mass, a request she could not afford to disobey, as we very well know about “soft requests” by employers.

I see how unfazed everybody is in the house about how they haggle over monthly payments to domestic help, monthly payments, when we spend that much money outside for a single meal, with leftovers we do not want to pack back home because “I want to get back to my diet”. How can I lend a sympathetic ear anymore to the daily injustices meted out by the corporate employer when that same cycle is being propagated at home?

I was surprised that the lesson had not sunk in after all these years.  Is it not intuitive to identify and rectify whatever inequities we face that we are also propagating?

Irrational petulances like eating fresh food cooked minutes before the meal seems like extravagances that signify a loss of connection with what is important, the human element of respecting others’ time and efforts, and dehumanization of the worker as someone who can be exploited at the will of the employee “I want it so because I pay her”.

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