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Guest Blog: Remembering 'Amma' - Kamala Das

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Some weeks ago, I attended a retrospective on Amma (Kamala Suraiya nee Das) at which Suresh Kohli screened a video interview of hers, where she spoke of her grandmother and her great-grandmother. I told Suresh that this was typical of Amma, for to her by far the most important influences in life came from the maternal side. She never let me and my brothers forget how disappointed she was that all her children were male, or how happy she was in being born to a community (the Nayars) that was matriarchal. Even though I was from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, some of that pride in the maternal rubbed off on me,and got expressed by my telling people how my name (Nalapat) came from my mother's and not my father's family. My father took all this with amused tolerance,though I am not sure how his father - the formidable Founder-Editor of the Malabar Quarterly Review, C V Subramania Aiyar - would have reacted. I do not know,as he died while my father was in his teens,leaving me with only my maternal grandfather V M Nair, who combined immense respect for women (most notably his wife Balamani, whom he indulged) with ruthless efficiency in matters of work.



Amma did not simply believe that women were equal,but that they were a tad superior. Hence the references in her poetry to the way in which males got subordinated by a tiny taste of feminine ways and wiles. For her, males were amusement, a hobby to liven up evenings rather than a part of the serious business of life, which was poetry and other writing. About the only males exempt from this good-natured underdog status were her children and her husband. A few months ago,a Canadian writer who met Amma off and on while she was still in reasonable health wrote a book ("The Love Queen of Malabar") that portrayed Amma as a weak dupe of the people around her, and a victim of men, most notably her husband K Madhava Das, my father. This was news to those who knew the two well. Once in a way, I chanced to come across some of the letters written by Amma to her beloved "Dasee", and they were so mushy, so full of schoolgirl adoration, that I refused to read more than a few lines, as to do otherwise would be an invasion of the private space of two people who lived together from 1949 to his death in 1992,and cared tenderly and passionately about each other. I wish the Canadian author Merrily Weisbord well in her efforts at birthing a best-seller. None of what she writes can hurt, for the reason that any individual who knew them well would know her portrayal to be fiction, albeit fiction where my mother (with her elfin streak) may have participated.



Achan (my father) bore a lot from Amma, who was uninhibited in some of her ways. He did so because he loved her, and knew that she loved him, in a way that reduced to insignificance any other man in her life when she was with him. After my father died, is was as though the shell had gotten misplaced by a baby turtle. After his death,Amma's look was always darting beyond those around her, to some mysterious spot where he remained waiting for her for the sixteen years that elapsed between his passing away and hers. A day before she passed away, I was by her bedside at Jehangir Hospital in Pune. Two nights previous to her death, her lips had lisped what to me sounded like "Dasee,Dasee". She was smiling,even though her lungs were failing. All of a sudden, late that night, she uttered the name of the Almighty a few times and made as though to rise. Those were the last words that I heard from her. The next morning, I held her hand before leaving Pune for another city, for a day's stay. That limited period of time proved enough for her to say goodbye, and to join her beloved Dasee in what I am sure must be Paradise. Her innocence deserves no less.



For me, Amma is no poet, no writer, no campaigner for women's rights. She is Amma.


Professor Madhav Nalapat is Kamala Das' son. He currently teaches Geopolitics at Manipal University and holds the UNESCO Peace Chair.


1 Comment

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Just yesterday I completed reading of the book "My Story". It touched my heart and I was trying to understand Kamala Das/Suraiya, when I stumbled on your disclosure. You are the best judge to understand the bonding of Kamala Das with her husband and I would not like to transgress the same. Nevertheless, 'My Story" does show some fissure in the relation. However by terming the story as impregnated by fiction withers away the fact to be considered as truth.

Mon,Aug 18th 2014 7:24 AM