To the Indian reader of fiction and poetry, Kamala Das (1934-2009) needs no introduction. Her novels, collections of poetry and short stories in English and Malayalam-and indeed her life itself-have both challenged and redefined the boundaries of middle-class morality. Her sensational autobiography, first published in Malayalam and later in English as My Story, created a storm in literary circles and established her as the iconoclast of her generation. Her conversion to Islam in 1999 at the age of sixty-five sent social and literary circles into another tizzy.
Wages of Love: Uncollected Writings of Kamala Das brings together stories, plays, poems and non-fiction writing that have previously not been anthologized. While ‘The Fair-Skinned Babu’ is the sardonic tale of an author who has become a Muslim searching for a contract killer to commission her own killing, ‘Neipayasam’ is the poignant story of a father feeding his children the delicious dessert prepared by their mother whose death that morning the children are too young to comprehend. In one of her essays, Kamala Das writes about contesting the parliamentary elections in 1984 and, in another, about Khushwant Singh’s allegation that she had manipulated her nomination for the Nobel. She also takes a playful dig at the Sahitya Akademi for waiting to give awards to authors only after ‘their fecundity is exhausted’. The poems speak of the joys of a grandmother, the sense of loneliness towards the end of life, as well as about death.
Expertly compiled by Suresh Kohli, and including a heartfelt introduction by him, Wages of Love revives the free soul and literary genius that was Kamala Das.
Kamala Das (1934-2009) was recognized as one of India’s foremost poets. She was the author of several novels, collections of poetry and short stories in English as well as in Malayalam, in which she wrote as Madhavikutty. Some of her works in English include the novel Alphabet of Lust (1977), a collection of short stories, Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories (1992), the poetry collections Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996) and closure (2009). First published in English as My Story (1988, 2004, 2009). She received several awards including the PEN Poetry Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. Her works have been translated into a number of languages including French, Spanish, Russian, German and Japanese.
Suresh Kohli is a poet, writer, translator editor, literary critic and film historian with more than twenty five published works. He is also a maker of short and documentary films wit over a hundred films to his credit. His documentaries have been screened at the Segovia Hay Literature Festival (Spain). The Frankfurt Book Fair (Germany), The Jaipur Literary Festival (India), and at different fora in Melbourne, sydney, London, Paris and Berlin. He lives in Delhi.
KAMALA WAS AN ENIGMA EVEN to herself. She liked to dramatize, imagining narratives on the spur of the moment. People were often shocked by her actions and movements without realizing that such acts served the intended purpose. The same applied to her writings. She wrote things she did not herself believe in, but the consummate actor that she was, she negated the aura of disbelief.
We had been distinctly serves me right, way back in 1968 in her Bank House, Backbay Reclamation apartment in Bombay. I happened to have reviewed her first collection of verse, Summer in Calcutta. Needless to say, the book inculcated in me a strong desire to meet the woman who dared to indulge in confessionals. Do I need to say it was love at first sight, an infatuation that lasted till her death on 31 May 2009, exactly two months after her seventy-fifth birthday that I had the privilege to attend on her specific invitation?
She had shifted to Pune by then, looked after and cared for by her youngest of three sons and his small family living two floors below her apartment. The bond between us had become thicker, not necessarily because I made a reasonably satisfactory documentary on her in English, but because of the somewhat frequent visits to Pune to research at the National Film Archives. Indulging in nostalgia replete with references to friends and foes, she talked about some new poems and, realizing that she hadn’t published new book of verse in a while, suggested we do a book jointly threatening to write a new poem for the collection every day. And she did precisely that, though not necessarily one a day since she would be on sedatives. She left the selection to me. Her son Jaisurya provided me access to a bundle of her unpublished poems as well. It was a lot of verse, much more indulgent and death-infested that ever before.
When I searched for my own published verse from my files I could not pick up more than forty. So there had to be an equal number from her treasure as well. Once the decision had been made I also decided to engage her in a long recorded conversation encompassing our years of infatuation. Unfortunately, when I started transcribing it there appeared gaps in the recording which was due to a faulty tape, but, mercifully, there had still been enough of it to include-filling up the blanks with the help of video recordings during the filming of the documentary-in Closure, our joint collection which was published by Harper Collins India and has had two more reprints in quick succession.
After her death, Jai thrust some more files on me. Meanwhile, I wrote to my brother Prof. Devindra Kohli in Germany and Merrily Weisbord in Canada, who had then been engaged in a biography of sorts of Kamala, to forward any unpublished material of hers in their archives. From that and other material emerged A Kept Woman and Other Stories to which I declined to append my name.
I wanted to call this volume I Studied All Men after a short piece she had contributed to The Illustrated Weekly of India in September 1971, then edited by Khushwant Singh, and reproduce from it some paragraphs to make Kamala laugh wherever she might be now. But the publishers thought otherwise and suggested Wages of Love.
Kamala Das was of course a master storyteller in Malayalam with about 1,500 stories to her credit. Most of these need to be collected and translated into English. One is certain such gems of absorbing writing lie abandoned in various nooks and corners demanding resurrection. This collection contains only a segment that she passed onto me on that fateful day in Pune, and some that Jai couriered subsequently. Not all has come in here. There are many other tattered, typed sheets on decaying paper, many other unpublished verses that one hopes to redeem some other day.
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