“Do you like the works of Kamala Das?” asked the panel of judges headed by the famous Malayalam poet and English Professor, Vishnu Narayanan Namboothiri. “I do not like,” was my answer. It was my MA Final Viva Voce. Somehow I had hated Kamala Das. I did not like her ‘voice’; the voice that spoke from her writings. It was too feminine at times and too bold at other times. It was silly and affected, or I thought so. “I don’t like her writings,” I said again. Professors looked at each others’ face. Then they asked me to leave. I had forgotten Kamala Das and Madhavikkutty though I have been reading her all these while. Once again she confused me with her conversion into Islam. A literate and cultural Malayali cannot forget the magazine covers that showed a burqa clad face of Kamala Das in those days. She became Kamala Surayya. Her staying in a flat in Kochi had made news. Her leaving for Mumbai had made into news. She distributed her ornaments to her young friends and she gave away her car to a young radically creative or creatively radical couple (who I believe, sooner than later succumbed to the commercial pressures of a globalized world). Everything around Madhavikkutty was newsworthy. She was crazy to the extent that she made a sweet dish and distributed amongst her friends when Vajpayee Government conducted nuclear test in Pokhran, inviting a lot of flak for the act. Finally she succumbed to time and the illnesses that had been haunting her for a long time. That too made big news. She always enjoyed seeing herself in news. Death too did not deprive her of that.
I had read Kamala Das when I was in school itself. I read her like committing a secret sin. Perhaps that was the first English book that I had read. Somewhere I had read that the autobiography of Kamala Das was quite sleazy and spicy. It was titled ‘My Story’. I could lay my hands on a cheap paperback edition of it and I read. I did not understand all the words that she had written. But at some places when she spoke of herself, about her mind and about her desires, I pressed my legs together for an unknown reason. Kamala Das could titillate, I realized. Years after that I realized that I had read Kamala Das wrongly, exactly like many other grown up people of that time. Along with them I could also see only the spiciness and erotic imaginations in her writing. It was a choice of the reading public which was so concerned about its brittle morality. A Nair lady who wrote about her intimate relationships, desires and sexuality was very scandalous not only for the community in general but even for the family members. They tried to keep her away from their domestic circles. The more they tried to push her away, the more she made her efforts to belong. The more she made her efforts to belong by overdoing the old Nair lady traits she looked like a ‘slut’ and a blot to that community. She was hunted and haunted at the same time.
(a volume of Madhavikkutty's unpublished articles that she wrote after My Story)
There were two Madhavikkuttys. One was Madhavikkutty and the other was Kamala Das. Period. Everyone knows about that. But for me there were two Madhavikkuttys beyond those two names that she chose to adorn when she wrote in Malayalam and English respectively. When she wrote in Malayalam she was Madhavikkutty and when she wrote in English, she was Kamala Das. But for me there were two other Madhavikkuttys. One, a Madhavikkutty or Kamala Das who could be read in public and two, the Madhavikkutty or Kamala Das who could be read behind the closed doors or inside the thick blankets or late at night when the world slept. When you read her, or rather when you chose to read the way the others directed you, you were like a tourist looking only for those copulating figures in an ensemble of wonderful sculptures in on a temple façade. You forget to see the philosophy, you tend to avoid the meaning and also you overlook the complexities of aesthetics. What you see are the fornicating figures. Guides, like critics just point out those sculptures. And I read Madhavikkutty in two different phases: one, during day time and people were happy to see me reading ‘Madhavikkutty’. When they found me out reading (or rather they caught me read handed reading) ‘Madhavikkutty’ behind closed doors, I hung my head in shame. The sin attached to reading Madhavikkutty slowly grew into a sense of hatred for her. I started disliking her. I started finding fault with her and also I became unsympathetic to her.
It was exactly when I was forced to face that question; did I like the works of Madhavikkutty? Facing that question was really a problem. I had read Madhavikkutty and Kamala Das and their popularly prejudiced and contaminated versions too. Being a young literature student I did not want to show my ignorance about rightly assessing her. Or rather I did not know that my assessment of her writings was wrong. I wanted to show a very bold face (which now I realize as male chauvinistic face) and disparage her writing. The professors looked at each other. Now I know why they looked at each other. ‘Poor chap, he seems to have understood nothing about Madhavikkutty’s writings’. Seriously speaking I had forgotten Madhavikkutty. As we all know, most of the writers do not play any important role in our daily lives. But sometimes they suddenly appear from nowhere and start affecting your life and its outlook. I did not know anything of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who passed away recently, though I had heard his titles here and there. But one day I read about his death. Then I read a lot about his life. Then I read a little about his books and end up in buying a few books by him and start reading. This is exactly happened with Madhavikkutty.
When I came to Kerala for Party work, I got some hours in a week which I could use not only for teaching (for me that means meeting a lot of young people) but also for eking out some pocket money that could help me collect more books while living in the village. I started teaching in a parallel college in Attingal and in every week I spend around nine hours with the students. Interestingly, the first poem that came in my hands was Kamala Das’ ‘My Grandmother’s House’. This nostalgia driven poem, though small, was an eye opener for me, after almost twenty five years since that viva voce incident. Each line of that poem started telling me something different about Madhavikkutty. Yes, I knew that she has always been a writer of nostalgia. She wrote her past in order to survive in the present and she lived her present in order to make her future significant. She knew that she was a person who was destined to live different lives in one life time. She wanted to confirm with the society. She wanted to play the role of a very good daughter, very good wife, extremely caring mother, a great lover and so on. In each role she failed miserably or to put it in other words, in each role she tried to play it in her own way which she thought was really good to the dot of perfection, but the others were horrified to see her role playing.
In ‘My Grandmother’s House’ Madhavikkutty drew a word picture of her life in Nalappatt ancestral house. Sitting in her Mumbai or Calcutta flat she wistfully remembers the house where she had spent her childhood days. That was the house where she had ‘lived and loved’. Each object there has a story to tell. But now the house has been abandoned. And the on the bookshelf which still holds the books that she never read due to the fear of not understanding, snake slithered. The house itself for her looks like a blind face. She would like to carry a handful of darkness from that house and keep it behind her bedroom door where it could lie like a brooding pet dog. Now she is devoid of love. She has lost her way to the world of love. She is in a strange land and is forced to beg for love, at least in small changes. I taught this poem almost for a month in two different batches. Each time I taught this poem I thought I was re-discovering Madhavikkutty and in a way was paying tribute to her along with my own personal atonement for misreading her in the first place.
Today, I sat in the Indian Coffee House near the University College Trivandrum with a Madhavikkutty’s ‘Ente Lokam’ (My World), a small book in Malayalam, which has a subtitle claiming that the essays that are not published till date and are written immediately after publishing her controversial autobiography ‘My Story’. This book is a collection of small essays, which look like developed out of diary entries. What connects the essays one to the other is a sense of uprooted-ness that she had felt immediately after a controversy in Mumbai which dragged her name into an infamous copyright case with the editor of the now defunct ‘Current’ weekly. Madhavikkutty had translated her My Story into English for this weekly. Later it was published in a book form. Suddenly the editor of the Current weekly came up with the claim that the copy right belong to him. A case was filed against Kamala Das. Now she was on the run with his young son, Jayasurya. She goes to Kanyakumari and lives there for a month. This incident is the fulcrum around with the incidents narrated in this small volume move. She, at the outset itself confesses that she always wanted to behave differently because she always felt different. But humility was brought to her when she saw what ran between her thighs, urine. This revelation made her vanity subside.
This expression should be too harsh for the reader considering the conservative seventies. Now we may take it without batting an eyelid. When My Story was published, people did not want to identity with her. She was accused of having written so many things about the living people in her family. Madhavikkutty had to tell the world that she had written those things from her imagination. She saved them for the time being saying that her life story was just a fiction. Though it was painful for her, she was establishing another bigger truth; a woman’s life is not real, it is a fiction as controlled by a master writer, the male or the chauvinistic society. Sooner than later she was once again ready to say that whatever she wrote was true and she could kill her relationships but she cannot kill her relationships with her readers. Madhavikkutty wrote like a professional writer. She wrote for money. She knew only writing as a career. But when she wrote, she wrote about herself, from her guts, from her innards; she did not hold anything back. She fell in love and she fell out of love. She explored sex but never was wanton. Her husband encouraged her in writing because he felt good to ‘have’ a writing wife. She was haunted by men who thought that she was an easily available woman. She felt the contradictions in herself when she criticized her son for having an affair with a married woman. Madhavikkutty wrote.
When I was reading, I did not feel like eating. I kept on reading for an hour, drinking hot water and lemon juice. While reading I was thinking of coming to this coffee house every day, get a Madhavikkutty book and read, perhaps drinking hot water and lemon juice. I, from my extra sense, knew people coming and going. But I felt the presence of none; I felt the presence of Madhavikkutty, a writer who has been struggling all her life to write, write truthfully and forcefully. A writer can create a world; for that she need not live that life or live in that world. She can live everything in her mind. But the more she remains a writer the more she will be struggling to adjust with the society. She cannot be a normal one for her normality will always be taken for some kind of abnormality. I read and I read on. I read till I finish the book. I had my lunch at around three thirty. The book is very moving. I am not a fiction reader. I do not like reading short stories. But I do read because some of the fictions and short stories are written by very good writers. It is time to re-visit Madhavikkutty and I am sure that I will be doing it in the coming days.
One more thing I need to mention as a conclusion to this article. I used to spend a lot of time in the coffee house when I was a student at the University College. Now the coffee house is shifted to the basement of a new building where once the old beautiful coffee house stood. In terms of feeling and experience, the present day coffee house is a normal place where people come and go and have to speak loudly into their phones as there is some connectivity problem due to its basement location. Otherwise, the intellectuals and creative people still would like to spend time there. It is a full circle for me as I had come to the coffee house with my friends after my viva voce. Then I was arguing with my friends about Madhavikkutty’s writings. We were all ill informed then. Today with a little bit more wisdom in the right place, I read Madhavikkutty sitting in the same place. I wanted to run into the English Department and scream that I was wrong then. I did not do. I took a train back to home. I opened the book once again. Two women were sitting just opposite to my seat. They looked at the cover of the book, spoke something to each other and giggled. I knew that they knew Madhavikkutty in the wrong way.