By contemporary Western standards, the poetry of the late Indian writer Kamala Das contains little that seems untoward. It all boils down to sex and death, we understand nonchalantly, we who are unshockable, who are most devout about our artistic impieties. But in a social and literary context of female erasure, Das eschewed thematic and stylistic tradition, writing about female desire, about the twitches of a man urinating, the “branding” of lust, the way the birth of a child can untaint the lousiest marriage. Her tabloid tag became “The Love Queen of Malabar.”
Merrily Weisbord’s The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das is a book I never expected to read. I knew Das’s work, knew her by status and reputation. But we no longer live in a culture of mentorship; we have 3,000 virtual friends, but who, today, approaches someone of whom they think highly, someone with whom they anticipate some affinity, and initiates a friendship?
By Weisbord’s own admission it is not quite a book she expected to write. When she first contacted Das in the mid-nineties, taken with Das’s work, it was out of a sense of writerly, motherly and wifely kinship, and with the idea of writing a joint memoir. Recently widowed after a complicated arranged marriage, Das was not writing; her talent seemed “only an abnormality, a sixth finger.” She was non-committal about the collaboration. As the resulting book opens, with Weisbord sweating and fretting about malaria in the South Indian city of Cochin, the story hinges on the nascent friendship, with its attendant trepidation, surprises, and unknowing.
Weisbord judiciously tightropes between the confessional and the biographical, including both snippets of Das’s poetry, and the day-to-day. Why has Weisbord never married her long-time partner, Das pesters, both out of concern for Weisbord’s financial security and morality. How can Das claim to have loved the husband who raped her repeatedly and brought male lovers home, Weisbord wonders.
“The mind has its own limbs, and they’re all folded up,” Das tells Weisbord. Time passes, and the friendship unfolds as friendships do. Das’s arrival in North America, for business and pleasure, vaults us into the present. Suddenly, Weisbord is caregiver and impresario, called by the friendship to move outside of herself as Das is dépaysée, destabilised and stimulated. The Laurentians, where Das stays at Weisbord’s country home, are enormous and empty, and feed what she describes as her thirst for trees. “Silence is the only lake I can dive into. I shall lurch in it like a sporting dolphin,” Das writes in the first English article she sends home (in a much-anthologised poem, “An Introduction,” Das confessed, “I speak three languages, write in / Two, dream in one.”).
In Canada we also see Das the performer, regaling Weisbord’s aged aunties with how to perfume your nethers, irritating a Concordia University audience by denying Indian bride burning. Even into her sixties, Das remained controversial. The proverbial hitting of the fan happens when Das, a Hindu and a very public figure, converts to Islam—for a younger lover, no less. What to do if you want to piss off nine-tenths of South Asia. Das hasn’t abandoned Krishna, she says; “I’ve just had to rename him Mohammed.” Among the restraining orders, armed bodyguards and public invectives that are now Das’s life, Weisbord returns to the province of Kerala, trying to sort out what she can publish or shouldn’t, what will bring shame, or harm.
And so The Love Queen of Malabar is something of a thriller about censorship and transgression; it is an homage to a woman who, as Weisbord’s stepmother puts it, is “so powerful she wraps herself around your heart”; it is about the dance of female friendship, of our women as our sounding boards, our mirrors and our foils; it is about authorship, where the writer ends and the fiction begins; it is about refuting, revelling in and transcending the body. It is a treat, an eavesdropping, and by the end, we sense how much has been left out. It makes me curious and it makes me want in, to talk to Merrily, to know—what it was like, what she was like… A force.
The Love Queen of Malabar will be launched this Wednesday, November 3, on the 11th floor of the EV Building at Concordia University, 1515 St. Catherine St. W. Enter from Mackay St. and take the elevator straight up.
Writer, editor and translator Katia Grubisic will duke it out for the title of Love Queen of Esplanade. Takers?