Culture & Conversation

Loving the Queen of Malabar

No happy woman writes, the old saw goes, but more probably the truth is that no one wants to read the slaw of a happy woman’s writing. Contradictions and conflict are the moving parts of both art and life.

Last fall, I reviewed Merrily Weisbord’s book on Kamala Das—part tribute, part biography—in these virtual pages. Weisbord offered an intimate insight into the life and work of a writer whose stock in trade was contradiction. The biography echoes the same questions Das’s own work raised about identity—female, artistic, religious—and the tenuous clasp of veracity and fiction.

Friday night, Blue Met featured Das channelled by Weisbord, by the young Tamil poet and translator Meena Kandasamy, and by Koyamparambath Satchidanandan, who, along with Das, was among the pioneers of Malayam poetry.

From Das’s same native region of Kerala, Satchidanandan typifies the complicated post-colonial post-modernity of India. He has written extensively to critical and popular acclaim, and has acted as the frequent international voice of Indian letters—yet he conveys an awe of Das, her reputation, her work, her almost preternatural, anointing presence.

Likewise Kandasamy; she had never met Das, but asserted that she owes to the elder poet her entire literary career. Some years ago, Kandasamy mailed Das what amounted at the time to her entire oeuvre. Das, she explained, was nearly completely blind at the time, and so the 84-page manuscript had to be read aloud to her.

“—Me!” Weisbord interjected. “That was me! I was there the day your book arrived.” We love coincidence almost as much as we love contradiction.

Das defined the canon of Indian poetry for Kandasamy and smoothed the younger poet’s professional path, but no mention of Das is ever limited to literature. As the first modern woman poet of India, she invoked sentiment when her male counterparts were partial to irony, she sang the body at a time when it was meant to be virtuous, not electric.

Kandasamy hints that Das not only changed her poetic course, but also “spoiled me for a lot of men.” Weisbord spoke, one feels, as a girlfriend; she is fascinated with the Nayar matrilineage of Das’s family, with the spiritual and economic clout of those women coming into conflict with what Kandasamy and Satchidanandan confess remains an uneasy literary and critical milieu for women. Das, Satchi commended, “is perhaps the most honest writer we ever had.” Her work was unabashedly erotic, and her confessions and unveilings dabbled dangerously between the sensual and devotional. Yet she chastised Weisbord for not being married, and exhorted, as the Quebec non-fiction author half-joked, “never more than one lover at a time!”

What do we do with our literary predecessors? How do we tackle the lives, beliefs, behaviours that inform and occasionally overshadow their work? Back to the work: “you know her life,” said Weisbord, wise woman, immediately beloved by every poet in the room, “you read her poems.”

Satchidanandan offered Das’ “A blessed life,” funny, ballsy and beautiful. When he read aloud the famous poem “An Introduction,” praising her wit and allowing the poet’s intelligence to ring out for itself, the final, resounding “I” draws spontaneous applause.

Kamala Das was more than the caste to which she belonged, more than the religion she loved and abandoned, more than even the corporeal weight and lightness of her erotic poetry—her work gives us back a lost time, a time of complex seduction, of subtle erotica; she gave us “those wanton hours of pure abandon.”

Merrily Weisbord will also speak this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. as part of the India from the Outside panel.

Meena Kandasamy will participate in the Celebration of Indian Writing: Opening Your Libraries bookish peepshow, Saturday at 11 a.m., and in the Indian Poetry, Drama & Memoir discussion and reading, Saturday at 6 p.m.

K. Satchidanandan also appeared at yesterday’s Voices from India and the Diaspora, and will participate in the Indian Poetry, Drama & Memoir discussion and reading, Saturday at 6 p.m.

Poet, editor and translator Katia Grubisic loves nothing more than a good literary peep show.

The 13th annual Blue Met Festival Metropolis Bleu continues through May 1, 2011, at the Holiday Inn Select centre-ville (in Chinatown). For more information visit

  • 2 Responses to “Loving the Queen of Malabar”

    1. Concerned Citizen

      Just curious as to why one would want to make "happiness" or the lack thereof gender specific. Do happy or unhappy women write or not write as opposed to happy or unhappy men? And making identity gender specific as well. Does that not play into the hands of those who try to define us that way?

    2. Yvette

      Concerned Citizen, are you 12 years old? Because you must have missed those long years – hundreds of them – where "man" and "mankind" were supposed gender neutral terms. Kamala Das was a woman, three of the four people mentioned in the article are women, the writer is a woman. Surely using "she" is allowed every now and then. If the writer had said "No happy man writes…" it wouldn't have pricked up your ears, would it. Prick, of course, being the operative word.


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