The Love Queen Of Malabar: Memoir Of A Friendship With Kamala Das
McGill-Queen’s University Press/Research Press
When she read Kamala Das for the first time, the Jewish-Canadian filmmaker and award-winning author Merrily Weisbord was so enamoured by her poems that she flew down to Cochin to see the author. That was in 1995, and it marked the beginning of a deep and profoundly moving friendship between the renowned Malayali poet and the Canadian author.
The Love Queen Of Malabar: Memoir Of A Friendship With Kamala Das began as a book project that the two women would co-author. Along the way, however, Kamala is happier to leave the work to Weisbord, who grows to be a close friend. Roles merge, as the women share their life stories, their experiences with men. Kamala even visits Canada on Weisbord’s invitation, meeting her aunts and eventually embracing the whole family.
This is literary biography that is meditative and sexy. The book offers insights into Kamala Das as writer and poet, and her unusual relationship with a gay husband, whom she married as a 15-year-old, when he was 35. The marriage lasted 43 years, until Madhava Das’ death. As Das tells her biographer, she is not the long-suffering wife, but someone with a sense of joy.
The author also shares a great deal about her own life, offering readers the chance to see how the very categories in which we think, and the vocabulary that we use, our means of making sense, are rife with potential for misunderstanding. Das talks of a ‘love affair,’ and Weisbord is puzzled to see that Kamala’s relationship with her husband’s boss was never sexually consummated. There are also ways in which the two women influence each other as they negotiate relationships with men.
There is so much of the personal in this book that one cannot but read it in an intensely personal way. Kamala Das, despite her failed attempt at entry into electoral politics in 1984, is all personal. Late in life, after a long spell of celibacy, Kamala’s sexual self is awakened. Famously, she converted to Islam in 1999. And that was when she was drawn into controversy again, of a deeply political nature. ‘May the Lord save Islam!’ one commentator says.
“The last word is not the Koran, the last word will be spoken by the last man on earth,” says the logical Das, as she tires of her ‘affair’ with religion. “I can feel their teeth as they kiss me,” she says, of those reaching out to her in adulation after her conversion.
“A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far, with the speed of a falling star… Otherwise, the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife… She will have to write against her loved one, put him under the microscope, dissect him, analyze his thoughts, his words. After a while, he is no longer the man you held in your arms at night. You have cut him into little slivers, everything is burst open, he is seeds and pulp and juice,” says Kamala to Weisbord, of the very personal nature of her writing, quite early in their friendship.
Kamala’s mother, the poet Balamani Amma, once wrote as her daughter was recuperating from illness: “Your power of turning worms into butterflies/Comforts me.”
Weisbord takes some of life’s worms, and makes them flutter about as butterflies in this revealing tale of two lives twined in a friendship that ended only with Kamala Das’ death, two years ago.