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She Dared to be Different

The first Kamala Das poetry awards

held in Pune, by Gyan Adab, 25 September, 2016.

This gorgeous wooden folding frame in black and gold was the prize.


From the Old Playhouse


You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her
In the long summer of your love so that she would forget
Not the raw seasons alone, and the homes left behind, but
Also her nature, the urge to fly, and the endless

Pathways of the sky.

Kamala Das


The time – the turbulent 70s. India was in turmoil and everything seemed to be more intense. The decade began with a war and went on to witness the emergency.

Perhaps because I was in college, it seemed that everyone had a pet cause and was passionate about it. Emotions were running high, perhaps because India was emerging from the ruins of colonialism and trying to find its own voice.

It seems to me that the whole country was on one major mission to discover itself, in various ways, but with equal, rebellious passion.

Feminism was raging. Women were out burning bras – this in an era when their families could not even use that word in public.

Communism was raging too. Other students were living in communes, making posters, taking out morchas and generally making their presence known. A group from the colleges, with a perfectly timed attack, took over the Mumbai University for a day and appointed their own vice chancellor. I don’t even remember what it was about but those were very exciting times.

Others were publishing underground pamphlets and circulating them. It seemed there was always something going on

I read all the feminist books but took no part in the public displays, but there were other things for me. Poetry was thriving too and there were readings and lectures everywhere. I participated in every one I could find and revelled in them.

And my life was about to get even more exciting when I met a woman who made a huge impact on me – Kamala Das.

She lived just around the corner in Mumbai and very soon I was spending every free moment in her house which was a magnet for writers, artists and poets, playwrights, astrologers, scroungers and creative people of all types.

Every month she held the Bahutantrika, the many stringed instrument, an apt name for an endless evening of art and literature. I don’t think I missed one from the day I met her.

Those were the days of My Story, her book, which was being serialized in a Mumbai paper. She was treading controversial ground there and received both acclaim and brickbats. The censure hurt but it never stopped her and that remained true for the rest of her life. She lived her own way, daring to be different, completely unaffected by what others said.

This is what I really admired about Kamala Das – her intense passion and her courage.

The first thing you noticed when you met her was her intensity, her warmth and her generosity.

She wrote about topics that are often taboo in society of those times such extramarital affairs and female sexual hungers. In those days it was completely revolutionary and her open honesty is revolutionary in any age.

It took profound courage to follow her own path, however controversial. I think my life would have turned out very differently if I had not met her in those turbulent times. Which is why I was very pleased when I was invited to speak about her at the first Kamala Das awards ceremony, followed by the film of an heartfelt interview between Randhir Khare and Jaisurya Das, her youngest son.

Randhir Khare, director of Gyan Adab, whom I first met a long time ago at Kamala’s house, is doing work that Kamala herself would have understood completely because it is what she used to do all her life with a rare and beautiful generosity of spirit – encourage creativity in others, mentor the young and hold an open house.

I only hope that, if she is looking down on us from somewhere up there, she is smiling.