Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Under a Pillar of Rain / Thinking Goodbye": Remembering Kamala Das1

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Under a Pillar of Rain / Thinking Goodbye": Remembering Kamala Das1

Article excerpt

THESE2 ARE AMONG THE MISCELLANEOUS VERSE LINES KAMALA DAS inscribed in my copy of The Old Playhouse and Other Poems over the week in July 1978 when we first met in her flat in Bank House, Back Bay Reclamation, Mumbai. That was eleven years after my articles on Summer in Calcutta1 and The Descendants? and three years after my book on her poetry,5 had appeared. Barring four letters we had exchanged, we had never met before.

We met again in Mumbai in October 1978 and April 1980, and subsequently several times in Delhi and in Kochi. In 1994, after her poetry reading at the South Bank Centre, London, Kamala stayed with us in Germany (6-19 November) while she gave poetry readings at the University of Bonn, where I was teaching then, as well as at the German Foundation of International Development, Bad Honnef, and the universities of Duisburg and Essen. The last time I saw her was in August 2006 in Kochi, when she had telephoned me in Delhi and asked me to go over to meet her and Monu, her eldest son.

Sadly, after she moved to Pune, we could not meet, owing to restrictions placed by illness on my own travel. But we stayed in contact by telephone or by email messages conveyed through Jaisurya, her youngest son. "The bond [. . .] that exists between us shall go on," she had said in her letter of 26 February 1982. Our correspondence came to a halt with her wobbly handwritten letter of 31 July 2008 from Pune; she wrote: "Arthritis has stopped my writing. A new spirit has come to live in my body."

Such interplay of metaphor, humour, and sadness that characterized Kamala's letters also enlivened her conversations through what always struck me as her 'bird-in-flight' voice. We saw this in full throughout her stay with us in Essen. Although suffering from problems of health and clearly uncomfortable with weather, she remained in good humour, recording a reading of her poems for me, and at times reminiscing, as she was wont to do. She joked, interacted with Isha, our then six-year-old daughter, drew a portrait of a nun jointly with her that now adorns our study, and subsequently sent her a poem from London on her way back to India. "I had a marvellous time at your place," she wrote, and a "sense of security." Later, back in India, she genially remembered my colleagues Edgar Kamphausen, Klaus Boerner, Eberhard Kreutzer, and Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn, and how much she had relished the German cheeses, the pretzels ("the cumbersome thing," not like potato wafers she had expected), "the little loaves resembling rocks with barnacles sticking to their sides," and, of course, Sekt - the German equivalent of champagne - that always brought a smile to her! I remember the early evening after her reading at Bonn when, travelling in the restaurant of the train to Essen, we imbibed the silvery Sekt while the timid November sun filtered through our glasses. It seemed like a natural setting for an autumn variation of her celebrated poem "Summer in Calcutta," but it was almost always the hot summer and pouring rains that inspired her, whereas the prospect of the Delhi winter or "the death cold of Zurich" would make her think of buying a warm coat, just as she did on reaching Essen! And in September 1995, in preparation for her visit to Canada, she wrote: "I shall have to carry the German coat to survive the Quebec winter." Not surprisingly, then, an exceptional poem like "Winter," rather than evoking the "cold winds [that] / Chuckled against the white window-panes," celebrates the warmth of love-making indoors, "of earth groping for roots" and the smell of "new rains and of tender shoots of plants."6

"Under a pillar of rain" - Kamala's oxymoronic metaphor- has a startling freshness, although the rain or the monsoon season is a familiar defining image for moods of meeting and parting in Indian poetry, painting, music, and popular films. The impact of the torrential Indian monsoon, felt like a crumbling pillar, suggests being sensuously inundated, as it were, by life in its fulness and, simultaneously, by its inherent fragility. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.