The name of Kamala Das (1934-2009) usually tends to evoke memories of her unabashed prose and fiery poetry, exploring women’s lives and sexualities in often disturbingly vivid details. Her life was dramatic, even mythical, depicted with great panache by herself in My Story (1976). A difficult marriage that didn’t work out pushed her to confront the truth of her desires through writing. And an array of women in her books shared the burden of her sinewy feelings. These characters rattled fusty old patriarchal mindsets with their bold clarity, they provoked waves of outrage and scandal by their actions, and did not care for society’s scorn or pity.
Such associations may take away from the sheer dexterity and skill of Das’ craft, which her short stories especially draw our attention to. Written in English and Malayalam (some of them translated by Das herself), the latest anthology of the stories, published as Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories, glints like the edge of a dagger.
If the short story is expected to hold a mirror to a slice of life, in Das’ hand the form blossoms into something rich and strange. Her tales open up windows to an entire society—its structural hierarchies and inequalities, its treatment of the infirm and weak, children and undesirables. Like a deft photographer, Das freezes the essence of a whole life into one decisive moment—it is usually the crux on which the mood of her story shifts.
Running for barely a few pages, some only half a dozen paragraphs long, Das’ stories in this volume are like whispered utterances, recounted in the course of idle chatter or spread around as salacious rumour. Drawing inspiration from everyday situations, perhaps also from hearsay and gossip, she constructs unflinching bubbles of truth, where desire, despair, treachery and the very tawdriness of life are spoken of without any reserve.
Women are raped, children trafficked, the elderly forgotten by their offspring, spouses exact revenge on one another for perceived betrayals—these are the stories we skim over in square inches of newsprint or obscure corners of the internet. But Das mines these barely noticed tragedies of life for all their worth—until it becomes impossible for us, the readers, to return to the world with the same eyes we had before we read these tales.
Some of these vignettes end on a note of uncertainty, like candles that blaze mightily for a moment, then taper off, submerging the reader in a darkness of unknowing. The title story is a classic example of this strategy, where we don’t quite learn what exactly happens to “Padmavati the harlot”—though Das leaves enough clues around that augur a chilling outcome. If violence explodes against the women in some of the stories, they also learn to retaliate with weapons of their choice, using cunning (as in A Little Kitten) or cruelty (Iqbal), as they see fit. Women are also not spared their share of suffering and indignity, wrought on them by stubbornness (Leukaemia), or by their lascivious nature (A Doll for the Child Prostitute).
It may be tempting to seek silver linings in the stories, or at least moral lessons that may help redeem the abject terrors of the world they describe, but there is seldom any comfort in them. Das forces us to look straight into the face of evil, pushes us into the arms of injustice, and pulls the carpet of bourgeois comfort from under our feet. At the end of this rollercoaster ride, we return to our lives scarred, sadder but wiser.