By M D Nalapat
Amma lived her life in the way celebrated in Frank Sinatra’s song, ‘I did it my way’.
On 1 February, Google featured the mother of this columnist, Kamala Das (later named Suraiya), in its search website, commemorating the day when her book My Story had been released. My mother—Amma—wrote about relationships that she had had, being among the very few women to do so at that time. Her premise was that the body of a woman belonged only to herself, and hence she alone had the right to decide on relationships, no matter what her marital or maternal status. My Story was not the only controversial book penned by a member of the family. Years earlier, the Nehru government had banned Rama Retold, a satirical novel written by Aubrey Menen, the uncle of this columnist. Although there were of course writers and editors within the clan who ruffled no feathers, such as his paternal grandfather C.V. Subrananya Iyer, who was the Founder-Editor of the first English-language journal published in the Malabar district of British-held India, the Malabar Quarterly Review. Or great-uncle Narayana Menon and grandmother Balamani Amma, the former launching the rationalist movement in Kerala through his writings. From the start, Amma must have been a handful to bring up, as the only mind she felt compelled to obey was her own. At a very young age she decided to marry my father, who cherished her to the close of his life in 1992, and who stood by her no matter how many the controversies her writings and on occasion her lifestyle created. Father had begun to love my mother about a year before they married, and this flame never faltered in him, nor the reciprocal feelings in her. They quarrelled with each other, each sometimes exasperated the other, but the shock absorber preventing serious damage to their 43-year relationship was their devotion to each other, a feeling that weathered all storms.
Kamala—Amma—was her own college and university, reading shelves of books every month and demonstrating a huge curiosity about life. For years after she began writing, in both Malayalam as well as English, few editors saw her as a good investment in their use of newsprint. One day, when this columnist returned home from school with awful grades, Amma showed him dozens of rejection slips from editors, each safely stowed away. She showed the lot and smiled, for by then Kamala Das was already among the more famous of poets in English and novelists in Malayalam. Her silent lesson was that however terrible today was, there would be a tomorrow which could well be better, much better. Years earlier, his mother had saved this columnist’s life, sitting without rest and sleep beside his bedside for the weeks that pleurisy threatened to take his life away, leaping for the oxygen supply whenever breathing was becoming too difficult to bear. Amma’s bedside vigil continued day upon day, night after night, until providence decided that enough was enough, it was time for better health to arrive. It was probably from that time that this columnist realised that women were in reality the stronger sex, and that the world would be much better were they not so often shackled by patriarchal mores. This, of course, was hardly a problem in Amma’s family, which for generations had been a matriarchy. Would Amma have had the confidence to begin a writing career with so limited a base in formal education if she had not been confident since the beginning of her life that women were special, and that it was therefore natural that they do special things? Would Kamala Das have had the courage to ignore or deflect the verbal and written darts thrown at her by those angered by her refusal to shrink herself into a stereotypical mould, if she had not been nurtured within a matriarchal culture? Perhaps she would, for there are several women from precisely such an environment that have surprised traditionalists by moving away from conventionality. Oddly for those at home in societies where only sons matter, my mother could not forgive her three children for all being male, as too were two Muslim boys with differential sight that she and my father brought into our home. Living together as a family, it was soon obvious that religious differences were superficial. It was perhaps from Irshad and Imtiaz that by the close of the 1970s Amma grew interested in Islam, a religion that she acknowledged publicly as hers only in 1999.
Much has been said about this conversion, and some unflattering theories have been aired about the reasons, with some even claiming that she would have reconverted but for “pressure” from this columnist. It is amusing to hear that there are those who claim to believe that a woman as secure as Kamala Das would have listened to anyone’s orders, much less a son who with pride accepted her as the Matriarch. Such talk took wing after Amma died in 2009 and was buried in the Palayam mosque rather than cremated. Two days before she passed on, Amma had told her daughters-in-law “not to burn” her, a command that was relayed to this columnist. She was therefore buried as she had wished, but from then onwards, trolls have feasted on this columnist for not cremating her. The traducers are still active, and the latest bout of abuse has been in the form of an application to the Kerala High Court to ban a forthcoming movie on Kamala Das (Suraiya), because the script apparently did not incorporate the defamatory falsehoods peddled about her by individuals who were unhappy with the poetess embracing a faith they privately saw as retrogressive. The individual who filed the case portrays Amma as a weak woman bullied by others into doing what she did not want to do, and also not doing what she wanted. This is not so much an insult as it is a joke. Kamala (Suraiya) lived her life in the way celebrated in Frank Sinatra’s song, “I did it my way”. She lived her entire life her way, and those who loved her (including her husband and her sons) would not have had it otherwise.