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Obituary : Late Ms Kamala Surayya Das

(1931 - 2009)
Iconoclast bilingual writer and poetess Madhavikutty, popularly known as
Kamala Das breathed her last on 31
May 2009 at Pune. She was
suffering from chest infection and respiratory problems. She was 75.
Her body was brought to Thiruvananthapuram after being taken to
Thrissur, Kochi, Alappuzha and Kollam, where thousands of her admirers
paid their last respects, many with tears in their eyes. Thousands of
people including several ministers, converged at the Palayam Juma
Masjid to bid adieu to noted poet and writer Kamala Das, who died
The award-winning writer, who wrote in both Malayalam and English,
was accorded a state funeral and policemen gave a gun salute as her
body was interred. Earlier, separate prayers for men and women were
held according to Muslim customs. All the three sons of Ms Kamala
Surayya stood in the front row during the funeral prayers at Palayam
Juma Masjid. Live coverage of the event was beamed by all the
Malyalam channels.
Born to V.M. Nair and Balamani Amma March 31, 1934, Ms Kamala
Surayya spent most of her childhood in Kolkata where her father worked.
Influenced by her poetess mother and uncle Nalappatt Narayana Menon,
a prominent writer, Kamala started writing at the age of 17 under the
pen name Madhavikutty.
She would often wait until nightfall after her family had gone to sleep
and would write until morning: "There was only the kitchen table where I
would cut vegetables, and after all the plates and things were cleared.
A prolific author who was widely acclaimed for her short stories and
novels in Malyalam. Ms. Das served as the Poetry Editor of the Illustrated
Weekly of India, was President of Kerala Children's Film Society,
chairperson of Kerala Forestry Board and Orient Editor of Poet Monthly.
Her prominent works in Malayalam are many. Her English works include
Summer in Culcutta, Alphabet of the Lust, The Descendants, Old Play
House and Collected Poems. Her Ente Katha has been translated into 15
languages. Only The Soul Knows How To Sing was published in 1996.
Some of the many awards Kamala Das has received are the Asian Poetry
Prize in 1964, (The Sirens), the Kent Award in 1965 (Summer in
Culcutta), Asian World Prize and Academy Award (Collected Poems). Her
Thanuppu got Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for short stories in 1969.
Neer Mathalam Pootha Kalam secured the Vayalar Award in 1997.
Ms Kamala hit the headlines when, though born in a conservative Hindu
Nair family in Kerala with a royal lineage,she had embraced Islam in 1999
at the age of 65 and adopted the Muslim name Surayya. Ms Surayyas
choice of Islam was a stunning blow to those who regard Islam too
suffocating for woman.
In an interview conducted by Rediff in 1999, she said
"Look at me. Am I not ebullient with happiness, with joy and zest for a
life with Allah?" Surayya says, radiating the thrill of a new discovery, of
new horizons opening up.
For her, Madhavikutty no longer exists. "Yes, the controversial
Madhavikutty is dead. This is the last time I am shocking you all," she
But what lured her to Islam?
"Two plain reasons. One is the purdah. Second is the security that Islam
provides to women. In fact, both these reasons are complementary," she
" Purdah is the most wonderful dress for women in the world. And I have
always loved to wear the purdah. It gives women a sense of security.
Only Islam gives protection to women. I have been lonely all through my
life. At nights, I used to sleep by embracing a pillow. But I am no longer a
loner. Islam is my company. Islam is the only religion in the world that
gives love and protection to women. Therefore, I have converted,"
Surayya makes her point.
I adopted two blind Muslim children, Irshad Ahmed and Imtiaz Ahmed,
and they brought me close to Islam. I had to study Islamic scriptures
before teaching them. One is working as a professor in Darjeeling and
another as a barrister in London.
Won't she be forced to make compromises in her new religion? Will Islam
tolerate her controversial past? "Religion cannot chain one's creativity.
Islam is tolerant. Allah is the God of love and forgiveness. My mind tells
me Allah has forgiven me my sins, if they were sins," Surayya says.
For Kerala's most famous poetess, conversion to Islam arose out of
conviction and was not a sudden decision. She says the "idea" to convert
had been there in her mind for the last three decades. It had been
churning in her mind.
"I kept my desire a secret for long. But now the time has come when I
can no longer remain a Hindu. I hate being cremated as a Hindu. I love
being buried as a Muslim," Surayya says in a serious tone.
Was she uncomfortable with Hinduism and Hindu gods? "Hindus have
abused and hurt me. They have often tried to scandalise me. I cannot
repose faith in Hinduism because Hindu gods never forgive. They only
punish," Surayya fumes.
When asked about threats reportedly received from fundamentalists, she
said I am not frightened by these threats. The policemen had come to me
offering security. I have refused to accept their offer. I have left
everything to Allah. He will protect me to the last. I don't need the
security of mortals, when I have surrendered myself to Allah, the biggest
Protector. I am sure He will take care of me. Her son M. D. Nalappad,
former editor of Mathrubhumi and former resident editor of The Times of
India in Bangalore, said that he received a number of threatening
telephone calls, apparently from Hindu extremists. One caller threatened
that he would kill her within 24 hours.
When asked will you continue to write poetry and paint ?
She said "I am about to complete a book on the new millennium. I will
start writing poems and prose on Allah and Islam. Allah will henceforth
inspire my creativity whether it is poetry or paintings,"
I'd like to make this the religion of the new millennium. I will tell people
the virtues of this religion and share the happiness I experienced after
embracing Islam. I have no words to explain the contentment I feel now.
I have never felt such happiness in my life. I feel loved and protected. I
am an old person. I want this love and protection. I understand that a
good Muslim should help others. I have been doing so and I am keen to
continue it. Money cannot bring such happiness. I am an old person and
don't want to keep money. I want to give part of what I have earned to
others. You see here (waving to indicate her house), I do not have too
many possessions. I have only the bare minimum. She was one of the
most honest and unpretentious woman. She had the spine to act
according to her convictions.
The writer who loved to tread the unorthodox path,had also made a foray
into politics and floated `Lok Seva Party aiming at social and
humanitarian work, providing asylum to orphaned mothers and promote
Ms Kamala Surayya Das is survived by three sons M Nalapat, Chinnen
Das and Jayasurya Das. Her eldest son, M.D. Nalapat, is married to a
princess from the Travancore Royal House. He holds the UNESCO Peace
Chair and Professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher
Education. Since Feb 2007 Ms Kamala Das was staying in Pune with her
youngest son Jayasurya.
Speaking to a journalist he said
"Our family could spend lot of time with her during her last days. My
younger brother took extremely good care of her. In her last days she
looked quite composed. She had a very peaceful ending. We are very
proud of our mother.
"My mother was a Muslim for many years and died a Muslim. She had
converted to Islam happily and of her free will. It doesnt matter what I or
my brothers want. It was her wish (to convert to Islam) and we will
respect it and abide by it. There is no way a posthumous reconversion
can be held. So her funeral will have to be as per Islamic norms. It was
also her wish that she be returned to Kerala.
My interaction with the family started recently when they were planning
to bury her in Pune as per Muslim rites. Mr Nalapat told us "During her
critical illness in front of his brothers, he had asked his mother " Amma
who are you ? What shall we do after you expire? "She had told them
then "I am a Muslim ! I am a Muslim! I am a Muslim! She repeated this
seven times and said I should be buried as per Muslim rites. All my
brothers are with me.
When I tried to convey my dismay of not being able to meet her though
she stayed very close to my residence he said "Life span of this world is
very short, you will be able to meet her in the life Hereafter which will be
a infinite life.

May God the Al Mighty grant salvation to this great daughter of Islam.
Imtiyaz Shaikh
June 2009