Remembering Amma Kamala for her charming and complex personality: Foster son


Kamala Das and Irshad Ahammed

Dr Irshad Gulam Ahmed, Kamala Das's foster son, talks to Mathrubhumi about his 'Amma' and various aspects of her life. Excerpts from the interview.

Where did you meet Kamala Das the first time?

My elder brother Imtiaz met Kamala Das in September 1973 and I, in March 1974 at Bank House in Mumbai (that time it was Bombay) at the age of 18.

Irshad and Imtiaz can you state the life before you became Kamala’s foster children?

Before we met Kamala Das, we were school students in Kalimpong, District Darjeeling, West Bengal.

What kind of personality did Kamala Das have?

Kamala Das had a charming and complex personality. It was a combination of profound goodness, indomitable courage, love, honesty and kindness. She was an eternal giver, always trying to reach out to the poor and the downtrodden. She was truly committed to the cause of humanity, upholding the dictum ‘Love of love and hate of hate’. Her instincts militated against every form of violence – whether social, religious, racial or sexual as borne out by her poems like ‘The Colombo poems’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘Nani’, ‘Honour’ and ‘Fear of the year’. She was a wonderful conversationalist with a unique capability to strike a bond with her listeners instantly. She had an exemplary secular consciousness, which I would like to substantiate with an anecdote I fondly recall.

Once her son Jayasurya (Shodoo) went to join a tennis club, for which he was required to fill in and submit an application form. That time he was ten years old. He filled in the form and took it to Amma Kamala. His name, father’s name, mother’s name and nationality were found appropriate. But there was one more column that required him to mention his religion, against which he wrote ‘Hindu’. After careful perusal of the form, she called him and said: “Most of the details you have given about yourself are okay. But how do you know that by faith you are a Hindu?” Her son replied “Because you are Hindu”. “No!” she retorted, “You are too young to have any religion at this age! You will grow up and choose your religion after studying and understanding all religions. You may become a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian.” And then, quite timidly he asked his mother “Then Amma, what do I write in this column?” She replied “You write ‘Undecided as Yet’” and this is exactly what he wrote in the form! After that she called me and said “Irshad, you know that I am a vegetarian and can’t kill even a fly but do you know, I can easily stab a person if he comes and tells me that you are different from my son because of your religion”. My entire being got shaken up by the majesty of her secular consciousness.

Quite contrary to popular perception and expectation, Kamala Das was more of a puritan as evidenced by an interesting incident in 1980. Once uncle K Madhav Das left for Amsterdam on a FAO (UNO) assignment. While leaving he had asked me to keep her company. She felt the need to go for a movie ‘War and Peace’ in the Eros Cinema. She wanted me to accompany her but due to some urgent work it was not possible for me to oblige her that time. Then she called her driver, named Kaley and said to him “Get three tickets for me”. I immediately asked her “Why three tickets? Aren’t you going alone?” “Yes, three tickets because I want the two chairs on my either side to remain vacant, because I don’t want any man to sit next to me when I am alone!”

Kamala Das with Irshad and wife Lalita

As stated above, she was fiercely courageous and a staunch upholder of non-violence. It was in January 1987, my wife Lalita and I were spending our winter vacation in Trivandrum (now Tiruvananthapuram) with Kamala Amma and Uncle. Once we were having our afternoon tea and the next day she was required to go to Madurai to address a press conference and my wife and I were scheduled to leave for Darjeeling. All four of us were engaged in a conversation as usual and suddenly Uncle changed the topic and quipped “Ami (this is what he used to call her) tomorrow you are going to Madurai and you should know that it is the hub of the militant LTTE. Don’t speak anything against them, otherwise Prabhakaran will not spare you.” “What do you mean Dasata? Are you sending a coward? I am not one of those politicians or journalists who get away by saying ‘No comments please’. I have my comments on everything. You should remember that a writer is like dynamite. I have spoken against violence and will continue to do so.” She left her dining chair in rage and went to her bedroom. Uncle prevailed upon me to persuade her to change her decision. I tried to honour his request but failed. She repeated, “Yes Irshad, remember a writer is like a dynamite and not a coward. I’ll go and speak my mind as I have always done.”

After a few days, we returned to Darjeeling and she, as planned, returned home after addressing the press conference in Madurai. I got a phone call from her in which she narrated all that happened as a consequence of the press conference. She said, “You know Irshad, Prabhakaran called me last night saying “You have spoken against us.” “No, I have spoken against violence and I don’t care where it comes from.” “But do you know that your house is surrounded by terrorists?” “Oh! Is it so? Then I am going out!” After that I took my kitchen knife and a stool and went out; I sat in the courtyard for forty five minutes but no one came.” I was just amazed, though I was well aware of this aspect of her personality.

How did she influence your academic interests, especially literature?

I have always been a lover of literature, particularly poetry. From a very early age, I used to write poetry and compose songs mainly in the Nepali Language. But after meeting Kamala Amma, my idea of poetry completely changed. She came into my life as a powerful institution, in which I found myself trained, educated and re-educated in the field of poetry. I used to cling to her all the time, following her in the drawing room, bedroom or the kitchen, while in Bombay, listening to her casual discourses about poetry and life. I used to be so fascinated with her conversation that I wouldn’t feel the need to go anywhere. In one of my winter vacations in Trivandrum, she recommended bit of sight seeing and advised me to go to Kanyakumari but I replied to her saying “I don’t need to go anywhere as I find rare literary treasure in this house. Every word of yours is so special to me”.

Since she had very little formal education, she had her own unique ideas about rhythm and poetic excellence. It was natural poetics. Once as poetry editor for the Magazine ‘Debonaire’, she was selecting poems to be included in the magazine. She was talking to me and effortlessly separating the poems which she considered upto the mark. It was not at all a rigorous exercise for her. Out of curiosity, I asked her, “Amma, how do you know that a poem is good? You were talking to me and you don’t seem to be going through the entire poem?” To my surprise, she replied “There is something physical about poetry. If a poem is good something happens to your body; you get goosebumps. That is why I don’t need to go through the entire poem. Your body responds faster than your mind.” “What about your sense of rhythm in poetry? You say you never studied prosody” I asked. “You don’t need to study prosody. I derive my sense of rhythm from marine waves, thumping of the tides and my heartbeats. There is rhythm in nature which I try to recreate.”

As a result of my interactions with her, I stopped seeing literature as a mere examination subject. I learned to appreciate literature for its own sake.

Kamala Das receiving the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vriksh Mitra Award from Baba Amte

Kamala often said she had five children. Please tell more about Monu, Chinnan and Jayasurya Das. How did they treat you?

Yes, Amma often said that and treated us like her own children. We received a rare kind of warmth and affection in the family. Monu was an extremely affectionate elder brother, but he was mostly stationed in Kerala. He was more into politics. We looked upon him as a towering intellectual, a rare combination of heart and head. Chinnan was of our age. He was with the ‘Times of India’. He was always very friendly and welcoming. Jayasurya (Shodoo) being the youngest, was the centre of attention and affection for all of us. He would demand that we visited Bank House everyday. He was extremely attached to us. Most of the time we were made to skip our hostel meals and eat with our brothers under the maternal care and supervision of Amma Kamala.

Amma had a unique and perhaps uncanny capability to read people’s mind. One day in the afternoon at Bank House after lunch she went to her bed-room to take rest. She asked me whether I too wanted to do the same in the adjacent room but I did not want. Her bed-room door was kept open and I was sitting on the drawing-room sofa facing the secretariat which was close to Bank House. I started thinking of a Malayalam sentence ‘udu glassa wallam’ telling myself that in Malayhalam ‘udu’ means one and ‘wallam’ water. Suddenly from behind I heard Amma commenting: “my god! Irshad is trying to learn Malayalam”! I was flabbergasted. “How do you know?” I asked her and she replied “Yes Irshad,I can read people’s mind but don’t disclose it to anyone otherwise they will be scared to come near me”. On hearing this I started having series of flashbacks. Whenever I was hungry and thought of food she would quietly walk into the kitchen and start preparing something. When she was in Trivandrum staying at Devi Vilash same thing had happened. My late wife Lalita and I were spending our Winter vacation with her in 1987. I was telling Lalita that I was hungry and then found Amma rushing to the kitchen. Within a very short span of time sambar-rice was prepared by her and served. Normally her cook used to come and do the cooking. When I asked her how did she know that I was hungry she replied: ”mothers can make out when their children are hungry”.

How many years did you live under the care of Kamala and Madhav Das?

Initially for seven years (1973-1980) we spent in her close company and in her protective care. After that, we left Mumbai (1980). My brother went to London to do his LL.M. from the University of London and I returned to Darjeeling and took a job as a lecturer in English, in a college. However, my wife and I continued to visit her from time to time, remaining in regular touch with her, until her demise in May 2009. Altogether our association with her was of Thirty Six years.

Is it true that both of you called her ‘Amma’?

Initially we used to call her ‘Aunty’. And as the relationship grew, I started calling her ‘Amma’.

What are the advices that she often gave you?

When she was in Mumbai (then Bombay) she advised us not to leave the city but remain with her saying “remember united we stand, divided we fall!”. But most importantly her recurrent advice used to be, till the time of her death, “don’t leave your brothers Monu, Chinnan and Shodoo. Always stay in touch with them.”

She also advised me to settle down in Kerala with her with the assurance that she would find me a position in one of the Colleges/ Universities near her.

What values did she uphold during her life?

To uphold what is right and oppose what is wrong.

She was a newsmaker all the time. What is your observation on her personal life?

She was in the news most of the time due to many reasons. Firstly, she showed an anti-establishment stance. She never tried to please the government or the ministers. She would write and speak out openly and fearlessly, not caring for what it would mean for her. One glaring result was that she did not receive prestigious government awards like ‘Padma Bhushan’, ‘Padma Vibhushan’ and ‘Gyanpeeth’, although she was more than qualified for any of these awards.

She did tremendous amount of work in the field of Environmental conservation and re-forestration as chairperson of the Kerala Forestry Board in the late 1980’s. She conducted the famous ‘Bodhi Yatra’, going to different parts of Kerala with her Board members, planting trees and singing songs on Environmental themes. She did not take any salary for this job but instead spent from her own pocket.

Once A.K.Antony who was, at that time, AICC General Secretary, approached her regarding the erstwhile Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s wish to give her the newly instituted ‘Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vriksh Mitra Award’. “Chechi (sister in Malayalam) Rajivji is eager to give you the ‘Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vriksh Mitra Award’, for this you don’t have to do anything but please stay away from criticizing the government as far as possible. It would be good if you accept the award.” “ Yes, I will do it, but on one condition. The award should not be given to me as an individual but to the Kerala Forestry Board as my boys have worked equally hard.” This way the award was given to the Board, which she received on it’s behalf, from Baba Amte, the great social worker.

She was a newsmaker also because of the choice of subject matter for her writings. She was more of a maverick and iconoclast as evident from her autobiographical book My Storypublished in 1976 and other writings.

Did you enjoy the comments and observations made by her relating to literature?

Yes, I did. Because whatever she uttered was new, original and had the freshness of a dew drop, free from any kind of obscurity or ostentatious display of scholarship.

She believed in Universal love. Is it true?

Yes, she was a firm believer in Universal love. Her love transcended race, religion, nationality, colour as well as gender. The love that she had for humanity, she also had for birds, animals and plants. She loved the marginalized, the downtrodden, victims of violence and social discrimination.

You wrote your doctoral thesis on her poetry? Please share your findings.

My thesis was a labour of love. I felt duty bound to liberate her from popular myths and fallacies, about her writings as well as her life. Kamala Das has been nailed down to the erotica. She has been subjected to a mechanical stereotyping, equating her with mere sex and lust. Her poetry has been perceived to be confined to her own personal life unable to grapple with larger issues. My thesis, which was later, converted into a book published in 2005, shows that her poetry is multivocal and polyphonic and the erotica being only one of the many voices. Her poetry is a tirade against violence of every kind, thereby offering an aesthetics of non-violence. Hers has been literature for humanity’s sake, committed to the protection of life and promoting peace on this planet. I have described her overall vision of life as melioristic. Contrary to popular perception, she has more often spoken for others thereby making her poems ‘Someone Else’s Song’ (which is the tile of one of her poems from Summer in Calcutta). In this way I have tried to make her ‘private voice’ audible to the reader.

Kamala Das reading out poetry to Irshad

She converted to Islam in her last years of life. Did she share anything related to her belief with you since both of you follow that religion?

Of course, she did. Her conversion to Islam was part of a long and tumultuous spiritual journey. She used to wear the ‘Burkha’ long before she came to Islam, in the late 70’s when my brother and I were in Mumbai as students, when noone wore the Burkha in our own family. I think it was in 1980 that she was invited by the ‘Malayali Women’s Association’ in Dubai to address a conference and the subject she chose was ‘Need for Purdah for Women irrespective of religion’. As stated by her, for about 10 years she did not follow any religion and finally, after she embraced Islam, she reverted to the Burkha saying “To me it gives a terrific sense of anonymity and serves as a bullet-proof, as no one dares to touch an orthodox burkha clad Muslim woman”.

However, there were occasions when she got disillusioned with the Muslim society around her in Kerala. Many materialistic minded Muslims used to make excessive financial demands on her in the name of ‘Zakaat’. Otherwise, she remained a staunch believer in Islam and offered her ‘Namaaz’ regularly.

Did she participate in your wedding?

No, as it took place in Calcutta and she was in Trivandrum. But we received her blessings.

Please tell something about your family.

We are 5 brothers and 2 sisters. 3 of my brothers are in business and 2 of us in the academic field. My sisters are married and well settled. One in North Bengal and the other in Calcutta whose husband was the Principal of a college. My late wife Lalita was a professor and the Principal of the biggest college in North Bengal, Darjeeling Government College. Our father passed away in 1962 when we were very small and mother in 2009.

Kamala Das with Irshad

How did Kamala accept your wife?

Kamala ‘Amma’ was very fond of my wife and treated her like her own daughter. She gifted her many of her beautiful Kanjeepuram sarees.

Monu said Kamala’s communication with you was strong and worthy since both of you were from the field of literature.

Yes, Literature further strengthened my bond with her and there used to be regular exchange of letters between us.

What were her last words she uttered to you and your wife when you went to see her in Pune?

On 6th January 2009, I went to see Amma at Pune with my wife Lalita. We reached ‘Sunshree Gold Apartments’ at around 11 am. It was heartbreaking to see Amma emaciated and bed-ridden. She could hardly talk but as usual she was loving and so welcoming. We could see the joy on her face as we went near her. She made us sit close to her holding our hands, exuding motherly warmth and angelic poise. Though ailing, she instilled in me a serene sense of security and fulfillment that I had experienced in her company long ago.

Finding us worried, she began to crack jokes, as she always had a terrific sense of humour and loved mimicry. In fact, as a youngster even I used to mimic her which she would thoroughly enjoy. Seeing me provoked to laughter by her characteristic quip, she said with a big smile on her face, “You look exactly like Monu when you laugh.” We could well make out that it was only a motherly attempt on her part to play down her suffering so that she could see us happy in her company. Her voice was thin and at times hardly audible. The strain was visible as she tried to carry on the conversation but she just did not want us to leave, communicating more with intermittent silences than with words.

We talked for over 2 hours and then lunch was served. After we finished eating, we were with her once again. It was nearly 4 in the afternoon. So fondly she was recalling the days we had spent with her in Bombay and Kerala. She knew she was not going to live long and with this sense of premonition she kept on telling us “Don’t forget you have 3 brothers (Monu, Chinnan and Jayasurya). You must remain in touch with them” and then she gave us the mobile numbers of all my 3 brothers and made me talk to them in her presence. Jayasurya rushed to the apartment to see us despite his extremely busy schedule at his office. The same unchanged ‘Shodoo’, so full of life, hugged me, transporting me to the days of our boyhood, when I played with him for hours in Bank House in Bombay. The house resounded with laughter in his presence. Amma was overjoyed at this long awaited spectacle of bonhomie.

We talked about many things but chose not to bring up religion as she had often been dragged into meaningless controversies about her faith which she found so tormenting. She had an intuitive insight into the human mind and maybe she could make out that we were trying to avoid this subject and then out of context she just said, “I am a Muslim, I have faith in Allah but as you can see now I have many problems. I cannot do many things. I cannot get up. I cannot even do my Namaaz. I am sorry. I feel so helpless.” We comforted her by saying that her communion with God was beyond rituals and that God is all forgiving. Then she brushed up with us the Islamic articles of faith, the ‘Kalima’ and we gave her a ‘Tasbeeh’. She looked so happy.

“The next room is kept ready for you. Go and relax. Hope it will be ok for you.” She thought that we were going to stay with her as we had always done. But when we expressed our inability to stay due to some urgent work at Kalyan, the first time in 37 years, she became completely speechless for a while. Tears filled her eyes.

How foolish we were in our decision to leave that day. It has been one of the greatest regrets of my life. My wife and I also broke down in tears.

She blessed us again and again and as we got up to leave with a heavy heart, Amma began to mumble something. We went back to her. She was trying to say something. My wife took out her notebook and started to take down whatever she was uttering. Those were the spontaneous outpourings of a poet, the speech of a chainless mind in a chained body. We could well understand that she was giving us the greatest gift, the pain of poetry, the climactic transmutation of all her pain and suffering. But little did we know that these utterances were going to be the last poetical expressions of her life and that her journey from the human world to the land of birds, the land of eternal sleep had really begun.

Irshad and wife Lalita with Kamala Das and family

‘Leave Me With The Birds’

Kamala Das Suraiyya (Pune 6th January 2009)

Leave me with the birds

That fly about the grey sky;

Leave me with the flash of lightning,

The thunder of every night

Of the monsoon months;

Leave me to lie

For I must linger on

Though weakened by chances

And the tears

Well up in the eye-

Weak eyes.

You claim me,

I claim the birds as mine.

I claim all to be mine.

Let me be all tears

And a laughter

That arouses your pity

And I claim

Nothing of the luck

That I thought of.

Irshad and Lalita

I gave to you nothing

But pain of poetry

Imperfectly read

I claim midnight silence

In the dampness of my grief

I claim for myself

In the kindness.

Lalita don’t cry

Don’t cry Irshad,

It is my first respite

To a land of sleep I travel

While you go to Kalyan

Owning always separate ways…

Can you remember your last meeting with her in Pune hospital?

On 29th May 2009 I received a call from Monu saying “Irshad, Amma is very serious. Only God can save her now through some miracle. So you better come and see her in the hospital.” Immediately I booked air tickets to Pune via Calcutta for my wife Lalita and myself. It was an early evening flight bound for Pune on the 30th May. We travelled under tremendous mental pressure, fervently praying to God for her recovery. Our flight landed exactly at 2 a.m. on the 31st. Early in the morning while we were preparing to leave for Jahangir Hospital, news started coming in about her demise. The most unfortunate coincidence was that she passed away at the same time when our flight landed i.e. 2a.m.. We were destined not to meet anymore after our January meeting. We met my sister-in-law Lakshmi (Monu’s wife) and then Shodoo outside the hospital. We cried bitterly when we saw her body kept in the morgue. We were just devastated. We were ushered into the hospital room in which she had spent more than five months battling with life. Monu comforted me immensely.

Her funeral was arranged in Trivandrum. She had expressed her desire to be buried in the compound of the central mosque of Trivandrum Pallayam Palli. In the late afternoon of 31st May, we took her body to Cochin by an Indian Airline flight. As her fans and well wishers in Kerala were expressing their wishes to pay their last respect and catch a glimpse of her face, a road procession was organized from Cochin to Trivandrum. People thronged in large numbers testifying to the amount of love everyone had for her. The funeral was arranged the next morning i.e. 1st June. Multitude of people both, men and women, gathered at Pallayam Palli. Everyone, irrespective of caste and creed attended her grand funeral prayer that was held in two sessions, considering the huge number of people desirous of participating in it. After that she was buried the way she had desired. Two saplings were planted on her grave to mark her tree plantation drive. I think it was the same Nirmathala plant of the Nalapat house that the Imam of the mosque had managed to procure.

The solemn funeral was followed by a condolence meeting which was organized by the Kerala Government and attended by all the ministers, other dignitaries, Monu, Chinnan and myself. I was given the privilege to address the gathering on behalf of the family. I also addressed the media and answered questions about Amma. In this way, a long chapter of my life came to this tragic ending. The poem by Amma that I recited in the condolence program was ‘A Request’.

When I die

Do not throw the meat and bones away

But pile them up


Let them tell

By their smell

What life was worth

On this earth

What love was worth

In the end.

(Dr Irshad Gulam Ahmed, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Salesian College, Siliguri, Darjeeling. Former Professor and Dean, School of Languages and Literature, Central University of Sikkim)

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