Memories of a Marriage: Kamala Das

[In this translated excerpt from her memoir Neermathalam Poothakaalam, Kamala Surayya remembers her parents, the poet Balamani Amma and V M Nair, from the late 1940s or early 50s. From chapter 29 of NeermathalamMadhavikkuttyude Krithikal Sampoornam vol 2, Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp 1056-58]

“It was around this time that my mother was chosen to be the head of the Keraleeya Mahila Samajam in Kolkata. Maybe because he was delighted that his shy wife had gained such a position, my father started making hefty donations to this organization. Its members began to visit our home more frequently to meet him. One day, the green ping pong table that we kids used with gifted to the Mahila Samajam folk. We hated the women who had flattered father and plastered him with smiles and filched our table. But despite this, I happily accepted a small role in a play that was to be put up for the Onam celebrations. The rehearsals were mostly held in the house of the Secretary of the Samajam. Her children and P G Menon’s elder daughter got the meatiest roles easily. In the tableaux that was to be staged before the play, I was to appear as one among the Indian Women. Only I was ready to appear onstage clad in a burqa covering all other parts of the body except the face, as a conservative Muslim woman. I displayed with pride my face touched to make it look fairer, darkened eyebrows, and reddened lips.

There were two plays put up that day. The first was in Tamil, and the other, in Hindi. In the Tamil one, in the opening act, a thin girl, Radhamani Swaminathan, clad in the costume of an wizened old brahmin crone, was to come up to the middle of the stage and ask, “Paathiya avale?” (Seen her?). Tamil was alien to me then. But Radhamani’s pose and tone made me, who was standing behind the side-curtain as a spectator, laugh. In the Hindi play, I was merely a brick-layer. I stepped on the stage quite boldly, with a false moustache on my face, a red pugdi on my head, clad in a Bengali dhoti and half-sleeved banian shirt, with a lime spatula in my hand. I just had two lines to say, and they were uttered in fluent Hindi. But I did not get the praise that I had expected, from anywhere.

Then, and always, the stagelights have always intoxicated me. I find great pleasure in meeting the actors preparing in the green room before a play. When we returned home after the Onam celebrations, it was past 10 O’clock. It was bed time. But Father stopped me as I was hurrying to get to the dining room.

“In the tableaux, they showed Lakshmi, Sakunthala, Bharath Matha, and a Punjabi bride. There was a Prince and a Princess in the play. How come you got such an awful role?” he asked.

Mother was changing from her saree into her mundu. She looked at me.

“The Prince and Princess have to be played by older children. Small kids will do for the brick-layer’s role. That’s why Ami was given that role,” she explained.

I thought Father was angry. His facial muscles tightened.

“Ami got the brick-layer’s role in the play. Did she get a good role in the tableaux?” Father asked, hiccupping.

“She looked good in the tableaux, but?” answered Mother, calmly.

“Looked good? Didn’t you see her, Kutty? She was standing there covered with that black veil! Is Ami less good-looking than other kids? Was all the money that I paid to Dr Choudhury to correct her teeth all fruitless? Last week, Eric Smith’s wife Isabel said that she was a pretty child! Then how did the Samajam select my girl for such a bad role?” Father asked.

“Do not speak like children,” Mother muttered.

You are the President, and you still let them do this injustice, Father continued.

When Father’s voice rose, I became uneasy. My heart would start to pound very heavily if even a tiny difference of opinion arose between my Mother and Father. My feet and hands would break out in cold sweat.

When I sat down to dinner, Parukkutty [the maid] asked, “Did you dress up and play the Princess, kutty?”

“I played a brick-layer,” said I. Speaking out that unpleasant truth gave me a special thrill of happiness.

The invitation letter printed for the Onam celebrations bore the names of only the President and the Secretary. The name of the Vice-President, Seetha Kunhappa, was missing. When she met Amma, she complained about it and sobbed aloud. The day after the Onam celebrations, Father ordered Mother to resign from the President’s post.

“Kunhappa and Seetha are very wanted. We cannot do anything that hurts them.” Father said.

And my mother resigned, with great relief. She never liked any organisational activity. …

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