Varaahan: A Chapter from Kamala Das’ Ente Katha

[This translated chapter is from Kamala Das’ Ente Katha, which has been one of the most controversial memoirs in Malayalam. The shock waves it produced in Kerala in the 1970s are hard to describe: she was attacked by both the liberal humanists and the leftists, abused as a harlot clad in a good housewife’s garb. It has also been celebrated as some of the most beautiful writing in Malayalam of the twentieth century. Kamala Das’ memoir in English, My Story and Ente Katha are related but distinctly different texts. Decades after, however, she rejected the memoir, claiming that it was entirely fictitious, written to please her husband who wanted her to make money from her writing.

From ‘Varahan’, Ente Katha, in Madhavikkuttiyude Krithikal Sampoornam, Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp. 468-72 ]

I knew my husband from childhood. He is my relative. Once he lifted me up from the ground and swung me above his had as though I were a fan. I was around six then. Like all lean-looking people, he too had a rough way of handling people and things. He laughed as he swung me round and round. This made my arms hurt but I was not displeased. Among all the kids who were playing there, after all, I alone received this honour. He used to come to the Nalappatt house to speak with my mother’s sister and have good vegetarian food. Though the Nalappatt family was not rich, they had excellent cooks. Because my grand uncle Nalapatt Narayana Menon was fond of good food. Meals where like religious rituals there. Sometimes they lasted hours. I loved to watch him eat with his rosy fingers, face shining with happiness, enjoying every ball of rice.

When I met my husband again after I had grown up, he seemed happy. I was wearing a striped sari, the kind which virgins in Bengali villages wear. I was around fifteen then. He was sitting on the step of the serpent-grove and talking with my older brother. He got up, seeing me. A gentle smile bloomed on his face. I suddenly became conscious of my beauty. I sat beside them, silently. When he got up to leave, my brother wished to accompany him till half-way. I went along with them. It was seven-thirty. Dense shadows had fallen between the trees. When we reached the foot of the Parijata tree, when my brother’s attention slipped, he pressed my shoulders hard and touched my breast. This took me by surprise. But I did not speak about it to anyone. Within a week, he became bolder. He kissed me on my lips in an ugly way behind a door. “Will you marry me?” He asked.

“Do you love me?” I asked a counter-question.

Without replying, he covered me in kisses. From then to now, he believes that all unanswerable question can be met by such an effusive show of affection. I keep mistaking lust for love. By the time I realize my mistake, it is always too late.

Those days, my husband was reading Aldous Huxley. He would quote him a lot. This, combined with the leanness of his figure, gave him the look of an intellectual in my eyes. When we parted, we agreed to send each other letters. My family wanted us to get married. We were, however, not in love. He liked to touch me. I liked to be touched.

When we returned to Kolkata after the vacation, I began to think that I was falling in love with him. My mother was at Nalappatt then. Father was, as usual, busy with his work. My uncle, my father’s younger brother, who stayed with us then, was busy with his affairs too, and did not help me at all. The cook who was also the housekeeper was also always bustling about. I could not bother anyone. I was alone. I yearned to see my book-loving relative. I wrote him long letters filled with love. “Love me always’, I wrote, ‘do be constant.’ It is twenty-two years since we married. He has not changed all this while. Even today, he is just as crazed emotionally and brutal, as he had always been in the bedroom.

Soon after our wedding, we moved to a tiny house in Santa Cruz, Bombay. My husband earned very little those days. We shared a friend’s flat. We slept in the living room. There used to be visitors till midnight. We had to wait till they left to roll out our mats and get some sleep. And we had to wake up very early too. Before my husband and his friends went out to work in the morning we would eat rice and hot sambar together. Then, till four at noon, I would not eat at all. I was used to eating frequently, and with pleasure. This poverty-stricken routine wrecked my health. I even fainted once in the bathroom.

One of those days, my father, who was the manager of an automobile firm, visited Bombay. Though he was put up in the Taj Mahal Hotel, he came to visit me and took me out too. “Why are you so thin?” he asked. “I am alright,” I replied. I was endlessly in love with my husband. I did not wish to part from him. My father who knew how much I loved to visit the zoo, took me to the Victoria Gardens Zoo. We sat on the steps of the crocodile pool there and talked.

“Do you need to buy anything?” Father asked.

My natural pride did not allow me to demand anything. But in the end, he bought me a Singer sewing machine. I have not used it in many years.

My husband had copulated with other women, before. He told me about such exploits. He praised these whores who were older than twenty and highly skilled at such arts. I felt myself becoming really small. I was not very experienced in sexual matters. I tried to act as though I was interested in the sexual act, but really, I disliked it. It made me weak. I woke up. Lay awake, uneasy. My husband started losing interest in me. When I was three months pregnant, he convinced me that it was better that I leave for Nalappatt. I left reluctantly, unhappily. My grandmother was sorry to see my state. She wept. My clavicles jutted out. My arms were thin. I was entrusted to an ayurvedic healer. I wrote sad letters to my husband in which I praised his good looks. I also wrote about sexual matters to make him feel interested in me. He saw through my game. When he came to visit on a month’s leave, my son was three months old. He was rosy, lovely baby. On the first night of that vacation, we slept in the upstairs room of the padippura. My husband did not show much interest in the child. Whenever he peed on the bed or cried at night, he showed his irritation. I had yearned for some gentleness and compassion. The next night, I left the baby with my grandmother and slept with my husband in the next room. His visit became a great disappointment to me. After childbirth, hormones change in a woman’s body. She needs more affection. She longs for strong arms around her shoulders. Brutal, wild sexual acts do not help her at all. My husband fell into a tired slumber next to me. He did not show the sense to take me seriously then. In the evenings I bathed, adorned my hair with the flowers of the Parijatham, and waited for him. But he would always come in leaning on the shoulder of some beautiful relative. My agony was severe. I fell ill. During my illness, he would either go out or spend time joking and laughing with our kin. For me this was time of solitude and self-discovery. Even my thirty-five-year old servant woman received more attention from him than me. When he left, I became another woman. I decided that it was pointless to remain steeped in sweet love and purity. My husband did not seek such virtues is his wife. He sought the passion that only an impure woman could give. I saw him write in a relative’s autograph book, quoting Wilde: ‘it is better to be beautiful than be good.’ As he wrote it, he threw me a hidden look, as though to convey to me what he thought of my virtuousness.

As soon as he left, I began to learn more about sex. My only teachers were many kinds of women servants and my grand-uncle’s book Rathisaamraajyam. My father, who had recently resigned from his job in Kolkata and moved back, decided to spend a month at Kottaikkal for some ayurvedic treatment. He took my mother, sister, mother-in-law, my baby, and me to stay with him there. And some servants beside. I had nothing to do, so subjected myself to the navara-rice treatment. I rubbed the kumkuma oil on my pimply cheeks. I became interested in my physical beauty. After we returned from Kottaikkal I was caught in a couple of minor love affairs.

My child was growing. I became completely healthy. My husband showed no interest at all in taking me back to Bombay. Gradually, I almost forgot that I was married, even. My husband has nearly torn up my heart through his lust and neglect. I wore pretty saris and went to see the movies in the village movie-hall with girls who were my relatives. A young male relative of mine took me once took me to an upstairs room and kissed me on my lips. That summer we thought ourselves to be in love. In the evenings he took my hand and taught me to sing some Hindi songs. He would ask in an wounded voice, “What is it that made you so beautiful?” To hide my joy from him, I would cover my face with my hands.

At that time my father was building a new house a few vaaraas away from the Nalappatt house. An expert worker was brought from Ponnani to give the walls of the bathroom a marble-like sheen. He was stunningly handsome. My friends and I visited the site every day just to see him. He was bright-skinned, with red lips, and very handsome. I used to hand him the key each morning. I expected that he would look at my face, raising his head. But he did not show the courage to raise his head. I was disappointed. Those days I had a servant just a year younger to me. She was very fond of me. One day, I gave her a varaahan — a large gold coin — and told her to give it to him, as a gift from me. And to tell him that he should meet me at the temple, at 7. But the servant came back and said to me, he had finished his job and returned to his village. I remember how I ran to Father’s house and begged my elayachan – father’s younger brother, my uncle – passionately to bring him back for my sake. He agreed to go searching for that young man who had filled me so. I remember how I told him of my love, weeping as though my heart had broken. My uncle was not surprised. He was true human being, not a hypocrite. It is easy to talk with him. Because he does not expect me to behave other than what I really am. “To love is not bad,” he once told me. “To hate surely is bad.”

I have never hated anyone till now.

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