Kamala Das’ autobiography — My Story

I read My Story during my degree classes, thanks to my teacher Ramamani, who had instilled a sort of curiosity about Kamala Das. The writer looked very rebellious and revolutionary and I instantly drawn towards her works and my teacher had given me to read Kamala’s autobiography My Story. After her demise, I just browsed few passages and here are a few which I got from various websites.

My Story is to date the best-selling woman’s autobiography in post-independence India. My Story is a chronologically ordered, linear narrative written in a realist style. It follows Kamala’s life from age four through British colonial and missionary schools favored by the colonial Indian elite; through her sexual awakening; an early and seemingly disastrous marriage; her growing literary career; extramarital affairs; the birth of her three sons; and, finally, a slow but steady coming to terms with her spouse, writing, and sexuality.

Over the years Kamala has proffered several contradictory accounts of the genesis of My Story. In her preface to the autobiography, Kamala claims that she began to write the text in the mid-1970s from her hospital bed as she grappled with a potentially fatal heart condition. She wrote the autobiography, she states, “to empty myself of all the secrets so that I could depart when the lime came, with a scrubbed-out conscience” and in order to pay mounting hospital bills. Since the publication of her autobiography, Kamala has repeatedly changed her stance on this topic in interviews and essays.

She has presented herself as either too bohemian to care about revealing her sexual adventures and her periods of mental breakdown or, conversely, as the submissive wife following the dictates of her husband who was apparently more eager than herself to cash in on a spiced-up and heavily fictionalized account of her life. And yet, at every opportunity Kamala reverts to the convention that she is India’s most unconventional woman writer with no regrets about her work or her foci.

List of chapters:


1. The humiliation of a brown child in a European school
2. About childhood nightmares and the only “good friend”
3. Each poem of mine made me cry
4. Nalapat House gifted by amorous chieftain
5. In the secret drawer was a brown bottle which smelt of Ambergris
6. I was infatuated with his charm
7. Women of good Nair families never mentioned sex
8. Lonely Goddess
9. They would have liked him to go to bed with a ghost every night
10. She was half-crazed with love and hardly noticed me
11. The girls in boarding school came from a very different background
12. Homely Annie gets handsome young lover!
13. The nuns used to censor the letters we wrote
14. “I wanted to marry a rich man…To be a snob”
15. We were subject to subtle sadism of several kinds
16. I prayed to the sun God to give me a male child
17. One morning the Sanyasi had gone… Only the smell of opium remained
18. Was every married adult a clown in bed, a circus performer?
19. Her voice was strange…It was easy for me to fall in love with her
20. She lay near me, holding my body close to hers
21. His hands bruised my body and left blue and red marks on the skin
22. Wedding night: Again and again he hurt me and all the while the Kathakali drums throbbed duly
23. A gold coin for love
24. I sent the cook out to get some barbiturates
25. The blood-stained moonlight
26. The first chapter of darkness
27. For the first time in my life I learned to surrender totally
28. My love was like alms looking for a begging bowl
29. I still yearned for my grey-eyed friend
30. Sex and the co-operative movement
31. He walked in silence a few yards ahead of me…
32. It was the beginning of delightful death
33. Passing away of my great-grandmother
34. Again and again the same man phoned
35. Calcutta’s cocktail season
36. I was Carlo’s Sita
37. For the first time I saw the eunuchs dance in Calcutta
38. Delhi streets were fragrant and murky… I felt very young
39. Calicut gets a good crop of lunatics
40. Like the phoenix I rose from the ashes of my past
41. I withdrew into the cave I had made for myself
42. The last of my lovers: handsome dark one with a tattoo between his eyes
43. “I too tried adultery for a short while”
44. I was never a nymphomaniac…
45. Return to Nalapat: Was my 24-year-old marriage on the rocks?
46. Only the wealthy hated me… They spread Iush scandals about me
47. The sorcerer came on a bike at night…
48. The ancient hungers that once tormented me were fulfilled
49. Who were we to sit beside their favourite God?
50. I have ceased to fear death…

Kamala chose quite explicit and titillating titles for most of the 50 short chapters that make up the autobiography. Chapter headings for 38 of the 50 chapters are quite clearly sexual or at least hold the promise of some sexual content.

In Chapter 10: “She was half-crazed with love and hardly noticed me,” Kamala  describes her experiences as a nine-year-old in an all-girl boarding school where she shares a room with three other girls. The eldest and prettiest of her roommates is15-year-old Sharada who has many admirers among the young schoolgirls. The chapter ends with the following passage that also provides the title: “The lesbian admirer came into our room once when Sharada was away taking a bath and kissed her pillowcases and her undies hanging out to dry in the dressing room. I lay on my bed watching this performance but she was half-crazed with love, and hardly noticed me.”

In Chapter 19: Kamala, 15, is herself enthralled by a series of older women, unmarried aunts, teachers, women who are family friends.

Chapter 20 begins with Kamala being warned against associating with an 18-year-old college student. Of course Kamala goes on to describe how in spite of (or because of) the warnings, she felt “instantly drawn to her….She was tall and sturdy with a tense masculine grace….When her eyes held mine captive in a trance, for a reason that I could not fathom, then I felt excited”. In the summer of her sixteenth year, Kamala’s father arranges for her to make an overnight journey by train to her grandmother’s house, in the company of a group of professors and students.
“As luck would have it,” Kamala writes, the “girl who was different from others” is part of the group. Kamala describes the seduction on the train: “I hate the upper berth, she said. She looked around first to see if anyone was awake. Then she lay near me holding my body close to hers. Her fingers traced the outlines of my mouth with a gentleness that I had never dreamt of finding. She kissed my lips then, and whispered, you are so sweet, so very sweet, I have never met anyone so sweet, my darling, my little darling…. It was the first kiss of its kind in my life. Perhaps my mother may have kissed me while I was an infant but after that no one, not even my grandmother, had bothered to kiss me. I was unnerved. I could hardly breathe. She kept stroking my hair and kissing my face and my throat all through that night while sleep came to me in snatches and with fever. You are feverish, she said, before dawn, your mouth is hot.”

A friend of Kamala’s family meets the group at the station where they have to change trains, and another family friend invites the whole group for lunch. The college student coaxes Kamala to bathe with her and to allow herself to be powdered and dressed by her.

“Both of us,” Kamala writes, “felt rather giddy with joy like honeymooners.” By the time they join their group, the meal is well underway, and their host, Major Menon, Kamala wryly says, “seemed grateful to me for having brought into his home a bunch of charming ladies, all unmarried.”

Kamala continues in the same passage to blend this romance with the girlfriend into the romance with her husband-to-be. In the next paragraph, Kamala begins describing her courtship with a male relative. She learns from her grandmother that the family wants them to marry.

This chapter ends a page later with this description of their first kiss: “Before I left for Calcutta, my relative pushed me into a dark corner behind a door and kissed me sloppily near my mouth. He crushed my breasts with his thick fingers. Don’t you love me he asked me, don’t you like my touching you…. I felt hurt and humiliated. All I said was ‘goodbye’.”

The chapter in which Kamala meets and is courted by her future husband is titled: “She lay near me holding my body close to hers.”

In the next chapter (titled “His hands bruised my body and left blue and red marks on the skin”), Kamala writes of the visit of Madhav Das, her cousin and now her fiance, to her home in Calcutta, during their engagement:
“My cousin asked me why I was cold and frigid. I did not know what sexual desire meant, not having experienced it even once. Don’t you feel any passion for me, he asked me. I don’t know, I said simply and honestly. It was a disappointing week for him and for me. I had expected him to take me in his arms and stroke my face, my hair, my hands, and whisper loving words. I had expected him to be all that I wanted my father to be, and my mother. I wanted conversations, companionship and warmth. Sex was far from my thoughts.”

Right after the passage Kamala says: “I did not know whom to turn to for consolation. On a sudden impulse, I phoned my girlfriend. She was surprised to hear my voice. I thought you had forgotten me, she said. I invited her to my house. She came to spend a Sunday with me and together we cleaned out our bookcases and dusted the books. Only once she kissed me. Our eyes were watering and the dust had swollen our lips. Can’t you take me away from here, I asked her. Not for another four years, she said. I must complete my studies she said. Then holding me close to her, she rubbed her cheek against mine. When I put her out of my mind I put aside my self-pity too. It would not do to dream of a different kind of life. My life had been planned and its course charted by my parents and relatives. … I would be a middle-class housewife, and walk along the vegetable shops carrying a string bag and wearing faded chappals on my feet. I would beat my thin children…and make them scream out for mercy. I would wash my husband’s cheap underwear and hang it out to dry in the balcony like some kind of national flag, with wifely pride….”
We never hear of this girlfriend again, either in the autobiography or in any meaningful way in the many critical responses to this text.

In Chapter 22, titled “Wedding night: Again and again he hurt me and all the while the Kathakali drums throbbed dully.” What Kamala records in this chapter is her initiation into heterosexual intercourse via marital rape, unsuccessful attempts at first and then, after a fortnight of attempts, successful. She becomes pregnant almost immediately and by the time her first son is born, Kamala has few illusions about her relationship with her husband. The consequence is that now, aged 17 or 18, she decides “to be unfaithful to him, at least physically.”

Chapter 27 begins: “During my nervous breakdown there developed between myself and my husband an intimacy which was purely physical … after bathing me in warm water and dressing me in mens clothes, my husband bade me sit on his lap, fondling me and calling me his little darling boy….I was by nature shy… but during my illness, I shed my shyness and for the first time in my life learned to surrender totally in bed with my pride intact and blazing.”
She writes: “He (the fiance) talked about homosexuality with frankness. Many of us pass through that stage, he said.”

In Chapter 32, Kamala writes of her trouble with a “women’s problem” for which she requires hospitalization. Here she is tended to by a woman doctor who saves her from bleeding to death when she hemorrhages after surgery. Kamala falls in love with her and keeps going to see her in the clinic, kissing her, watching her, smelling her. She writes: “I kept telling my husband that I was in love with the doctor and he said, it is all right, she is a woman, she will not exploit you.”

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