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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 50, Dated December 18, 2010

‘He asked me to become a Muslim’

Excerpts from an astonishingly intimate new memoir. The story of the heady love and dizzying religion, which exploded the life of writer KAMALA DAS. One last time

Creation Kamala Das (above) and her sketches (facing page)
CreationKamala Das (top) and her sketches (above)
CreationKamala Das (top) and her sketches (above)

I don’t know about it when it happens, and can’t imagine why, but suddenly aristocratic, upper-caste Hindu Kamala Das, lover of Krishna, descendant of rajas, decides to embrace Islam. Without any hint or warning to me, she bursts back into the glare of CNN, Asianet, media across Asia, in the biggest scandal of her scandalous career. On 16 December 1999, amidst a storm of controversy, in a one minute home ceremony, she converts.

I have no idea what’s going on, neither do my informants, and I’m embarrassed Kamala hasn’t told me anything herself. I try to call her, but her phone is disconnected. I reach her son Monu in Delhi, and he says a state restraining order prevents Kamala from speaking to journalists or groups, that she is receiving death threats, she travels with a bodyguard, and there’s a price on her head. He gives me her new number but warns me that the phone is probably bugged. I contact anybody who can tell me more, and Hari, my scholar friend in Kerala, forwards clippings.

“Islam is the religion of love,” I read Kamala saying. “Hindus have abused and hurt me. They have often tried to scandalize me. I want to love and be loved.” She tells an interviewer she is taking Krishna from the Guruvayur temple, naming him Mohammed, and making him a prophet. “If you go to Guruvayur, you will not see Krishna there. He is with me.”

“But you’re so fond of Krishna. How could you abandon him?” asks the astonished journalist, aware, as is everyone in Kerala, that Guruvayur is a Krishna temple and also the temple of Kamala’s ancestresses.

“I haven’t abandoned him. He’s still with me, he’s in my house.”

“How can he be in a Muslim house?”

“I’ve just had to rename him Mohammed,” she says, confounding conventional religious logic, or asserting one more ecumenical. “My grandmother told me as a child I was married to Krishna. I have seen Krishna, played with him and eaten with him. I love Krishna, and that love will never die. The essence of Krishna is within me, it’s only that the name has changed.”

I follow up on the Internet and read that Kamala’s life is being threatened, that the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has taken her to court for abusing Hinduism in her remarks about Guruvayur, and that she converted because Muslims promised her a seat in government or an Assembly candidature, or so that Ishmail Merchant would film one of her books.

“I was travelling from Malabar to Kochi,” Kamala responds in The Times of India. “I looked at the rising sun. Surprisingly, it had the colour of a setting sun. It travelled with me and at 7:00 am it turned white. For years I have been looking for signs telling me when to convert. Finally, I got the message.”

Merrily Weisbord Research Press 278pp; Rs. 395
Merrily Weisbord Research Press 278pp; Rs. 395

“Kamala has found a new and improved way to shock the fabric of her society,”says a friend.

“May Lord save Islam,” concludes a local intellectual.

A month after her conversion, Kamala’s enlightening letter arrives.

Dearest Merrily,

Life has changed for me since Nov. 14 when a young man named Sadiq Ali walked in to meet me. He is 38 and has a beautiful smile. Afterwards he began to woo me on the phone from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, reciting Urdu couplets and telling me of what he would do to me after our marriage. I took my nurse Mini and went to his place in my car. I stayed with him for three days. There was a sunlit river, some trees, and a lot of laughter. He asked me to become a Muslim which I did on my return home. The Press and other media rushed in. The Hindu fanatics, Shiv Sena and the RSS pasted posters all over the place, “Madhavikutty is insane. Put her to death.” I refused the eight policemen sent to protect me. There are young men, all Muslims, now occupying the guest flat and keeping vigil twenty-four hours a day. I have received court orders restraining me from going out or addressing more than six people at a time. Among the Muslims I have become a cult figure all dressed in black purdah and learning Arabic.

My Hindu relatives and friends keep a distance from me. They wish to turn me into a social outcast. My sister visited me twice but wept all the time. I cannot visit my old mother. Otherwise life is exciting…

Kamala Das (Suraiya)

By the time Sadiq Ali left Kamala’s home, his flirtatious play had stirred long-buried desires

I get an Indian visa and fly to Cochin. Jet-lagged and tired, I open myself to a laughing, entrancing Kamala in burqua and black. We’ve been talking for hours, between and over the heads of the new cast of Muslim visitors. Lulled by her lilting Malayalam, I follow the bewitching movements of her slender brown arms, elegant fingers curling and extending, palms opening, arms rising, hands circling, punching the air, reaching out. Her hands perform a hand dance, hand mime, hand directions, hand tones, resting just a beat before the next arabesque.

I notice too that Kamala’s posture and body language are looser and more relaxed than on my last visit. She says Muslims are friendlier than Hindus, and with them she feels a complicity and trust. There’s more laughter in the house and she looks radiant – dark eyes bright, full lips puckering, gold on neck, diamonds in nose – her face dramatically framed by a regal, high-capped, black chador.

Whatever her new reality, Kamala’s warmth to me is unchanged. She shows me a shiny silver cell phone resting like an idol on a pedestal, and says it is a gift from thirty-eight-year-old Sadiq Ali, Islamic scholar, national Muslim League MP from Malabar, and her absent lover. All day she wears the phone on a gold belt slung rebelliously around the waist of her black dress, keeping the line open and, as he requested, “dedicated to our love.” As her bangles flash and her visitors delight, Kamala listens for the phone strapped to her body. She longs for Sadiq Ali to call. And when the visitors leave, she tells me that after their first meeting, he called for days, at midnight, every night.

“After my husband died, I found myself insecure and totally untethered. I lost my zest for life,” she says, beginning her love story. “Even in this supposedly modern age, Hindu widows are regarded an inauspicious sight. They’re not the right omen at the beginning of any journey. They’re lacklustre, like a mud lark. They can’t fly. They drag their wings in the mud.”

She had spent decades being celibate, extolling its virtues, “carrying my body around like a corpse,” accepting loneliness as the permanent climate of her life. “In a sense I was lying in wait for death. Everything seemed to be dead, or deadened, even poetry. I shrank pitifully, feeling diminished for no fault of my own.”

Then Sadiq Ali asked Kamala’s cousin to arrange a meeting. He said he had admired Kamala for years and wanted to meet her. Kamala gave him a two-hour appointment, and Sadiq Ali drove five hours from his small town to Cochin.

“He sat at my feet laughing the attractive, reckless laugh of a monarch. He was a preacher who delighted large audiences with ballads and narratives lasting five hours. He held his listeners in a spell with his four-octave range and a pure voice that resembled a newborn’s cry.”

‘For years I have been looking for signs telling me when to convert,’ said Kamala

Sadiq Ali charmed Kamala with his eloquence, scholarship, rough wavy hair, white teeth, and “smile of wondrous innocence.” He asked if she would permit herself to be photographed with him, and they posed on the cane sofa, nibbling on plum cake, laughing together. “I no longer recollect the topics of our first conversation, but laughter entered our home as spontaneously as sunshine thatmorning, filling each crevice of emptiness.”

“Feed me,” Sadiq Ali requested playfully, when Kamala allowed the two hours to stretch into lunch.

“But I cannot touch your lips,” Kamala responded. Her grandmother had warned that Muslims ate the corpses of sacred cows, which made their breath stink, and that touching them led to exile. “A staunch vegetarian like me would never touch the mouth of a mlecha [flesh eater],” she said.

“Then I will feed you,” Sadiq Ali offered, breaking food into small pieces.

By the time he left Kamala’s home, his flirtatious play had stirred long-buried feelings and desires. “For many years I had not witnessed the blush spread on the cheek of a young man finding himself embarked on a new love.”

And it had been many decades since she had felt desire, that slow ache in the abdomen, blood surging as on a fast-moving swing.


[Returning from giving lectures in Qatar and] flying on the wings of adoration, she calls Sadiq Ali. He answers and immediately passes the phone to his first wife, who responds rudely and hangs up. Kamala puts the phone back pensively. “A story I wrote came out last week in Malayalam. A sad love story about a love between a Muslim and Hindu. Perhaps they recognized Sadiq Ali, and that’s why they are so unkind.” I ask her to translate the story so I can see how she managed to be subtle enough to publish a love story in a Muslim magazine and obvious enough to upset Sadiq Ali’s family.

“Salim Ispahani was a guiding light of his community,” she translates, her concentration visible only in the sub-speech movements of her lips.

The lady and her veil Kamala Das Suraiya
The lady and her veil Kamala Das Suraiya

“He would explain the technicalities of language to his followers. He would acquaint them with the commandments of Islam. In a voice as sweet as wild forest honey, he told the people who were guilty that God would forgive them. He was like a messenger from God.

“Salim Ispahani had very sturdy corded arms. He wore half-sleeved shirts so it was impossible not to notice that the muscles of his upper arms were as strong as a bison’s shoulders. Probably that was the reason he was so prompt in lifting and carrying the lady poet who had come to inaugurate the conference. He carried her to a stage decorated with garlands and sat her down on the stage with tenderness.

“A slightly musky smell of perspiration lingered on her body and haunted her. She kept seeking the right words of thanks, but was silent. He was her son’s age, and when she was free from his clasp, the freedom tasted bitter and she was surprised. For twenty-seven years she had observed celibacy, and persevered to belittle her body’s needs. Now she was a widow, and the slight ecstasy her skin felt at his touch made her blush in shame.”

Kamala translates all the repressed ardour of An Incomplete Love Story, which ends, “This is not a revolt against religion, or a plea for any religion. This is only a wailing. This is only a cry.” And when she puts the magazine down, I see that she is actually crying. The phone call to Sadiq Ali has brought her crashing down from the heights of Qatar. She may have the adoration of thousands, but she still cannot have Sadiq Ali. Even though it makes no sense to her at all, she is beginning to realize that he is gone.

Excerpted from The Love Queen of Malabar by Merrily Weisbord, published by McGill Queen’s University Press

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 50, Dated Dec 18, 2010



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