Remembering Kamala Surayya: the novice in Malayalam literature

Kamala Surayya meant a whole new world to a lot of women and men and still does. Today marks the 10th death anniversary of the renowned author and public figure who went by many names. Kamala Surayya (born Kamala; 31 March 1934 – 31 May 2009), wrote under the pen name Madhavikutty in Malayalam and Kamala Das in English.

The Malayalee public largely maintained a love-hate relationship with Surayya throughout her public life. She was a versatile Indian English poet as well as a leading Malayalam short story writer and memoirist. Born in a conventional Hindu Nair (Nalapat) family, Kamala converted to Islam on December 11, 1999, at the age of 65 and assumed the name Kamala Surayya.

Her open and honest treatment of female sexuality, free from any sense of guilt, infused her writing with power and her phenomenal sense in understanding people attracted many readers. A free spirit in all genuineness, Surayya quarreled against the hindering constraints she had to put up with.

Surayya’s stories gave women a sense of belonging and assurance of being understood in a novel way. She is a major influence on how fiction is written and read in Malayalam today. Her courage and adventurous spirit in her writing as well as in public life, made her a paragon to young women in Kerala, at least some. The sense of humor and craft shown in Surayya’s short stories were unparalleled at the time. Her experiments with the portrayal of motherhood and female lovers shed light on the many possibilities of womanhood. 

As a popular columnist, Surayya wrote on topics like women’s issues and child care to political issues. Her first book of poetry, Summer in Calcutta was chiefly about love, its betrayal, and the consequent anguish.  Surayya’s autobiography, “My Story” which was originally written in Malayalam (titled Ente Katha) and later translated into English which left a lasting mark on the public psyche in Kerala. 

 Some of her better-known stories include Pakshiyude Manam, Neypayasam, Thanuppu, and Chandana Marangal. She wrote a few novels like Neermathalam Pootha Kalam and nashtapetta Neelambari. Her last book titled The Kept Woman and Other Stories, featuring translation of her short stories, was published posthumously. Her works are available in French, Spanish, Russian, German and Japanese.

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