By Umar Timol
Born Kamala, Kamala Das is a major figure of Indian poetry. Her vast body of work comprises of collections of poems, chronicles, an autobiography, among others. Through this polemical and inflammatory body of work, the author has explored various themes considered taboo, including that of female sexuality.
The poet converted to Islam towards the twilight of her life and passed away in 2009. During a trip to Trivandrum, India, in 2019, a city which greatly resembles Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius, I visited her grave which is found at the Palayam Jumah Masjid, a mosque, accompanied by my Indian poet friend, Chandramohan. I was immediately taken aback by the lack of markedness of her grave. There was not even a direction arrow pointing towards it, let alone a plaque or a headstone at the actual site. Generally, Muslim graveyards are minimalist in nature. They are places where people who passed away are remembered without them being glorified. However, the poet’s grave is special. A mosque employee explained to me that her grave is identified by taking a tree nearby as a marker. This choice of privation, most probably that of the poet, is quite surprising given the narcissism that artists are normally imbued of, thinking of themselves as the centre of the world. Even more so as we are living in the era where the narcissistic epidemic is at its peak, with the fictitious “me” gloriously celebrated on social media and elsewhere.
I believe that this grave is the symbol of a paradigm other than that of Western modernity, of which we are heirs, and which has permeated our lives. At the heart of this modernity lies this Promethean dynamic of the freedom of man, from the divine order, traditions, religions; man, who needs to be reshaped and reinvented. And this Promethean project is based on the unacceptance and fear of death. By deifying himself, man determines his worth, which is glorifying and fragile in equal measure. In this self-confrontation, especially with death, he is without any support, any resort, he is doomed to build himself within the confines of his own emptiness.
The paradigm of Kamala Das’ grave is inherently different, man is envisioned differently. The “me” is the Creator’s subject and it evolves into what it becomes only through that very Creator. And death is no longer a battlefield, a challenge, it is rather a reconciliation with what one is, with one’s fate; death is the finishing touch of the being to be sent to the hereafter. Through his agony and screams of pain, Prometheus expresses his refusal of death and his desire to live on after death. The sufi who dies rejoices as he comes from nothing and becomes nothing once more, for he knows that this nothingness is in fact the source of light of the real life, that which is eternal.
I do not know enough of Kamala Das’ work to comment on the true sense of her approach. She was undoubtedly made of many layers, but it is clear that this grave expresses a profound choice. In the face of devastating modernity, which propels us towards emptiness; of unhappiness of our generation, of heartbreaks, the best one being the one who has the riches of the world at his feet; of regimes of dominance, this grave brings us back to basics, showing us that there is another path, that which is paved with humility and privation.
It is not a question of killing Prometheus for in him inhabits the necessary violence of freedom. It is rather a matter of making him aware of who he is, so that he understands that self-fulfillment is found in nothingness and that the real fulfillment lies in the communion between the self and the One who created him.
The poet who dies is a sufi. The one who lives is undoubtedly Promethean. This path of liberation could be ours and all those who believe that another kind of world is not implausible.
This grave symbolizes just that.
Umar Timol is a Mauritian artist. Translated from French by Saffiyah Chady Edoo.
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