Only Connect

  • Merrily Weisbord (Author)
    The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das. McGill-Queen's University Press
Reviewed by Stella Algoo-Baksh

The Love Queen of Malabar is a multi-layered exploration of the relationship between the author and Kamala Das, the Indian writer whose My Story once shocked the subcontinent with its revelations about her brutal experiences as a child-bride. It documents the growth of a friendship between the two women that is marked by mutual warmth and empathy and an acceptance of each within the family of the other. Additionally, the book has a significantly biographical dimension. In an amalgam of letters, interviews, recordings, and private conversations, Weisbord offers a compelling examination of Das’ life. In her depiction of the early years of Das’ marriage, for example, she unflinchingly concretizes the physical and psychological damage inflicted on the fifteen-year-old bride, damage that would induce a protracted distaste for and sublimation of normal sexuality. She reveals Das’ belated rediscovery of her sexuality in a series of liaisons, a phenomenon soon reflected in the eroticism of her subject’s poetry. Weisbord vividly captures the many faces of Das, skillfully navigating the latter’s changing moods and an apparent inconsistency that is clearly illustrated by her provision of care for her ailing husband, despite his cruelty and disloyalty. Here, Das’ rather unconventional assertion that financial generosity is an effective strategy for securing some men’s love further illustrates her complex personality. In contextualizing Das’ life story, Weisbord attempts to pinpoint the historical and social forces that have shaped Das’ experience. Among these are gender-related currents in a supposedly matrilineal Keralan society that is, in fact, penetrated by rigidly patrilineal and antifeminist mores, a situation that generates hostility toward her when she speaks boldly about human—and especially female—sexuality. Present, too, are religious bigotries that confront her because of her conversion to Islam as she pursues a romantic relationship with a young Muslim man. While Weisbord tentatively identifies various influences on Das’ life, she concludes that to the very end Das remains an enigma.

Perhaps inevitably, Weisbord’s “memoir” reveals something of her own growth and thus becomes essentially a dual biography. While she arranges visits by Das to Canada, Weisbord discloses, she herself goes to India, and her willing participation in Keralan life ultimately enhances both her understanding of Das and her appreciation of Keralan culture. Further, she becomes sensitized to issues of objectivity and legality that surface in writing about a living person who is a friend and to the problem of confidentiality that occurs in dealing with the intimate details of the private lives of the subject and her family. The Love Queen of Malabar foregrounds the life of a woman widely acknowledged as one of India’s pre-eminent poets, but it also illuminates the simultaneous journeys of both author and subject toward a more inclusive view of humanity. Reacting enthusiastically to the manuscript, Das observes to Weisbord, “You have reconstructed me.” The reality is that, in a vital sense, Weisbord and Das have helped to reconstruct each other.



This review “Only Connect” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 190-91.

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