In the blistering summer, soaring on the wings of an all-India heat wave, amidst the cacophony unleashed by election campaigners in Kerala last month, I found myself thinking of the late poet Kamala Surayya. Not just because May 31 is her death anniversary, which passed without fanfare. And not just because this time too, the election did not bring much cheer for women, especially the defiant ones who insist on social justice. She once famously announced women’s marginality to politics in words dripping with cynicism: “I don’t know politics but I know the names/ Of those in power, and can repeat them like/ Days of the week, or names of the months, beginning with Nehru”, but this time I reached out to her for hope. For, despite those lines, Surayya — who wrote in English as Kamala Das in her early career — never lost hope in democratic politics. Her hope was strong enough to arouse the Indira Gandhi regime’s suspicion during the Emergency; in 1984, she contested as an independent candidate to the Parliament; and after her conversion to Islam in 1994, she launched a political party of her own, the Lokseva Party.
Now, though Kamala Surayya/Das — or Madhavikkutty, as she is known to her readers in Malayalam — is one of the best-loved authors of the language, her interest in politics has largely been interpreted as evidence for her crazy genius. It apparently clashed with her mistrust of liberal feminist politics. Also, unlike other Malayalee women authors who sided with political parties (P Valsala, for instance) or were part of Kerala’s oppositional civil society (the feminist writer Sarah Joseph), Surayya stubbornly tried to both find a niche in and confront mainstream, formal politics on her own, as an individual. Perhaps most crucially, the very aim of her engagement with politics seemed to be non- or even anti-political: her proclaimed aim was to infuse politics with what she considered the most valuable of all human qualities — love. As is well-known, generations of modern thinkers, from Kant to Arendt, have been sceptical about the possibility of considering love a virtue in public life.
I take refuge in Surayya like tyrannised schoolchildren take refuge in daydreams. Not that the women who have won these elections should not be a cause for celebration. Nor should one mope that they seek power — for the question of adequate representation of women in political life does not rest on an image of women as ‘political cleaners’. But to stop there puts an end to our ability to re-imagine politics. And Surayya took that risk, even at the cost of looking and sounding foolish.
Surayya’s foray into politics is easily misread as the fumblings of a privileged woman’s desire to ‘uplift’ the poor. Actually, she was impossibly ambitious — her desire was to create a utopia of love out of the crudity of competitive electioneering. She imagined an ‘affective community’, of people socially separated who would let themselves be shaped and touched by, and therefore respond humanely to, each other’s emotions. She dreamt that it would end all rancour and violence in politics. Simply because in Surayya’s affective community of the future, people would have learned to respond feelingly and fully to others as affective beings. Women were to be its mainstay, and its aim would be to retrieve “the dignity human beings lost at the end of their babyhood”.
“The women embraced me with emaciated arms and wept on my shoulder. Forgetting shame, I wept with them. I saw the marks left on their bodies by the drunken fathers and husbands… Was it any wonder then that I fell in love with them? … I wanted to help them retrieve the dignity lost at the end of their babyhood.”
No wonder then, speaking of her Lokseva Party in 2000, she claimed that party volunteers were being given “emotional training”, and later, that the party’s manifesto was grounded on “pure love”. Surayya admitted later that her first election campaign, and the community she sought to evoke through it, was unfamiliar to institutionalised politics. If it were charity, she mused, things would have been easier.
Recalling her dream-community of “pure love” years after her passing, as a woman structurally alienated from politics, I cannot help sighing: her vision was perhaps precisely one that a woman pushed to the margins — the speaker of the opening lines of her poem ‘An Introduction’, quoted above — would have cherished. Against politics as an alienating space in which those confined to the margin can only watch the powerful engage in rational calculation and battle each other for power, here is a vision of politics that acknowledges the emotional vulnerability of all human beings and demands loving response to the other. The dreams of the marginal, perhaps, can only sound unrealistic to the powerful, but they must be kept alive.
J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram