There are spaces where puberty is for sale and youth loses its beauty prematurely. There are spaces where lust, an abiding customer, arrives with a ferocity that annihilates everything, especially a petrified love. Splendid lives exist within these sordid confines. Voices – small, shy, hesitant – manage to rise above daily cacophonies to tell their stories.

Kamala Das’s Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories, first published in 1992, is a trespass into the rooms and mohallas and hospital wards from where one might stare unabashedly at these lives, or more specifically, watch their unravelling. Das’s collection of stories is a pageant of women. Fallen women and forsaken ones. Unloved women. Women who are somewhat loved, and somewhat desired. Transgressors. Professional fornicators. The besotted. The violated.

Love and hustle

Several of the stories are vignettes of utter desolation. In “That Woman”, the young mistress of a dead man weeps beside his corpse. When his legitimate offspring, the narrator of the story, asks her to gather her belongings and leave, she says, “No…there is nothing of mine remaining here.” The narrator observes her depart: “As she walked along the street in her crumpled cotton sari, I expected her to look back at least once but she did not.”

Love, always a visitor in a rush, is hustled out by vulgar keepers of propriety. In another sketch, “The Young Man with the Pitted Face”, a woman with several medical conditions – a weak heart, intestinal tuberculosis, adhesions in the liver – falls in love with a young man who visits her at the hospital. “And yet, being a woman, nothing but a woman, she rubbed lipstick on her blue lips and washed her hair every day to leave it smelling sweet.” There are brief moments of tenderness when he holds her hand until she falls asleep, but then, “…in a hurry, with a shrug of his nervous shoulders, he would leave the room.” The leaving, and her subsequent endless waiting, is as inevitable as it is final.

But the pining isn’t always for the ideal lover, or romantic love. In “Padmavati the Harlot”, the story that lends its title to the collection, a middle-aged sex worker climbs seven hills to reach the foot of the shrine of her lord. She has waited thirty-three years to get here, for she has been busy not merely with her trade, but also with familial responsibilities: an ailing mother, the education of her brothers, the marriage of her sister. The journey to the shrine is fraught with humiliation; she is heckled by a group of loiterers:

“‘You talk too much, lady,’ said one of the young men. ‘You are not young, but you are charming enough for one evening or two. Your breasts are still firm. Your haunches set our loins on fire.’”

Men and exploitation

Even in the most bare-boned stories (there are several that scoff at traditional narrative arcs, but deign to provide a rudimentary plot) Das is unforgiving of men. Often provincial and uncouth, her male characters are demonstrative of the many ways in which women are misused and mistreated. But her admonishments are never overt; sometimes, she allows a male protagonist to damn himself.

For instance, in “The Sea Lounge”, readers are privy to a conversation between Satyavrata and the woman across the table at the cafe Sea Lounge by the Apollo Pier. He tells her that he does not wish to marry her. She, cool and sophisticated in a cerulean blue silk sari, her long fingers around the stem of a goblet of gimlet, simply says, “…that is all right, I understand, please don’t have a guilty conscience about me.” Confounded by her equanimity, Satyavrata finds that he can no longer finish the half-eaten hamburger on his plate.

Das explores other, more obviously exploitative relationships between men and women. In “A Doll for the Child Prostitute”, the longest and most fully-formed story in this collection, an inspector sahib who has grown weary of women demands a new child recruit, Rukmani. Their first encounter is brutal: “The Inspector threw the child on a charpoy and lifted her frock.” In a cold sentence that only describes the inspector’s actions, Das establishes a world order of unbridled carnality, in which innocence must perish.

Sex is always problematic is Das’s stories. Often, it is an act of violence, not of pleasure. Its purpose is dominance over a nubile body, not the establishment of intimacy. Her fictive universe is a careful reconstruction of her own sexual awakening, and subsequent disenchantment, chronicled in her autobiography My Story.

Sex or violence

First published in 1973 in Malayalam as Ente Katha, the book foreshadows the sexual predicaments of several of her fictional characters. In the English translation, published in 1988, Das recounts her wedding night. Her marriage was arranged when she was fifteen, during a summer vacation at her ancestral home in Kerala, Nalapat House.

Her future husband, Madhav Das, who worked for the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay, was “…thin, walking with a stoop and had bad teeth. But he looked intellectual.” The wedding night was traumatic for the young bride. She uses the word “rape” to describe it: “The rape was unsuccessful but he comforted me when I expressed my fear that I was perhaps not equipped for sexual congress.”

Das was born on March 31, 1934 in Punnayurkulam in the Thrissur district of Kerala. My Story recalls with tenderness, and some bewilderment, her childhood at Nalapat House. The pastoral quietude of the house – a portico where the Ottanthullal dancers are invited to perform, an ancient snake shrine, a pond with its resident crocodile, a Nirmatala tree with its heavily-scented butter-coloured flowers – are frequently disturbed by unusual activities.

A cook’s affair with a maid ends horrifically when he is beaten up by a rich rival’s henchmen. The wooden garner on which he lies is soiled with congealed blood. In another episode involving a house maid, young Kamala watches her throw up behind a cattle shed. A month or two later, the maid, Kunhukutty, is dismissed for conducting an abortion on herself.

There are other casual savageries she observes amid idyllic landscapes. Lazar, an oil seller drives his white cow, and three women, around an old mill that extracts copra and sesame oil, while he rests, “…leaning against a tree, abusing them in pornographic language which only amused his victims, for he was always a good provider and they were, by nature, masochistic.”

But if sex can be clumsy and terrifying, it can also be thrillingly illicit, and My Story tells of an amorous season in Bombay, the city she moves to, after her marriage. Her “pen friend” Carlo visits her; together they walk towards Strand Book Shop. He reminds her that they have common foster parents – Chekhov, Flaubert, Kathrine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf. The chapter “Woodhouse Road” commences with a poem that evokes that musky encounter:

…If I could only dislodge the inherited
Memory of a touch, I shall serve myself in
Bedroom mirrors, dark fruit on silver platter,
While he lies watching, fair conquerer of another’s

Dark fruit, however luscious, will rot and disintegrate, and My Story also delineates long spells of illness and her ultimate decline. In Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories, there are female protagonists who fall sick, and their sickness seems to accentuate their yearnings. The image of the woman lying on a hospital bed, applying lipstick to her blue lips, is as tragic as it is grotesque, for it is Das’s elegy to the female form, whose contours, once beloved, turn repugnant all too soon.

Kamala Das converted to Islam in 1999, and assumed the name Kamala Surayya. She died on May 31, 2009, in Pune, but her body lies at the Palayam Juma Masjid at Thiruvanthapuram. Fittingly then, the cover of the new edition of Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories, published this year, has a pair of lips over a brazen red sari blouse. She tells of her defiance, of every woman’s defiance, even from the grave.

Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories

Padmavati the Harlot & Other Stories, Kamala Das, Aleph Book Company.