In 1995, Montreal writer and documentary-maker Merrily Weisbord travelled to India for the first time. Mid-career and midlife, she had given up on the memoir on which she had spent more than a year working. Her destination: Kerala, famous for its physical beauty, high literacy rate and - important to a feminist - home to a matrilineal culture.
And, it turned out, the birthplace of a rather remarkable, gutsy poet, Kamala Das (1934-2009), who made her name by writing honestly about sexuality, sensuality and even domestic abuse in the conservative India of the 1960s and '70s.
In Das, Weisbord sees a kindred spirit, living outside convention, and suggests they write a book together. The result is The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, which was short-listed for the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize.
Das welcomes the overture. In her mid-50s, she is recently widowed from the man she wrote about in her autobiography, a man who raped her repeatedly, who brought men home to bed and whom she cared for in his dying days. The woman who wrote nightly after her family went to bed is exhausted. Both women have adult children and are in new phases of their lives; and they're equally adrift.
Theirs becomes a 14-year friendship that grows quickly. Weisbord arrives in Cochin, tape recorder in hand, ready to woo her subject. Das, a celebrity used to never-ending requests for audiences, in turn seduces her new devotee with stories about the love-making between the Hindu god Krishna and his beloved Radha, then stuns her by advocating the importance of marriage and proudly embracing her ongoing celibacy. It is the beginning of a see-saw of revelations and frank conversations; the disclosures are as intense as any burgeoning love affair as they both find themselves re-examining their beliefs.
Early on, Weisbord abandons the idea of a straightforward research project (she cannot read Das's work in Malayalam). Although she structures the memoir chronologically through their mutual visits to each other's homes, it is her reliance on the general drift of conversation that is the true timekeeper of the memoir. Scenes are set, transcribed conversations entered to be broken up by memories flowing in and out of Das's poetry. It's a stream of consciousness that sometimes confuses, more often enchants. It also means that Weisbord appears a little more naive than necessary about Indian and, specifically, Keralan culture and politics.
As the years pass, Kerala reinvigorates one, the Laurentians brings poetry back to the other. Yet a series of questions soon arise for Weisbord when Das appears unusually contradictory at a lecture at Concordia University in Montreal. Is Das all that she seems? Is she a reliable truth-teller? Or is she caught in a "high-wire attempt to balance loyalty to her family with justice for herself?"
Their mutual unveiling is gate-crashed when Das announces she is in love. Ever controversial, she is caught up in a maelstrom as, in 2000, she publicly announces her decision to convert to Islam and become the third wife of an Indian MP. Instead, Weisbord finds her abandoned by her lover, seemingly outcast by her illustrious family, surrounded by death threats and guards who may be militants, as well as a new crowd of sycophants trying to stage-manage her new identity as Kamala Suraiyya.
As Das finds a new lover, Weisbord appears to have some difficulty keeping up, seemingly unprepared for the fluidity of Das's life, particularly as she appears to flit among an assortment of spiritual beliefs. She simply wants to support her friend, and check her facts for what has now become her solo book project.
The Love Queen of Malabar is fascinating conversation between two strong-minded women, a narrative set in two countries and many cultures. It proves that none of us fit under one label or one identity, but are complex and contradictory and simply stuck with the messiness of our lives.
Piali Roy, a Toronto freelance writer, now realizes she should tweet more about her life.
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