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Charles Taylor Prize

Exclusive excerpt: The rebirth of Kamala Das's passion Add to ...

This is the third of a series of excerpts from the five books nominated for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize. We will present one every day this week. The prize will be awarded next Monday (Feb. 14) in Toronto.

I get an Indian visa and fly to Cochin. Jet-lagged and tired, I open myself to laughing, entrancing Kamala in burqua and black. Lulled by her lilting Malayalam, I follow the bewitching movements of her slender brown arms, elegant fingers curling and extending, palms opening, arms rising, hands circling, punching the air, reaching out. Her hands perform a hand dance, hand mime, hand directions, hand tones, resting just a beat before the next arabesque.

I notice too that Kamala's posture and body language are looser and more relaxed than on my last visit. There's more laughter in the house and she looks radiant - dark eyes bright, full lips puckering, gold on neck, diamonds in nose - her face dramatically framed by a regal, high-capped, black chador.

Whatever her new conversion reality, Kamala's warmth to me is unchanged. She shows me a shiny silver cell phone resting like an idol on a pedestal, and says it is a gift from thirty-eight-year-old Sadiq Ali, Islamic scholar, national Muslim League MP from Malabar, and her absent lover. All day she wears the phone on a gold belt slung rebelliously around the waist of her black dress, keeping the line open and, as he requested, "dedicated to our love." As her bangles flash and her visitors delight, Kamala listens for the phone strapped to her body, longing for Sadiq Ali to call. And when the visitors leave, she tells me that after their first meeting, he called for days, at midnight, every night.

"After my husband died, I found myself insecure and totally untethered. I lost my zest for life," she says, beginning her love story. "Even in this supposedly modern age, Hindu widows are regarded an inauspicious sight. They're not the right omen at the beginning of any journey. They're lacklustre, like a mud lark. They can't fly. They drag their wings in the mud."

She had spent decades being celibate, extolling its virtues, "carrying my body around like a corpse," accepting loneliness as the permanent climate of her life. "In a sense I was lying in wait for death. Everything seemed to be dead, or deadened, even poetry. I shrank pitifully, feeling diminished for no fault of my own."

Then Sadiq Ali asked Kamala's cousin to arrange a meeting. Kamala gave him a two-hour appointment, and he drove five hours from his small town to Cochin.

"He sat at my feet laughing the attractive, reckless laugh of a monarch. He was a preacher who delighted large audiences with ballads and narratives lasting five hours. He held his listeners in a spell with his four-octave range and a pure voice that resembled a newborn's cry."

Sadiq Ali charmed Kamala with his eloquence, scholarship, rough wavy hair, white teeth, and "smile of wondrous innocence." He asked if she would permit herself to be photographed with him, and they posed on the cane sofa, nibbling on plum cake, laughing together. "I no longer recollect the topics of our first conversation, but laughter entered our home as spontaneously as sunshine that morning, filling each crevice of emptiness."

"Feed me," Sadiq Ali requested playfully, when Kamala allowed the two hours to stretch into lunch.

"But I cannot touch your lips," Kamala responded. "A staunch vegetarian like me would never touch the mouth of a mlecha [flesh eater]" she said.

"Then I will feed you," Sadiq Ali offered, breaking food into small pieces.

By the time he left Kamala's home, his flirtatious play had stirred long-buried feelings and desires. "For many years I had not witnessed the blush spread on the cheek of a young man finding himself embarked on a new love."

And it had been many decades since she had felt desire, that slow ache in the abdomen, blood surging as on a fast-moving swing.

Excerpted from The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, by Merrily Weisbord. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Monday: Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, by Ross King Tuesday: The Geography of Arrival: A Memoir, by George Sipos Wednesday: The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, by Merrily Weisbord Thursday: On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women, by Stevie Cameron Friday: Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran

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