From Krishna to Allah: Kamala Das Surayya

Kamala Das Surayya is dead. She, a Hindu by birth, converted to Islam when she was 65. She will be buried like a Muslim. Her words will remain alive.

The woman who wrote about Krishna transferred her attention and affections to Allah. Did it give her anything? I had written this open letter to her in December 1999 in my column questioning her; her passing away does not change my position:

Dear Kamala Das,

You’ve given up your name. No big deal. You were used to it. Madhavikutty for the Malayalees and Kamala Das for the English literature buffs. So you are now Suraiyya and I can live with that.

You’ve given up your religion. I should jump with joy over this. A pioneering poet discards paternalistic belief system. But you have gone bonkers. Krishna, who you accepted as your ‘husband’ when you were nine, has been given a new avatar. “I’m converting Krishna into Allah and making him the Prophet after naming him Mohammed. If you go to Guruvayoor now Krishna will not be there…he will be with me.”

Fancy that! And you, woman of the flesh, who thrust her bosom into our faces and made us want to suckle every drop of tempting nectar, to be satiated like houris ministering to our own needs, are now telling us that the man, even if he be in Lord or Prophet form, is the centre around which a woman’s world should revolve.

Where is the young girl standing naked in front of the mirror, every curve with expectation, skin slithering before the eyes, appraising every little texture, the light fuzz standing on edge? Where is the woman who tasted the honey on another’s lips or bared a breast for a man behind a bush? Where is the wife who tried all the wiles to get her husband and then, frustrated, went to others without trying? Where is the poet who wrote her lines like hot iron off the fire? Where is that model of hope who, even at an old age, left her hair loose, the black curls dripping water, the scent of jasmine embedded in their darkness? Where is the gutsy lady of the dark night of so many souls who licked her own wounds and like a bitch in heat went back for more? Where is she who spoke about these things as though they were so natural, and they were natural, but society has made them seem dirty enough that they have to be covered up?

Now you are clad in purdah, and since this is a personal choice taken with a good deal of thought, who am I to quarrel? But you say you wanted to convert to Islam for decades. What prevented you? Society? Your upbringing? Indecisiveness? Self consciousness? Fear?

Like an old warhorse you can declare, “I do not care about anyone’s reaction. It is my own decision. I have shifted all the idols and pictures of Hindu gods in my room into the guest room. Hindus have only hurt me, scandalised me. This is a new birth for me.”

But like an old warhorse you are also limping and missing those days when you galloped to the winning post, your blinkers on, which is why you talk sadly like a person not quite in her senses. “I have made a new discovery. Islam is the religion of love, it gives protection to women, and I need protection. I am an orphan. I have no one. Hindu gods punish. Allah forgives sins. I want a forgiving god.”

Aren’t you mistaking the acts of humans to divine intervention? Aren’t you being supremely selfish? Are you trying to say that every potential victim of sati, the devadasi system and dowry ought to convert to Islam – for forgiveness? What is the woman’s fault? What is the god’s fault? And by equating a ras-leela Krishna with an ascetic Prophet, you just might bring trouble upon yourself and then I’d like to see Allah come to your rescue.

Besides, you are insulting two religions. The one you are leaving for the reason you mentioned, and the one you are embracing because you need a convenient crutch – the children are away, you are a widow, you need love.

You who thought love was a faucet, always ready on tap, real or imagined, are now giving this banshee cry. What do you want? Is the grand matron of Nalappat feeling left out of the new orgy of words that are assailing impressionable minds to heightened levels of desire and destruction?

Like thousands of others I met you in a flaky book, ‘My Story’, and for a reason I have not been able to fathom, I did not think it was your story. It looked like an orgasm you had faked. If there was any admiration for you, it was because you spoke about it. You were soaking up your own wet dream like a sponge and, heavy with it, you would occasionally squeeze it out and it would spurt on us like a welcome shower in the summer heat.

Your poems were sharp, scalpel-like, but did you ever perform a surgery on your own life? I did not think I would ever feel sorry for you. But today I do.

I had found traces of you in me when I saw the endeavour towards an honesty that sometimes hurt others and often left us wounded.

Are you trying to make up for the price you have had to pay for yours? Are you trying to tell the world to go damn itself while you find a new god? When a maulvi will perform a conversion ritual, will you be able to exorcise the Radha in you? You as a woman have taken a bold step. We only hear about men who convert for reasons of ideology or to seek justice or the poor for financial bait. Or women in mixed marriages who go along in the name of love. You had no such compulsions and as per your own admission you have studied “some Quran” and written three poems about it. Will this release you from whatever it is you are seeking to escape from?

I am worried because people are bringing faith out in the open
and making a barbeque meal of it. The occult, the mumbo-jumbo is being cooked in full public view. Newspapers have columns about god being merciful. To victims? To the murderers? To the Chardonnay chachis who think sitting cross-legged on the floor is their gateway to heaven?

Why do you want to fan this dangerous trend? There is still time. Please do not convert, because I do not think you are in your senses. If you have found Islam wonderful, then remain a Hindu and bridge the gap between the religions, clear the misconceptions. Better still, give up your dependency on any organised religion (you don’t want to be cremated the Hindu way, you say, so make your choice – no one can stop that). You are famous, well respected and articulate. Reach out to others.

You are a creative person. Do not get trapped in ‘isms’. Don’t limit the expanse of your sky. Don’t let shame make you mouth patented ideas. I like your naked thoughts. And if you want forgiveness and truth, strip yourself before that other god – the mirror. It won’t lie. And you just might find you are looking at yourself once more.

- - -

“Krishna, I am melting,
Melting, melting
Nothing remains
But you.”

(Kamala Das)

“Ya Allah
I perceive the Prophet's features, as
yet unrevealed, on my beloved's
mien... Who but Mohammed would dare
to embrace a sinner and call her
Mother? I seek refuge in you, just
a moment or two, of forgetting,
for the weariest pilgrim of all
whose footfalls thumped the beaches, the hills
the proscenium of the brave old
cities of the world, where she strutted
singing of human love. Perfect her,
if perfecting is your task, this singer
who lost her voice, singing, this danseuse
whose fatigued limbs tremble. The icons
have all fallen. They lie in
misshapen heaps among the bushes
that sport dusty leaves, dusty flowers.
The temple bells have sunk into a vast
silence, a silence shaped like a paw
fallen on the city, cutting off
its breath and yet all I can think of
is my dear one's resplendent smile, he,
beloved of merciful Allah,
who has unhurriedly claimed me for his own.”

(Kamala Surraiya)


  1. My sister used to read her poems,I have not read any.These two are not very good.Her reasons for converting are not right as you say.May she rest in peace

  2. These were my personal views; there may be several others which may consider her position right. That Taslima Nasreen even said that Kamala Das regretted her decision, although her responses were monosyllabic. But Taslima has her own axe to grind. Yet, there will be people who will say, oh, only because Taslima does not toe the Muslim line. Well, in this open letter I have not. But Taslima knows how to get her way...

    Anyway, since this piece was rather long, let me give a link to a long video on the poet...


  3. I feel its all selfish motives of a person in all what he/she does. That's what Kamala Surraiya did. I don't blame her for doing that, after all she has the rights to try and learn about as many religions she likes and if she feels forgiveness is what Allah has in store for her, its her way of culminating even after death.

    As people change their food habits, their appearances, their attitudes, their surroundings, their temptations, and every possible materialistic desire, she tried to change her god. But she failed to realize that, if she can't get rid of her inner self, her very soul, then how can she get away with the creator of that, by merely changing the names.

    Really sad, but if she was constrained to do such a thing because of her fainting social repute, then its pathetic. This is what our society does to us, as a token of love to what we do to it.

  4. FV.
    I would have not paid attentionto to Kamla Das if not for NYT.it intrigued me ,her change of faith without having an overwhelming reason seems unusual.It did not look like a discovery of a seeker.But who am i .Your letter is quite nice particularly coming from a muslim woman.You reflect a typical Indian mindset.Wish there were more of you.

  5. Thanks Bush here!

    It is often difficult to fathom why people seek what they seek and whether what they have found is what they were seeking to begin with.

    "Wish there were more of you."

    You might regret saying it if you visit here more often :)


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