In this issue, we have chosen renowned bilingual writer and poetess Madhavikutty, popularly known as Kamala Das in the English world. She recently embraced Islam and adopted the Muslim name Surayya. Miss Das, 67, accepted Islam on December 11, 1999, and seemed untroubled by threats received from Hindu fundamentalists. Rather, she was overwhelmed by the support and compassion her decision has generated among others.
Ms. Das served as the Poetry Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, was President of Kerala Children's Film Society, chairperson of Kerala Forestry Board and Orient Editor of Poet Monthly. Her prominent works in Malayalam are many. Her English works include Summer in Culcutta, Alphabet of the Lust, The Descendants, Old Play House and Collected Poems. Her Ente Katha has been translated into 15 languages. Only The Soul Knows How To Sing was published in 1996. Some of the many awards Kamala Das has received are the Asian Poetry Prize in 1964, (The Sirens), the Kent Award in 1965 (Summer in Culcutta), Asian World Prize and Academy Award (Collected Poems). Her Thanuppu got Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for short stories in 1969. Neer Mathalam Pootha Kalam secured the Vayalar Award in 1997.
We are pleased to bring you the following excerpt from an interview with this amazing woman:
Did you convert to Islam to escape the after-death punishment of Hinduism?
Not exactly. I am against the Hindu way of cremating the dead. I do not want my body to be burnt. But this was only a minor consideration. I have always had a strong affection for the Islamic way of life. I adopted two blind Muslim children, Irshad Ahmed and Imtiaz Ahmed, and they brought me close to Islam. I had to study Islamic scriptures before teaching them. One is working as a professor in Darjeeling and another as a barrister in London.
I had discussed my strong feelings about Islam with my husband. He advised me not to treat the issue lightly. He felt religion could not be changed as easily as we change our clothes. He advised me to study it deeply and only then take a decision.
Of course, I did not study everything about Islam. But I thought about it a lot. I have been nurturing the idea in my mind for the last 27 years. I had been thinking about conversion for the last seven years, but put off my decision for one reason or another. Recently, I was traveling in a car from the Malabar to Kochi. I started the journey at 5:45 a.m. I looked at the rising sun. Surprisingly, it had the color of a setting sun. It traveled with me and at 7 a.m. it turned white. It just dawned on me the beautiful wonders of Allah. Finally, I got the message. I embraced Islam.
You also talked about life after death. Are you haunted by the fear of death?
One cannot ignore death at the age of 67. I have suffered three strokes and am afflicted by many other illnesses. I cannot afford to brush aside thoughts about death. I was advised to undergo a bypass surgery 17 years ago. I have not done it so far. I have difficulty in moving. I need assistants while traveling. But now, I feel I have got new strength. The thought of death no longer disturbs me. I believe Allah is there to take care of me. I have left everything to Him. So I have no fears.
You have said that Islam forgives one's sins if one repents. Do you require this kind of forgiveness?
It's a relative subject. I have done many things which others may construe as sins. As far I am concerned, they are not sins. I acted with full conviction. So I am not bothered about it. Even if I have committed any sin unknowingly, Allah is kind enough to forgive me.
How have your fellow writers reacted to your decision?
Some have disagreed with me. Many have appreciated my stand. Noted writer Vijayan rang up and said he was happy I had exercised my freedom. Poet Balachandran Chullikkad visited me with his wife. Overall, the response from my clan is not bad.
How do you view the diverse reactions that your decision to embrace Islam has generated?
I am not bothered about the reactions. I am concerned about my survival. I have to survive this situation and I will. There are people who disagree with me. But, as a whole, the reactions are favorable. I have been getting calls from all over the world congratulating me on my decision. I am touched by the kind of concern they have shown me.
What about the threats you have reportedly received from Hindu fundamentalists?
I am not frightened by these threats. The policemen had come to me offering security. I have refused to accept their offer. I have left everything to Allah. He will protect me to the last. I don't need the security of mortals, when I have surrendered myself to Allah, the biggest Protector. I am sure He will take care of me. Her son M. D. Nalappad, former editor of Mathrubhumi and former resident editor of The Times of India in Bangalore, said that he received a number of threatening telephone calls, apparently from Hindu extremists. One caller threatened that he would kill her within 24 hours.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad seems agitated because you have replaced Krishna with Mohammad. What do you have to say about that?
They are free to form their opinion. When somebody wanted to know what would happen to my commitment towards Krishna after my conversion, I said I would put Mohammad in the place of Krishna. As far as I am concerned God is an abstract entity and anyone can call Him by any name he likes. My critics should note that I have not called God by any name in my writing. I have always referred to God as an Almighty Power. But now, when I am convinced that Allah offers love, compassion, and protection, I prefer to call Him my God. No one has any business to interfere with my freedom in this matter.
Isn't your statement that women get protection and freedom under Islam at variance with reality, at least in India?
The purdah (Islamic face veil) that I wear protects me. I like the purdah which Muslim women wear. I like the lifestyle of Muslim women. Purdah is a wonderful dress. No man ever makes a pass at a woman in purdah. It provides her with a sense of security.
In Delhi alone, most of the offices have a woman worker to comfort the customers with a melodious voice. In the recently-held book fair at Pragati Maidan, female models in semi-nude were installed as a statue so as to attract and allure more and more visitors. The oglers thronged such venues and were in a hurry to touch their body. What a shame! A woman's body has become a commodity to popularize products. In a society where incidents of eye-teasing are on the increase, molestation in offices goes unabated, promotion is done only after a female employee entertains her boss, what a woman needs is nothing but protection of her freedom.
Will your strict adherence to Islamic laws impose restrictions on you as a writer?
As I said earlier, I've had enough freedom not only as a citizen but also as a writer. I don't want that freedom any more. Restrictions bring their own happiness. I want that happiness and pleasure.
Will you be visiting Mecca?
Yes, I will visit Mecca and embrace the soil of Madina as soon as possible. I have already received several invitations from Gulf countries. I am overwhelmed with the love and support I have gotten from several Muslims in the Gulf nations. They want me to visit the countries where they are working. I will visit some of these countries, depending upon my health and the audience I have to address. I don't mind sharing my experience with my audience. I have a lot to tell them.
How do your children view your decision?
Both my sons, Nalapat and Jayasuriya are already here. They want their mother to be happy. They have no other considerations. So I don't think they will have any problems. After all, ours is a family where everyone has the freedom to choose what they want to do. "She is our mother whether she is a Hindu or Christian or Muslim. We would be with her all the time," said one of her sons. I have embraced Islam. Let others accept what they think is correct.
What would your mission as a Muslim individual be?
I'd like to make this the religion of the new millennium. I will tell people the virtues of this religion and share the happiness I experienced after embracing Islam. I have no words to explain the contentment I feel now. I have never felt such happiness in my life. I feel loved and protected. I am an old person. I want this love and protection. I understand that a good Muslim should help others. I have been doing so and I am keen to continue it. Money cannot bring such happiness. I am an old person and don't want to keep money. I want to give part of what I have earned to others. You see here (waving to indicate her house), I do not have too many possessions. I have only the bare minimum.
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