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Merrily Weisbord. The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das. Gurgaon: Research Press, 2011. Rs. 395. ISBN: 978-81-73142-42-0. Trapped in an uncommunicative phase with her partner and in the middle of her own memoir that was threatening to become more real than her life itself, Merrily Weisbord sees Kamala Das and her poetry as a perfect, timely escape route. Merrily is an award winning Canadian author, journalist, film maker and broadcaster who writes and films what she knows best. She has written highly acclaimed books on the story of Canadians in the World War II, on Canadian Communism and on Sexuality and Aging. The irresistible calling of a distant poet with the latent promise of being the kindred spirit makes Merrily risk treading the unfamiliar turf with no parameters to gauge what happens next (3). This is a big leap of faith for a maker of a TV series (who always knew what should come next) broadcast in fifty seven countries. Her media projects, print and visual, are products of deft planning and she had total control over the material and its sequence. Kamalas poetry helps gain access to the person behind it and Merrily arrives at Kamalas doorstep with trepidation, unsure of what is in store. The fascinating experience of Kamalas warmth and friendship makes the open-minded Merrily to gracefully revise her initial plan of a joint memoir, the pre-travel agreement to a mutual partaking in the project. As long as reciprocal self-revelation was possible, her artistic intensions could still take shape. The artists could still hope to see the world through each others eyes. Merrily finds Kamala beguiling, enthralling, captivating, magical, and compelling. Kamala could not only cast a spell but also sustain her impact on


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people. The pursuit of Kamala by journalists, academics, admirers, and even detractors enhance her star-status. With Kamala as a palpable presence, Merrily revels in the embrace of love and redraws the mental blueprint of the collaborative project. She lets Kamala settle centre stage as the graceful love queen with no demands of coauthorship. However, the project was rife with challenges. Formulating a hypothesis the western way seemed woefully inadequate before Kamalas complexity. The systematic approach and methodical use of secondary sources seemed a hollow exercise before the vibrant subject. Merrilys elaborate homework with Kamalas writings falls a little short of adequacy in dealing with Kamalas ability to spring surprises. Kamala skillfully uses language to both conceal and reveal her emotions as it suits her best. She is consistently inconsistent and constantly contradictory. But Merrilys alertness and art of instant improvisation help in working Kamalas unpredictability to her artistic advantage. Merrily Weisbord proceeds with a directness and openness that suggest deep personal investment. Logic and consistency define one-dimensional characters, not Kamala. Merrily casts aside pretences of objectivity and irritable reaching after reason. Armed with lead questions and gifted with impromptu responses, she seeks more and more out of the resourceful Kamala and avidly collects the gems of expressions, priceless quotes even when read in isolation. The tape recorder is on for hours and takes care of Merrilys fear of losing the gems. What initially seems a check on Kamalas spontaneity is soon ignored by her as an inanimate witness. The Love Queen of Malabar is Merrilys sincere search for and an attempt to capture the real Kamala between the sound bytes. The memoir is replete with anecdotes. But the fear of Kamala getting lost in the


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copious transcripts and the anxiety to do justice to her spirit make Merrily rely on an animated Q and A as the memoirists mode of narration. At times the voices of Kamala and Merrily merge but mostly they remain separate and distinct. The reader becomes an eavesdropper of intimate conversations between two close friends in living rooms or restaurants. Locations change in the course of their evolving friendship. Kamala visits cold Quebec twice and Merrily visits the humid Kerala six times. But the subjects of discussion remain the same love, man-woman relationship, motherhood, female desire/freedom, sexuality and taboos. The responses of the writer-friends to the new landscapes and cultures find a place in the memoir but in both Kerala and Canada, Kamala remains the central theme. The memoir places Kamala in the context of the Laurentian extended family and also in the midst of academics in Canadian and American universities. It creates perfect acoustics to test Kamalas limits of liberalism and extent of conservatism. Another technique the memoir adopts is interspersing of Kamalas poetry effectively in the course of narration to enhance Kamalas image as a poet as well. The use of the poem, An Introduction, comes in handy to create an atmosphere filled with awe and expectation. The author maintains chronology of the friendship that lasts for almost a decade-and-a-half through significant events in Kamalas life. As familiarity grows between the two, Merrily seeks clarification, enters into mild arguments and uses Kamala as a sounding board for her own views on life, and even offers words of caution and advice to Kamala. From being a listener to the recently widowed Kamalas accounts of her past, Merrily becomes a trusted confidante and a participant in Kamalas present life.


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The Love Queen of Malabar that begins with the identification of similarities between the two women, lays bare the differences between them personal and cultural. Merrily is an avowed feminist who lives life on her own terms. Kamala, the proponent of free love prefers to be tethered by patriarchy. Their ideas of female freedom and physical love do not match. Kamala, a victim of an early, abusive marriage at fifteen to an older, gay husband and a victim of marital rape claims to feel protection in the husbands embrace and security in the institution of marriage. She challenges taboos regarding female desire but substitutes devotion for love in her own marriage. While Kamala does not understand why Merrily does not marry her eighteen year live-in partner, Merrily cannot understand Kamalas mourning the death of an abusive husband of more than four decades. In the status of a wife or widow, Kamala sees legal security. Ironically it is for legal protection of Kamalas property for her sons that Merrily warns Kamala against marrying her surgeon-lover. Kamala does not feel the urge to consummate the most romantic and sensitive love of her life with her husbands boss. Her mixed responses to love the platonic-spiritual-romantic combine sans the physical baffle Merrily. The extent of Kamalas dependence on the male to feel complete and glorifying the-male-as-protector do not fit Kamalas image as a sexual liberator and an emotional revolutionary. Contradictions thrive in her life and art. The memoir makes an attempt at cross cultural understanding of love and longing. As a genre, memoir depends heavily on memory and is therefore received with a degree of distrust. Merrily claims authenticity for her memoir by calling The Love Queen of Malabar a memoir of friendship. By labelling My Story her autobiography, Kamala established the genre as fiction and the persona as a sensation. The Love Queen of Malabar, the memoir, reinforces Kamalas ability to


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sustain the sensation even in her sixties. Merrilys sources are the accounts of the unreliable narrator. Truth according to My Story need not be truth according to The Love Queen of Malabar. Both are tales of transgression because Kamala saw herself as a transgressor and projected herself as one in youth, middle age, and beyond. Transgression was a performance she loved. In such a performance, where does truth end and fiction begin or when does fiction end and truth begin? After all, truth is what one experiments with, and it entertains versions. Knowing Kamala has a degree of disadvantage in analysing this memoir written by a close friend. Subjective understanding/ misunderstanding of Kamala intervenes and hinders buying the idea that Kamala decided on conversion at sixty-seven to marry a Muslim lover for sexual fulfillment. For the love queen, it could be an extension of her fantasy, the Sayeed-Suraiya bond another manifestation of the Krishna-Radha bond. Sex is a cerebral component that resides in her head and her quest for love is eternal, never illicit. The eternal romantic pursuit of the unavailable man offers scope for idealization. Those who have enjoyed Kamalas warmth and friendship are familiar with her propensity to shock her listeners with her nothingbut-the-truth tone. She is at her creative best in casual conversations. Her stories improved with each narration. When she sensed that her lies pleased the listeners, she was generous with them. The glint in the eyes of a nave listener was inspiration enough for her priceless statements that refuted themselves when emotion warranted it. She never limited herself in order to be consistent. Stories are more valuable than their authenticity or their connection with earlier ones. Thus The Love Queen of Malabar is a narrative about creative process and the art of story-telling.


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Most importantly, The Love Queen of Malabar is a celebration of friendship between two renowned writers. From seeing Kamala as a co-subject in relation to herself, Merrily soon makes Kamala her close friend and then sister. Setting aside her lucrative projects, Merrily takes up complete authorship of the memoir. Kamala writes about her friendship and experiences with Merrily in her magazine columns. Merrily gives her own self-portrait a subdued place in the memoir in relation to Kamala. She is concerned about Kamalas fading vision and indifferent health and gives support to help Kamala continue with her creative work. Both have inspired and sustained each others writing career. With the entry of Merrily into her life, Kamala resumes her creative writing given up after her husbands death. Merrilys response to an irresistible siren calling transforms itself into a mature friendship. Initial impulses and inclinations eventually guide selfexploration and self-examination. Kamala trusts Merrily with details of her life which is both a privilege and a burden. Loyalty in friendship is paramount to Merrily. She works with strategic selectivity. She does not rush to the press on completion of the manuscript in order to take advantage of the sensational value of the still living poet Kamala. She delays publication, as promised. The book moves between truth-telling and clarifying. It affirms Kamalas image as a transgressor but also upholds her as an eternal giver of love. Merrilys step-mother admits that Kamala is so powerful that she wraps herself around your heart. That best explains Kamalas impact on friends of any culture. Though vilified by some, in life and in death, people fought over Kamala to claim her as their own. The Love Queen of Malabar establishes that age cannot wither Kamalas star-status. Passage of time has done nothing to diminish her greatness or take the sheen off the tantalizing queen. Her


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proclaimed celibacy in the forties caused as much flutter as her announcement of sexual awakening in the sixties. She loved theatre where she created and savoured scandals about herself. People loved her or decided to hate her but could not ignore her. She never had to fear indifference at any point in life. Contesting the elections as an independent candidate, or taking on the purdah for love, are markers in her continued ability to spring shocks and propel herself to stardom. Her puritanical background (and her being the daughter of the revered poet, Balamani Amma) added more shock value to Kamalas performances both in life and in art. The Love Queen of Malabar a finalist for 2010 Writers Trust Non-Fiction Prize, for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, and for the QWF Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction well-captures Kamalas charisma and conversational brilliance. The get-up of the book with its attractive cover does justice to Kamalas captivating looks and enduring appeal. The reader and the author accept the impossibility of separating Kamalas poetry from her personality, her fantasy from reality, her experience and expression of the physical from the spiritual, her autobiography and authorized memoir from fiction. Binaries collapse before Kamala and boundaries erase themselves. Is Kamala a victim or a rebel or both? With a stubborn refusal to be categorized or labelled, the love queen continues to reign in absentia. This memoir is an engaging and compelling narrative that leaves the readers wanting more.