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July 19, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Kamala Suraiya

'Allah told me that in order to be effective, you should have political power'

kamala Suraiya Kamala Suraiya (Kamala Das and Madhavikutty in her pre-Islamic days) continues to shock the straight-laced Malayalees. One of India's best-known English poets and shortstory writers, Suraiya, who abandoned Hinduism to convert to Islam last December, launched a national political party last week.

Christened as the Lok Seva Party, the new political party, she says, emerged from her conviction that social change could be possible in India only through political power. But Suraiya, 68, and with near-blind eyes puts forward another reason that compelled her to embrace the political vocation -- Allah. "Allah inspired me to launch this party," she says. Before embarking on the political mission, Suraiya says she carried out three months of meditation and prayer before Allah.

Suraiya has been shocking conservative Indians for many years now. It all began with her autobiography, My Story, which told the story of her sexual life, her relationships with men and her views on the world. Then, in the 1970s, Keralites saw an active Madhavikutty entering into politics with a green campaign. She contested the assembly election, traversing the countryside, asking for votes from people in villages. She lost, but that did not deter her from kicking off another controversy -- through nude paintings of young females. Thus when Madhavikutty released her first nude painting in the 1980s, she proclaimed: "I find the nude female body the most beautiful in the world." So her diverse paintings depicting nude females shocked the Malayalees again. Then, on a fine day in December last year, she wore the purdah and bangles and announced that she has converted to Islam.

In an exclusive interview with Senior Associate Editor George Iype, Suraiya, clad in a black purdah and her hands adorned with colourful bangles, spells out how her conversion to Islam forced her to take the plunge into political life.

What compelled you to launch a political party?

The degeneration of the present set of political parties is the main reason why I decided to start my own party. We have to give truth some importance in political life. I have given truth a special status in my life. So it pains me when our political parties continue in the most degenerated forms. But what is gladdening is that a number of youngsters came to me with a request to start a political party. These youngsters, most of them college boys and girls, are tired of the falsehood and avarice which politicians display in great abundance these days. I thought it might be a good reason to start a political party.

Who really inspired you to start this political party?

God. My Allah. We all have some god within us. It is Allah for me. It may be Jesus Christ for you.

In 1984, you had contested an election and lost. Looking at your political experience, don't you think it was imprudent on your part to launch a political party, especially at this age?

I contested elections soon after I came to settle down in Kerala. Till then I had been living in north India and so I was not a very familiar figure in Kerala. I had no popularity at all. In fact, Malayalees disliked me after reading my book, My Story. Now I feel that experiment into political life should not have been conducted. I fell to the pleas of my friends who thought that I stood a chance in the elections. But now I feel that unless you wield some political power, you cannot do anything in India. You will always remain disadvantaged.

Do you think you can survive as a politician now?

I cannot even survive as a human being these days because I am old, I have diabetes and I am almost blind. But truth must survive. Some two months ago, when I began to stress these aspects of truth, people said that you cannot speak the truth, you should not speak the truth. I told them that there is no point in going into the labour room and telling the woman who is in labour, don't deliver the baby. The baby has to be delivered when the time comes. So truth will be delivered again and again, whether you like it or not. My political party will deliver the truth.

What are the aims of your party?

The only aim is to help the disadvantaged and the poor. I was shocked to hear last month that somebody had died of starvation in Kerala. If the media had reported the hunger, the abject poverty within such homes, I would have rushed to those homes with rice. But the media reported it after the death occurred.

I have a grudge against the media too. They waste a full page for films quite often. They advertise forthcoming films as if we eat and live by films. A foreign woman coming to India and marrying an Indian boy is big news for the vernacular press. But people living without food, water and the basic amenities of life are never given proper coverage by the media. If the media had reported that there was poverty in Kerala, mothers like me would have rushed with rice to that place.

When I read about the starvation deaths, it stirred up my mind for some action. It affected me deeply. Then I went into a long prayer at night. I went into many hours of meditation. Then god told me that if you have to be effective, you should have political power. It is not enough to have spiritual powers alone. You need to have political power too.

Is your party only for women?

No, no. It is a party for all. Of course, women are weak. Therefore, the party gravitates towards women. That is all. Many old people and youngsters have joined the party. They want a crutch with which to stand up in society. My party will give them that.

Do you also plan to contest the election?

My friends are compelling me to contest elections, especially the assembly election in Kerala next year. But then I am too old and infirm to contest elections. I am not in the right physical condition. But I can campaign for them. I can go around and make speeches for them.

Is there any link between your conversion and the launching of the political party?

There is a strong link between my conversion to Islam and the political party I have launched. I became conscious of a god only after my conversion. I always had a concept of Krishna within my mind. But Krishna is a lover, a friend, a playmate. Krishna is not the sort of a Hindu god to whom we can pray and appeal. It is probably because of my ignorance. No, guru ever came to teach me the Hindu scriptures. But I began to practice namaz five times every day, a practice which is not there in Hinduism. These days I get up at 3 am every day and pray. That prayer has given me strength and faith which I never had before.

So you never felt this strength and faith as a Hindu?

For me, all gods are the same, whether you are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or anyone. I believe in the concept of god. For me, god is the guardian.

Do you think that these changes taking place in your life are out of your conviction?

My conviction is growing. Islam has grown on me. In the beginning I was not at all religious. Now I am really religious because of Islam.

Are you happy with your new religious status? Are you happy with your new life as a Muslim?

If happiness is the negation of unhappiness, I am happy as a Muslim.

You had said you were depressed and disappointed as a Hindu all these years. What were the reasons behind this disappointment?

I was disappointed because I found that Hinduism was full of prejudices. It is not only the case with Hinduism but with most other religions too. And the prejudices keep growing. It is very difficult for youngsters these days to escape from the poisoning of the religious prejudices. Therefore, what worried me was the fact that youngsters moving into the dark areas of prejudices and superstitions. For the last two or three years I have moved around feeling and saying that all religions have crossed their expiry date. We can do without religion if we have a sense of god within us.

I have achieved this sense of god within me. Later on, to make myself feel more secure and safe, I moved into a new religion. I feel secure now. The feeling of security is growing. It is influencing me now.

Is there no prejudice in Islam?

There are people with prejudices in Islam too. But then, as I have always done, I am trying to dispel such prejudices. This is a kind of fight, a lonely fight, against these beliefs and superstitions. I cannot believe in religious superstitions.

When you converted you said that Hindu gods never forgive, they only punish.

My problem with Hinduism was that no religious scholar helped me to solve my problems. Hindu scholars have only abused and hurt me. Therefore, I felt uncomfortable in the religion. I am an ignorant person. I had wished a number of times for somebody from Hinduism to come forward and help me. But nobody came.

That is not the case with Islam. Muslim scholars are always moving around trying to teach the tenets of Islam. I have never seen a Hindu religious scholar or teacher moving around houses saying: "Well, I will teach you the scriptures."

Have traditional Muslims accepted you?

They did accept me in the beginning. But now it seems as if they do not trust me because I have this habit of talking straight. I have said this before and continue to say it even now that the Muslim League's women's wing Vanitha League is a cattle shed and all of them are just cattle with no voices. I was criticised by traditional Muslim leaders then. Now that I have started my own political party, that too has also rattled them. And if I field my candidates in the elections, they will be shocked even further.

Has Islam restricted you?

I chose the religion out of my convictions and therefore I am ready to work within the constraints and restrictions of Islam. Religion cannot chain one's creativity. Islam is tolerant. Allah is the god of love and forgiveness. My mind tells me that Allah has forgiven me my sins. People ask me why a liberated woman like me chose the purdah. But I tell you, the purdah makes me feel more liberal. Because when you wear a purdah you can travel anywhere in the world and you feel safe.

Nobody is going to make any disparaging remarks against a purdah-clad woman because they are always afraid of Muslim rage. Behind every purdah-clad Muslim woman, some Mussalman is lurking with a dagger to ensure her safety. So purdah is always safe. It protects you. It also keeps the dust, the heat and insects away from your body.

You went to the Gulf countries soon after your conversion. What was that for?

I went to the Gulf on an invitation from some Islamic organisations. I stayed there as a state guest. In Qatar, I addressed an Arab audience of 10,000 consisting only of men. It was a marvelous experience delivering a speech to the Arab men.

You have been shocking Malayalees for many years now. When can we expect the next shock?

My political party has again shocked them. They probably think that I am indulging in some publicity stunt. But I tell you, I do not want to indulge in any publicity stunts. The minute I cross the border of this state or country, people love me. I am teaching at universities where I teach my own poetry. It is only within my own state that I get disparaging remarks. There are people who make fun of what I have written.

What is wrong with Kerala society?

I think they make fun of people. They make fun of achievers. You have to be very ordinary to fit in here. If you have talent, they will consider you to be abnormal, which I suppose is true in one sense. I think talent is an abnormality. Ultimately, the young people have taken me into confidence. College girls are coming and joining my party. They will grow up without prejudices in their minds.

Do you write poetry these days?

I do. But I am trying to write in Malayalam so that I get an immediate audience.

Does Allah inspire you to write?

Yes, yes, yes. Allah is always whispering in me. Allah is always prompting me to write. I must be having some mission to fulfill through my poetry and writings.

What are the books you are working on?

One is called From Malabar to Montreal. A Canadian friend of mine is collaborating with me on this book which is about women or the status and empowerment of women. I am going to meet my co-writer in Canada next week. I will stay with her for one month to complete the book. Then Harper Collins has commissioned me to write a book on Islam. It will be out by December. I wonder if I will be able to finish these books within the deadlines. I am almost blind and I have to dictate. I never expected to go blind so soon. But I do not consider myself to be handicapped. Allah is always with me whenever I write, whenever I travel, whenever I think and meditate.

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