Das, Kamala (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Kamala Das 1934-
(Has also written under the pseudonyms Madhavikutty and Kamala Suraiyya) Indian poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and autobiographer. The following entry presents an overview of Das's career through 2000.
Das is one of the best-known contemporary Indian women writers. Writing in two languages, English and Malayalam, Das has authored many autobiographical works and novels, several well-received collections of poetry in English, numerous volumes of short stories, and essays on a broad spectrum of subjects. Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, Summer in Calcutta (1965), Das has been considered an important voice of her generation who exemplifies a break from the past by writing in a distinctly Indian persona rather than adopting the techniques of the English modernists. Das's provocative poems are known for their unflinchingly honest explorations of the self and female sexuality, urban life, women's roles in traditional Indian society, issues of postcolonial identity, and the political and personal struggles of marginalized people. Das's work in English has been widely anthologized in India, Australia, and the West, and she has received many awards and honors, including the P.E.N. Philippines Asian Poetry Prize (1963), Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for her writing in Malayalam (1969), Chiman Lal Award for fearless journalism (1971), the ASAN World Prize (1985), and the Sahitya Akademi Award for her poetry in English (1985). In 1984, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Das was born into an aristocratic Nair Hindu family in Malabar (now Kerala), India, on March 31, 1934. Her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were Rajas, a caste of Hindu nobility. Her love of poetry began at an early age through the influence of her maternal great-uncle, Narayan Menon, a prominent writer, and her mother, Balamani Amma, a well-known Malayali poet. Das was also deeply affected by the poetry of the sacred writings kept by the matriarchal community of Nairs. Das's father, a successful managing director for a British automobile firm, was descended from peasant stock and favored Gandhian principles of austerity. The combination of “royal” and “peasant” identities, along with the atmosphere of colonialism and its pervasive racism, produced feelings of inadequacy and alienation for Das. Educated in Calcutta and Malabar, Das began writing at age six and had her first poem published by P.E.N. India at age fourteen. She did not receive a university education. She was married in 1949 to Madhava Das, an employee of the Reserve Bank of India who later worked for the United Nations. She was sixteen years old when the first of her three sons was born; at eighteen, she began to write obsessively. Although Das and Madhava were romantically incompatible according to Das's 1976 autobiography, My Story, which describes his homosexual liaisons and her extramarital affairs, Madhava supported her writing. His career took them to Calcutta, New Delhi, and Bombay, where Das's poetry was influenced by metropolitan life as well as by her emotional experiences. In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and autobiography, Das served as editor of the poetry section of The Illustrated Weekly of India from 1971 to 1972 and 1978 to 1979. In 1981 Das and her husband retired to Kerala. Das ran as an Independent for the Indian Parliament in 1984. After her husband died, Das converted to Islam and changed her name to Kamala Suraiyya. She currently lives in Kerala, where she writes a syndicated column on culture and politics.
Das published six volumes of poetry between 1965 and 1985. Drawing upon religious and domestic imagery to explore a sense of identity, Das tells of intensely personal experiences, including her growth into womanhood, her unsuccessful quest for love in and outside of marriage, and her life in matriarchal rural South India after inheriting her ancestral home. Since the publication of Summer in Calcutta, Das has been a controversial figure, known for her unusual imagery and candor. In poems such as “The Dance of the Eunuchs” and “The Freaks,” Das draws upon the exotic to discuss her sexuality and her quest for fulfillment. In “An Introduction,” Das makes public traditionally private experiences, suggesting that women's personal feelings of longing and loss are part of the collective experience of womanhood. In the collection The Descendants (1967), the poem “The Maggots” frames the pain of lost love with ancient Hindu myths, while the poem “The Looking-Glass” suggests that the very things society labels taboo are the things that women are supposed to give. In The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), poems such as “Substitute,” “Gino,” and “The Suicide” examine physical love's failure to provide fulfillment, escape from the self, and exorcism of the past, whereas poems such as “The Inheritance” address the integrity of the artistic self in the face of religious fanaticism. In Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (1979), Das invokes Krishna in her explorations of the tensions between physical love and spiritual transcendence. The Anamalai Poems (1985), a series of short poems written after Das was defeated in the 1984 parliamentary elections, reworks the classical Tamil akam (“interior”) poems that contrast the grandeur and permanence of nature with the transience of human history. Poems such as “Delhi 1984” and “Smoke in Colombo” evoke the massacre of the Sikhs and the civil war in Sri Lanka. In My Story, originally published in serial format, Das provides details of her extramarital affairs and her unhappy marriage to Madhava Das. She is also the author of a novel, The Alphabet of Lust (1977), and several volumes of short stories in English. Under the name Madhavi Kutty, Das has published many books in the Malayalam language.
Critical response to Das's poetry has been intimately connected to critical perception of her personality and politics; her provocative poetry has seldom produced lukewarm reactions. While reviewers of Das's early poetry have praised its fierce originality, bold images, exploration of female sexuality, and intensely personal voice, they lamented that it lacked attention to structure and craftsmanship. Scholars such as Devindra Kohli, Eunice de Souza, and Sunil Kumar have found powerful feminist images in Das's poetry, focusing on critiques of marriage, motherhood, women's relationships to their bodies and power over their sexuality, and the roles women are offered in traditional Indian society. Many critics have analyzed Das as a “confessional” poet, writing in the tradition of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Denise Levertov. Some scholars, such as Vimala Rao, Iqbar Kaur, and Vrinda Naur, have deemed Das's poetry, autobiography, and essays frustratingly inconsistent, self-indulgent, and equivocal, although they, too, have praised her compelling images and original voice. Such commentators have suggested that Das is both overexposed and overrated. Other scholars, such as P. P. Raveendran, have connected the emphasis on the self in Das's work to larger historical and cultural contexts and complicated, shifting postcolonial identities. Indian critics have disagreed about the significance of Das's choice to write of her experiences as an Indian woman in English; some scholars suggest that, in her shunning of traditional aesthetic form, she has created a new language for the expression of colonial contradictions. Despite disagreement over the aesthetic qualities and consistency of Das's body of poetry, scholars agree that Das is an important figure whose bold and honest voice has re-energized Indian writing in English.
Tharisunilam [Fallow Fields] (short stories) 1962
Summer in Calcutta (poetry) 1965
The Descendants (poetry) 1967
The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (poetry) 1973
My Story (autobiography) 1976
The Alphabet of Lust (novel) 1977
A Doll for the Child Prostitute (short stories) 1977
Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (poetry) 1979
The Heart of Britain (nonfiction) 1983
Collected Poems (poetry) 1984
Kamala Das: A Collage (plays) 1984
The Anamalai Poems (poetry) 1985
Palayanam (short stories) 1990
Padamavati, the Harlot and Other Stories (short stories) 1994
The Sandal Trees and Other Stories (short stories) 1995
Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das (poetry) 1996
The Path of the Columnist (essays) [as Kamala Suraiyya] 2000
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SOURCE: Blackwell, Fritz. “Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das.” Journal of South Asian Literature 13, nos. 1-4 (1977-1978): 9-14.
[In the following essay, Blackwell contrasts the use of the Krishna motif in four poems by the Indian poets Kamala Das and Sarojini Naidu.]
Traditional imagery in modern poetry in English
Let us consider four poems, two each by two Indian poets writing in English. The older of the two is Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), who is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken Wing (1915-1916). This first poem is taken from the second volume:
“SONG OF RADHA THE MILKMAID”
I carried my curds to the Mathura fair … How softly the heifers were lowing … I wanted to cry, “Who will buy, who will buy These curds that are white as the clouds in the sky When the breezes of Shrawan are blowing?” But my heart was so full of your beauty, Beloved, They laughed as I cried without knowing: Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! … How softly the river was flowing!
I carried my pots to the Mathura tide … How gaily the rowers were rowing! … My comrades called,...
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SOURCE: Raphael, R. “Kamala Das: The Pity of It.” Indian Literature 22, no. 3 (1979): 127-37.
[In the following essay, Raphael contends that Das's autobiography, My Story, is flawed but provides insight into the author's personality and work.]
David McCutchion says that Kamala Das, the Indo-English poet, uses the technique of free verse in her poems, the ‘originality’ and ‘freshness’ of which arise out of her personality. Roger Iredale says that “In many of the poems of Kamala Das there is an almost violent frankness that expresses itself through an outspoken use of languages as she explores the nuances of the personal relationship.” In a review article, K. Ayyappa Panicker says that Kamala Das's poetry deals with a distinctly feminine world, “the intensely domesticated but never tame or tepid world of man and woman.” He goes on to say: “In poem after poem there emerges the dark sinewy figure of femininity complaining of the failure of love: a wild shriek of despair fills every room until the walls visibly wobble.” Many critics have regarded Kamala Das as a confessional poet because she “has always dealt with private humiliations and sufferings which are the stock themes of confessional poetry.” E. V. Ramakrishnan says that the confessional poetry of Kamala Das not only avoids cliches of expression but also every trace of sentimentality and pathos even when dealing with...
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SOURCE: Kurup, P. K. J. “Revolt.” In Contemporary Indian Poetry in English, pp. 144-63. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Kurup offers a thematic and stylistic examination of the poems in The Descendants.]
In the second volume of the poet—The Descendants—the same existential despair of the self emerging from the failure to establish an eternal bond and to realise the meaning of existence is intoned, this time with heightened intensity. The difference here is that most of the poems in this volume provide evidence to her painstaking efforts for a fuller encounter with life. In a bid to receive the myriad impressions of life the self is exposed to life and to death which is the other part of life itself. This is one reason why critics like Devindra Kohli find these poems as death conscious and even death possessed. But if the entire poetic process of Kamala Das is viewed at as the constant preparation of her self for the ultimate vision, the death consciousness, felt through the poems in The Descendants could be explained more meaningfully. That she considers such a constant preparation as the reward for all her pains in surviving upon the earth is amply clarified by herself in My Story where she says “There is a hunger in each of us to find other hungers the basic one, to crumble and to retain in other things the potent...
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SOURCE: Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Terms of Empowerment in Kamala Das's My Story.” In De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, pp. 346-69. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Lim discusses My Story as a provocative and transformative work of women's autobiography.]
A popular approach to Western women's writings is to categorize the best of them as the achievements of exceptional women, women who were able to move beyond the sociocultural confines that kept other women “domesticated” and invisible. Such exceptional women forced a reordering and re-visioning of seemingly stable social relations and roles for women; their works, therefore, have been privileged in the canon of Euro-American women's literature.1 In Sappho, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath, Western women persistently find models of exceptional women to study and emulate.
Recently, the privileging of exceptional Anglo-American women has become open to interrogation in critical exchanges about the intersections of race, class, and gender and the sociopolitical implications of “sisterhood.” Bonnie Thornton Dill, succinctly outlining the racist and classist biases that have historically accompanied white American middle-class women's...
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SOURCE: Chavan, Sunanda P. “The Unity of Vision in the Poetry of Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, edited by Iqbal Kaur, pp. 142-49. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
[In the following essay, Chavan identifies the unifying aspect of Das's poetry, asserting that “the extraordinarily subjective nature of her vision establishes a vital link between her poems about private life, and about external life.”]
Due to its unusualness in the Indian context, Kamala Das's poetry has received a variety of interpretations from critics. But it is seen that the criticism has so far been primarily concerned with her poems about personal life, to the total or partial neglect of her poems about external life. For instance, Bijay Kumar Das seeks to divide her personal poems into three categories of positive poems, negative poems and poems about her grandmother and ancestral house, dismissing her poems about the external life as ‘a few poems on some minor observations’.1 Dr Harish Raizada tends to regard them marginal in interpreting Kamala Das's poetry because they offer merely ‘impressionistic images of certain sad and beautiful sights of life around her which catch her attention and fire her imagination’ when occasionally, the poet ‘comes out of her cocoon’.2 Anisur Rahman discusses them in a separate chapter, describing them as poems about...
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SOURCE: Raveendran, P. P. “History in the Anamalai Poems.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, edited by Iqbal Kaur, pp. 150-55. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
[In the following essay, Raveendran examines the role of history in the Anamalai Poems.]
The Anamalai Poems are a series of short poems that Kamala Das wrote during and after her sojourn at the hills of Anamudi in Tamil Nadu following her defeat at the parliamentary elections of 1984.1 Along with “The Anamalai Hills” which closes the group of poems dating from 1981-90 in The Best of Kamala Das (1991), this cycle of poems provides a peephole into the troubled psyche of a writer, third-world and female, and quite unsure of her position in a world growing increasingly mercenary. In as much as the seemingly unchanging Anamudi constitutes an escape from the ever-changing world of politics which Kamala Das wanted to get away from in the wake of her poll-debacle, these poems can be regarded as embodying a historical other of what politics implies. However, a close reading of the poems will reveal how they represent the historiography of their times, almost, in the words of T. W. Adorno, “unbeknownst to themselves.”2 Indeed, aside from providing a quiet retreat for dejected electioneers, the visibly superb peaks of Anamalai can also stand as a metaphor for the invisibility...
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SOURCE: Uma, Alladi. “What's in a Genre?: Kamala Das's My Story.” Literary Criterion 32, no. 3 (1996): 69-75.
[In the following essay, Uma investigates the genre of My Story.]
“My Story is my autobiography which I began writing during my first serious bout with heart disease” (Das 1991:v). The author herself has given us sanction to read it as an autobiography. So we proceed to do so, taking with us at first a lay person's understanding of what an autobiography is—factual recounting of one's life—and therefore we take whatever is written as sacrosanct truth. Then suddenly we realise that we are not “naive lay readers” but “sophisticated autobiography critics” who know the nuances of the genre. We start talking about memory, about autobiography being the creative retelling of one's life at a given point of time, about how there is no “the truth” but the truth of a given moment etc. And those of us who are concerned with issues of gender and of decolonisation read the text ever so closely to show we need different parameters to read and understand the text, that the tools for reading white male mainstream texts will not do.
Kamala Das serializes her life story at a time when she is seriously ill. She is therefore, we gather at our first level of reading, desirous of confessing all that has happened to her. We take all the details in—her birth, her...
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SOURCE: Harish, Ranjana. “My Story.” In Women's Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, pp. 213-22. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 1996.
[In the following essay, Harish underscores the novelty and appeal of My Story.]
This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books in my life time, but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of My Story has given me. I have nothing more to say.
In Virginia Woolf's view any woman who sets her pen to paper and adopts the writer's profession, like her, has to undertake two enterprises: “killing the ‘Angel in the House’ in her and ‘telling the truth about (her) own experience as a body’”. She describes an Angel in the House as an “intensely sympathetic, immensely charming and utterly unselfish” woman who “never had mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.” Killing this angel within one is no doubt difficult enough but telling the truth about one's body is perhaps the most difficult. Virginia Woolf herself succeeded at the first but, by her own admission, failed at the second. “The first—killing the Angel in the House—I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own...
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SOURCE: Kaur, Iqbal. “Protest against Sexual Colonialism: Kamala Das's My Story.” In Women's Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, pp. 223-32. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 1996.
[In the following essay, Kaur explores Das's attitude toward gender roles and views My Story as a protest against the sexual discrimination of women.]
Sexual colonialism refers to the relationship between the sexes which is ‘a relationship of dominance and subservience’. It refers to the relationship between sex and power and as Kate Millett puts it “Through this system a most ingenious form of ‘interior colonization’ has been achieved”. Men are the colonizers, the women colonized and as Simone de Beauvoir perceives it, the position that women occupy in the society is “comparable in many respects to that of racial minorities in spite of the fact that women constitute numerically at least half of the human race” (Parshley 9). She argues that “this secondary standing is not imposed of necessity by natural ‘feminine’ characteristics but rather by strong environmental forces of education and social tradition under the purposeful control of men. This … has resulted in the general failure of women to take a place of human dignity as free and independent existents associated with men on a plane of intellectual and professional equality, a condition that not only has limited...
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SOURCE: Manohar, D. Murali. “Man-Woman Relationship with Respect to the Treatment of Love in Kamala Das's Poetry.” In Kamala Das: Treatment of Love in Her Poetry, pp. 14-53. Gulbarga, India: Jiwe Publications, 1999.
[In the following essay, Manohar traces Das's depiction of the male-female dynamic in her verse.]
In the life of a woman or a man there are happy as well as sorrowful events. Neither the sorrowful events nor the happy events can be forgotten. In order to understand the man-woman relationship in terms of love in Kamala Das's poetry one could ask questions like:
a) What is man-woman relationship?
b) What is man's conception of his relationship with woman?
c) What is woman's conception of her relationship with man?
d) Is family/man/husband responsible for the woman's unhappy life?
e) What happens if there is no understanding between man and woman?
f) Is there any way to change the unhappy life to a happy relationship?
g) If there is one, what is it?
To answer the above questions I study Kamala Das's Poetry as a continuous whole concentrating on selected representative poems for close analysis, as it is not possible to analyse every poem or line that she has written during the long span of 1951-1993. For the sake of convenience I shall divide...
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SOURCE: George, Rosemary Marangoly. “Calling Kamala Das Queer: Rereading My Story.” Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (fall 2000): 731-63.
[In the following essay, George reads My Story as a “queer” text.]
… When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the Bedroom and closed the door. He did not beat me But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breast and womb crushed me. I shrank Pitifully.
—Kamala Das, from “An Introduction,” 1965
At this time my husband turned to his old friend for comfort. They behaved like lovers in my presence. To celebrate my birthday, they shoved me out of the bedroom and locked themselves in. I stood for a while, wondering what two men could possibly do together to get some physical rapture, but after some time, my pride made me move away. I went to my son and lay near him. I felt then a revulsion for my womanliness. The weight of my breasts seemed to be crushing me. My private part was only a wound, the soul's wound showing through.
—Kamala Das, My Story, 1976
Today, literary, critical, and feminist territorial boundaries are not as clearcut as they were imagined to be even a decade ago when modes of communication between scholars (often working on the very same texts)...
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Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Perfected Passions: The Love Poetry of Kamala Das and Judith Wright.” Literary Half-Yearly 20, no. 1 (January 1979): 116-30.
Finds parallels in the poetry of Das and Judith Wright.
Narayan, Shyamala A. “A Note on Kamala Das' My Story.” Commonwealth Quarterly 3, no. 9 (1978): 148-53.
Regards My Story as a disappointing and flawed autobiography.
Additional coverage of Das's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 59; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Poets; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 43.
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