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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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106
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, “Ho! let us dance, let us sing And wear saffron garments to welcome the spring, And pluck the new buds that are blowing.” But my heart was so full of your music, Beloved, They mocked me when I cried without knowing: Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! … How gaily the river was flowing!
I carried my gifts to the Mathura shrine … How brightly the torches were glowing! I folded my hands at the altar to pray “O shining ones guard us by night and by day”— And loudly the conch shells were blowing. But my heart was so lost in your worship, Beloved, They were wroth when I cried without knowing: Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! Govinda! How brightly the river was flowing.
The following poem is taken from the last volume:
“THE FLUTE-PLAYER OF BRINDABAN”
Why didst thou play thy matchless flute Neath the Kadamba tree, And wound my idly dreaming heart With poignant melody, So where thou goest I must go, My flute-player, with thee?
Still must I like a homeless bird Wander, forsaking all; The earthly loves and worldly lures That held my life in thrall, And follow, follow, answering Thy magical flute-call.
To Indra's golden-flowering groves Where streams immortal flow, Or to sad Yama's silent Courts Engulfed in lampless woe, Where'er thy subtle flute I hear Beloved I must go!
The second poetess is Kamala Das (b. 1934), generally acknowledged as one of the foremost contemporary poets writing in India. These poems are taken from collection The Descendants (1967):
At sunset, on the river bank, Krishna Loved her for the last time and left …
That night in her husband's arms, Radha felt So dead that he asked, What is wrong, Do you mind my kisses, love? and she said, No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?
The long waiting Had made their bond so chaste, and all the doubting
And the reasoning So that in his first true embrace, she was girl
And virgin crying Everything in me Is melting, even the hardness at the core O Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting
Nothing remains but You. …
A favorite motif of the medieval bhakti or devotional poets of India, as well as of the later Himalayan schools of bhakti miniatures, was the abhisārikā—a woman going to meet her lover, braving the elements, blackness of night, and dangers of the forest—including snakes and various categories of ghosts and goblins. She is, of course, Radha, or at least a gopi, and the lover she is risking life and social acceptance to seek, is Krishna. And it is all metaphorical of the soul's (Radha) quest for God (Krishna). Very often the poet identified himself with the heroine in the conventional signature line at the end of the poem. Even when not, however, as in Vidyapati, she was usually the sympathetic focus.
Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das, two twentieth-century Indian poets, have employed this approach in two poems each, with startlingly different attitudes and results. They are about fifty years apart and reflect the difference between two generations of poets, the first of which wrote in a manner which one observer, Prabhakar Machwe, has labeled as “the traditional mystico-romantic idealistic,” and the second as the “angry young.”1
The members of the first came to prominence during the freedom struggle, in which they participated. Naidu is almost a paradigm for this generation. She abandoned poetry for political action shortly after meeting Gandhi, succeeded him as president of the Congress party in 1925, was imprisoned in 1942, and became governor of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 1947. Her biography, fittingly, has been classified by the Library of Congress call number system with books on history and not with her literary works.2
Those of the second generation express dissatisfaction and disenchantment, even disillusionment, with the hopes and ideals that the first nurtured them upon. This has not resulted in a call for action, but rather in, as Machwe puts it, “the quiet acceptance of the fatalistic misery of the silent majority.” Das could well be the paradigm. While her poetry is often frankly personal, she does not lead a life in public as did Naidu, and little is known about her private life other than some intriguing rumors and speculation based upon references—oblique and direct—in her poetry as to her sexual interests and needs (in one, “Composition,” she tells us, “Reader, / you may say, / now here is girl with vast / sexual hungers, / a bitch after my own heart. / But, / I am not yours for the asking.”). One critic, Subhas Chandra Saha, has suggested that her poetry reflects a “transmuting [of] loneliness into sex-obsession.”3
Specifically in regard to the Krishna poems—or perhaps more properly, the Radha poems—Naidu's are nice little songs, pleasant through their rhythm and sound, and flowing. Those of Das, though much shorter, seem heavier; they are not at all “nice,” but intense and arresting, making maximum use of imagery. Curiously, while Naidu's is related in the first person, and Das's in the third, the latter's seem more personal. This is in spite of—or perhaps even because of—the religious and devotional nature of Naidu's and the literary and psycho-sexual nature of Das's poems.
The poets also reflect the century-old antagonism within Krishna-bhakti. Whether the Radha-Krishna relationship is purely spiritual or metaphorical, or whether it is as well physical, does one simply adore Krishna, or does she seek union with him? Do Jayadeva's Krishna and Radha indeed enjoy sexual congress in his Gita Govinda, as the Kangra miniatures clearly express, or is such an interpretation a misunderstanding of the nature of the religious metaphor, as the contemporary Hare Krsna people of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada maintain?
Das's Krishna and Radha are lovers; the understanding of the metaphor or motif of Krishna and Radha as being lovers seems to be taken for granted by her. On the other hand, there is no suggestion of sexual union as an object of desire on the part of Naidu's Radha or “I.” Her poems are not necessarily anti-sexual it is simply that sex is not a matter of concern in them; it is a non-sexual devotion that is expressed. While in Das's, the sex implies a deep and intense relationship, it is not devotional. Though both her poems, especially “Radha,” might imply a union deeper than the physical one expressed, I feel her concern to be literary and existential, not religious; I think she is using a religious concept for a literary motif and metaphor. The “melting, melting, melting” in “Radha,” one critic, Devindra Kohli, has suggested “is the allegorical embrace of the temporal and the eternal, and her sense of dissolution”;4 yet it seems to me reminiscent of a poem of Vidyapati's wherein Radha relates,
O friend, I cannot tell you Whether he was near or far, real or a dream. Like a vine of lightning, As I chained the dark one, I felt a river flooding in my heart. Like a shining moon, I devoured that liquid face. I felt stars shooting around me. The sky fell with my dress, Leaving my ravished breasts. I was rocking like the earth. In my storming breath I could hear my ankle-bells, Sounding like bees. Drowned in the last waters of dissolution, I knew that this was not the end.
Then the signature line:
Says Vidyāpati: How can I possibly believe such nonsense?(5)
W. G. Archer, in a note to the poem, found the line “I was rocking like the earth” comparable to a passage in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, “where a lover asks ‘Did the earth move?’ and the girl replies ‘Yes. It moved.’”
Further, while Krishna bhaktas or devotees were later to ascribe religious implications to Vidyapati's poems, Archer states that there is “no evidence” that Vidyapati was “a special devotee of Krishna,” nor even “a practising member of the Vaishnava cult. Indeed all his later writings,” Archer explains, “ignore Rādhā and Krishna and it is rather on Siva and Durga that he lavishes attention.”6 It would seem that like Kamala Das six centuries later, he found the Radha-Krishna relationship a good literary focus through which to express the intensity of the human sexual relationship.
But whether there are some sort of religious implications or not, Das's Radha is not a devotee, but a very human lover.
In context with “the burden of darkness” (as Kohli phrased it) in her other poetry, these two poems may be revealing of the almost paranoid concern Das expresses toward death. Naidu only makes one oblique reference to death, toward the end of “The Flute-Player of Brindaban,” and that is more in regard to contrasting heaven (“Indra's golden-flowering groves”) to hell (“sad Yama's silent Courts”)—the implication is that her devotion is so complete that she would follow him anywhere, and that even the shadowy underworld would be preferable to separation. In contrast, Das's “The Maggots” uses seven references to finality: sunset, last time, left, night, dead, corpse, maggots.
In summation, the four poems reflect the two differing approaches to Krishna—devotee or lover—as well as the polarization in twentieth century Indian poetry. Is death a matter of Indra's paradise and “Yama's silent Courts,” or of merely a corpse, nipped by maggots? Does worship and adoration of Krishna eternally fill the devotee's heart with his beauty and his music, or does he merely make love to one for a last time and leave? I suppose it would depend upon whether or not one hears the call of his flute.
Prabhakar Machwe, “Prominent Women Writers in Indian Literature after Independence,” Journal of South Asian Literature, XII, Nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1977), 146.
Padmini Sengupta, Sarojini Naidu: A Biography (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1966); the call number is DS 481 N25 S4. The call number of the volume of her collected poetry, The Sceptred Flute: Songs of India (Allahabad: Kitabistan, 1969; first printed 1943) is PR 6027 A53 S4 1969.
Subhas Chandra Saha, Modern Indo-Anglian Love Poetry (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1968), p. 24.
Devindra Kohli, Virgin Whiteness: The Poetry of Kamala Das (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1968), p. 24.
Love Songs of Vidyāpati, trans. Deben Bhattacharya, ed. with intro., noted and comments, W. G. Archer (New York: Grove Press, 1969), p. 44.
Ibid., p. 35. Of course, Archer's opinion is not beyond dispute; e.g., Edward C. Dimock, Jr., refers to Vidyapati as a Vaisnava in his article “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal,” in Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes, ed. Milton Singer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 43.
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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 the most intimate personal experiences. Her poetry is the outcome of a struggle to relate her private experiences with the larger world outside—it is a struggle to maintain her personal identity.
Kamala Das's poems deal with her own personality. “In her poems Kamala Das lays bare her hesitations, failures, ignorance, shame and feelings of guilt since all of them wear the stamp of her personality. There is no attempt to idealize or glorify any part of the self. One of her long poems, ‘Composition’, embraces such diverse moods as passionate attachment, agonizing guilt, nauseating disgust and inhuman bitterness. In ‘Blood’, self-questionings and self-assertions intermingle to form the dominant confessional tone. ‘The Old Playhouse’, ‘In Love’, and ‘Gino’ begin with images of deep involvement in the physical act of love. But, soon, these poems slip into images of physical rotting, disgust and sickness, suggested by the poet's awareness of the essential futility of her experience,” says E. V. Ramakrishnan.
That brings me directly to the problem of my enquiry, namely, the poetry of Kamala Das derives its value from her personality. The problem is vaguely stated by I. K. Sharma in his review of Devindra Kohli's Kamala Das (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1975) which appeared in The Journal of Indian Writing in English (Vol. I, No. 1, January 1977, pp. 69-70). Sharma complains that Kohli's book does not give us a sufficient picture of the life-story of Kamala Das. The charge is a serious one inasmuch as an understanding of the private life of Kamala Das is an absolute necessity for an understanding of her poetry. However, the task of understanding her life-story is made simple by Kamala Das herself in her autobiography.
Kamala Das's My Story seems to have created some sort of a sensation among the reading public and the controversy with the publisher seems to have contributed much to its publicity. However, anyone who wants to get at the personality of Kamala Das should read this little autobiography.
An author is a public possession, and his or her life-story, when written sincerely, does fill a social as well as aesthetic function. Besides, critics tell us that the first duty of a good student of literature is to establish a friendly and personal relationship with the author. I am, therefore, perfectly within the pale of aesthetic criticism, when I try to find out for myself if Kamala Das has a personality rich, experienced and mellowed enough to venture upon an autobiography.
It must be noted that not all can write autobiographies. Before writing his or her ‘story’, the autobiographer must have lived his or her life fully. Every human being leads a twofold existence: the inner or subjective world of meditation, introspection, beliefs and convictions, and the external or objective life of adventures structured in a chronological or historical order. A genuine autobiography should be much more than a book of deeds of externalized adventures; it must also explore the world of inner consciousness. Actions and events taking place within the phenomenal universe have their use, but an autobiographer should also concentrate upon the personal world, and recognize the phenomenological or external world as being important only insofar as it lends significance to the inner world of emotive or spiritual values.
That means that the autobiographer must have lived his life according to certain noble principles and ideals. The struggles and tribulations that such a person encounters in upholding these principles and the joy and satisfaction connected with their achievements alone can make the autobiographer's life worth reading. The autobiographer must, therefore, live not only his or her private life, but also that of his or her age. My Experiment with Truth is the autobiography of a man who lived ‘fully and entirely’ not only his private life but also the life of his age: Gandhiji's Experiment will live as long as humanity lives, because mankind has a great fascination for truth; Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian tells less about himself than about the age in which he lives and the historical forces that made it to be what it is today. Chaudhuri is so alive to his social and cultural environments that his Autobiography remains “a refreshing and many-pronged attack on that nebulous phenomenon called the British Empire in India,” says K. Raghavendra Rao.
St. Augustine's Confessions is the first completely honest self-analysis in the history of literature. Book XI of the Confessions is pure philosophy. And Augustine was not always a philosopher: he was a pleasure-seeking profligate and a lascivious philanderer, sexually more deviated than Kamala Das. Yet his Confessions lives, not because he narrates his own vices and sins of the flesh but because his life was a quest after perfection. For instance, he sought his salvation in Manichaeism and then wanted to establish himself as a rhetorician. Both these he gave up. Finally, he discovered his real self in Christianity. I am not insinuating that one can discover one's true self only in Christianity: one could equally discover one's self in any religion or in any ideology. The important point is to discover one's self—which is neither pure flesh nor pure spirit—because as long as one does not know one's real self, one wallows in ignorance.
Thus, Cardinal Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua is a passionate defence, by the leader of the Oxford Movement, of the roads he took in his chequered march towards Truth. It is the story, once again, of his intellectual development and conversion to Catholicism. The Apologia pro Vita Sua “is among the greatest autobiographies of the world,” says George Sampson. W. B. Yeats's autobiography is called A Vision, “and that book is an attempt to let Western civilization, or the mind of the race itself, write its own autobiography; at that period in his life Yeats tried to find in the structure of history the structure of his own personality,” says Daniel Albright in the Preface to his book The Myth against Myth.
None of these elements find any place in Kamala Das's Story. It is not the story of the unfolding of a great personality. There is no element of quest, spiritual or otherwise, no ideological confrontation. The structure of her Story may be analogically spoken of as a passage from ignorance of her flesh to a knowledge of it: at the beginning of her story she felt that she was incapable of enjoying sex and looks suspiciously at her husband who enjoys it. But there soon came a stage when she did learn to enjoy orgasmic pleasure. And once she learnt that, she went after quite a number of strong men to satisfy the demand of her flesh.
Apart from her ‘sex-story’ there is nothing enduring and endearing about Kamala Das's Story. Kamala belongs to the Nair caste, of which she makes a few pejorative remarks, such as ‘the Nair males are violent in temper’ and that they are crude when sexually aroused. She seems to have not loved any one, including her parents. She is the type of unhappy soul who wants the whole world to turn on the axis of her personality, and when it refuses, she condemns it. In fact, My Story is an emotional outburst of someone disgruntled, someone afraid. “My story is my autobiography which I began writing during my first serious bout with heart disease. The doctor thought that writing would detract my mind from the fear of a sudden death and, besides, there were all the hospital bills to be taken care of,” says Kamala Das in the Preface to her Story. Once the understanding was reached with the editor of a journal, she wrote her Story rapidly. “I wrote continually, not merely to honour my commitment but because I wanted to empty myself of all the secrets so that I could depart when the time came, with a scrubbed-out conscience.”
And what does she empty herself of so that she could depart with a scrubbed-out conscience? Surely not her spiritual anxieties, not her religious quest and not her ideological confrontations. Instead, she pours out from the cauldron of her personality her sensual longings and frustrations, humiliations and triumphs. It is not in her to sublimate any of her instinctive reactions for any nobler cause. Never does she seem to sit down for a moment to find out the real cause of her misery. As a result there is no structural growth in her Story. If at all we find a sense of growth in her Story, it takes the form of her desire to experiment with sex under the pretext of a liberated woman.
The editor who published her Story was quick to perceive the predominance of sexual motive in it. He, therefore, calls it a sizzling, spicy and lovable autobiography, the most sensuous life story ever written. The word ‘sensuous’ is ill-chosen: ‘sensual’ and ‘erotic’ would describe the book more appropriately. The dominant note of My Story is one of erotic self-pity. And if her apparently stormy life lacks conviction, the book as a whole lacks art and proportion.
One reason for Kamala Das's tendency to take shelter in sex seems to be her unhappy childhood. She ‘grew up more or less neglected’; her mother did not love her father. To her mother, her father was a “dark stranger who had come forward to take her out of the village and its security. She was afraid of her father and afraid of her uncle, the two men who plotted and conspired to bring for the first time into the family a bridegroom who neither belonged to any royal family nor was a Brahmin,” says Kamala Das.
Kamala Das is quite unhappy that, though her mother belonged to the royal family, her father was neither a Brahmin nor a member of the royal family. She, therefore, says that out of such an ‘arid union’ were born her brother and she. Even as a child, she was acutely conscious of her swarthy skin and lack of strikingly charming features. From these, she makes the most unjust generalization regarding her parents: “We must have disappointed our parents a great deal. They did not tell us so, but in every gesture and in every word it was evident. It was evident on the days when my father roared at us and struggled to make us drink the monthly purgative of pure castor oil.”
Kamala Das is full of complaints against every body. Chapter XIX of her Story makes it clear that she not only misunderstood her parents' motives but also positively disliked them. Here is an admirable example of how she could make unconsidered judgments regarding her parents. Usually, children complain of too much interference from their parents. Once Kamala Das came home with a heavy heart after a visit to her teacher's house. Her parents asked nothing about her visit. Perhaps they wanted not to interfere with her activities. But Kamala says: “They took us for granted and considered us mere puppets, moving our limbs according to tugs they gave us. They did not stop for a moment to think that we had personalities that were developing independently.” I should think that her parents did not ask her questions about her visit, because they respected her personality developing independently.
My Story then, is an autobiography, written as if it were a novel. The book reads like some of the ‘real life confessions’. A cloud of confessions hangs over us these days. Most often, these feminine confessors burst into a storm of erotic self-pity. Every woman seems to think that she is a potential Rousseau—innocent but wronged by a male. But to have Rousseau's impulse without his genius is not an enviable position. It was once considered desirable to learn how to live and how to write before attempting an autobiography. But now every school girl seems to have her confessions ready in her pillow case. And most often these feminine confessors do not confess, but only narrate certain tragic incidents in a raw manner designed rather to shock the reader and bring some sort of sympathy for their wronged selves than to ennoble and fortify the reader's soul.
An autobiography is an attempt at self-analysis. It is a very difficult thing to do objectively and honestly, because the narrator and the object narrated are one and the same. Honest self-analysis is difficult, because man lives a threefold life, the conscious, the unconscious and the subconscious. These three layers of the mind are so interdependent that even a normal person is not sure of the motive of a particular action. Even Rousseau's Confession is not accepted by psychologists as a genuine self-analysis, for although he wants to give us an honest picture of himself, “throughout the book he retains blind spots concerning his vanity and his ability to love,” says Karen Horney.
Rousseau is very frank in sexual matters, and so is Kamala Das. But their frankness in sexual matters only shows how ignorant they were of the other problems that afflict man. Of course, I do accept that sex is a very important factor in the development of our personalities, and that one must be absolutely honest towards it as towards everything else. But I do not believe that sex is the only important element in human life.
I said that the dominant notes in My Story are sex and erotic self-pity. This is also true of her short stories. Under the pretext of giving expression to her intimate experiences, Kamala Das indulges in pathetic exhibitionism and subtle eroticism. On account of her sexual frankness, some people have thought her a liberated woman. The truth, however, is that she appears to be a prisoner to her own passions and prejudices, and a single impulse reigns supreme, suppressing right reason, good sense and delicacy.
I feel that the theme of her autobiography and most of her poems is the failure to get satisfaction in physical union. Eunice De Souza says that the theme of her two collections of poems entitled Summer in Calcutta (1965) and The Descendants (1967) is “love, or rather, the failure of love or the absence of love.” She feels that Kamala Das treats her theme “with the obsessiveness of a woman who can realize her being fully only through love.”
For Kamala Das the word ‘love’ is an euphemism for sex. In her interview with Atma Ram (New Quest, No. 2, August 1977, p. 42), Kamala Das says that she regards ‘The Old Playhouse’ as her best poem. An Analysis of this poem will show how sex-charged her imagery is:
You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her In the long summer of your love so that she would forget Not the raw seasons alone, and the homes left behind, but Also her nature, the urge to fly, and the endless Pathways of the sky. It was not to gather knowledge Of yet another man that I came to you but to learn What I was, and by learning, to learn to grow, but every Lesson you gave was about yourself. You were pleased With my body's response, its weather, its usual shallow Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured Yourself into every nook and cranny, you embalmed My poor lust With your bitter-Sweet juices. You called me wife.
Critics agree that in the creation of a work of art, the element of the unconscious plays a decisive role. It often determines the symbolic thought-structure of the work of art. And Freud tells us that there are certain stock symbols commonly associated with the genitals. Anything that has the property of enclosing a space or is capable of acting as a receptacle, such as pits, hollows, caves, jars, bottles, boxes, chests, coffers and pockets, is used as a symbol of the female sex organ. Thus, in the poem cited above, expressions like ‘body’s response', ‘shallow convulsions’, ‘dribble spittle into my mouth', ‘poured yourself into every nook and cranny’, and ‘bitter-sweet juices’, all create an atmosphere of abnormal sex.
The poem says that she went from man to man in order to discover herself, hoping that these men would talk only of her. It is a selfish desire on her part, because the way to self-knowledge is self-surrender. Ironically enough, she accuses every one of them of having talked only about themselves.
It is my firm belief that Kamala narrates her Story with a view to capture the young. In no other way can I understand why she narrates so minutely the physical changes of puberty. It may have been an important stage in the biological development of her personality, but it contributes nothing to her literary self nor to our understanding of her: “My frock had large spots of blood on it …” I am of the opinion that the passage which starts with this sentence is in poor taste.
Kamala Das's poems and short stories are part of her own story. She could never go beyond herself and view things objectively. She was not able to distinguish between the normal self and the creative self. Most of her stories, as a result, are nothing more than a reworking of her autobiography. This is very much true of her ‘The Young Man with the Pitted Face’.
A careful study of her autobiography and short stories reveals that her life is motivated not by love, not by sacrifice, not by sympathy, but by a hunger for power.
Kamala Das is a passionate but careless writer. She wrote her Story in haste and did not give her imagination sufficient time to crystallize her themes. True, she observed other people's lives: but she could write only on those aspects which she lived and suffered. The world does not matter much, but the world of her mind does. It is a limited world, a sadly diseased world, the disease being physical, mental and spiritual. Most of her short stories, which invariably suffer from stylistic and structural flaws, deal with some sick women. Sita in ‘A Doll for the Child Prostitute’ dies of haemorrage; the heroine of ‘The Young Man with the Pitted Face’ has undergone two operations and suffers from cardiac condition when the story opens; the heroine of ‘December’ collapses with a sudden heart attack. With Kamala Das love is a disease, being mixed with an overdose of sex. There is no rationality in the sex-tangles of Alphabet of Lust; the sexual atmosphere of ‘Kalyani’ is too fantastic to be true. We never meet with genuine love anywhere in her writing. The reason may be that Kamala Das never loved anyone in her life genuinely. There is no tenderness in her, little sympathy but only an unhealthy pity. She is not able to present true marital relationship: either the husband or the wife or both are disloyal to each other. This is true of the heroine of ‘A Little Kitten’ and Alphabet of Lust. Kamala Das could never unravel the mind of a man or a woman. Her men are contemptible and morally weak; sexually they are always above average like the hero of ‘The Sign of the Lion’. Truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, charity, death, compassion—these eternal themes have no hold on her. She is a subjective writer not a romantic transcendentalist. There is no element of the sublime in her writing but only the ordinary and the contemptuous.
Kamala Das's writings lack intellectual content and even intellectual justification. They are the products of uncontrollable emotions, though she says: “Poets, even the most insignificant of them, are different from other people. They cannot close their shops like shopmen and return home. Their shop is their mind and as long as they carry it with them they feel the pressures and the torments. A poet's raw material is not stone or clay; it is her personality.”
Clearly, with Kamala Das, writing is a way of easing herself of her pent up emotions, a sort of mental purgative. ‘Each time I have wept, the readers have wept with me. Each time I walked to my lover's house dressed like a bride, my readers have walked with me.’
Kamala Das's stories and poems are disguised autobiographies. I am certainly not against a writer's making a creative use of his personal experiences. But one's marriage is not the same as one's experience of marriage. The one is a temporal event while the other is an eternal aspect of human situation. Thus, one's sufferings are not the same as one's experience of them. An experience can be an experience only when there is detachment. Kamala Das's failure to make this distinction has proved to be disastrous to her poetic art.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6198
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 fragments of one self.” The fact that she learned the futility of love from her experimenting with physical love has led her to the awareness that to reach her true self she has to grow beyond physical love. This is the freedom, the freedom which comes only by fighting the resistance caused by the physical body that her true poetic self hungers after. Poems in The Descendants present the effort of her poetic self to objectify the passions and to confer meaning on experience which tends to become universal. “In expressing herself she kills the dragons of experience and achieves a sublimated state.”1
The twenty-nine poems included in her second volume The Descendants with a few exceptions, are about love. Here again she deals with her story of personal anguish and dilemma in love with the same urgency and sincerity found in her first volume. Most of these poems are suffused with wrath and passion, with heat of an unrequited love and an unfulfilled desire. But, as I have already pointed out, a certain degree of impersonality is evident in the volume. Here one should bear in mind that the suffering of Kamala Das “is not a poetic fallacy but a truth realised in its bare form”.2 What she has consciously or unknowingly tried to achieve in her Second Volume of poetry is assimilating the highly subjective experience—the wages she has paid for her existence on the way of transcending her mutilated self—and thereby transmutating the pains of living into poetry which has something rich and universal.
Pain being the central and all pervading symbol to her existence, Kamala Das makes use of poetry as redemptive and as a metaphor of relief in order to transcend the aches of her lonely soul. This is one reason for the presence of metaphysical poise in most of the poems in this volume.
Like all modern poetry in the true sense of the term, these poems are metaphysical not in any of the commonly understood sense by being concerned with philosophy, but by being an exploration of the meaning of existence through the tangled impenetrable forest of everyday life.
In the opening poem “The Suicide”—a monologue addressed to the sea—Kamala Das lays bare her search for an answer to the most unanswerable question about life and death; how to conquer the anxiety, to learn how to endure life and face death, sustained by memories of moments of vision. The sea being the central image the poem moves on a pattern of dialogue and reflections. The Sea—the archetypal symbol of eternity—represents the poet's urge and temptation to negate all drudgery arising out of her emotional displacement, and to return to simplicity, perhaps through death. Confronting her own psyche she stresses the futility of human body and comes face to face with the question of the real nature of freedom. This perhaps is the absolute ideal that has been celebrated by poets and philosophers who have felt an obligation to accept nothing at its face value—not even freedom.
The Sea in “The Suicide” stands both as image and metaphor of her quest for a place of disengagement. Here, her poetic self is subjected to the conflict of the confessional poet—the conflict between the world as it is and the personal experience of the poet given in terms of the symbols of the body and the soul:
Bereft of soul My body shall be bare Bereft of body My soul shall be bare Which would you rather have O kind sea? Which is the more dead Of the two?
“Since the poet cannot disinherit either the body or the soul and live with one of them, the whole climax of the poem saturates into the idea of suicide where the agency which can take away one of them is the sea, and old symbol of timelessness.”3 The images of swimming and drowning in this poem hint at the possibility of liberation, while swimming affords a kind of illusory freedom, drowning releases the soul to enter the vortex of the sea. Initially the freedom offered by swimming was one of innocence. In the innocence of the childhood when body and soul were at home with each other there was no question of resolution of tensions and to swim was easy.
As a child she swam in the pale green pond alongside her Malabar house.
I swam about and floated I lay sparkled green and gold In all the hour of the sun.
Gradually the factor of growth intervened. Her grandmother's warning that she is now too big to swim naked in the pond put an end to her freedom. Yet she repeats the movement of swimming as an escape from the crisis emerging out of the sense of disorder within. To her swimming has always been a device for survival.
The only movement I knew well Is certainly the swim. It comes naturally to me.
As an adult, now she tries to recover the lost freedom to swim in the pond in her lover's arms:
The white man who offers Himself a stiff drink Is for me To tell the truth, Only water. Only a pale green pond Glimmering in the sun. In him I swim All broken with longing.
But every movement of swimming brings to her the realisation that the simple enjoyment derived from swimming in the pale green pond is impossible to achieve from love; for love like water is impossible to hold on to:
Holding you is easy Clutching at moving water, .....But to hold him for half a day Was a difficult task.
Instead of offering her a resolution of tension, freedom or power with the aid of ecstatic love, her attempted swimmings land her in the trap of sexuality. The only way to attain freedom from this trap is at the cost of life itself. Thus she contemplates drowning herself so that with the help of the sea she can cross the bars of her body and relax the soul:
Only the soul knows how to sing At the vortex of the sea.
It will be rather interesting, here, to compare and contrast the two prominent symbols in the poetic corpus of Kamala Das—the sun and the sea.
The sun which is at several occasions identical with the male body is the symbol of the force of destruction. It is an effective instrument to express her predicament resulting out of her continual desperate search of a green land or a pasture. Thus the sun is an imaginative equivalence to all the pains and sufferings borne by her upon this earth.
In contrast to this the sea that forms a part of her elemental symbolism which she uses in several poems in her second volume of poetry represents her desire to disentangle from the world outside and submit her soul to the sea. Thus the image of sun as a symbol found in the first volume The Summer in Calcutta is overpowered by the image of sea projecting most prominently her yearning for crossing the bars of one's own body and its lust in a bid to reduce the worth of living by merging the self in the great blue sea. Thus the symbol of ‘sea’ in The Descendants is more complex because the new recognition of the poetic self that “despite the positivity of ‘body’s wisdom’ the body itself is subject to decay …. Contrary to the blazing light and heat of the first collection, we have here a lurid darkness and a sense of melting of disintegrating into nothingness. And this makes her despair and sense of loss not only more complex but also unresolved because it involves a confrontation of the more inexorable and less private threat.”4
A juxtaposition, therefore of the second collection against the first with special reference to the symbols exercised in the two brings one to the discovery of the transformation in attitude her poetic self has undergone. Though I don't hazard calling it “growth” it certainly projects the evolution of her poetic self.
“The Invitation” and “Composition” externalise the dilemma of her feminine self caught in the typical conflict of the confessional poet between the movement towards the psychic wholeness and the yearning for disintegration. Unlike in “The Suicide”, in “Composition” the sea is not a ‘big flop’ like the poet herself, but offers complete uninvolvement. In “Substitute” it symbolises her moody memory, in “Invitation” a constant distraction, a nagging threat and a temptation towards negation and in “Convicts” the experience of post-sexual indulgence.
In Darkness we grew, as in silence We sang, each note rising out of Sea,
But there is one feature common to all these poems—the sea symbolises her central mood, her emotional restlessness intoning the self's confessional sense of the melting and disintegrating into nothingness.
Since her childhood the sea lurked into her memory. “It sank into her consciousness and she has been exceptionally aware of her oneness with the sea. ….”5 She always regarded the sea as a place of retreat from the time ridden existence. Thus ‘the sea’ which she uses lavishly as a symbol throughout her second volume provides with an objective correlative to her quest for that elusive entity—peace. While being caught in the irreconcilable conflict between two anomalies—the “body's wisdom” and the ultimate vision which she ventures to achieve from the sea—the cosmic water—, she is not without the awareness that for her tortured self the profundity of the ultimate vision is not easily achievable. The reason perhaps might be not only the sad fact that through her varied painful experiences she came to the shocking realization, that in the world which she accepted with rapture, there was only vacuum, but also the sadder fact that those experiences did not give her the power to chasten herself, and also to forgive herself. That is the reason—the lack of power to chasten oneself gained through one's experience—why I cannot regard calling her evolution as growth.
In The Descendants a number of poems bring to the fore her realization of the uselessness of her love-pranks. “Looking Glass” is a perfect example. Here she gives “a clinical analysis of the different stages of falling in love, the Machiavellian strategies to hold that love and the inevitable decline and fall of heart's empire. …. The poem does not merely celebrate the passions of love; it simultaneously views the climax and anti-climax through a bifocal vision”.6 Presenting the true realistic image of the lustful relationship between man and woman, the poet says that it is easy for a woman to get a man for physical gratification:
Getting a man to love you is easy Only be honest about your wants as Woman.
In a male dominated world a woman has to satisfy the male ego by admiring his masculinity and accepting her own feminine weakness:
Notice the perfection Of his limbs, his eyes reddening under Shower, the shy walk across the bathroom floor. Dropping towels and the jerky way he urinates.
But when it comes to emotional fulfilment the story changes:
Oh, yes getting A man is easy but living Without him afterward may have to be faced.
The Iyric, thus, is a psychic striptease of the woman poet who is denied the emotional involvement which she hungers after. The same sense of nothingness of man-woman relationship pervades the poem “Convicts”. Here lying “in bed, glassy eyed and fatigued” the couple ask—
What is The use, what is the bloody use?
wondering, whether, “This hacking at each other's parts like convicts hacking” is love!
And again in “Substitute”, when “I was thinking, lying beside him / That I loved and much loved”, the reaction of her lover shocks her feminine self:
It is physical thing, he said suddenly End it, I cried, end it, and let us be free.
Such traumatic experiences during her quest for emotional involvement with the partner, led herself to adopt a freedom which in its effect is rather suicidal than relieving. This freedom, she knows was her “last strange toy like the hangman's robe, even while new / it could give no pride.” What is her newly gained freedom?—
After that love became a swivel-door When one went out, another came in Then I lost count for always in my arms was a substitute for a substitute.
Such a physical and emotional experience of being a woman compels her to ask stunning questions as in “Conflagration”
Woman, is this happiness, this lying buries Beneath a man? It's time again to come alive, The world extends a lot beyond his six-foot frame.
and in “The Maggots”:
What is to the corpse if the maggots nip?
Added to this sense of futility and luridness or perhaps because of it, there is her obsession with “the smell of dying things” which in “The Wild Bougainvillae” had served her as a badly needed distraction from her mood of sadness and loneliness.
It is here that the self, disgusted with the physical experience of love (“How well I can see him / After a murder, conscientiously / Tidy up the scene. ….”) turns to the sea. The self expects that the death offered by the sea will be more graceful and less cruel than the death offered by her man—the feeling of “lying on a funeral pyre / with a burning head.”
“The Invitation” builds up the idea of the tension her feminine self is subjected to between the two modes of death, the one cool and the other warm, with burning head or between throbbing suns
Warm hollows where human sounds Never echoed, seas that whip the craggy Shores and mountains where darkness grows like ferns, To hide, to hide and save what remains of Pride.
The self devouring and the self-mocking nature of experience of sexual love makes her death conscious because the self is rendered lonely, empty, lifeless and sterile by the sex without love. There is no solution to this personal dilemma which arouses suicidal thoughts in her. It is at this stage that the sea comes up with the ‘invitation’ to eternal solace, comfort and redemption as against the force of oppression and exploitation of the domineering male tyranny.
While she feels,
I have a man's fist in my head today clenching unclenching—,
the ‘garrulous sea’ comes up with the invitation:
come in, what do you lose by dying?
which she eventually accepts because her death-obsessed self asks:
How long can one resist?
This in no way is romanticisation of death. Her autobiography gives ample evidence to her idea of death by self-drowning.
“Often I have toyed with the idea of drowning myself to be rid of my loneliness which is not unique in any way, but is natural to all. I have wanted to find rest in the sea and an escape from involvements”.7 No wonder a self, so preoccupied with death feels being enveloped by the fear of “the dying day” and sense of waste:
… like blood Running out And death beginning, this day of ours is helplessly ending.
The same predominant death—obsession is there all over the second volume.
In mud walled houses far away, old mothers weep who washed their son's Khaki uniforms and pressed them: They weep even while they sleep. .....To day some of us will rise and sing of love In voices never as sweet before, for love like life Is sweetest just before its end.
(“The White Flowers”)
If the feeling of private insecurity is so intense, how can a mother be capable of compassion even to her son? Hence the irony in the concluding lines:
Today I shall kiss crown of my baby-son's head And wish him a long life before putting him to bed.
(“The White Flowers”)
It is such intense sense of private insecurity added to the horror and violence she encounters all around her, as she puts ironically “My first school house / is now a brothel / and / the ladies sun themselves on the lawn”, that brings her feminine self “face to face with the sea”. Viewed in the light of this peculiar predicament, the self's ultimate craving for the “escape from cages of involvement”, is rather spontaneous. For her feminine self which is deeply concerned with the question of woman's identity, the ironical musings such as:
It will be all right if I join clubs And flirt a little over telephone. It will be all right, it will be all right I am the type that endures. It will be all right, it will be all right It will be all right between the world and me.
hint only at an impossible exercise.
The tips she gives to husbands and wives:
Obey each other's crazy commands Ignore the sane Turn your house into a merry dog-house.
might be practicable in other's case. But in her case such needs to conform to the conventions of a hypocritical society make only her feelings of emptiness all the more painful. Though she tries to convince that what she narrates “are the ordinary events of an ordinary life”, to her the true realization has already come, which she articulates through lines such as:
To be frank, I have failed. I feel my age and my Uselessness.
We are not going to be Ever redeemed or made new I am now my own captive
life is quite simple now— Love, blackmail and sorrow.
Her pronouncement that
I have reached the age in which one forgives all
lacks conviction. The fact is that it is not the “lesbians” but such awareness as
The only secrets I always withhold are that I am alone
that in my heart I have replaced love with guilt and discovered that both love and hate are involvements.
that are hissing at her now. It might be this peculiarly felt guilt consciousness that has made her look at involvements as cages.
Even Oft-repeated moves Of every scattered call Will give me no power to escape from cages of involvement.
To come to such a realization is surprising with her poetic self if one recollects her first volume, The Summer in Calcutta where it was the very involvement with the vaster world of varied colours that her all-absorbing sensibility had been yearning for:
But in me The sights and smells and sounds shall thrive and go on And on and on.
(“Forest Fire”—Summer in Calcutta)
Is it because most of her life she had been playing with trivialities of a self-centred mind such as:
I asked my husband Am I hetero Am I lesbian Or am I a plain frigid?
Here it cannot be denied that there is a semblance of truth in the words of Devindra Kohli when he says, “Clearly a sensibility which elegantly refuses to either touch the clouds or “go down the sea”—to shun the plunge which the mysterious ambiguity of life demands—is ill-constituted to breathe in the region of vaster identities.”8
The poems in The Descendants do not share the poetic self's enthusiasm for vaster identities which has been predominant in “Forest Fire”. The tone of the poem included in this volume, therefore, is scared and timid as compared to the enthusiastic tone represented by the devouring vastness of the forest fire. All these poems, especially “Suicide”, “Substitute” and “Composition” project only the death-burdened psyche of the self. What they project over and again is the self's confrontation with the complex emotional restlessness caused by the new recognition that despite the positivity of “body's wisdom” the body itself is subject to decay. The despair and sense of loss remain unresolved because here the threat is less private and more inexorable than what could be faced by her self's limited sensibility. This is also the reason why the self's desperate attempt in “Composition” to transcend itself and “seek an end, a pure total freedom” by breaking through the barrier of the physical and assuming a spiritual dimension does not end in success. In the poem “Composition” the self effects a kind of purgation by taking itself along with the reader through the whole spectrum of perception from a sense of paralysis by the forms of past and the inertia of the physical world to a sense of liberation of imagination. It is one's growth and consciousness that causes the tragic catastrophe. “This symbolic death of innocence and transition into the world of sense experience occurred when “the skin / Intent on survival / learnt lessons of self betrayal”.9
I have replaced love with guilt and discovered that both love and hate are involvements. But this only signifies growth and, growth is natural. The tragedy of life is not death but growth.
Hence, betrayal while painfully remorse ridden is a form of evolution.”
To escape this inevitable sense of guilt one has to “wake up”.
But, seriously, I must wake up, come alive. I tell myself and all of you who scan the mirror for that white glean in the hair, fall in love, fall in love with an unsuitable person, fling yourself on him like a moth on a flame Let there be despair in every move. Excavate deep, deep pain.
Excavating the most painful and naked psychological causes she arrives at the brute physical fact of “bone's supreme indifference”. “The ultimate discovery” of such excavation will be:
that we are immortal, the only things mortal being systems and arrangements. even our pains continuing in the devourers who constitute the world.
Such an awareness of the recycling of the physical as well as spiritual world induces that the self has to fall back from the spiritual resolution to the physical world because “to refuse to do so is to remain on a mental level ‘trapped in immortality’.”10 The concluding lines intone a voice of ultimate surrender:
I must linger on, trapped in immortality, My only freedom being the freedom to decompose.
In her autobiography she says: “I wished to escape from my home and walk on and on until at last my feet reached the end of the world. I did not think then that the traveller would only reach ultimately his starting place and that our ends, our destinations are our beginnings.”11
The awareness of a life with colourless design and crumbling pattern along with the death pre-occupation of the self is made manifest in “A Request” which reads like an epitaph:
When I die Do not throw the meat and bones away But pile them up And Let them tell By their smell What life was worth on this earth What love was worth In the end.
In these few lines she has packed all her vengeance and complaints against the world that never bothered to know the pains in her mind's mute arena—a world which has rendered her love—
an empty gift, a gilded empty container, good for show.
It should be against this background of the self's feeling of emptiness overwhelmed by the secret that “I am so alone” that the poem of a different genre—“Jaisurya”—has to be approached. The poem deals with the joys of creativity and filial love. Unlike the son in an earlier poem—“The White Flowers”—who was set against the “bloodshed and despair”, the son in “Jaisurya” is born on a rainy day. Like the sea in “Composition” it is again the cosmic water. Similarly, it is early afternoon—“under the operating Virgin Whiteness of the sun”—which signifies the redeeming feature of sexual love as the agent of fulfilment. Though she is more than convinced that her man can only brand her with his lust and that she cannot look at him as a source of redemption or regeneration, this one feature of sexual love arouses in her feminine sensibility, a kind of gratitude to him:
Love is not important, that makes the blood Carouse, nor the man who brands you with his Lust, but is shed as slough at end of each Embrace, only that matters which forms as Toad stool under lightning and rain, the soft Stir in womb, foetus growing for Only the treasures matter that were washed Ashore, not the long blue tides that washed them In
As Devindra Kohli points out, “It is creation, not creativity that fascinates Mrs. Das.”12 For, while she rejoices her existence as the agent of creation, forgetting her own pain of bearing the child and her “emptiness within”, the feminine self feels the resourcefulness:
For a while I too was earth In me the seed was silent, waiting as A baby does, for the womb's quiet Expulsion.
The self's emptiness is filled with a child. No doubt this is a great leap forward from the awareness of her feminine self in “The Dance of the Eunuchs” manifesting the sterile, unfulfilled eunuch-like desires of the woman within her. And moreover, by universalising her personal experience, we witness a rather rare spectacle in her body of poetry; the coming together of the artistic and the feminine self in the mother's celebration of her child which is the proud product of “the darkness of sterile womb”.
Out of the mire of a moonless night was He born, Jaisurya, my son, as out of The wrong is born the right and out of night The sun-drenched golden day.
But in her unique sensibility, such attempts deriving a sense of fulfilment through the universalisation of a personal feeling do not acquire a consistent mode. Because, as it has been pointed out at the beginning, the speaking voice in her body of poetry is the poet herself. And the artist in her could never transcend the woman in her or to be more precise, her unique sensibility rendering her being obsessed with the sense of emptiness has already consumed the major part of her feminine self. The birth of her child should fulfil a mother's mind with the most intense and self-dissoliving sense of fulfilment. As she is incapable of this sense, the images such as “the lush moss spread like Eczema” and “the darkness of rooms where the old sit” intervene. And see the kind of parallels brought out to describe the child's birth:
as out of The wrong is born the right and out of the night The sun-drenched golden day.
The poem thus hints only at the evolution of the self towards the awareness of the need to seek a probable state of mind. And there is a world of difference between the awareness of the need for a state of mind and its actual achievement. In view of the desperate involvements and defeats that constitute her vision of the self, the concluding lines of an earlier poem in this volume “Captive” acquire added significance.
For years I have run from one Gossamer lane to another, I am Now my own captive.
“For her (Kamala Das) poetry is a compulsion neurosis, so intense is her need to find release from her emotions”, comments Devindra Kohli.13 The redemption she seeks through her poetry vouches the truth in the statement that she produces poetry only when she comes up against moments of frustration for her personal self. Her turning to mythology in the poems “Radha”, “Radhakrishna”, “The Maggots”, “Lines Addressed to a Devadasi” and “Ghanashyam” (included in different volumes) has to be viewed in this light. These poems, rather than being devotional in the true sense of the word, are only her attempts to lighten the burden of her heart. Through such occasional reaching out, she only seeks a curative function to be performed. “Her search for the beauteous Krishna and her act of remembering the past are basically united in her overall poetic process. … Through these vital and extended metaphors of relief she attains some measure of equipoise and transcends the aches of the present.”14
“Free from the last human bondage” she says in her autobiography, “I turned to Krishna. I felt the show had ended and the auditorium was empty. Then he came, not wearing a crown, not wearing make-up, but making a quiet entry. What is the role you are going to play? I asked him. I am not playing any role, I am myself, He said. In the old playhouse of my mind, in its echoing hollowness, His voice was sweet. He had come to claim me ultimately. Thereafter He dwelt in my dreams.”15 Elsewhere she says, “Often I have thought of Radha as the luckiest of all women, for did she not have his incomparably beautiful body in her arms? …. How are we to get close to him without the secret entrances of the body which may have helped us in establishing a true contact? Now in my old age, having no more desire unfulfilled I think of Krishna as my friend, like me grown wiser with the years, a house-holder and a patriarch.”16
These statements are ample testimony to the fact that while the poet is seeking to provide a mythical framework to her quest of love outside marriage, she does not exaggerate its spiritual aspect because her feminine sensibility has inculcated in her that a woman cannot establish a true contact except through the entrances of the body. By identifying herself with Radha and Mira she is subconsciously finding a justification for her quest for love outside marriage.
“It was entirely without lust”, says she elsewhere, “I hoped that some day as I lay with a man, somewhere beneath the bone, at a deadened spot, a contact would be made and that afterwards each movement of my life become meaningful. I looked for the beauteous Krishna in every man. Every Hindu girl is in reality wedded to Lord Krishna.”17
The editors of “Psyche” discovered that “in searching for mythic ancestresses, women poets reject images glorified by the male imagination, such as Aphrodite, Helen and Eve—those dual natured archetypes of Beauty, Virgin / Seducers and Purveyors of man's joy and destruction. Instead they find their psychological ties with such figures as Leda, Cassandra and Lot's wife'—all victims of the gods or society, struggling to comprehend their circumstances and to express themselves.”18
No wonder, her poetic self finds the objective correlative in the myths of Radha and Mira who relinquished the ties of marriage in search of Lord Krishna, the true and eternal lover.
By convincing herself that “Vrindavan lives on in every woman's mind / and the flute luring her / From home and her husband”, though she does not successfully attain the attempted metamorphosis of her self, she is provided with a temporary distraction from her death-burdened self. These attempts, thus, are only her efforts to envision revelation through love, though, almost every time she fails to have any glimpse of the beyond. The metaphysical poise of Kamala Das, during this phase of her poetry has therefore not to be exaggerated; what her mind, enveloped by the horror of distrust and improbability of true love, does in these poems, is only the fortification of the spirit by sublimating the emotion of love. Here, it would be interesting to make a comparative study of the two poems in her latest volume Tonight: This Savage Rite printed side by side.
The poem “A Losing Battle” printed on page 12 presents the futility of her attempts to find ideal love in the physical contacts with a man.
… Men are worthless, to trap them Use the cheapest bait of all, but never Love, which in a woman must mean tears And a silence in the blood.
(“A Losing Battle”—Tonight: This Savage Rite)
The other poem “A Phantom Lotus” printed on the adjacent page (page 13) obliquely identifies her feminine self with Radha who continues her never ending search for the beauteous Krishna's love—the perennial source of joy.
Loving this one, I Seek but another way to know Him who has no more a body To offer, and whose blue face is A Phantom-lotus on the waters of my dreams
(Tonight: This Savage Rite)
“A Man Is a Season” is another poem from the same collection, Tonight: This Savage Rite, in which she gives vent to her mystical longings on purity and nobility,
A man is a season You are eternity. To teach me this, you let me toss my youth like coins Into various hands; you let me mate with shadows, You let me sing in empty shrines, you let your wife Seek ecstasy in others' arms.
Here again the apparent evolution of her self does not indicate the self's transcendence. At the most it shows a gesture of withdrawal as seen in “Lines Addressed to a Devadasi.”
Ultimately there comes a time When all faces look alike All voices sound similar And trees and lakes and mountains Appear to bear a common signature. It is then that you walk past your friends And not recognize And hear their questions but pick No meaning out of words It is then your desires cease And a homesickness begins And you sit down on the temple steps A silent devadasi, lovelorn And aware of her destiny
or in “Ghanashyam”—
… At three in the morning I wake trembling from dreams of A stark white loneliness. Like bleached bones cracking in the desert-sun Was my loneliness And each time my husband His mouth bitter with sleep Kisses, mumbling to me of love But if he is you and I am you Who is loving who Who is the husk who the kernel Where is the body where is the soul? You come in strange forms And your names are many Is it then a fact that I love the disguise And the name more than I love you?
But if such occasional attempts to mythify her quest for true love are hurriedly interpreted as M. L. Sharma does in his article “The Road to Brindavan” as metamorphosis of her self, it may not do justice to the hard core of reality about her feminine self. M. L. Sharma says, “Throughout the chequered career of her loves and lusts, it is Lord Krishna who has been her true paramour and her quest is always single-minded directed towards Him.”19 Her nostalgic attitude towards the Radha Krishna or Mirabai myth, like her nostalgic attitude towards her grandmother and the “red house that had / stood for innocence” manifests, in essence, only a symbolic retreat to realms of innocence, simplicity and purity. That such attempted retreats make her only to juxtapose her present world of reality with a dreamy idealistic distant and unrealizable world emphasizes the fact that the mystification of her nostalgia does not bring in the attempted emotional reconciliation and hence has nothing much to do with the growth of her basic poetic vision.
Anisur Rahman, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das, p. 17.
Ibid., p. 13.
E. V. Ramakrishnan, “Kamala Das as a Confessional Poet”, Contemporary Indian English Verse, ed. Chirantan Kulshreshtha, p. 204.
Devindra Kohli, Virgin Whiteness, p. 24.
Anisur Rahman, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das, p. 54.
M. L. Sharma, Patiala Directorate of Correspondence Courses, pp. 23-24.
Kamala Das, My Story, p. 227.
Devindra Kohli, Virgin Whiteness, p. 20.
Anne Brewster, “Freedom to Decompose”, The Journal of Indian Writing in English, January-July 1980, p. 103.
Ibid., p. 105.
Kamala Das, My Story, p. 116.
Devindra Kohli, Virgin Whiteness, p. 27.
Devindra Kohli, Kamala Das, Arnold Heinemann, New Delhi (1975), p. 22.
Anisur Rahman, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das, p. 25.
Kamala Das, My Story, p. 195.
Kamala Das, “Mindless Surrender or Humming Fiesta?” Femina, June 6, 1975, p. 19.
Kamala Das, “I Studied all Men”, Love and Friendship, ed. Khushwant Singh, p. 15.
As cited by Devindra Kohli, “Kamala Das”, Contemporary Indian English Verse, ed. Chirantan Kulshreshtha, p. 191.
M. L. Sharma, Contemporary Indo-English Verse, ed. A. N. Dwivedi, p. 108.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10036
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 liberation movements, tells us that “contemporary scholarship on women of color suggests that the barriers to an all-inclusive sisterhood are deeply rooted in the histories of oppression and exploitation that Blacks and other groups encountered upon incorporation into the American political economy.”2 Dill calls, therefore, “for the abandonment of the concept of sisterhood as a global construct based on unexamined assumptions about our similarities” and urges us to “substitute a more pluralistic approach that recognizes and accepts the objective differences between women.”3
American readers, however, are generally ignorant of non-Western women writers whose literary production has set them apart in their traditional societies. In the Asian world, the works of such women writers as Ding Ling and Kamala Das possess a power to enable their readers to reread social relations and to participate in a revolution of consciousness.4 Such a revolution, Julia Kristeva rightly insists in Revolution in Poetic Language, must precede changes in the materialist/political horizon.5 The transforming power in Ding Ling's and Das's work and its impact upon readers precede and/or parallel the effects of works by Anglo-American and ethnic women writers and critics such as Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith. Ding Ling's and Das's writings contain the themes of women's revolt and the interrogations of the processes of women's subjectivity as it is situated in frankly portrayed male-female power relations that many Western readers associate chiefly with Anglo-American feminist literature.
Kamala Das is a prolific bilingual Indian woman poet, fiction writer, and essayist. She is the author of numerous novels in Malayalam, collections of English-language fiction and poetry, and an autobiography, My Story, published in 1976.6 She is not entirely unknown to American readers; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have included her as the only representative from Asia in their Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.7 As none of her Malayalam novels has been translated into English, I will address only her English-language writing.
For the purposes of this essay, I am interested in Das's autobiography as a document expressing the writer's own ambiguity—what Bakhtin characterizes as “the internal dialogism of double-voiced prose”8—as a woman asserting subjective power in a traditional patriarchal society. Her materialist critiques propose precisely those themes that give her writing its vividness and compelling power to arouse and disturb. Her female subjects destabilize our notions of what is female or feminine and dislocate given Indian cultural and social relations; in short, they give her writing a transformatory dimension that accounts for both the repulsion and the fascination it has provoked.9
Das's autobiography is a strongly public work, exhibiting a deliberate consciousness of audience. The audience is both the reader of the autobiography and the readers of her poetry prior to the writing of the autobiography; that is, the poet's audience appears in her life story as an active catalyst and agent. Before turning to the autobiography, however, I would like to summarize her critical reception to date, as that reception helps explain the “double-voicedness” of her narrative.10
Das has had two audiences. Her own native Indian audience is mostly English-educated and middle-class. Its class mobility and its choice of the English language for expression are generally associated with a modern, Westernized mentality (that is, with an unstable indigenous cultural identity related to an assimilation of sociopolitical values influenced by Anglo-American norms and cultures).11 Her other, more vocal and welcoming, audience is an international group of readers, chiefly from Australia. These non-Indian critics are interested in non-Western writing in English. They represent the old Commonwealth literature school of thought reincarnated as postcolonial, post-Orientalist sensitivities to new or national or world literatures in English.12 While the emphases are different, both audiences share common assumptions and make similar conclusions in approaching Das's writing.
Das is acknowledged by both Indian and Anglo critics as working within a “strong tradition of female writing … with a venerable ancestry.”13 The consensus from both interpretive communities is that her achievement is limited to themes of female sexual and physical experience. Hostile readers, both Indian and international, debunk her subjects, describing them variously as “a poetry of thighs and sighs,” “salacious” fantasies of sexual neuroticism, and “flamboyant,” “weak,” “self-indulgent” obsessiveness.14 Friendly critics valorize her as “a poet of feminine longings.”15 She is praised (chiefly by male critics) for that “feminine sensibility [that is] manifested in her attitude to love, in the ecstasy she experiences in receiving love and the agony she feels when jilted in it.”16 According to her most fervent defenders, both Indian and Western, her feminine sensibility is expressed in her total involvement with the sexual male Other.
The recent publication of a selected collection of her work by the Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English in Adelaide, Australia, accompanied by critical essays, all by white Australian critics, would seem to confirm a hardening of these interpretive lines.17 Many of the essays in the volume argue that the theme of Das's heterosexuality receives its highest apotheosis, its Indian rationale, in Das's identity as a devotee of Krishna. As Dorothy Jones informs us, Krishna, eighth avatar of Vishnu, is traditionally represented in Indian culture as “an important focus in Hinduism of Bhakti, the experience of intense religious adoration in which the soul [the female representation] abandons itself in ecstasy to the divine [the male representation].”18 Jones is only repeating a paradigm, first articulated by Das herself, whereby the “vulgar” (and arguably Westernized “confessional”) topos of brutal or illicit sexuality becomes transformed into the “high” topos of licit Brahminic mysticism.
In approaching Das's evident concentration on sexual themes, however, the non-Indian reader would do well to keep in mind that erotic sexuality is strongly inscribed in Indian, specifically Hindu, culture. In using these materials, Das is able to appeal to both the Western tradition that emphasizes confessional writing and the Hindu tradition that places a high and visible valuation on male-female eroticism. By a shift in authorial (and critical) perception, the sensual complexities of a “sensational”—because exceptional—life are reduced to an abstract allegory of religious quest and devotion. (No American reader, however, would find Das's so-called confessions of extramarital affairs memorable if set among the Hollywood memoirs appearing today!)
Many critics have participated in this sanitization of the female subject Das constitutes in her autobiography and her poetry, and have acquiesced, even contributed, to obfuscating the notable “revolt” against male-dominant terms of sexuality in her themes. They have interpreted the persona in her poems and autobiography to be a “smoothly” acceptable, because traditional, worshiper of that most adulterous, most privileged male Indian god, Krishna. Mohan Lal Sharma, for example, argues that Das's career exhibits a “pilgrim's progress” toward Krishna-worship; thus, he congratulates her for her faults in poetic style, since, for him, they demonstrate her religious achievement. “‘He shining everything else shines’ is the ultimate Upanishadic dictum,” Sharma advises us, unself-consciously reflecting his patriarchal reconstruction of Das's work in his choice of dictums.19 Sharma's male-centered critical orientation, moreover, is itself a reflection of the patriarchal structure of communities dominated by Krishna-worship. Adopting a similar critical approach, non-Indian critics such as Syd Harrex, Vincent O'Sullivan, and Dorothy Jones similarly turn Das's very specifically located materialist critiques of class and gender into a phantasm of Krishna-worship.20
I argue that Das's writing and life display the anger, rage, and rebellion of a woman struggling in a society of male prerogatives. Her best work cannot be read either as a celebration of love or as an allegorical abstraction of Radha, the Gopi cowmaid, worshiping Krishna in his many manifestations. I find that the informing energy in the autobiography springs, like the pulsating rhythm of a popular 1960s rock ‘n’ roll song, from its central poetics, “I Can't Get No Satisfaction.” Teresa de Lauretis, among other feminist commentators, has pointed out that “to feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political, and its epistemology is its politics.”21 “Satisfaction,” therefore, while it encompasses the notion of sexual desire, emerges in the autobiography, as it does in Das's novel, Alphabet of Lust, as epistemologically the domain of female struggle in a patriarchal society.22 The inequalities and social oppressions suffered by Indian women are many and profound. As Marilyn French reports in a 1985 United Nations-sponsored publication, “Most Indian women are married young by their families to men they have not met before. … They then move to their husbands' parents' home, where they are, essentially, servants.”23 French documents a series of social horrors: the dowry system, bride-burning, male abuse, the ban against divorce, women's isolation, job discrimination, female infanticide, poorly paid or unpaid female labor, high female illiteracy. Das's autobiography specifies the connections between personal/sexual and social/political struggles for a female protagonist in this traditional male-dominated society.
In her preface, Das locates the origin of her autobiography in the confessional impulse attending the deathbed. She indicates that the autobiography was written during her “first serious bout with heart disease,” and that she “wanted to empty myself of all the secrets so that I could depart when the time came with a scrubbed-out conscience.” This intention indicates a particular understanding of the autobiographical genre, one attuned to the confessional tradition of Christianity exemplified in Augustine's Confessions. The expressed wish for a “scrubbed-out conscience” itself prepares the reader for representations of “sinful” or immoral subjects, secrets that defile a conscience, and for some kind of remorse undertaken within a religious or spiritual frame of reference. Yet Das candidly reveals that she wrote her autobiography as a commercial publication, a series of articles for a popular magazine, because she needed money to pay off her medical bills. The spiritual impulse and the commercial intention are both evident in the dialogic, ambiguous, and contradictory features of the text.
The autobiography, republished in book form in 1976, possesses the characteristics that mark it as a book written hurriedly and structured to the formulaic requirements of serial publication. It has fifty chapters, each from two and a half to about four and a half pages in length. The organization of materials into so many short chapters is clearly governed by the necessity of chopping the life into as many marketable pieces as possible, thus revealing more about the magazine format and the attention span of its popular audience than about the writer's craft. Moreover, the serial form dictates the anecdotal, superficial essayistic structure, allowing little room for analysis of difficult issues or exploration of psychological experience.
The contradictions between the commercially dictated features of the text and the narrator's stated “spiritual” intention have led many critics to view Das as unreliable. “After reading such a confession,” Vimala Rao says astringently, “it is difficult to determine where the poseur ends and the artist begins.”24 Dwivedi describes the work as “more baffling and dazing [sic] than her poetry,” and Jones admits that “it is hard to know how to respond to this book which, while adopting an openly confessional tone, conceals quite as much or more than it reveals.”25 Because they cannot read her autobiography as a faithful account of her life, critics have generally preferred to treat it as an appendix to her poetry. Sharma claims that Das's autobiography “is the single best ‘Reader's Guide’ to the design and meaning of her work.”26 Jones more cannily allows that “if considered as a literary rather than a factual recreation of the writer's life, it often serves as an illuminating comment on her poetry and fiction, exploring many of the same dilemmas and situations.”27
In fact, the obvious unreliability of the author's intention foregrounds the postmodernist qualities of Das's “autobiography.” Thus, instead of approaching it as a text containing an authentic account of a life unmediated by literary conventions, I argue that our understanding of the constituted “autobiographical” female subject should be informed by features of the text. These features include ones that conform to a mass-market strategy (the simple anecdotal structure, unrelenting focus on sensational and popular themes, attention to domestic and marital relations as appealing to a female readership) and ones that derive from the self-reflexive nature of the prose. In “deconstructing” Das's autobiography, then, I want to elaborate how it achieves its impact less from its separate parts than from their sum. While each chapter offers a distinct picture or theme, together the chapters resonate in their emphasis on the domestic details of food, familial relations, marriage, childbirth, sexual liaisons, and the internal and external struggles of one woman in a sociopolitically repressive world.
The opening chapters, for example, depict a colonized childhood, resonant with the later theme of oppressed womanhood. The father, a Rolls Royce and Bentley salesman, stood as a middleman between the British corporation and the Indian upper class. Das similarly showed the characteristic alienation of being suspended between indigenous and colonized cultures. Unhappy as one of the few brown children in a white school, the young girl “wondered why I was born to Indian parents instead of to a white couple, who may have been proud of my verses” (p. 8). Significantly, the child's very mastery of the colonial language, English, provoked the psychic break between herself and her (native) parents. This separation between English-language child-poet and Indian parents, a consequence of colonialism, prefigures the later rupture between the English-language woman writer, engaged in the Westernized project of claiming her own subjective autonomy, and traditional patriarchal Indian society. Das's autobiography, therefore, in its very “doubleness” of commercial and spiritual intentions and of suspension between colonized or Westernized and indigenous cultures, provides a valuable recording of the hybridized, “impure” cultural conditions in which postcolonial English-language writers from non-Western societies often find themselves writing.28
Setting the opening scene on the internal division in the colonized subject, Das prepares the reader for the move to the theme of an older division, the division between genders. By implication, the colonized child brings to her womanhood those perceptions of division arrived at when she learns to value her talent and simultaneously learns to reject her Indian parents, who do not value it. The longing for “white parents” is a powerful psychic aberration, expressing and demonstrating the embedded racism in the colonizing (and colonized) experience that the child has internalized. As the opening psychological drama, it contains those contradictions and ambivalences, between the privileging of “verse” and “self,” at times recognized as a specifically “white” or Western-based value, and the respect to be accorded to one's “parent” society. In her representations of gender divisions, Das similarly oscillates between two contradictory positions: one the exceptional woman in conflict with her traditional society, struggling for a subject status specifically endowed through her writing, and the other, that most unexceptional of Indian women, the Krishna devotee. Das's subsequent examinations of her woman's experiences are informed by these postcolonial ambivalences—the contradictions between Westernized and indigenous sociopolitical values—as well as by gender and feminist concerns.
In the autobiography's dialogic representations, therefore, the interest does not lie in the frank revelations of illicit sexual encounters. In fact, the autobiography has so little of the pornographic in it as to make credible a critic's description of Das as “Matthew Arnold in a sari.”29 Instead, it compels our reading because it offers, among other things, a critique of the victimization of women in a patriarchal society. The autobiography is itself a gesture enunciating the empowerment of the female when she speaks in protest, in rejection, in an infinitely recessive “desire” within a powerfully restrictive psychosocial matrix.
The dominant figure in her autobiography, also present in her fiction and poems, is the female as “desiring” subject. Female “desire” is figured in the psychological longing of a neglected daughter for a remote father, the physical drive of a virgin for sexual experience, the marital yearning of a young wife for emotional union with her husband, the ecstatic enjoyment of a mature woman with her lover, the depraved lust of a disillusioned older woman with a host of unloving and unlovely paramours, and finally as the ecstasy of the older devotee in the ancient worship of Krishna, a female soul seeking her divine bliss. “Desire,” as embodied in the autobiography, is multiply manifest, attending a range of female roles. The narrator presents herself in turn as a girl-child with a crush on a teacher, the naive object of lesbian exploration, an innocent child bride, the victimized wife, loyal and loving wife, adoring mother, sexual tease, easy lay, and spiritual goddess seeking union with the divine. The narrator lives out these stereotypic roles.
The central attribute of this “desiring” female is that, in order to maintain her subject condition and the economy of energy that constitutes her being, she cannot be satisfied. As “self” is constituted in desire, and desire is given shape by the energy of an absence of satisfaction (whether in innocent longing, brutalized sex, cynical promiscuity, the range of female sexual experiences), the story of “self” is constructed on a continual series of arousals and deferments of satisfaction. The life in the autobiography is continuously plotted as a drama of desire, and the female protagonist becomes the representation of female desire.
Significantly, the narrative first provides the reader with a series of empowered female subjects. Chapter 4 is a rewriting of Das's matriarchal past. The narrative is yet another version of the legends surrounding her grandmother's home, Nalapat House, which had been mythologized in earlier poems.30 The poem, “My Grandmother's House,” for example, identifies the place with an idealized time in the poet's life, “where once / I received love” (KD [Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on her Work], 14). In Das's automythology, the maternal home is also the trope for the condition of proud and loving freedom, a condition that the poem raises as absent in the degraded adult woman's life:
… you cannot believe, darling, Can you, that I lived in such a house and Was proud, and loved … I who have lost My way and beg now at strangers' doors to Receive love, at least in small change?
In the autobiography, Nalapat House becomes a symbol of the way in which the contradictions in traditional Indian women's roles can be resolved. Das traces her lineage to her ancestress, Kunji, a wealthy aristocrat who, at age fifteen, fleeing from the war between the English and Dutch, “was made to change her route by an amorous chieftain who brought her over to his village and married her” (p. 11). The delicate phrasing masks the more sensational possibilities of abduction, rape, and forced marriage; it suggests instead a romantically blurred portrayal of a male figure motivated by “amour,” a male figure moreover who “was well-versed in Astrology and Architecture” and who set his bride up in the magnificent Nalapat House. The maternal home was dominated by “the old ladies”—“my grandmother, my aunt Ammini, my great grandmother, her two sisters” (p. 12). Only two males intrude in this woman-universe, the remote and idealized political saint, Mahatmaji Gandhi, whom the uncomprehending girl saw as a brigand whose “diabolic aim was to strip the ladies of all their finery so that they became plain and dull”; and her grand uncle, the famous poet-philosopher Narayana Menon, who is seen as lonely and indigent. The girl-child falls under the influence of these women, especially her aunt Ammini, “an attractive woman who kept turning down all the marriage proposals that came her way.” Ironically, it was from this virginal literary woman that Das “sensed for the first time that love was a beautiful anguish and a thapasya” (p. 12). Deepening the theme, the following chapter is devoted to an even earlier ancestress, “my great grandmother's younger sister,” Ammalu, “a poetess.” Like Ammini, Ammalu “was a spinster who chose to remain unmarried although pretty and eligible” (pp. 14-15).
What kind of female models do these two relatives offer the girl-child? Both women were ascetics. Ammini “chose to lead the life of an ascetic” (p. 12), while Ammalu “was deeply devout and spent the grey hours of dusk in prayer” (p. 15). Both loved poetry. The former recited it and the latter “read profusely and scribbled in the afternoon while the others had their siesta” (p. 15). Das locates the existence of an ancient female ambition for writing, expressed, and perhaps only capable of being expressed, in the strict and narrow social structures of the time and place, as religious longing. This writing ambition, while associated with female spinsterhood or chastity, is made more complex by its juxtaposition with intimate symbols of female sensuality. As a middle-aged woman, Das returns to her maternal home and discovers books containing Ammalu's poems. Together with “the leaves of her books, yellowed like autumn-leaves,” Das finds “in the secret drawer of [Ammalu's] writing box, a brown bottle shaped like a pumpkin that smells faintly of Ambergris” (p. 16). The archetypal resonances in the symbols of “bottle” (container, receptacle, vagina, womb, female desire), pumpkin (roundness, swelling, female, fecundity), and ambergris (perfume, sensuality, arousal, sexuality) are meaningful cross-culturally, and the significance of their placement in “the secret drawer of her writing box” is deliberate and emphatic. If these ancestresses are literary spinsters, they also are familiar with female desire, with the knowledge “that love was a beautiful anguish.” For Das, their biographies offered a knowledge of the complex intersections of asceticism and sexuality that form major thematics in her autobiography.
What separates this knowledge, the surface thematics of Das's autobiography and much of her poetry, from the usual sentimental drift of popular women's romances is that it is inseparably, intricately woven and innately situated in the thematics of woman as writer and as speaking subject. The identity of her ancestresses, while associated with love or yearning, remains woman- or subject-centered; and this subject condition is integral to and invested in the literary enterprise. In these maternal figures, therefore, the protagonist is able to find an indigenous tradition that her English-educated childhood had denied her. Only in Nalapat House, in a matriarchal society, do the identities of Indian, woman, and writer coalesce. Only here, as the poem suggests, are love and pride coeval, in contrast to the patriarchal society, where love becomes coeval with degradation.
Nalapat House and the women in it, while representing ideologically one pole of female empowerment, are also perceived as limited in what they can offer the active child. In the poem “Blood,” for example, Das shows in painful detail the decline and fall of this matriarchal tradition. Its “chastity” and isolation from “the always poor” and “the new-rich men,” its venerable ancestry (“Now three hundred years old, / It's falling to bits / Before our very eyes”; OP [The Old Playhouse and Other Poems], 17) result in its destruction. The adult Das, while finding her source of identity in it, cannot resurrect this matriarchy:
O mother's mother's mother I have plucked your soul Like a pip from a fruit And have flung it into your pyre.
Yet, even as the autobiography narrates the sordid “reality” of a bad marriage and unsuccessful affairs, the matriarch as native spinster and writer remains a powerful representation that resonates in the background.
Similarly, foregrounding the native sources of the narrator's feminism, the early chapters narrate an active engagement with those Indian cultural elements that valorize unchallenged female power. The strongest symbol of female empowerment in the protagonist's early ancestral memories is Kali. Kali is the most feared deity in the Indian pantheon, the goddess to whom powers of death and destruction are attributed. Significantly, the narrator devotes her longest description to her worship. Describing the annual ceremonies, she writes, “When Kali danced, we felt in the region of the heart an unease and a leap of recognition. Deep inside, we held the knowledge that Kali was older than the world and that having killed for others, she was now lonelier than all. All our primal instinct rose to sing in our blood the magical incantations” (p. 26).
What is constituted in this “recognition”? The shift from “I” to the communal “we” emphasizes Das's explicit recognition here of a collective female “primal instinct” associated with the repressed aspects of womanhood, the un-nurturing, destructive forces of female passion. Paradoxically, Kali represents a collective identity of powerful isolation. Thus she is called the “lonely goddess.” Her affection, we are told, is specially reserved for the aboriginal pariahs, people who are normally “regarded as outcasts and held at a distance” (p. 25). Only in the month of Makaram, between January and February, a time set aside for the worship of Kali, do the pariahs become important members of Indian society. Kali-worship, as a form of carnival, permits the reversal of social hierarchy and encourages the transgression of social rule. Kali's power in Indian society is such that it also permits a crossing of gender identity; in the Kali rituals, the oracle who takes on the role of Kali is a male: “He ran up and down through the crowd of people brandishing his scimitar before a trance thickened. … His voice changed into the guttural voice of the angry goddess” (p. 26). During the month of Makaram, young women perform a processional ritual in which they enter into a trance-like condition: “The drums throbbed against their ears, mesmerizing them so that their walk began to resemble the glide of a somnambulist and their eyes began to glow, nesting in their pupils the red flame of their lamps” (p. 26). The passage describes an ecstatic state at the level of sensuous experience that Kali-worship permits these young women, and stands in contrast to the later devotional passages on Krishna-worship, in which the god is described in abstract terms of nonphysicality, as “the bodyless one.”
The Kali figure returns in a later chapter, to represent again those forces of fearful female isolation that can protect the outsider, the pariah, against “feudal enemies” (p. 178). In response to the villagers' persecution, Das decided she “too should try some magic to scare my foes away. I hung a picture of Kali on the wall of my balcony and adorned it daily with long strings of red flowers, resembling the intestines of a disemboweled human being” (p. 178). The Kali figure therefore represents the usually repressed energies of the female psyche whose release transgresses and crosses social hierarchy and gender. This mythic female power is capable of both destruction and protection, and it therefore has to be pacified through intercession.
In the early chapters Das sets up female figures, each of which, like the iconic representation of Kali, provided her as a girl-child with a “leap of recognition.” In Ammina and Ammalu we recognize the woman writer influenced equally by sensual and ascetic passions, a woman recognizable in Amherst's Emily as well as in Nalapat House's Ammalu. In her grand-uncle's wife, we recognize yet another face of the empowered female. The wife is woman as voluptuary and seducer. She is “never seen even at night without her heavy jewellery, all gem-encrusted and radiant, and the traditional cosmetics of the Nair woman” (p. 19). And the object of her life is to “enslave” the man “with her voluptuous body” (p. 20; emphasis mine).
These early portrayals of female types make apparent, contrary to general critical consensus, that Das's focus is less on the male (or male-female relations) than it is on the female. The female types that fascinate the young girl range from those in the women-centered community in Nalapat House to the self-authored woman as subject (Ammalu) and the fearfully empowered Kali figure. Together they form an original patterning of proud and powerful womanhood against which the narrative of patriarchal marriage and abuse develops.
Despite the rhetoric of scandal Das employs to describe them, the male-female relations depicted in the autobiography, therefore, are significant more for their sociopolitical themes than for any scandal in them. For instance, in the narrative of her arranged marriage we see a critique of that institution beneath the apparently confessional surface. The fifteen-year-old Das, having experienced only schoolgirl crushes, the attentions of lesbians, and clumsy seduction attempts, is married to an older man because “I was a burden and a responsibility neither my parents nor my grandmother could put up with for long” (p. 73). Her marriage begins in sexual brutality. She calls the wedding-night encounter an unsuccessful rape (p. 79). She suffers through her husband's selfishness and neglect of her emotional and physical needs. The cook prepares only breakfast and dinner, and the young pregnant bride falls ill. After an early separation, she and her husband attempt a reconciliation when they move to Bombay, but she has a nervous breakdown at twenty, after the birth of her second son. Das's critique of Indian marriage as patriarchal oppression is more damning when the reader keeps in mind that middle-class and professional Indian women, a very small minority of Indian society, generally receive greater legal and social protection than the vast numbers of poor and peasant Indian women.
Exactly in the middle of the autobiography, in chapter 25, the narrator locates an instance of insight, an epiphany that permits the protagonist to move beyond the passivity of her female bondage to a more integrated existence. Faced with the failure of her marriage and the impossibility of leaving it, her son's illness, and her husband's rejection of her in favor of a homosexual attachment, the protagonist finds herself poised on a balcony in a moment of suicidal temptation: “I felt a revulsion for my womanliness. The weight of my breasts seemed to be crushing me. My private parts was only a wound, the soul's wound showing through” (p. 94). In this moment of recognition, the young wife acknowledges the imposed powerlessness of the female body, that understanding that woman's fate as suffering victim is tied to her physical body. The narrator expresses for us the knowledge that, for the victimized woman in a patriarchal society, sexuality not only makes her vulnerable physically, a prey to rapacious men; it is inherently bound up with her emotional and spiritual vulnerability. This moment of insight reinterprets the Freudian maxim that anatomy is destiny. It is a powerful, because profoundly ironic, reconceptualizing of woman's fate as victim; her victimization, we cannot be reminded too often, goes beyond the plane of material pain to encompass mental and spiritual conditions in which her very identity as woman and her own body become the instruments of her torment.
But the woman does not throw herself off the balcony. Instead, she “lit the reading lamp … and began to write about a new life, an unstained future” (p. 94). Again, as in the early chapters, the autobiography shows a female subject coming to her own ministry, becoming herself a mistress/ancestress of “an unstained future.” Centrally located in the text, the passage repeats the central theme, of woman writing her self, not only as one act of identity among other acts, but as the primary act. She saves her life by telling her life. It is perhaps an example of cross-cultural concerns that this passage foreshadows a later passage by French feminist Hélène Cixous, who asserts that a woman must write her self to mark “her shattering entry into history which has always been based on her suppression. … To become at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political system.”31 The protagonist chooses writing against suicide, self-inscription against self-destruction, and so takes the first steps of revolt against a symbolic/political system that has oppressed her.
The passage therefore also marks the convergence of the thematics of female psychic emergence with a continued critique of female sexuality in a patriarchal society. It is in the light of this thematic of emergence that we should read the rest of the book, which is heavily interlaced with accounts of extramarital affairs, sexual flings, cynical portrayals of deceit and betrayal, and yearnings for spiritual consolation. After her breakdown and her grandmother's death, the protagonist who emerges is a different sexual person. No longer a naif or passive “object” of her husband's actions and victim of the rapes of various strangers, she is now able to take her pleasure, to reappropriate her sexual self, “with my pride intact and blazing” (p. 100). Her sexual adventures, however, have less to do with actual male others than with her own internal identity needs. As Das aptly points out, “Like alms looking for a begging bowl was my love which sought for it a receptacle” (p. 105). Here the conventional association of woman with receptacle, of woman as passive receiver of male desire and sperm, is inverted. In this passage, woman's desire is dominant, aggressively seeking “a [male] begging bowl.” In the bold reversal, the male is passive, the female active and full, signifying plenitude and wealth.
But My Story does not conclude with this seeming female victory. Although it continues with the narrative of extramarital affairs (Das apparently had an open marriage; according to her poems and the autobiography, her husband accepted her love affairs rather than encourage the prospect of a divorce), it becomes clear that sexual empowerment in no way satisfies the protagonist's internal identity needs. Thus, even as the narrative dwells on lovers and husband, it incorporates a poem that resists an equation of “liberated” sexuality with satisfaction of female desire:
We lay On bed, glassy-eyed, fatigued, just The toys dead children leave behind, And we asked each other, what is The use, what is the bloody use? That was the only kind of love, This hacking at each other's parts Like convicts hacking, breaking clods At noon.
The poet rejects the sexual act as a brutal and futile action committed by “toys dead children leave behind,” or by “convicts.” Rather than representing or enacting desire, male-female sexual interactions are anemic, penitential, dead.
Curiously, then, what we can read in Das's autobiography is a revisioning of female desire. Contrary to the Lacanian thesis of female desire as “lack,” a wanting, which is itself an extension of the Freudian view of female as that which is deficient in or missing the potency of the penis, the protagonist of the autobiography emerges from passive victim to active agent possessing fullness and plentitude, needing only a proper recipient. But this female desire, assertive, aggressive, and confident, must still await satisfaction in a sociopolitical context that denies it any expression except in the area of sexuality. The area of sexuality that the adult Das explores, however, is defined in a patriarchal society to the advantage of men, and the narrative's tales of extramarital affairs are also tales of male abuse. Thus, in the narrative of her most intense affair, she interrogates the sadomasochistic nature of her relationship: “Years after all of it had ended, I asked myself why I took him on as my lover, fully aware of his incapacity to love. … I needed security. … Perhaps it was necessary for my body to defile itself in many ways, so that the soul turned humble for a change” (p. 163). Here is yet another recognition of the mental and spiritual damage women suffer on account of their sex; the masochistic rationalization of drives, while more conventionally expressed as religious growth, is itself a chilling example of psychic damage in the female protagonist.
The struggle for sexual and other forms of autonomy in the female protagonist in Das's autobiography is “exceptional” in the tradition of Indian writing in English, whether by men or women. In the Indian context, female desire, because it breaks social conventions of marital and sexual property and propriety, is inherently illegitimate and therefore doubly exceptional. As French reports it:
[Indian women's] primary duty, a duty so emphatic as to override their children's well-being and certainly their own, is to “make the marriage work.” This means that a woman must adjust to her husband. Whatever he is or does—if he is cold or cruel, if he is never home, or does not give her money, if he drinks or gambles or has other women, if he beats her—is her lot. She is expected to submit, serve, and produce a son.32
The myth of her origin in the woman-centered matriarchy of Nalapat House enables the protagonist to stand outside and to interrogate the abusive patriarchal world in which she (or her sexuality) functions only as an economic object with market value. When her husband complains that she has not read “the prestigious report of the Rural Credit Survey Committee”—that is, not given him due respect—she answers, “But I let you make love to me every night … isn't that good enough?” (p. 114). The protagonist has learned to balance what is “due” to her husband in terms of her sexual availability, and understands that the exchange of her sexual self in the economy of the marriage is a kind of market exchange, “a good” sufficient for the shelter and material security he provides. In this passage, Das makes explicit what is more often concealed or silenced in both Indian and Western literature, that the relationship between male and female is often baldly an economic exchange. This relocation of male-female relationship in an economic world makes it evident that the protagonist's claim to female subject autonomy in matters of sexual relations outside of marriage is even more illegal, for it breaks both the cultural and economic codes.
Das goes beyond the economic/sexual bond to examine the place of class in her society. Observing the lives of the working-class and poor who surround the protagonist and commenting specifically on the protagonist's fascination with the poor, the narrator offers these lives in moral contrast to the protagonist's own middle-class ennui. In one striking passage, the poet is in her “drawing room” while “cultured voices discussed poetry” (p. 190). She hears the song that the poor who live in the builders' colony behind the “large new structures” are singing. “Finally,” she writes, “unable to control myself any longer, I dragged my husband to the colony one evening” (p. 190). In the squatters' welcome for her, she is able to revise her subjective perspective:
I was pining for yet another settee for the drawing-room while these grand men and women were working from morning till dusk carrying cement and climbing the scaffoldings. And yet they had more vitality than I had of optimism. … My gloom lay in its littlest corner like a black dog. I had had the idiocy to think of myself as Kamala, a being separate from all the rest and with a destiny entirely different from those of others.
This incident, isolated as it is from any larger examination of the issues of class and caste in Indian society, may be read as a shallow idealization of the working class. To my mind, however, its inclusion in a subjectivist genre such as autobiography indicates the writer's unease with her own subjective project, the project of constituting “Kamala, a being separate from all the rest and with a destiny all her own.” The passage contains less a materialist critique of class inequalities than an interrogation of the Westernized, middle-class privileging of the individual, which forms the autobiography's subtext. In its valuation and equation of vitality and “singing,” a communal activity, with the working class (in contrast to “poetry,” a private affair, equated with middle-class ennui), the passage offers another example of narrative “double-voicedness.” The incident represents another instance of the protagonist attempting to break the psychic isolation of a middle-class marriage; but the attempt on this occasion, dragging “my husband with me,” is licit and legal and serves to underline her identification with, rather than separation from, the larger Indian society.
In the autobiography, Das comes to a point in her life when she questions her own sense of being exceptional. The same kind of necessity to open consciousness to the dialogic presence of others, whether of a different race (as in the case of the young girl yearning for white parents), class, or gender, also admits into the autobiography the other aspect of self, of tradition. Yet it is this aspect of woman as patriarchal mate, that most unexceptional of women in Indian society, that the autobiographical discourse has been most energetically displacing.
As befitting the story of a woman mediating among and mediated by multiple and contradictory cultures, My Story in its Krishna-consciousness shows the ideological interpenetrations of the Hindu worldview with a feminist, although not necessarily wholly Westernized, text. For example, in locating the woman as autonomous sexual subject in her familiar world, the narrator moves from the image of plenty looking for a begging bowl to that of devotee: “I was perhaps seeking a familiar face that blossomed like a blue lotus in the water of my dreams. It was to get closer to that bodyless [sic] one that I approached other forms and lost my way. I may have gone astray, but not once did I forget my destination” (p. 105). The immediate contradictions between this passage and the bulk of the book are so large as to suggest the complicated indeterminacy of identity that forms the site of conflict for Westernized Asian women in strongly regulated, traditionally patriarchal societies. Marginalized by their gender, their colonial English education and language, their rejection of patriarchy and its given social and familial norms, and their bourgeois interests in a chiefly peasant society, women writers such as Das negotiate their identity needs among contradictory dominant discourses, each of which offers more grounds for tension than for resolution. As a work by a major English-language Indian woman writer, Das's “story” is less a seamless product of hybridity than it first appears, although the cultural differences between Indian and Western values and ideas are obviously present and affect her work. Her autobiography, in fact, shuttles between the gaps, articulating the space between cultures, displaying rather than resolving these differences in the narrative. The conclusion of the autobiography moves out of the discourse of feminism that occupies the foreground of the first two-thirds of the text to the more conventional discourse of the confessional autobiography.
Arguably, therefore, it is possible to read the major locus of meaning in Das's autobiography in the slippage between the two tropes, that of alms looking for a begging bowl (that is, female subject desiring/enacting its terms of empowerment/identity) and that of devotee worshipping the blue Krishna (female desire as passively situated in the hierarchical construction of patriarchal stasis or tradition). For in the shift of tropes, Das places a Hindu screen before her feminist project, which is up to this point to treat the domain of the sexual as also the field of political struggle. In shifting from the psychosexual and socio-political to the Hindu view of woman as Krishna-worshiper, Das attempts to move from the position of the exceptional (and illegitimate) woman to that of the legal, central, and iconic Indian female figure.
The presence of Krishna-consciousness (that is, of acceptance of female submission to male godhood) in Das's autobiography, I would argue, is evidence of the process of creative play that Bakhtin describes in The Dialogic Imagination, the “struggle and dialogic interrelationship of [the categories of authoritative discourse and an internally persuasive discourse that] usually determine the history of an individual ideological consciousness.”33 Krishna-consciousness in Das's work makes evident the presence of the “authoritative word” of patriarchal Indian culture. The “authoritative word,” as Bakhtin defines it, is the word of the fathers, a prior discourse, located in a distanced zone, with a hieratic language akin to taboo.34 Das's slippages between straightforward feminist discourse, the subjective writing of the body—her internally persuasive discourse—and this “authoritative word” of Krishna-consciousness, testify to the gaps that result from the simultaneous existence of plural, dominant, yet contradictory discourses in the same consciousness. The “intense struggle within … for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values”35 defines her inscribed ideological development.
In this regard, Das's inscriptions of the struggles for autonomy of the female are themselves placed in jeopardy, under interrogation. Aspects of female identity are polarized. The autonomous subject actively creating her destiny in an unstained new world stands in contrast to the iconic figure of the female as passive, culturally fixed in an object relationship in which she is always the inferior in search of the Divine Krishna. The weight of these polarities indicates the enormous contradictions that beset a woman living in a strongly male-dominant society. As an Indian woman, she participates in and endures simultaneously those constructed systems of Hindu rationalization that have existed in India for centuries.
To privilege one polarity over the other, however, is to reduce falsely the dialogic complexities of Das's themes and the totality of her achievement. It is to silence the libido that speaks in and through relations with others. Her autobiography reshapes both our consciousness and our unconscious, by means of its raw, experimental edges. The internally persuasive dialogue of her autobiography shares characteristics with the kind of writing described as “écriture féminine” in Western literature. The enabling myth of matriarchal origin; the genealogical constructions of chaste spinster-writers; the sociopolitical critiques of arranged marriages, child brides, and loveless middle-class marriages; the portrayals of male abuse of women as sexual objects and prey; the narrative of emergence of woman as subject and writer—all these form a counterdiscourse to the later confessional closure. This counterdiscourse, contradicting and attacking patriarchal constructions of male superiority and female passivity, appears forcefully in the early reconstructions of empowered female figures. The Kali figure, for example, sets up a clear female antithesis to Krishna-consciousness that forms part of the authoritative word of the father in the second half of the autobiography; this “savage” goddess reminds us especially of “the forceful return of a libido, which is not so easily controlled, and by the singular, by the noncultural, by a language which is savage and which can certainly be heard.”36
Despite the later development of the Krishna theme, Das's autobiography springs from the same impulses of revolt as the rest of her oeuvre. Indigenous cultural elements, such as the Kali figure and the matriarchal structure of Nalapat House, provide sources for her critiques of patriarchally constructed heterosexuality. These critiques form major themes in her autobiography and poetry, contributing to a self-reflexivity that provides an intertextual web in which whole plots, incidents, acts, characters, concerns, even sentences and phrases from her other works appear. For example, about halfway through the autobiography, at the point where the protagonist arrives at full, although emotionally unsatisfying, sexuality (in a chapter titled “For the First Time in My Life I Learned to Surrender Totally”), the chapters are prefaced by her poems (e.g., pp. 99, 107, 115, 124, 127). Many of these poems had been published previously and were already notorious.37 Their appearance in the autobiography suggests that coming to adult sexuality for the protagonist is also a coming to speaking subjectivity for the poet.
Das's critique of patriarchally constructed heterosexuality and her struggle to construct her own terms of sexual empowerment, while sharing similar concerns with Western feminists such as de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, and Hélène Cixous, remain one exceptional Indian woman's life story. The concluding chapters suggest not so much a retreat as a reconfiguration of her feminist project. A bad heart condition and her aging body lead the protagonist to turn away from male-female sexual relations as the site of conflict: “I had shed carnal desire as a snake sheds its skin” (p. 170). Her sexual desires are imaged, ironically, in the stereotypical figure of the spiritual lotus, as “now totally dead, rotted and dissolved, and for them there was no more to be a resprouting” (p. 186). She returns to Nalapat House “like a lost woman” (p. 175), in a gesture of retreat into female chastity: “I should never have taken to wearing the coloured clothes of the city. I should have dressed only in white. … I belonged to the serenity of Nalapat House” (p. 176). But the retreat is not a defeat; instead, the protagonist's libido becomes invested in the writing project, which is described in suggestively erotic terms: “I learnt for the first time to be miserly with my energy, spending it only on my writing which I enjoyed more than anything else in the world. I typed sitting propped against pillows on my wide bed” (p. 183).
Yet this emergence of the woman as empowered writer, recalling the return of the ancestral figures of Ammini and Ammalu, is still patriarchally restricted. The narrator represents her readers as lovers: “I had realized by then that the writer had none to love her but the readers” (p. 183). The desire to write, therefore, signifies the desire for a collective libidinous intercourse, a female exposure fantasy: “I have often wished to take myself apart and stick all the bits, the heart, the intestines, the liver, the reproductive organs, the skin, the hair and all the rest on a large canvas to form a collage which could then be donated to my readers” (p. 183). Although a different subject from the woman as sexual being, the woman as writer is again presented as consciousness constructed under the gaze of a patriarchal other, in this case a voyeuristic male deity: “Each time I walked into my lover's houses dressed like a bride, my readers have walked with me. … Like the eyes of an all-seeing God they follow me through the years” (p. 183). It is in her intercourse with her readers that the narrative finally arrives at anything like a recognition of satisfaction: “But how happily I meddled to satisfy that particular brand of readers who liked me. … And it certainly brought me happiness” (p. 184). This satisfaction, however, while it is a sign of empowerment (privileging) of the woman writer, continues to be expressed in the terms of patriarchal (inter)discourse, demonstrating the continued submission of Das's feminist project to patriarchy.
The social restrictions on women writers against expressing the kind of sexual and professional autonomy that we find in My Story are as strongly embedded in many Asian cultures today as they were in 1976, when Das's book appeared, and will probably prevent any imitators soon. The negative responses of Indian women critics such as Monika Varna, Vimala Rao, and Eunice de Souza to Das's work and to the work of other candid Indian women writers such as Gauri Deshpande and Mamta Kalia demonstrate that perceived transgressions of social decorum and traditional behavior still affect literary evaluation.38 Moreover, Asian women generally might not find Das's exploration of female subjectivity as chiefly desire-centered or her portrayal of sexual relations as politically engaged congenial or helpful. After all, Das's writing can be said to have little material transformatory effect in Indian society. Some 80 percent of India's 700 million people live in the countryside. The status of Indian women, moreover, is woefully precarious, reflecting profound gender inequality and urgent material deprivations. The age for sacramental marriage, for example, is fourteen years for girls; the 1987 birthrate was 32 percent per one thousand population. More than 75 percent of Indian women are illiterate.39 Moreover, Das's English-language Indian audience is extremely limited; India has fifteen languages included in its Constitution, and it has been reported that only about 3 percent of the Indian population, a Westernized and class-differentiated elite, uses English with any regularity. Her engaged and disruptive work, however, serves to remind Western readers to avoid any stereotyping of women from postcolonial developing nations. Even in the oppressive sociocultural conditions the autobiography delineates—conditions too often elided and stereotyped as Third World backwardness—Das's My Story, proving the exception in her revolt against patriarchal oppression, helps to write the terms of empowerment for Indian women.
Adrienne Rich notes that for centuries Western women have been “mothered” by the “unchilded”—that is, exceptional—woman: “Throughout recorded history the ‘childless’ woman has been regarded … as a failed woman. … seen as embodiments of the great threat to male hegemony; the woman who is not tied to the family, who is disloyal to the law of heterosexual pairing and bearing. … Without the unacclaimed research and scholarship of ‘childless’ women, without Charlotte Bronte (who died in her first pregnancy), Margaret Fuller (whose major work was done before her child was born), without George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir—we would all today be suffering from spiritual malnutrition as women.” Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 251-52.
That we can and should find parallels between Asian and Western women's texts does not imply that we must accept “the concept of sisterhood as a global construct.” See Bonnie Thornton Dill, “Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood,” Feminist Studies 9 (Spring 1983): 145.
See Ding Ling, Miss Sophie's Diary, trans. W. J. F. Jenner (Beijing: Panda, 1985); idem, I Myself Am a Woman Selected Writings of Ding Ling, ed. Tani F. Barlow with Gary J. Bjorge (Boston: Beacon, 1989).
See Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 17.
Kamala Das, Alphabet of Lust (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1972); A Doll for the Child Prostitute (New Delhi: India Paperbacks, 1977); Summer in Calcutta (Calcutta: Rajinder Paul & Everest, 1965); The Descendants (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1967); The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (OP in the essay) (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1973); Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1979); Collected Poems, vol. 1 (Kerala State: Trivandrum, 1984); My Story (New Delhi: Sterling Paperbacks, 1976) (all page references to this text will be given in the body of the essay); Syd C. Harrex and Vincent O'Sullivan, eds., Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on her Work (KD in the essay) (Adelaide: Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English, 1986). Page references to poems in KD will be given in the essay.
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (New York: W. W. Norton), 1985, 2247-49. Das, the only Asian writer in the anthology, is represented by one poem, “An Introduction,” which encapsulates some of the material worked in her autobiography.
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 326-34. Bakhtin's notion of “the internal dialogism of double-voiced prose” that “draws its energy, its dialogized ambiguity, not from individual dissonances, misunderstandings or contradictions … but sinks its roots deep into a fundamental, socio-linguistic speech diversity and multi-languagedness [heteroglossia]” (325-26) applies to Das's multilanguage background and specifically to what Harrex has termed “cultural dissonances” in the postcolonial Indian world.
Das has attracted an enormous critical response, resisting and laudatory, in her relatively brief writing career. There are more bibliographical items on her work than on any other Indian writer in English, living or dead. It is curious that the majority of Indian women critics persist in reading Das's subjects as strongly physical, a “profanity” of love, in contrast to the male and Anglo tendency to sacralize her subjects, to read them counter to the body as manifesting transcendent and Hindu mentality.
Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 324.
The phenomenon of erosion or changes within native cultures in response to aggressive colonial education and colonial language imposition has been the focus of numerous studies. See, for example, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike's classical polemical study of this phenomenon in African states, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983).
See Bruce King's introduction in Literatures of the World in English (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1974), 1-21, for a discussion of the evolution of these literatures from their colonial sources to their complex contemporary national identities.
Harrex and O'Sullivan, “Introduction,” in KD, 2.
See Vimala Rao, “Kamala Das: The Limits of Over-exposure,” in Studies in Contemporary Indo-English Verse, vol. 1, A Collection of Critical Essays on Female Poets, ed. A. N. Dwivedi (Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1984), for one of the sharpest attacks on the sexual themes and craft of Das's work. See also Eunice de Souza, “Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande, Mamta Kalia,” in Contemporary Indian Poetry, ed. Saleem Peerandina (Bombay: Macmillan India, 1972), 85.
A. N. Dwivedi, Kamala Das and Her Poetry (Delhi: Doaba House, 1983), 20-21.
Anisur Rahmin, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1981), 7.
Harrex and O'Sullivan, Kamala Das. The essays in the volume are by S. C. Harrex, Vincent O'Sullivan, Dorothy Jones, and Curtis Wallace-Crabbe.
Dorothy Jones, “‘Freedom Became My Dancing Shoes’: Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Work of Kamala Das,” in KD, 203.
Mohan Lal Sharma, “The Road to Brindavan: The Theme of Love in Kamala Das's Poetry,” in Studies in Contemporary Indo English Verse, 100.
See Harrex and O'Sullivan, “Introduction,” 1-3; and Vincent O'Sullivan, “Whose Voice Is Where? On Listening to Kamala Das,” in KD, 179-94. O'Sullivan asserts that, with Das, “We are reading religious poems of a kind that it would be impossible to find in any other woman now writing in English” (190).
Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 235.
For a discussion of Das's novel, Alphabet of Lust, see Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Semiotics, Experience, and the Material Self: An Inquiry into the Subject of the Contemporary Woman Writer,” Women's Studies, 18 (Summer 1990): 153-75.
Marilyn French, “Women and Work: India,” in Women, a World Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 174-201.
Rao, “The Limits of Over-exposure,” 88.
Dwivedi, Kamala Das and Her Poetry, 42; Jones, “‘Freedom Became My Dancing Shoes,’” 192.
Sharma, “The Road to Brindavan,” 108.
Jones, “‘Freedom Became My Dancing Shoes,’” 197.
See Homi Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817,” in Europe and Its Others, ed. F. Barker et al. (Colchester: University of Essex, 1985), 89-105, for an insightful discussion of the dynamics of hybridity in colonialist and postcolonialist cultures. In Das's case, her texts are further complicated by the intersections of gender conflict with postcolonial cultural ambiguity, multiplicity, and indeterminacy.
Syd. C. Harrex, “The Strange Case of Matthew Arnold in a Sari: An Introduction to Kamala Das,” in KD, 155-75.
See, for example, “My Grandmother's House,” in KD, 14; and “Blood,” in OP, 16-19.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (Summer 1976): 880.
French, “Women and Work,” 170.
Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 342.
Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 880.
For example, untitled poems beginning chapters 37 (p. 137) and 41 (p. 154) are “The Freaks” and “The Sunshine Cat,” both published in her 1965 collection, Summer in Calcutta.
See Monika Varna, “Gauri Deshpande,” in Studies in Contemporary Indo-English Verse, vol. 1, A Collection of Critical Essays on Female Poets, ed. A. N. Dwivedi Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1984), 65-75; Eunice de Souza, “Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande, Mamta Kalia,” in Contemporary Indian Poetry, ed. Saleem Peeradina (Bombay: Macmillan India, 1972), 84-87; Gauri Deshpande, Between Births (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1968); idem, Lost Love (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1970); Mamta Kalia, Tribute to Papa and Other Poems (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1970).
These statistics are taken from Women: A World Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
I wish to thank Nancy Miller, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Larry Lipking, Northwestern University, for their support; Wimal Dassanayake and the East-West Center, Hawaii, for the time and resources that led to this paper; Julia Watson, who gave me the occasion for the paper; Sidonie Smith, whose critical eye sharpened my argument; and the many critics, both East and West, who have provided me with their readings.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3125
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 ‘the world beyond the self’. But he finds them only as illustrations of how the poet ‘assimilates the fond details of life in myriad forms and projects an inclusive human consciousness’.3 In his rather isolated treatment of various important aspects of Kamala Das's poetry, Bruce King makes only a passing reference to her poems which ‘record a woman enjoying the newness of the world as she wanders the streets and pursues her own interests’.4
Unlike a large number of poets with their sense of commitment to society, Kamala Das turns to external life in her poems only as a part of her commitment to the self. The extraordinarily subjective nature of her vision establishes a vital link between her poems about private life, and about external life. In a sense, her poems about external life are as subjective in their approach as her poems about private life.
The extraordinary subjectivity of vision originates in the urgent need of Kamala Das to come to terms with her crisis of identity. The trauma of the annihilation of self yearning for fulfilment of its need of love compels the poetic psyche to struggle for survival through poetry. Poetry is, for her, the hectic struggle to understand the complex nature of crisis of the self, and to try to discover a means by which to transcend the annihilated self. Faced by the vital problem of survival, the psyche turns to external life as a means to an end—the end being the survival of the self. The poems about external life are neither marginal, nor occasional, nor expressive of her commitment to society. They echo the crisis of her personal life and are a vital means to get it resolved. They originate in Kamala Das's preoccupation with the self and are written for their therapeutic function like the poems about private life.
The poems about external life, which may be described as social poems, voice Kamala Das's obsession with death and rottenness. It is the result of her own traumatic state due to the persistent frustrations in her efforts to get love from the husband and other men. She believes love to be a fulfilment of soul realized through body—an experience of sex, beyond sex. Unfortunately, in each love-relationship, she finds her body accepted at the cost of her soul. As Kamala Das says herself, ‘My affairs have not been sexual. I am frigid by nature. Sex, I can get in abundance from my husband. It was something else that I hungered for.’5 In ‘The Swamp’, the consciousness explores her relationship with one of the lovers who takes her body but leaves her soul unfulfilled in the act of sex:
he undressing my soul effortlessly … but still—I leave unsatisfied for what does he bare for me on the bed, in his study except his well tanned body.
(The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, p. 52)
Hence, her sense of horror at the existence in terms of body and the resultant sense of annihilation of soul projects itself through the persistent tendency of the poetic consciousness to associate death and rottenness with the life of sex. For instance, she responds to the act of sex shared with the husband thus in ‘The Maggots’:
What is It to the corpse if the maggots nip?
(The Descendants, p. 22)
In ‘Convicts’, it takes on the form of ‘hacking at each other's part’ (The Descendants, p. 26). The frustrating sex-experience is felt as an act of murder—herself being the victim. The lover smoothing out bed sheets after love appears to her to ‘Tidy up the scene conscientiously’ after a murder. (‘The Doubts’, The Descendants, p. 16).
Naturally, the sights of death and rottenness loom large before the poetic consciousness facing external life. In ‘The Dance of the Eunuchs’, the rottenness and the smell of ‘dust in / Attics and the urine of lizards and mice’, remains the major impression in terms of which the poet's consciousness responds to the event. In her urgent plea to the flag to ‘lie’ beneath ‘this blood-drenched soil’ and ‘rot’, (‘The Flag’, Summer in Calcutta, p. 22) the psyche clutches on a sad and bitter parallel for the futility of her own state of ‘lying buried / Beneath a man’ (‘The Conflagration’, The Descendants, p. 20). The sight of the barges floating on the sea with ‘their undersides rotting and the garbage / Rot, and the dead, fish rot’ (‘The Wild Bougainvillaea’, Summer in Calcutta, p. 16) is an objectification of the rottenness and smell of the mere physicality of love as expressed, for instance, in ‘that leud, steamy smell of rot, rising out of earth’ (‘Gino’, The Old Play House and Other Poems, p. 13) that surrounds the lover walking ahead. ‘Sepia’ is an angry assault of a proud psyche humiliated time and again. It is willing to scorch and destroy the sterile world for its dreams ‘being flat / And sepia’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 24). The poet bursts forth,
It's time to hold anger Like a living Sun And scorch, Scorch to the very marrow This sad-mouthed human race.
Cursed to suffer mutely, Kamala Das sees the human race as descendants inheriting the curse of suffering without hope of redemption.
We are not going to be / Ever redeemed, or made new.
(‘The Descendants’, The Descendants, p. 8)
The unity of subjective vision is also evidenced by the recurrent image of dead bodies in both groups of poems about personal life and external life. For instance. ‘The Sea Shore’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 40) with the overwhelming regret and pity for the body burning with its' crunch of bones in those vulgar / Mouths of fire is expressive of pity for herself whose ‘all-enveloping gift’ of love cannot be accepted by the man ‘so ravaged, so spent.’ The burning dead body provides a valuable term of reference in defining the loss of courage of the present generation in ‘The Descendants’. She is certain that ‘We shall give ourselves to the fire’. Self-pity is predominantly active in responding to the dead body of the sweeper's wife ironically decked ‘with one rupee worth of / Yellow flowers’. (‘The Bangles’, Summer in Calcutta, p. 34).
The poems like ‘The Wild Bougainvillaea’ (Summer in Calcutta, pp. 16-17) and ‘The Joss-sticks at Cadell Road’ (The Descendants, p. 23) include extensive treatment of sights from external world. Yet they enter the arena of poetic consciousness only as a means to heal the wounds of the suffering self. In ‘The Joss-sticks’, for instance, the apparently objective vision of the cremation of a poor girl registers all the sad details of the scented body, the monotonous wailing of some crones, the snarling beast-like fire, and the garlands thrown by the corpse-bearers in the sea after the body is fed to the fire. But it emerges rather unexpectedly as the intensely subjective vision of her need for love in the concluding part of the poem.
‘Summer in Calcutta’ is probably the only poem where the poet enjoys a momentary release from the hold of the ruthless self. She then seems to exploit the opportunity for responding to the beauty in life for its own sake. The colourful drink before her becomes ‘The April Sun, squeezed / Like an orange’ in her glass (Summer in Calcutta, p. 48). But the release is so momentary that it can not forget its being ‘a moment's lull in / Wanting you, the blur / In memory’.
The images of street-girls, prostitutes and pregnant women in the poems about personal life as well as poems about the external life also underline the essential unity of the subjective vision in Kamala Das. The disgust at love limited to the physical level induces bitter response to the sight of street girls. ‘The Wild Bougainvillaea’ refers to ‘night-girls with sham / Obtrusive breasts’ (Ibid., p. 16), while, in ‘The Flag’, one of the realities within the country is the harlots who walk ‘swaying / Their waste hips’ (Ibid., p. 21). The disgust is, no doubt, neutralized by a feeling of nostalgia when in ‘Farewell to Bombay’, the ‘sad-eyed courtesans with tinsel / And jasmine in their hair’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 39) are affectionately accepted on behalf of the psyche.
The disgust is often substituted by a sense of guilt for violating social norms of morality. It then gets confessed through indirect reference to prostitutes in ‘Composition’. She admits that her ‘first school-house’ is now ‘a brothel’ (The Descendants, p. 33). It transforms itself into a sense of regret for humiliating the self in her confessional disclosure of having ‘Stretched my two dimensional / Nudity on sheets of weeklies, monthlies / Quarterlies, a sad sacrifice.’ (‘Loud Posters’, Summer in Calcutta, p. 23). The cover page of The Old Playhouse and Other Poems with its pictorial outline of ‘two dimensional nudity’ illustrates what she means.
If the sights of death and rottenness as well as of street girls and prostitutes in both groups of poems are essentially a part of the psyche's struggle to understand the crisis of the self, the vehement self-assertion in both groups is a means by which the annihilated self accomplishes the miracle of rebirth. In a number of her poems about external life, the poetic psyche struggles to celebrate its role in assimilating external experience. Of course, every artist is a man with extraordinary sensibility which enables him to identify himself with the life outside and recreate it imaginatively. Art is life projected through the kaleidoscopic sensibility of the artist. It is hence significant that Kamala Das should assert her artistic self so vehemently and so persistently in the poems about external life. In her case, the claustrophobic experience of death and decay of the self necessitates the struggle for survival of the self. The vehement self-assertion is the exclusive means to survive for the poetic psyche. ‘Forest Fire’ is its most intense expression. Here, she confesses how she is hungry ‘To take in with greed’ ‘all that comes’ her way so that ‘in me / The sights and smiles and sounds shall thrive and go on’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 51). The ‘I’ pushes itself to the forefront of all experience from the external world also in ‘Someone Else's Song’ with its rhythmic chant of ‘I am a million, million people’, ‘I am a million, million deaths’, ‘I am a million, million births’ and ‘I am a million, million silences’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 3). The stranger in every walk of life is christened in the name of ‘I’ in ‘The Stranger and I’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 44).
‘An Introduction’ offers a valuable opportunity of witnessing the process by which the autobiographical, limited ‘I’ transforms itself into the impersonal, universal ‘I’. The poet explores this psychic phenomenon with extraordinary clarity and simplicity—‘I met a man, loved him. Call / Him not by any name, he is every man / Who wants a woman, just as I am every / Woman who seeks love.’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 60) Hence, the poem ends on a note of celebration: ‘I too call myself I’. Self-assertion thus involves self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is the knowledge of one's human identity. In ‘Composition’, the personal self, transformed into the universal, human self through poetry, appears to arrive at the ultimate vision of the meaning of existence.
Kamala Das's journey from the state of unillumination to that of illumination is clearly concretized in the progressive recurrence of the image of sea in her poetry. As the poet moves from the stage of unillumination to the stage of partial illumination, the image of sea as a physical reality gains metaphorical dimension. The poet's progress from the stage of partial illumination to the final stage of illumination carries the image of sea from the level of metaphor to that of symbol.
In the preliminary stage of the poet's struggle to understand the complex nature of the crisis of self, sea enters the poetic consciousness only marginally as a physical reality. In ‘The Wild Bougainvillaea’, the sea is a part of the total scenic back-drop—she walks ‘beside the sea / where barges float’ (Ibid, p. 16) as it is in ‘Blood’ (The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, p. 18) and ‘The Stone Age’ (Ibid., p. 51).
The growing awareness of the imagistic value of sea encourages the poetic psyche to experiment with it as a metaphor. In ‘Sepia’ the sea stands for the romantic urge for the distant and the strange. It holds ‘the mermaid's eggs / That lie beneath the / Anemones’ (Summer in Calcutta, p. 24). In the agonizing confession in ‘Substitute’, its metaphorical potentialities are limitedly used to project the emotional storm within when memory is called as ‘Great moody sea’ (The Descendants, p. 6).
The poet's lack of stamina to transcend the sufferings of the self corresponds with the lack of stamina to delve deep into the symbolic value of the image of sea. Of course, sea now provides a satisfying objective correlative to concretize the psyche's sufferings. ‘The Invitation’ is the poet's struggle to keep up her faith in life in spite of the betrayal by a particular lover although there is irresistible temptation to end life in the sea. The image of sea provides a valuable means to project the inner conflict between faith and despair. Here is the sea a physical reality, inviting her, and here is the sea of mind trying to resist the fatal invitation. The outer sea with its plea to ‘end this whiplash of memories’ is balanced against the inner sea which, the poet fears, ‘shall take no more’ (The Descendants, pp. 14-15).
The image of sea shifts to the centre of poetic consciousness in ‘The Suicide’. The rather ambiguous metaphor of the sea of mind in ‘The Invitation’ now appears to hold solution for the crucial dilemma of the body and the soul. It has power to isolate the soul from the entanglements of body which she yearned for but could not get in every love relationship. Yet the sea still remains an important metaphor to communicate the ordeal of the self instead of providing a condition to transcend the self and reach the ultimate knowledge. The sea incorporates the soul's yearning for the impossible ideal of love. Hence, the consolatory note on which the poem ends,
Only the soul knows how to sing At the vortex of the sea
(The Descendants, p. 4)
seems rather to echo the helplessness of despair in the recognition of impossibility to achieve fulfilment on the levels of body and soul simultaneously.
Kamala Das arrives, at last, at the ultimate vision of the meaning of existence in ‘Composition’ which also shows the emergence of sea as a symbol. It is surprising that Anne Brewster fails to locate the crucial significance of sea in the poem although Kamala Das's vision of existence is realized primarily through the symbol of sea. There is only a nominal reference to the presence of sea in the poem in Brewster's remark that Kamala Das ‘opens with a reference to the sea, whose melancholy movement rolls throughout the poem and sweeps it on to its conclusion.’6 She appears to evade the crucial problem of defining the symbolic significance of sea by identifying it vaguely with the image of water in ‘The Old Playhouse’.
The sea, for Kamala Das, stands for the human condition. It represents a stasis between uninvolvement and involvement. Her desire to lie ‘resting in the sea’, ‘completely uninvolved’ is itself a desire for involvement because ‘Greater hungers lurk / at the basement of the sea.’ Existence is hunger for life, for involvement. The self is compelled into involvements with others, each involvement being a potent fragment of oneself. We, being human, must ‘crumble’ and ‘dissolve.’ However, it is not an act of negating existence but that of celebrating its assertion in myriad forms which ‘retain in other things / the potent fragments / of oneself’. (The Descendants, p. 35). By ‘The freedom to discompose’, Kamala Das probably means the freedom to ‘decompose’ though both texts of the poem in The Descendants and The Old Play House and Other Poems spell the word as ‘discompose.’ The decomposing of the self into fragments is ironically described as the result of ‘freedom’ it signifies that decomposing is not an act of annihilation of the self but its renewal in different forms. Decomposition is, in fact, composition. It explains her hunger, to take in all that came her way in ‘Forest Fire’ and her hunger to assimilate experience through ‘I’ in the poems like ‘An Introduction’, ‘Some one Else's Song’ and ‘The Stranger and I’.
‘Composition’, thus, dissolves the border that divides the self from the world outside. The ultimate, mature vision unifies the two. In the light of the knowledge gained by the poet, external life becomes a macroscopic experience of the inner life and inner life becomes a microscopic vision of the external life. Hence, the essential unity of vision in the poems from the two fields stands validated by the poet's own recognition of the meaning of existence.
Bijay Kumar Das, Modern Indo-English Poetry, Prakash Book Depot, Bareilly, 1982, p. 44.
Dr. Harish Raizada, ‘The Confessional Note in the Poetry of Kamala Das’ in Indian Poetry in English ed. by Hari Mohan Prasad, Parimal Prakashan, Aurangabad, 1983, p. 115.
Anisur Rahman, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1981, p. 78.
Bruce King, Modern Indian Poetry in English, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987, Second impression 1989, p. 151.
Kamala Das in a personal letter to the author dated 26.1.79.
Anne Brewster, “The Freedom to Decompose: The Poetry of Kamala Das” in the Journal of Indian Writing in English ed. by G. S. Balarama Gupta, vol. 8, January-July 1980, p. 102.
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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 of the life that they conceal within their foothills. History in the Anamalai Poems operates along this dialectic of the visible and the invisible.
History, in a sense, operates both at the visible and the invisible layers of Anamalai Poems. At the visible layer it appears as the syntactic shift within each poem realized semantically as a movement from ignorance to recognition, from darkness to daylight and from the self to the other. This is the syntagmatic aspect of the verse. Thus, in the first poem in the series, the lone poet traverses the mountain paths of Anamalai only to be recognized by a bird who cries out her name in apparent wonder. This, obviously, implies a movement, one that is accentuated by the ubiquity of verbs of motion in the poem. The second poem in the series is also marked by a similar movement, this time from darkness to daylight:
There were nights when I heard my own voice call me out of dreams, gifting such rude awakenings, and then expelling me from warm human love, unaccustomed fare for one such as I, a misfit when awake.(3)
In some poems the movement is from the self to the other. Kamala Das's obsession with the self, which was described elsewhere as “the ideology of intimacy,” has grave historical and political implications.4 One of the recurring paradoxes of the Anamalai Poems, indeed of much of Kamala Das's poetry, is that each of its inward movements toward an isolated self covers an intricate path, ultimately becoming a movement in the direction of a larger reality. Northrop Frye might call this a centripetal movement of the poetic experience. This can also be read as an instance of a text's unconscious projection of itself into history, indeed the supreme moment of its historicity. The fifth poem in the series will illustrate this. This poem begins as the enactment of an interior drama with the speaker, in a vague identification with the mountain peaks, hiding beneath a misty dream. However, as the poem progresses, we see the personal dreams of the speaker getting intermingled with the dreams of others, making them stir and sigh in their sleep. This seems to be a reference to the speaker's myth-making powers, a faculty that allows her to escape from the prison house of the self:
… Yes, often, poets gatecrash into the precincts of others' dreams as Gods and Goddesses do many a time in unsolicited magnanimity.
In spite of this visible dialectic of the self attempting to reach out to the other, the sense of Anamalai Poems as a record of the poet's obsessive celebration of the self prevails. As suggested earlier, there is a muted identification of the hills with the poet's subjective self in all the poems in the series. The identification is near complete in “The Anamalai Hills,” a poem which, though not included in the series, can be treated as a kind of prologue to the series. In this poem the hills are described as occupying a space outside time with neither “clocks” nor “cock [to crow] the morning in” (149). The whole area is enveloped in an all-embracing mist, which, however, seems to arise from somewhere within the speaker's own heart. There is a clear indication of the external landscape becoming an extension of the interior landscape, a conception that becomes quite distinct towards the end of the poem and acts as a governing metaphor for the series named after it:
The mountain seems deaf-mute, but the flesh of her spirit is but its flesh, and her silence, despite the tumult in her blood, its destined, hush.
Much, of course, can be said about this metaphor in “The Anamalai Hills.” At the centre of this poem is a feeling of sombre distrust about the healing powers of verbal communication. Walking alone, “no longer seeking comfort in human speech” (149) is preferable to all kinships, all blood-ties. This is different from the anxiety of failing poetic powers that marked Kamala Das's voice in some of her earlier poems like “The Cart Horse” and “Women's Shuttles.” There the anxiety was a direct outcome of the poet's growing fears about her deteriorating health. The anxiety is never resolved in these poems, which moreover, were characterized by a more pervasive anxiety about death. Anamalai Poems are different from such earlier poems in that here the poet finally overcomes these several anxieties, and allows herself to luxuriate, almost erotically, in the crisis of the self. The crisis manifests in the text of the poems as images of loneliness and gloom. This is symptomatic of a kind of tragic lyricism, which, according to George Lukacs is the mode appropriate to the soul “gripped by the torment … of solitude and devoured by a longing for community.”5 This is a movement towards absolute subjectivity, pure interiority, illustrated by the following poem in the Anamalai sequence:
The longest route home is perhaps the most tortuous, the inward path you take that carries you step by weary step beyond the blood's illogical arrogance, yes, beyond the bone and the marrow into that invisible abode of pain, yes, that deathless creation tethered to your self, and constantly struggling to wrest itself free, tethered to your soul as your shadow is to your form, your Siamese twin no surgeon can cut away from you. Other journeys are all so easy but not the inward one, the longest route home and the steepest descent …
The “longing for community” that Lukacs speaks about is the invisible text of the Anamalai Poems, a layer that is worked into the paradigmatic stratum of the poetic experience. There is a definite correspondence between this and the syntax of interiority examined above. There is nothing surprising about this. Even for Kant, as Adorno has pointed out, interiority was at least in part “a forum for protest against a heteronomous order imposed on people.”6 This would suggest a further implication of history, and its paradigmatic participation would call attention to the textuality of history rather than to the historicity of the text. This dialectic of textuality/historicity overlaps with the dialectic of visibility/invisibility noted earlier, and can be seen to operate at the levels of textual immanence and cultural critique.
An immanent analysis of the text of Anamalai Poems will reveal how, for example, the sign “home” in the poem just quoted conjures up a whole semantic environment of comfort and conviviality domesticated by contemporary capitalism through its sophisticated advertising technology. This is a far cry from the world of pure interiority that an “innocent” reading of the poem is expected to unravel. This is only a minor illustration of what an immanent analysis can do to the text of a poem when read in its paradigmatic context. In fact, each of the poems in the Anamalai sequence can be shown to have extensive textual ramifications when read in the context of other poems in the sequence as well as of poems written earlier. This will become clear if these poems are read in conjunction with a poem like “Delhi 1984,” or some of the “Colombo” poems, all set squarely in the politico-historical context.
From the poetic context to the cultural context is but a few steps, as the above examples would indicate. The significance of a cultural critique of Anamalai Poems stems from the fact that the author of these poems is a woman who is condemned to lead the life of a woman in a post-colonial society. That Kamala Das has chosen to write these poems in the language of the erstwhile coloniser complicates the matter. These are important questions, but the more important fact, which indeed is related to the questions raised, is that Anamalai Poems are read in a context in which these questions lie intertwined with other questions about literature and aesthetics. The fact is that Kamala Das's poetry cannot, in contemporary circumstances, escape a feminist reading and a post-colonial reading. This, to be sure, is yet another way of talking about the historicity of these texts.
The best way to tackle the gender issue in Kamala Das perhaps is to read her poetry along with her several prose-narratives in Malayalam. Some of her recently published Malayalam short story collections like Palayanam (The Flight, 1990) and Neypayasam (Rice Pudding in Ghee, 1991) and the collection of journalistic jottings Dayarikkurippukal (Notes from a Diary, 1992) will be found useful for this purpose. Even earlier, in such essays written in English in the seventies as “Only Those above 55, Obsessed with Sex,” “Why Not More Than One Husband?” and “I Studied All Men” she had explored the problem of her position as a woman and a writer in post-colonial India. But one has to remember that at a personal level Kamala Das has never tried to identify herself with any version of feminist activism. In fact she has been quite vociferous and consistent in her denouncement of some of the new-fangled ideas doing the rounds in Western feminism. One of her essays has a reference to an American poet she met during her trip to the U.S. whose frank admission of being a lesbian utterly scandalized Kamala Das.7 Her smugly conventional admiration for the “masculinity” of such world leaders as Fidel Castro and Nasser8 is unlikely to render her popular with feminists. Her response to the gender question is not the studied, calculated analysis of a feminist. It is spontaneous, more of a gut response, and hence highly ideological. There is a great deal in her work to interest a cultural critic. Her involvement with the gender question, her answer to it and the way she answers it are all quite unique in many respects. Although her answer to the gender problem does not coincide with the standard answers of feminist activists, a feminist self-consciousness is quite strong in all her writings. While this self-consciousness may not be immediately present in the poetry, it is quite conspicuous in her prose-narratives. In fact an overriding feminist concern seems to be the unifying principle behind her recent collection of Malayalam short stories Palayanam. What captures the attention of the reader of these and other writings of Kamala Das is that she provides significant insights into the operation of sexual politics in our culture without at the same time making an overt comment on it.
Read against this background, the last poem in the Anamalai series might yield meanings unrecognized in an immanent analysis:
There is love greater than all you know that awaits you where the red road finally ends its patience proverbial; not for it the random caress or the lust that ends in langour. Its embrace is truth and it erases even the soul's ancient indentations so that some unknown womb shall begin to convulse to welcome your restructured perfection.
“Love,” “lust,” “womb”—these are some of the words that have acquired new associations in the feminist paradigm, in the wake of which it might no longer be possible to read Kamala Das's poetry as an expression of pure interiority. Interiority has broadened out to embrace and confront a world of ideological values. The ideology in question might be that of patriarchy or of colonialism. In either case we are confronting a social construct produced at a specific historical moment. The historical dimension of Kamala Das's poetry can ultimately be traced to this ideology.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715
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 lineage, her schooling, her discomfort in an “English” school, her friends, her various encounters with sexuality as a young girl, her relationship with her parents and her grandmother etc., her marriage and the rough sexual handling of her by her husband, her children, her various liaisons, her creativity etc., etc. Some sympathise with her, some condemn her brazen behaviour, some wonder whether all this could have happened to her.
We realise that My Story was serialized. Therefore, every instalment had to be complete in itself while yet anticipating the next one. If we consider autobiography as a text which deals with the evolution of the self, how then do we deal with self-contained entities? Try reading a chapter at random. With its title and its internal coherence, the episode is complete in itself. Yet each adds to the final understanding of the text. I say text and not self, for chapters like the one on Valiamma and Narayana Menon (32-35) do not directly relate to the evolution of the self, but deal with questions of gender, creativity etc., which pervade the text, which ultimately go to the making unmaking of the self.
When Kamala Das weaves together the private and the public as in chapter 4 where she gives us the history of Kunji as also the battle for power between the English and the Dutch, she is not only emphasizing the importance of the private, but is also showing us how the woman is the possession of a male, no doubt an adoring one, just as India and Indians are assumed to need the protection of the British. Here is an instance to show how the autobiography strikes at the very root of patriarchy and colonialism:
The house was gifted to my ancestress, the 15-year-old Kunji by her new … doting husband after she had come to his village, fleeing from burning city of Cochin, where she had gone with her uncles to attend a relative's wedding. An aristocrat was to be shown to her at Cochin who was to marry her if she liked his face and if her uncles approved of his deportment.
So when we read about the various love affairs Kamala Das has in an attempt to counter the emptiness of her life, or when she emphasises the importance of the body, we understand her need to refute stereotypes and to assert her gendered desiring self. Her autobiography becomes a creative outpouring of these very desires.
Yet Kamala Das herself seems to be making distinctions between her “creative output” like poetry, two lines of which she quotes at the end of chapter 25: “Wipe out the paints, unmould the clay. Let nothing remian of that yesterday …” (Das 1991:104) or the reference to the “sad poems” (Das 1991:157) she used to write in her diary, with the act of writing an autobiography or a diary. While there are very detailed entries like that in a diary, there are also many evocative passages in the autobiography. Consider how she can write about sensual images of the woods in one para and give diary like entries in another:
… I picked this hour to walk to the woods where, besides the flowers I knew and recognised, the wild cyclamen, the pickerels, the mountain laurels, the narcissus and the exotic rayed lycoris, grew large unfamiliars, savage ones that smelt of slaughter houses and of blood, which I picked in bunches to tie upside down in a dark cupboard for drying (when we packed up to leave after a month, the flowers were dry and held their bright colours intact). From every tree, the squirrels and the humming birds made soft utterances and the woodcock stirred in the undergrowth while I walked through the fallen leaves.
… When Saturday came, I put them to sleep after lunch and arranged under the tree, paper plates full of pastry and almonds. At four, I woke up the boys and dressed them in their red cardigans and took them for the party.
She is aware of the imaginative creativity that goes into any writing, including autobiography. When an interviewer asks her: “Are any parts of My Story creation of your imagination?” (Kaur 1992:144), she responds quite openly:
Any book will contain passages which are the creation of the writer's imagination. My Story is no exception. Whether something happened to me or to another woman is immaterial. What really matters is the experience, the incident. It may have happened to another woman who is probably too timid to write about it. I wanted to chronicle the times we lived in and I had to write about the experience.
The question and answer only reiterate what we observe how poetry is woven into the fabric of her text. Chapters 27 to 49 each begin with a poem that has already been published, a poem her readers are perhaps familiar with. The poem is a micro-representation of the rest of the chapter that is to follow or it epigraphically announces the idea that is worked out in the chapter. Take for instance chapter 39 which deals with the birth of her son Jaisurya, the agony and pain of life, of childbirth giving way to the pleasure and beauty of the child itself. The poem says it all, even if briefly and the rest of the chapter describes it in detail (see Das 1991:163-167). There are even instances of parts of poems which have been rendered into prose as follows:
There is a hunger in each of us to feed other hungers, the basic one, to crumble and dissolve and to retain in other things the potent fragments of oneself. But ultimately we shall discover that we are immortal and that the only mortal things are systems and arrangements.
Even our pains shall continue in those who have devoured us. The oft-repeated moves of every scattered cell shall give no power to escape from cages of involvement. We are trapped in immortality and our only freedom is the freedom to discompose …
Compare this with the following lines from her poem “Composition”:
Ultimately I will feed only the hunger to feed other hungers, that basic one. To crumble, To dissolve and to retain in other things the potent fragments of oneself. The ultimate discovery will be that we are immortal, the only things mortal being systems and arrangements, even our pains continuing in the devourers who constitute the world. Even oft-repeated moves of every scattered cell will give no power to escape from cages of involvement. I must linger on, trapped in immortality, my only freedom being the freedom to discompose.
But for a few minor changes and the way in which the words are placed on the page there is no significant difference between the two versions. Again consider the following lines in the autobiography:
… While I was being driven home, I saw near the mountain passes, the aged cattle being taken to the slaughter yard. I saw their thin haunches and the vermillion brand on their shoulders.
I wanted to, just for one brief moment, get down from the car and join them. Human beings are never branded with a hot iron. They are only sent home with their electrocardiographs and sedatives.
This appears as the poem “Old Cattle” in the 1980s with only a few words altered. These examples show how the distinctions between prose and poetry can get blurred.
All this brings us to the main questions I am concerned with. (Kamala Das's My Story allows me to raise these questions in a fundamental way.) A lot of work on autobiography has been done and we are now happy that it is an “acceptable” genre. But within it once again have developed various classifications. We then tend to valorize certain of them saying they have “literary” merit. In our desire to authenticate diaries, letters etc., we call them personal narratives and create parameters to test them. We indulge in similar acts of legitimization in studying gendered writing or postcolonial writing or any other which has suffered near extinction under the whip of mainstream writing. In this process of asserting a rightful place for each of these modes, aren't we at some level accepting a hierarchy of genres even as we try to break it? Are the notions of “respectability” then inevitable in this exercise? If our aim is to question the very basis of construction of genres which are detrimental to the existence of others, how do we justify our new creations? Can we not envisage a time when the very notion of “respectability” of genres gives way to a fluidity of forms (should I say writing or language)? The mixing of genres, as we have seen, in Kamala Das's My Story (whether she intends it for this purpose or not) is likely to provide one possibility in this direction.
So, what's after all in a “genre”?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3368
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 experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet” (Woolf 538). In her view, what man will say of a woman who tells the truth about her passion always hampers the creativity of a woman writer.
My Story is the only attempt of its kind among Indian women autobiographers in English to tread the untrodden challenging area of exploring and sharing one's experience as a body which serves as the foundation of her sociological, psychological and even spiritual development. Discarding the superficial way of the fellow women autobiographers, who try to grapple with the acute problems of their existence avoiding any talk about their bodies, she confronts her body with unparalleled frankness and honesty. But the most noticeable fact about her bold attempt is that, in spite of trying hard to kill the “Angel in the house” within herself and throwing the traditional Indian morality to winds in her love-life Kamala Das constantly remains aware of her deviation from the accepted norms. The awareness of the culturally defined category ‘woman’ looms over her existence. Time and again she tries to return to her culturally defined self and then discards it realizing that it is not meant for her, that she cannot live her life in accordance with the cultural prescription.
From such a vacillation between the traditionally defined role model and her personal yearning to carve out an undefined, independent role for herself springs an apparent inconsistency in her narrative, for which she has often been blamed. At times, when the super ego of the Angel within dominates her self, she behaves as a traditional Hindu woman with a deep-seated fear of sex and with a deep love for her feminine role. But even this inconsistency has its justification in the context of her autobiography; that is what she has been. Like a true autobiographer she just projects herself honestly as she really has been, leaving it for her readers to pass their final judgement on her personality; they may brush it aside as a sheer inconsistent or try to delve deep into the psyche of the person to get at the roots of the apparent inconsistency. Any such attempt would lead them to the surprising realization that deep down the apparent inconsistency there lies an inherent consistency.
To a sympathetic reader who looks upon the writer as a fellow human being and not as an accused on whom he is required to pass his moral judgement, Kamala's case provides an excellent opportunity for a psychological study of the loveless and emotionally deprived life of an imaginative romantic being who could not get what she desired out of any of her usual, socially recognized relationships. The lack of security and love in her well-to-do parents', as well as her husband's family made her whatever she became. ‘Women are not born; they are made’, said the great French feminist Simone de Beauvoir in her thought-provoking book The Second Sex (683). In her view it is the socialization of women as women which makes them what they become. Kamala's case convincingly demonstrates the truth of this observation. She was an ordinary girl, a ‘good’ girl from society's standard, whom her deprivation and psychological needs turned into a rebel. Circumstances made her what she became. With an understanding husband she would have been a happy wife and would have made a success of her marriage. But her husband's aggressive, assertive approach to sex and her, as yet, immature body at the time of their marriage, resulted in her being labelled as frigid, an adjective that comes in handy to any man, who, as a member of the dominant group, readily uses it for woman who fails to boost his ego or play up to him in such a way as to confirm and enhance his feeling of being a real “man”. How strange it is that even in the context of this most intimate relationship between man and woman, in which they both ought to be equal partners giving and receiving pleasure from each other, women are looked upon as mere instruments of joy, judged solely on the basis of the extent to which they satisfy the men and are readily labelled as cold or frigid when they fall to do so, while in fact the poor ones do not even know what frigidity is; for more often than not, as Nancy Friday points out in her book My Mother, My Self, they are strangers to their own bodies.
Later, when Kamala had physically matured, her husband lost interest in her after the birth of their first son, and resumed his flirtatious relations with his cousins. Driven by sheer indignation Kamala now made up her mind to be “unfaithful to him, at least physically” (95). Feeling as if her love were alms meant for general distribution, she started looking for the “begging bowls” needless to say there was no dearth of such begging bowls to come across. In those relationships she was no more passive. She discusses a number of affairs she had. Unlike any other woman autobiographer she makes an open confession of her sins, if sins they are to be called.
What an irony of fate it is that Kamala, who was condemned by her husband as frigid, who herself accepted the label saying, “Sex did not interest me except as a gift I could grant to my husband to make him happy”, should now, out of sheer disgust and a burning desire for revenge, step outside the sacrosanct orbit of marriage and send for the handsome bricklayer working across the street in order to gratify her own desire! But this was only her first transgression and “was to be followed by many more”.1
Back in Bombay, again the same old routine life was resumed; the days were for child care and house work and the nights for the silent surrender to the cruel tax collector's brutal handling. At times she would just helplessly go on listening to the poor hungry child crying in the next room while her body tried to please its owner. Once when the child was just two years old the cruel father had locked him in the kitchen so that he would not come to their door crying. The poor child had cried himself to sleep on the cold bare floor of the kitchen. This incident made her lose whatever little love she had for the man. She often felt like committing suicide or taking a divorce; but neither course was open to her because after all she was a daughter of the famous Nalapat House. She silently continued her drab, dreary existence.
When her second son fell seriously ill, the suppressed thoughts of suicide once again came to the surface, this time with greater intensity because her husband had now, in the face of the crisis, sought comfort in a homosexual relationship with one of his friends. “They behaved like lovers in my presence”, writes Kamala (104). Driven to despair by sad circumstances she once made up her mind to jump from the terrace of their multi-storeyed building and end her life. But during that dark moment of desolate desperation she had a rare experience; out of her agony sprang a poem. What a miracle! She was not meant to die in defeat. She must live to face the cruelties of the world and express her pain in poetry, returning beauty for ugliness, pleasure for pain. Climbing down from the terrace she sat at the writing table and penned her first poem, beginning:
Wipe out the paints, unmould the clay. Let nothing remain of that yesterday …
It was printed in the journal of the Indian P.E.N. of the next month. Now her sorrow was not hers alone; it was shared among many and so less severe and more bearable.
Kamala was now determined not to let anything from her yesteryears shadow her present life. As promised in her first poem she did wipe out the old paints and unmould the old clay to mould her new self. But before she could begin afresh the great strain of all these years of married life and of her body's sickness made her suffer a nervous breakdown. Recovering from the breakdown she steadily and resolutely marched on the new course she had set for herself.
Now she was a new self, determined not to live a loveless, miserable life of a timid frigid woman, “ripe for the sexual banquet” she looked for the right man. And she writes, “At the hour of worship even a stone becomes an idol” (118). Yes, her love turned many a stone into idols—men from different walks of life and of different ages, some even old enough to be her father. They loved her for different reasons; some to fill their own inner void, some to enjoy her poetic company, some to satisfy their needs, some to worship her while some like Carlo, her white pen-friend-turned-lover, to marry her. But she was not “the divorcing kind”. She may love them, may lie in their strong arms for some time; but she must return to her sons and husband. Carlo was not mistaken in believing that he was like a waiting room between trains in her life.
With so many lovers and admirers around, life for Kamala was a wonderful experience. Recalling that happy feeling she writes, “I was like a poor girl who found herself rich all of a sudden. I was drunk with power” (145). For the first time in her life, now, she had the feminine urge to look beautiful. She visited beauty parlours, changed her hair style and tried to look modern. At last her cup of life was overflowing with love. She was in love with life itself.
It was just as this most blissful juncture of her life when her euphoria was at the highest that she was suddenly and dramatically reminded of the mortality of the human body. She had a bout of serious sickness followed by a long period of hospitalization during which she promised God that she would live an acceptable, respectable life if she survived. But on her recovery she was once again charmed by the magic of love, she yearned for an ideal lover.
By now she was well recognized as a poet whose personal life had public significance. Her notoriety proceeded her wherever she went making people wonder why she lived her life the way she did when she had “everything” that a woman looks for. What and how could Kamala explain to them? “Even birds have their own particular heights. The land birds who do not rise far into the lonely sky, often wonder why the eagles fly high, why they go round and round like ballerinas”, she says (175). Despite being surrounded by relatives, friends and admirers she became increasingly lonelier and finally withdrew into the cave of the self.
This lonely phase of her life coincided with her middle age, the time which fills most women's hearts with the fear of old age. Simone de Beauvoir's creative output of her middle age clearly and indubitably demonstrates the validity of this observation by providing ample evidence of her deepseated fear of old age and the consequent loss of youth, beauty and love, Kamala, too, was now beset by the same fears. Looking at the mirror, during that lonely phase of her life she would ponder over what was happening to her thus:
Was it no longer possible to lure a charming male into complicated and satisfying love affair with the right words, the right glances, the right gestures? Was I finished as a charmer?
It was at this critical period of her life that Kamala, as if to reassure herself of her own charm, embarked upon a love affair with an elderly man known for his “fabulous lust”; it turned out to be her most satisfying relationship as the dark, tall man gave her the sense of security she had longed for all her life. With his soothing arms encircling her body in a warm, loving embrace, she felt as if she were a child again, bathing in the pond at her Nalapat House. The eighteen mirrors in his room too reminded her of the same pond. Her love for this man was so deep that she confides to her readers that she “wanted to grow in him like cancer”, wanting him “to suffer from incurable love” (184). Drunk with the euphoria of such a fulfilling experience of love Kamala makes an open declaration of her sin thus:
City fathers, friends and moralists, if I were a sinner, do not forgive my sins. If I were innocent do not forgive my innocence. Burn me with torches blood-red in the night. … Or, bury me in your back garden, fill my crevices with the red dust of Bombay, plant gentle saplings on my belly, for, he and I met too late, we could get no child of our own, my love for him was just the writing of the sea, just a song borne by the wind. …
This is just a specimen of her open, candid writing which earned her considerable notoriety and the wrath of the conservatives. They disliked her for being bold enough to tell her experience as a body so honestly, so articulately, though she was a member of the muted group.
This most satisfying relationship with the dark, elderly man gave her a sense of satiety that her love starved heart had never experienced before. As a result her carnal desires died a natural death. Using her favourite images of lotuses and the pond she records her experience of shedding her desire like a snake shedding his skin as under:
If my desires were lotuses in a pond, closing their petals at dusk and opening out at dawn once upon a time, they were totally dead, rotted and dissolved and for them there was no more to be a resprouting. The pond had cleared itself of all growth. It was placid.
She returned to Kerala to lead a simple life. However, on reaching there she found that she was not a welcome member of the family. Her people, scandalized by the salacious stories of her immoral escapades that had reached them, looked upon her as the black sheep who had brought disgrace and dishonour to the family name. They burned with indignation and rage. How dare she ever live her life in such a way; and even if she had to do those things, how could she, being a woman of their family, ever make it public? But what could Kamala do? She couldn't help the situation, as everything she did automatically became public. After all she was a writer, and as such, in her own words like a “goldfish in a well-lit bowl whose movements are never kept concealed” (206). Being a bold person with a conviction of her own she had lived her life in her own way, “never hanging it on the pegs of quotation for safety” and burning all the boats that would take her to security. Without entering into any dialogue with them she quietly settled down there to pass her old age in her native place. The end of her autobiography presents her as a happy, contented woman who has accepted death as the ultimate reality of life, “ready to depart when the time came, with a scrubbed-out conscience”, having emptied herself of all the secrets in her autobiography (Preface).
Lately Kamala Das has been expressing some regret for having written her autobiography. After the Time magazine printed a full page piece on Kamala Das describing her as the queen of Erotica, she has been more cautious in her public utterances. Indeed, she has gone to the extent of saying that the book was deliberately made sensational at her husband's insistence as they needed the money to pay the hospital bills, and adding that a woman-writer fulfills her unfulfilled desires of real life in her writing, has tried to suggest that whatever she wrote in her autobiography was not all true. Such statements of hers would naturally make an average reader doubt her honesty as an autobiographer. But a discerning reader knows what these statements mean, especially when they come from a member of women's subculture. They do not mean what they say; the real meaning is to be found in what remains unsaid, to be understood without words. They say that a woman has to pay a heavy price for being a woman, she must deny her real self, which might be that of a declared non-conformist in order to win back her people's so-called love and respect. She might have acquired a room of her own but it is still the society who decides with whom the room is to be shared. It will still take many more years for woman to be powerful enough to take such decisions herself.
Kamala Das succeeds admirably at the task of narrating her experience as a body—a task which even the great Virginia Woolf found herself facing diffidently. However, even the staunchest admirer of Kamala Das will have to agree that in her attempt to share the truth of her bodily experience her pen sometimes becomes too bold; crossing the age-old barriers of the feminine culture of modesty and propriety, it verges on vulgarity. So much so, that just the titles of many of her chapters would suffice to shock many a conservative soul among her readers.
As all novels written by women are not feminist novels, in the same way this autobiography written by a woman is definitely not a feminist autobiography. Nowhere in the book do we come across even a faint suggestion of the feminist commitment with correcting, modifying, supplementing or attacking the male culture; but one may definitely trace the positive side of the feminist enterprise in it, namely, an attempt to create a woman's text. Kamala Das could be good subject for gynocritical study which, according to the famous feminist critic Showalter, who coined the very term ‘gynocritique’ in 1979, is the study of ‘woman as the producer of textual meaning’. (25). In spite of various ideological rifts among critics about ‘woman's writing’ Kamala Das's rightful place among the producers of women's text can never be doubted.
See Udit: The Airport Magazine, Mar-April 1989 pp. 28-33 and Savvy December 1990 pp. 11-30.
Das, Kamala. My Story. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. (1976), 1988.
Das, Kamala. Article in Savvy, December, 1990.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. trans. H. M. Parshley New York: Bantam 1964.
Showalter, Elaine. “Towards a Feminist Poetics”, Women Writing and Writing About Women, ed Mary Jacobus. London: 1979.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women”, The Dolphin Reader, ed Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3027
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 their achievement in many fields but also has given rise to pervasive social evils and has a particularly vitiating effect on the sexual relations between men and women.” Sexual colonialism, thus, has a reference to the imbalance of power between the two sexes.
This paper deals with protest against colonialism as voiced by Kamala Das in her autobiography My Story. She finds it intolerable that woman be assigned the status of the colonized and that she be the victim of the colonizer's ‘brutal indifference’ to her. She protests against women's socialization into an unquestioning acceptance of their destiny as inferiority, passivity, submissiveness and dependence; against society's expectations that a woman should conform to her ‘Angel in the House’ image. Revolting against the rigid gender divisions that a sexist culture wishes to establish—divisions according to which men are superior, Godlike, while women are inferior, inert, “afflicted with a natural defectiveness”, Das has voiced, without any inhibition, her restlessness with the fact that the sex-roles, as perpetrated by a society ruled and governed by men, trap women in wifehood, and motherhood and do not allow them any freedom for self-actualization. Marriage as an institution nauseates Kamala Das because it legitimizes violence on women and gives men a legal control on women's bodies.
Kamala Das condemns the gender divisions created by the male dominated society and pities the lot of women because they have been losers in the war of the sexes. The male desire to relegate women to margins suffocates her. She writes:
Even the air-conditioner helps so little, All pervasive is the male scent of your breath.
(My Story 192)
Kamala Das finds it difficult to reconcile with man-woman relationship as a relationship in which man is the ‘Subject’, the ‘Absolute’ and woman is the ‘Object’, the ‘Other’.
Interestingly enough, the society that Kamala Das belongs to and which she is grappling with in My Story is a matriarchal one. But, unfortunately it is as much obsessed with the myth of male sovereignty as any patriarchal society. Kamala Das was disturbed by the fact that women had been trivialised and marginalised but more disturbing than this was the fact that even the matriarchs had accepted their biology as destiny and did not revolt against their colonization by men. A society in “which being female and being fully human were mutually exclusive” nauseated her. Since she had an acute consciousness of the fact that the society tried to trap women in their biology, she came to hate her female body. She writes:
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.
She defined female body as the “silly female shape”, “the clumsy gadgetry” that “ruined a beautiful relationship” and “always, always damaged bonds” (193).
Even as a child Kamala Das had an overwhelming awareness of victim-victimizer relationships that exist between men and women as well as an awareness of the adverse effects of sexist culture on female psyche. Her father, who thought himself sovereign, expected total submission from his wife and she did display a passive acceptance of the scheme of things which negated women. As soon as he got engaged to her mother, he “stipulated” and that too “firmly” what all she was to wear and what all she “was not to wear” (4). He announced “that his wife was not to wear anything but khaddar and preferably white or off-white” and “After the wedding he made her remove all the gold ornaments from her person, all except the ‘mangal sutra’.” Kamala Das imagines that to her mother “it must have seemed like taking to widow's weeds” but the inner experiences of woman in the over-masculinized culture are insignificant and are not taken into consideration. Kamala Das voices her restlessness with the fetters of femininity in My Story as well as in her poetry. In one of her poems entitled “Suicide” she writes:
But, I must pose. I must pretend, I must act the role Of happy woman, Happy wife.
Thus, the male-governed society leaves a woman no choice so far as acting her satisfaction with her position as the inessential is concerned. In the society to which Kamala Das belongs, it was impossible for a woman to rebel against the masculine yoke, against a male's overwhelming sense of superiority because a male, she was given to understand, was no less than a god. She narrates that her grand-uncle “did not have enough money even to buy the books that he wished to read” (14) but he “looked every inch a king” and used to call his second wife “the most empty-headed woman he had known” and “she used to laugh melodiously at such comments”.
Kamala Das's My Story contains ample evidence of her “awareness of the arrest of feminine development brought about by an economic system, a family structure which produced in women dependency, insecurity, lack of autonomy, and an incomplete sense of who they are even at the level of bodily ego” (Waugh 85). The feminine mystique, she feels, has always been exploited by man who treats woman as his slave. She talks about an oilseller who:
drove his white cow and the three women of his house round and round his old mill, to extract oil from the copra and the sesame while he rested, leaning against a tree, abusing them in pornographic language which only amused his victims, for he ways always a good provider and they were, by nature, masochistic.
This is sexual colonialism in its ‘most overpowering form’. It does not let women feel that they are being victimized. Kamala Das who craves for a less oppressive climate for women, seems to be drawing the reader's attention to the close link between women's oppression and the material conditions, i.e., control on women through economic force.
Woman, Kamala Das feel, has always belonged to the deprived categories of humans, while men believe that the privileges they enjoy are theirs by right. Disgusted with the kind of gender arrangements which treat woman as a slave and thwart women's desire to seek freedom, to seek a right to exist as an independent human being, Kamala Das writes:
You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her In the long summer of your love so that she would forget Not the raw seasons alone, and the homes left behind, but Also her nature, the urge to fly, and the endless Pathways of the sky.
Kamala Das, who right from her childhood wished to subvert the established order which supports the imbalance of power between the sexes, brought all her unconventional views to marriage. “I hate marriage” she declared. “I hate to show myself naked to anyone. …” (72) She had a fierce aversion to marriage because for her a married adult was a “clown in bed”, “a circus performer”. She made fun of the “sexual acrobatics” which “the dignified couples” perform in the dark.
The male manufactured definitions of femininity nauseated her. She detested the male gaze because it situates woman as an object. The sexual politics that prevailed in the relationship between her mother and father and several other couples around her also shaped her views on marriage. the power politics in sex-relationships was repulsive to her. So, she wanted to escape marriage—the bondage. The way she tried to plea the postponement of her marriage, shows her keen desire for “flight from womanhood”, “What is the hurry?” she asked her grandmother. Even when her marriage “was fixed” she tried to escape it. “Not yet, I said. Let me go back to Calcutta to finish my exams …” (85). She felt very uneasy to realize that her life “had been planned and its course charted by … parents and relatives”. Her marriage was fixed. She could not escape her destiny but she displayed tremendous courage in flouting the traditional image of ‘the perfect woman’. She refused to be a traditional bride and behaved like a “tomboy” on her wedding day. She refused to hide in her room “looking demure and shy”. She refused the traditional bridal bath, she refused to wear “a good saree” and dressed up in “a white sari”. She detested “the extravagance” of her wedding. In fact, she says: “All this glut made me feel cheap and uncomfortable”. She had an uneasy feeling that she was devalued as a person in her own right that “the bride was unimportant and her happiness a minor issue” (90).
Kamala Das who wished for herself ‘a place of human dignity’ detested the sexual haste of her husband on the wedding night. She associated the sexual relationships with the fantasy of being attacked, subdued and injured! She, who wanted to assert herself as a “free and independent existent” could not accept the status of an Object, a commodity and this perhaps, was responsible for her frigidity to which she makes several references in My Story. She confesses: “I was cold and frigid. I did not know what sexual desire meant. … Sex was far from my thoughts … I had no need at all for rough hands riding up my skirts …” (87) and so on. She is intolerant of man's obsession with his erotic needs and writes. “The word mate with its earthy connotations made me uneasy. I felt lost and unhappy” (87). She felt shattered to realize that her husband could be just a sexual companion and not an emotional companion. She refers to her wedding night as “that unhappy night” because she says: “without warning he fell on me, surprising me by the extreme brutality of the attack” (92). She refers to this sexual attack as a “rape”—a rape of her spirit perhaps. She did not let the rape be successful and says:
I remained a virgin for nearly a fortnight after my marriage. He grew tired of the physical resistance which had nothing to do with my inclinations.
She who wanted to question the very concept of femininity, to reject the traditional feminine world and to defy the overwhelming “male ego” could not be “just another of his admirers”. She could not “submit to his clumsy fondling”. She could not reconcile herself with being treated as just an object, a non-entity and not a partner in the game. The one who was seeking “a pure, total freedom” had the agonizing awareness that she was not valued by her husband for her own singular being and this gave a death blow to the feminist utopias she had been cherishing since her childhood days. The one who “wanted to be given an identity that was lovable”, soon realised that she was not needed by her husband except as a slave, a prisoner. Her resentment against the way “the ruling sex” tries to control the subordinate sex is visible in expressions like:
You called me wife, I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and To offer at the right moment the vitamins. Cowering Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your Questions I mumbled incoherent replies.
She revolts against the fact that the male psyche tends to treat woman as a desirable commodity. It causes her great anguish that men expect total servility from their wives. Her husband too was an egoist, a bit too sure of his conjugal rights and believed in ruthless exploitation of woman as an absolute Other. She narrates:
During his stay in Malabar, he spent most of his time with his cousins and his sister-in-law, paying me little attention and never bothering to converse with me. At night he was like a chieftain who collected the taxes due to him from his vassal, simply and without exhilaration.
Kamala Das has also articulated in My Story her restlessness with the traditional sex roles according to which a woman is to find her total fulfilment in submissive domesticity. She protested against the division of world into two spheres, a sphere that belongs to men and another that belongs to women, and the one that belongs to woman, she tells, was confined just to the four walls of the house. Kamala Das was expected to:
Dress in sarees, be girl Be wife … Be embroiderer, be cook, Be a quarreller with servants.
Though “the categorizers” expected her to “Fit in”, to “Belong”, “to choose a name, a role”, Kamala Das tried to defy the male definitions of femininity. She refused to fit into any schemes, to play the role of a trapped housewife. So,
My mother-in-law sulked, for she felt that I was spending too much time away from child and my domestic responsibilities. Whenever she said disgruntled things my husband grew angry, and his anger was directed against me and the baby.
Mr. Das could not tolerate her assertion of feminine subjectivity and “stopped me from going up to the terrace for the rehearsals in the evening. You must remember you are a wife and mother, he said” (103). But she, who was struggling to create a new order, a brave new world where women too could be treated as human beings, could not develop a sense of her invisibility. She reacted against the traditional society's definition of womanhood, against the traditional sex-roles and was resolved not to be a stereotype. She writes:
I kept myself busy with dreary house work while my spirit protested and cried, get out of this trap, escape.
She tried to view the social set up with a woman's eye and wished to challenge it. She felt that her refusal to assume the socially defined traditional feminine role was one way of transcending her ‘femininity’ which is associated with passivity and inferiority. So, when marriage stifled for her all possibility of autonomy, and divorce did not seem possible in a traditional orthodox society like hers, she decided to put an end to her life. It is a different matter that she did not succeed at it but the very fact that the suicide was attempted shows her desire for “flight from womanhood”.
A woman with an intense desire for sexual revolution, she wants a utopian state of affairs in which the unequal boundaries of gender do not exist. She presents the picture of such a state of affairs when she writes:
When he And I were one, we were neither Male nor female.
No wonder, it is almost impossible to concretize this vision. So this desire for a feminist utopia entered into a conflict with the traditional image of femininity - a conflict which drove her almost to madness. She felt that she was “a misfit everywhere”. She says: “I brooded long stifling my sobs …” (109). But, in spite of the fact that she had to stifle her sobs, she was not prepared to stifle her need to choose, to act like an authentic being. Literary creativity came to her rescue and helped her return to sanity. It enabled her give an outlet to her unfulfilled desires and provided her an opportunity to establish her identity. So, even though there was no other possibility of going beyond her situation, she could still do so by creative writing. Thus, the sense of selfhood which in the case of Kamala Das was too strong to be annihilated got sublimated in writing. Creative writing served as a therapy and helped her confront and transcend the overwhelming realities of life. It helped her “Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff / Which weighs upon the heart”. Her parents, relatives, husband, children all imprisoned her in her femininity, but creative writing enabled her to go beyond the bonds of femininity and to give expression to her revolt against sexual politics. The writing of My Story itself was an act of defiance if we situate her in her socio-cultural background. The Nalapat women, as she tells us, were orthodox and puritanical. They showed an unquestioning acceptance of the traditional sex-roles which tend to doom women to immanence. They did not dine along with men and many of them hardly ever stepped out of the house. They lived a life of self-negation and never thought of taking decisions for themselves. Hence, it required exceptional courage to challenge the long established social system and to preach “a new kind of morality” and Kamala Das did display tremendous courage in revolting against the sexual colonialism and providing hope and confidence to young women that they can refuse and reject the victim positions, that they can frustrate the sexist culture's efforts to exploit, passivise and marginalise women.
Das, Kamala. My Story. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1977.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex trans. H. M. Parshley. Penguin 1972.
Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. London: Abacus, 1972.
Parshley, H. M. “Translators Preface”, The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, Penguin 1972.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1989.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12914
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 this chapter into four sections: Section I, poems written during 1951-60; Section II, poems written during 1961-70; Section III, poems written during 1971-80; Section IV, poems written during 1981-93.1
SECTION I: POEMS WRITTEN DURING 1951-60
The main concerns of this section are the growth of the relationship between man and woman; sexual conception as well as expectations of man and woman's yearning for love; failure in marital relationship due to parents' fault, and seeking extra-marital relationships; thoughts of great-grandmother and grandmother in the absence of husband's love and repentance for having sought extra-marital relationships.
A man cannot live alone in his life. He has to marry a woman. In the same way a woman cannot live alone. She has to marry a man. When man and woman marry a relationship develops between the two. However one could ask: can't a man or woman lead a life without marriage? Anita Desai seems to feel it is possible as in the case of Bim in her novel entitled Clear Light of Day (1980). The central character Bim leads a fruitful life without marrying a man. She even wins the heart of the reader by sacrificing her life while looking after her younger handicapped brother, Baba. A man and a woman must be physically and mentally mature in order to understand each other. The Indian Government has stipulated a minimum age for marriage. For a man it is twenty-one years and for a woman it is eighteen years. But Kamala Das's woman is married at the age of sixteen as she says in a poem entitled “An Introduction”2:
I was child and later they Told(3) me I grew … a youth of sixteen … Dress in sarees … be wife, they said.
(Das 19734: 26-7)
The woman tells that she is asked to dress in sarees as she has grown up. Now she is a youth of sixteen. And she is asked to be a wife. Thus she is married at the age of sixteen. Though the woman is married at the age of sixteen one can't raise the question of legality as the minimum age for girls during 1950's was sixteen. This date is important for us because we are looking at the poems written during 1950-61.
Man expects to make love to the woman he marries irrespective of her age. Traditionally a married man, just like this husband of a “youth of sixteen”, thinks of his wife as a sexual object, a person to look after their child(ren). Therefore, the wife says
he drew a youth of sixteen into the [b]edroom and closed the door.
Notice the word “drew”. Is woman an object to draw? Unless the man's view of a woman is that of a sexual object. When he draws his wife into his bedroom he expects his wife to be an unquestioning thing.
The woman wants obviously love, not lust, from her husband. Let me make clear what I mean by “love” and “lust”. Love emerges when both are concerned about each other in a sexual affair whereas lust is something that one gets without the thought of the other. Here the woman says:
I asked for love when 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.
One can see that the wife is not mature enough, as a sixteen year girl cannot be physically and mentally mature and she “asked for love, not knowing what else to ask. …” However, she would expect love from her husband. On the contrary, the man draws his “wife” into the bedroom and closes the door and makes love. After the husband makes love to his wife how does the “woman-body” of sixteen feel? The wife says that the man did not beat her. But due to her innocent age the “woman-body” feels “beaten”. Thus the woman's expectations have been shattered. The wife is unhappy because of the man's lust. What the woman wants is love and not lust. One could ask: who is responsible for her early unhappy married life? Of course the parents. Let us see how parents are responsible. The woman says:
I was child and later they said I grew, for, I became tall, my limbs swelled and one or two places Sprouted hair … Dress in sarees … be wife, they cried.
(Das 1991: 12-13)
The word “they”, presumably, refers to her parents. The parents have asked the woman to wear sarees. They have asked her to be a wife, because parents those days believed that a girl has to be married soon after menstruation. One can't find fault with the parents of the older generation because most of them were uneducated. If a girl, with her teen age passion gets involved in a sexual affair and becomes pregnant, there will be very serious problems to her as well as to her parents. Owing to this kind of thinking the parents get the girl (in the poem) married at a very early age and so become responsible for her unhappy early married life. We have seen in the above poem that there is no understanding between the husband and the wife, because the husband has not offered love to his wife which she has expected from him. On the other hand, he is indifferent to his wife's body. Since there is no understanding between them, the wife seeks love and comfort in an extra-marital relationship. The woman says:
Later, I met a man. Loved him. Call him not by any name, he is every man who wants his woman, just as I am every woman who seeks love.
The word “later” means that after a few days of married life, the woman meets a man who has concern for her as opposed to her husband. As Sharma puts it: “What she wanted happened what she needed had not” (Sharma 1979: 24). The word “wanted” refers to the physical union with her husband. The word “needed” refers to “love”. The needed love is absent from her husband. So she loves the man whom she meets. Das's woman pleads with the reader no to look at him negatively because he also needs what she does. Both of them seek “love.” According to Devindra Kohli (1975), “[w]hen Kamala Das speaks for love outside marriage she is not really propagating adultery and infidelity, but merely searching for a relationship which gives both love and security” (27). Does the extra-marital relationship continue? No. Perhaps she thinks that it is not good for her to go on with the above relationship. What does she do? She thinks of her grandmother in a poem entitled “My Grandmother's House” and her great-grandmother in a poem entitled “Blood”:
My great grandmother Touched my cheeks and smiled. She was really simple. She told us That we had the oldest blood [.]
(Das 1991: 15)
Since she is not getting enough love from her husband she thinks of her great-grandmother who touched the woman's cheeks and smiled. One may ask: does the thought have any relevance here? It does have. The lack of love from her husband made her seek an extra-marital relationship. Therefore, the woman thinks that it is better to think of someone who had offered love to her. The woman also recalls her great-grandmother's simplicity and her tradition. Perhaps the oldest blood refers to purity, and chastity. Hence, the woman's family is not a family which seeks extra-marital relationships.
After the thought of her great-grandmother, she now thinks of her grandmother:
There is a house now far away where once I received love … you cannot believe, darling, Can you, that I lived in such a house and Was proud, and loved. …
(Das 1973: 32)
Kamala Das's woman received love from her grandmother too during her childhood. She cannot forget the love of her grandmother although she is far away from her. The woman is also saying that a woman can't be either with her parents or with her grandmother forever (as she is sent to her husband to live separately); one day or the other, mostly after marriage, she has to be away from her family. It is a tradition in India, by and large, that a woman is sent to her husband's place after her marriage. However, the woman was and is proud of her grandmother who showered love on her.
After her thoughts go back to her great-grandmother and grandmother, she cannot escape from the harsh reality just as the speaker of Keats's poem entitled “Ode to Nightingale” cannot after going away into the world of imagination “on the viewless wings of poesy” (Keats 1856: 247). The woman says:
I who have lost My way beg now at stranger's doors to Receive love, at least in small change?
(Das 1973: 32)
The woman has lost the love of her husband; he is only interested in lust. Therefore, the woman says that she has “lost (her) way.” The word “way” refers to her great-grandmother and grandmother. At present she has to “beg” degrading herself at strangers' doors to receive love, after her grandmother has “died of fever” (Das 1991: 15) and because her husband is not capable of offering love. She wants love, at least in small change. The phrase “small change” reveals the woman's agony and desperate yearning for love. Does the thought of going back to her great-grandmother and grandmother change her unhappy life to a happy one? No, because the great-grandmother and grandmother are no more. Therefore, she seeks a happy relationship in future by accepting herself as both a sinner and a saint:
I am the sinner. I am the saint.
She is a “sinner” because she has had an extra-marital relationship with a man other than her husband which is against her family background, Indian culture and tradition. She is a “saint” because she is in search of love. Furthermore, she still adheres to Indian culture and tradition considering herself a sinner and believing in religious and philosophical ideas. Acceptance of the present, and repentance, make her look forward to the future.
SECTION II: POEMS WRITTEN DURING 1961-70
The main thrusts of this section are to show the importance of chastity at the time of marriage; the conceptions of the man of his wife's role as a housekeeper rather than (as in Section I) as a sexual object; and the woman's view of herself as Radha to Lord Krishna as opposed to the yearning (as in Section I) for love; the woman's failure (as in Section I) in having an ideal relationship due to her parents' fault and a lack of understanding (as in Section I) between the husband and the wife. Therefore, the wife seeks an ideal lover like Lord Krishna, and while in search of the ideal lover she gets involved in sexual relationships with lovers who (except a pock-marked man), only lust after her like her own husband. Having failed to find the ideal lover, she considers Lord Krishna as her ideal lover and accepts her sins and evaluates her life.
Now about the question of chastity in marriage. Kamala Das's woman says in a poem entitled “Radha”:
The long waiting Had made their bond so chaste, and all the doubting And the reasoning So that in this first true embrace, she was girl And virgin crying[.]
(Das 1991: 25)
The woman's “long waiting” is nothing but a waiting for marriage. Kamala Das declares that her woman is a “virgin” at the time of her husband's first true embrace. This is what Indian culture and tradition believes in. When the virgin has sex with her husband, either the man or the woman or both may experience some difficulty. Here in the following lines the wife is undergoing difficulty:
Everything in me Is melting even the hardness at the core O Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting Nothing remains but You.
(Das 1991: 25)
Perhaps, Das's woman is a worshipper of Lord Krishna as the above lines reveal. Therefore, she remembers Lord Krishna in the above poem to get solace from Him during her sex with her husband. The first time with her husband is painful. She cannot bear the pain, because she is “girl” and “virgin”. Therefore, she calls Lord Krishna to provide sufficient energy in order to bear the pain in the “melting” business. The repetition of the word “melting” heightens the sense of suffering (Rahman 1981: 27). By referring to Lord Krishna, and in the use of the word “melting” Das's woman expects not only physical love but also ideal love.
On the other hand, the woman complains of her man in a poem entitled “Composition”:
I must pose. I must pretend I must act the role Of happy woman, Happy wife.
(Das 1991: 28)
Is this what every man expects? Certainly not. But at least some married men expect a wife to be a happy house-keeper. There are men who do not belong to the above category and have changed their ideas about the role of a wife. This change may be due to the influence of the Women's Liberation Movement or due to their reading of feminist issues, to mention only two possible influences. Moving to the woman's complaint, the woman not only explains how she poses, pretends, and acts as a happy wife but also reacts against it and is critical of her husband. This marks a departure from the woman's behaviour in Section I:
Yet I can never forget The only man who hurts, The only one who seems to know The only way to hurt.
The sorrowful event cannot be forgotten. So she is not able to forget the husband who knows only how to hurt her. The repetition of the words “only” and “hurt” lay emphasis on her torturing husband. In Jones' words to write “frankly about sexuality in a society which expects wom[a]n to be modest, submissive and unobtrusive is in itself an act of rebellion” (1986: 195)5 against her husband.
Let us see then what the woman expects from the man. The woman, as Jones points out, reveals her expectations with utmost frankness:
I want to be loved And If Love is not to be had, I want to be dead; just dead.
Any woman, especially a married woman, expects “to be loved” just as Radha is loved by Lord Krishna rather than be lusted. Harish Raizada (1983) opines that “what [the] woman ‘hungers’ for is not lust but love, ‘simple love’, which she considers a necessity of her life” (130). If she does not get the necessary love in her relationship with the husband, what does she do? At first she thinks that it is not possible to have an extra-marital relationship in the Indian context. Therefore, she says “if love is not to be had” she wants to be dead, just dead. Instead of undergoing the torture of this relationship, she wants to be dead. K. R. Ramachandran Nair (1993) also views that the woman's “ideal relationship is based on mutual love without lust, passion without desire and possession and sympathy without condescension” (99).
Let us see what Kamala Das6 herself as a poet has to say about her views on the man-woman relationship:
A man, not loving a woman, but only feeling lust, has to right at all to touch her, and defile her. He should not enter her. I think it is like counterfeit money. The whole place is full of that. And that is precisely what I have written about, nothing else, nothing more shocking.
(Das 1990: 159-60)
Furthermore, the woman in the poem entitled “Vrindavan” says:
Vrindavan lives on in every woman's mind and the flute luring. …
(Das 1991: 48)
The wife talks as a representative of married women and expects her husband to be like the flute luring Krishna who gives ideal love. The understanding arising out of an ideal love stays for some time as revealed in the following lines from “The Seashore”:
… the only face I remember Then is yours, my darling, and the only words, your Oft-repeated plea, give me time, more time and I Shall learn to love. How often I wish, while you rest In my arms that I could give you time, that this great, All enveloping thing I offer you, calling It meekly, love, can take us to worlds where life is Evergreen, and you, just at those moments raise your Red eyes at the smile, perhaps, at the folly Of my thoughts.
(Das 1991: 33)
The wife remembers only her husband's “face” as he is her life partner. Hence, she says “my darling”. The husband has pleaded with his wife to give him time to learn how to love her in order to fulfil her expectations. The wife has “often” wished that she could give him time. Meanwhile, she wishes to give him the “all enveloping thing” which will take them to the “evergreen world”. Just when both of them seem to have an understanding, the husband, surprisingly, raises his “red eyes” at the wife and perhaps at her smile also, suggesting that her thoughts are foolish. Thus she says:
I see you go away from me And feel the loss of love I never once received.
(Das 1991: 33)
The understanding between the two, thus, fails as she sees him going “away from” her. She feels the loss of “love” which she has been expecting from him. Her expectations, thus shattered, she feels troubled as in the poem entitled “In Love”:
While I walk the verandah, sleepless, a million questions awake in me and all about him and this skin-communicated thing that I dare not yet in his presence call our love.
(Das 1991: 36-7)
The wife undergoes sleepless nights as her husband does not have patience to understand her feelings and thoughts. Therefore, she walks around the verandah and asks herself a million questions. Questions about whom? About her husband. About “this skin-communicated thing.” It is not just this “skin-communicated thing” that he should be interested in, but also in understanding and fulfilling her love. Despite all this she has to put up with him as there is no alternative. Therefore, she says in a poem entitled “Convicts”:
We lay on bed, glassy eyed, fatigued, just the toys dead children leave behind, and we asked each other, what is the use, what is the bloody use?
(Das 1991: 38)
The husband and wife lie in bed mechanically and sleep off after they skin-communicate. They lie in fatigue. They lie just like toys. Then they ask each other whether there is any “use”, rather “bloody use”, in their relationship. Furthermore, she says:
When he and I were one we were neither male nor female. There were no more words left, all words lay imprisoned in the ageing arms of night.
(Das 1991: 38)
They were “neither male nor female” leads us to think of their oneness in love which no longer exists. Look at the next line: “There were no more words”. She emphasises here the fact that the oneness they had felt then is a thing of the past.
Again the wife has a question to her husband with regard to his behaviour during their sexual act: “Can this man with / nimble finger tips unleash nothing more / alive than the skin's lazy hungers?” (Das 1991: 42) in a poem entitled “The Freaks”. In a way she is questioning every man who only lusts after his wife rather than loves her. How long will he take to come into the world of love? Shiv K. Kumar (1992) voices a similar view when he says that Kamala Das portrays her lover (I do not interpret the protagonist as Kamala Das but Das's woman throughout my argument) as someone who only arouses “the skin's lazy hungers” (6).
Furthermore, the wife asks her husband a direct question in the poem entitled “The End of Spring”:
… what is the use Of love, all this love, if all it gives is Fear, you the fear of storms asleep in you, And the fear of hurting you?
(Das 1991: 26)
The wife questions the “use” of “love”, rather lust, if all that comes out of it is “fear”. The husband, as Kurup puts it, is obviously “uncomprehending and indifferent to his wife's emotional needs” (Kurup 1989: 19). What would a wife do when the husband is “indifferent” to her emotional needs? One of the answers she thinks of is dying in a poem entitled “The Suicide”:
I have enough courage to die, But not enough. Not enough to disobey him Who said, do not die And hurt me that certain way.
(Das 1991: 28)
Look at the conflict in her. At one time she has “courage to die” and at another she has “not enough” of it. Not enough, because she does not want to disobey her husband's words, which means she has concern for him, unlike him, who asks her not to “die” and thereby hurt him. The husband has realised that getting married is one thing and living without a wife is a terrible experience because he is still young. Therefore, he is able to stop her from the thought of dying.
Moving away from the thought of dying, she expresses how it is easier for her to hold the sea than her husband:
Holding you is easy Clutching at moving water, I tell you, sea, This is easy But to hold him for half a day Was a difficult task. It required drinks To hold him down, To make him love, But, when he did love, Believe me, All I could do was sob like a fool.
(Das 1991: 30)
In the above lines the comparison between the husband and the sea reveals how crude and harsh her husband is. Notice how “to hold him and make him love” is a very difficult task as opposed to holding the sea. Moreover, she has to give him alcoholic drinks to enable her to hold him, and make him love. Making love is considered mostly a happy event. But the woman's condition is pathetic. All she can do, instead of experiencing ecstasy, is to sob like a fool.
Despite the husband's lust, the wife tries to secure love from him in the poem entitled “Substitute”:
Yet, I was thinking, lying beside him That I loved, and was much loved. It is physical thing, he said suddenly, End it, I cried, end it, and let us be free.
(Das 1967: 7)
She tries to offer love to him, although he is interested in lust. The husband says “it is [a] physical thing” as he is only interested in physical union. The wife is disappointed. So she cries “end it.” Notice the word “cried.” She cries to him to end the physical thing so as to be “free.”
Since her husband has failed to provide love to her, she has tried to provide love for him but fails even in this as we have seen in the above lines. Therefore, she declares her state in a poem entitled “Captive”:
My love is an empty gift, a gilded empty container; good for show, nothing else.
(Das 1967: 17)
Her own effort has proved to be “empty gift”, “an empty container.” There seems to be only a show of her love for outsiders to get an impression that the husband and the wife have a good relationship. She expresses her grief about her relationship with her husband:
Who can help us who have lived so long and have failed in love? .....I am a freak.
(Das 1991: 42)
The above lines are relevant to any man or woman in their relationship. One could ask: who is then responsible for her present condition? The woman says: “The fault is neither his nor mine” (Das 1991: 53) in a poem entitled “Weeds.” When the woman accepts that neither she nor her husband is responsible for her present condition, one could surmise that the parents of both sides are responsible. I have already indicated in section I how the wife's narrow-minded parents married the girl off at a very early age, resulting in the absence of fruitful relationship between the two.
Now the wife considers herself a tragic figure as in a poem entitled “Drama”:
It was soon my turn to be the Tragedienne, to take vague steps. Black gowned, black veiled And wail, and beat my breast And speak of unrequited love I am wronged, I am wronged, I am so wronged … [.]
(Das 1965: 62)
Her tragic situation intensifies and heightens when she uses the repetitive sentences “I am wronged / I am so wronged”. I do not agree with Eunice de Souza (1977) who points out that this kind of repetitive phrases or words in Das's poems are “weak or pointless.” All the same she says that the “best poems display a strong feeling for rhythm” (62).
Now let us see what happens if there is no understanding between husband and wife. She goes in search of an ideal lover. During her search for an ideal lover like Lord Krishna she gets involved in various sexual relationships. But they also lust after her like her husband. But
she is not a [woman] of free love. On the contrary, she upholds the sanctity of domestic love and marital relationship. But she is disheartened when marital love degenerates into lust, when marital relationship turns into a domination by the male over the female.
The woman says in a poem entitled “The Bangles:
When does a woman go who is loved but finds love not enough, To a flatlet away from town.
(Das 1965: 34)
In the above lines there is no question mark. But the lines suggest a question, and there is an answer to the question-like sentence. The answer is that woman goes to a flatlet away from the town to seek enough love which she could not get from her husband.
While in search of an ideal lover she has a sexual relationship as expressed in a poem entitled “An Apology to Goutama”:
[W]hen other eyes haunt my thought, I kiss your Eyes and shut them, so that I need no longer See them brood, or their naked, naked fear. Another voice haunts my ears, another face My dreams, but in your arms I must today Lie and find an oasis where memories, Sad winds do not so much blow, and I must hear you say, I love, I love, I love. It was Another who made me lonely, not you. Your hands with bitten nails, never pain, never Reject, Another's name brings tears, your's A calm, and a smile, and yet Goutama, The other owns me; while your arms hold My woman-form, his hurting arms Hold my very soul.
(Das 1965: 19)
The wife tells Goutama that she kisses his eyes and shuts them despite the “other eyes” (the husband's) haunting her thought. However, her husband's “voice,” “face,” haunt her. To get away from being haunted she must find an “Oasis.” One can imagine the lack of love from her husband. Moreover, she wants to hear from Goutama that he loves her. The repetition of the word “love” intensifies and heightens her “endless hunger” for love. She also confesses to Goutama, who is an outsider, that “another” was responsible for her loneliness (a theme in Kamala Das which deserves to be researched upon in depth). Instead of the pain in her husband's hands, she experiences calm and comfort in Goutama's arms. Nevertheless, she tells Goutama that she is owned by her husband. The woman can never ignore the roots of Indian culture and tradition. Therefore, she says that only the “woman-form,” that is the body of wife, is in Goutama's hands but her mind is in her husband's hurting arms.
However, the woman consoles herself about her involvement in an affair with Goutama. She asks herself in the poem entitled “With Its Quiet Tongue”:
But, why cry? or, when even gloat In solitude? what does a woman lose or even gain from a love affair? The passion dying is not a death At all but a sleep …
(Das 1965: 32)
She seems to suggest that one need not “cry” for having a sexual relationship. A woman does not lose anything from a love affair when she is in search of ideal love. Kirpal Singh (1979) opines that Kamala Das's “frank utterances about sex, love and marriage leave the general reader quite baffled and even overwhelmed by her power to use words with pointed effect” (1). One could understand Singh's view when one considers the question the woman asks in the poem above: “[W]hat does a woman lose or even gloat from a love affair?” No other poet either pre-Independence or post-Independence has dared to articulate as openly as Kamala Das does in the words she makes her woman speak here. I agree with I. K. Sharma (1986) who views that
Kamala Das's chief contribution to modern Indian English poetry is not only the stunning frankness … but also in making public a vast fund of agonies and information regarding woman's psychic experience that lay hidden, for ages in the private female sector.
There is another man with a pock-marked face who shows interest in the woman. She describes him in the poem “The Testing of the Sirens”:
At my doorstep I saw a pock-marked face a friendly smile and a rolleiflex, will go for a drive, he said. Or, go to see the lakes.
(Das 1991: 58)
Has her husband ever shown interest in taking her to the lakes? A mutual relationship can develop when they go out together. The pock-marked man, on the other hand, invites the woman to see the lake. The woman gets prepared:
I have washed my face with soap and water, brushed my hair a dozen times, draped myself in six yards of printed Voile.
Look at the woman's interest in washing her face, “brushing” her hair and wearing a sari of six yards of printed voile. This kind of interest is not shown by the woman with her husband because he has never invited her nor has shown any interest.
Furthermore, in conversation with the pock-marked man:
I am happy. He really was lavish with words. I am happy, just being with you. But you … you love another, I know, he said, perhaps a handsome man, A young and handsome man. Not young, not handsome, I thought, just a filthy snob. It's a one-sided love, I said. What can I do for you? I smiled. A smile is such a detached thing, I wear it like a flower.
(Das 1991: 58-9)
Is she happy? Yes, she is, because
[t]here is a complete lack of rapport … between [the husband] and [the] woman. They have lived together like islands unto themselves. [The husband] is nothing but for his beastly hungers, shallowness, lip love. He can never go beyond the body.
(Singh 1993: 121)
The word “He” in the poem above refers to the lover. He is lavish in using sweet words. She is happy with her lover. The word “you” in Das's lines quoted above refers to the lover. He points out that she likes another. The word “another” refers to her husband. How can she not love her legal husband? The lover forgets the fact that he is just a lover and not a husband. The wife seems to believe in the Indian tradition. When the lover refers to her husband as “young” and “handsome”, the woman tells herself, that he is not, and that he is only a filthy snob. Moreover, she reveals that the husband had only one-sided love, i.e., lust. The husband wants, as Singh has pointed out, only lust. Her thoughts vanish as the lover asks whether he can do anything for her. In reply she smiles at him. Again she tells herself or the reader of the poem that she “wears” a “smile” which is a detached thing like a flower.
As she doesn't ask for anything, the lover himself asks:
I want your photo lying down, he said, .....Will you? sure. Just arrange my limbs and tell me when to smile.
(Das 1991: 59)
Has her husband ever though of taking his wife's photo? Here the lover asks her permission to take a snap of the woman. She readily agrees, therefore, the word “sure.” Look at her immediate response without any hesitation. It is this kind of involvement, the kind of ideal love between Lord Krishna and Radha, that she expects from her husband. Meanwhile she wonders:
Ah, why does love come to me like pain again and again and again?
The “love” feels “like pain again and again and again” because she has not got it from her husband. The repetition of the word “again,” here like the word “love” in “An Apology of Goutama,” the expression “I am wronged” in “Drama,” and the word “only” in “The Suicide,” intensifies and heightens the “love” that she expects from her husband which unfortunately she could not get.
At last the husband shows concern for his wife, in a poem entitled “Vrindavan”:
[H]er husband who later asks her of the long scratch on the brown aureola of her breast and she shyly replies hiding flushed cheeks, it was so dark outside, I tripped over the brambles in woods … [.]
(Das 1991: 48)
After the wife comes home from the pock-marked face man the husband sees the “scratch” on the brown aureola of her breast. Incidentally, it is the first time that the husband is concerned for his wife. But it is too late. She has crossed the line of marital relationship. When asked about the scratch, she lies that due to the darkness outside she tripped over the brambles in the woods. One has to notice that the wife has started concealing things from her husband.
After the pock-marked face lover the wife thinks back on her early married days in comparison with her present situation in which she seeks sexual relationships in search of an ideal lover like Lord Krishna and in the process has become a kind of a whore. She declares her becoming whorish in the poem “The Proud One”:
Perhaps it had begun as a young man's most Normal desire to subjugate a girl But when she, being silly, spurred him, he took the country as his bride and rode her For thirty years. It is any wonder that He felt hurt when the old wife turned whorish and Withdrew from under him? I saw him that day Lying nailed to his bed, in imitation Of the great crucifixion, but, loving him, I found no courage then even to be kind.(7)
(Das 1967: 18)
In the early days of her marriage her husband had subjugated her as though his was the “most normal desire”. The word “most” here can be extended to indicate the behaviour of most men. She expected love from him, but only found lust. She criticizes her husband for having dominated and controlled her for thirty years as is the case with women of Kamala Das's generation. She wonders why such a husband should feel hurt at his wife becoming whorish and no longer being under his control.
When they have failed to understand each other the wife has become whorish as she says in the poem “Substitute”:
After that love became a swivel-door When one went out, another came in Then I lost count, for always in my arms was a substitute for a substitute.
(Das 1967: 7)
Since the understanding between the two has become hopeless, she becomes whorish in order to find an ideal lover. Instead of finding one, she finds only men who lust her. She has even lost count of the men. There is substitute after substitute. What a pitiful and pathetic condition for a wife!
With utmost agony the wife addresses a serious question to men and women in the poem “The Conflagration”:
Women, is this happiness, this lying buried Beneath a man?
(Das 1967: 20)
Thus she asks men implicitly and women explicitly. In most extra-marital relationships, the man is only interested in the body of the woman. There is no one like Lord Krishna.
It is not only in reality but in dreams also that she looks at strange doorways to seek the ideal lover as she says in the poem “The Corridors”:
Why do I so often in Dreams linger at strange doorways Lonely an imposter, watching The crowd who welcome me—and know, deep inside, the truth that They know one by another Name—a well loved name I am powerless to recollect?
(Das 1965: 36-7)
One could imagine a brothel house by reading the above lines. What could this convey? Could we say it conveys that in the dream she has become a whore if not in reality? In her case, it is not for a livelihood but for personal satisfaction. The above lines also indirectly point out to her irresponsible and incomprehensible husband and to her emotional and physical desires. Had she been given the physical and emotional desire by her husband she would not have come to the present situation.
However, she talks of her present situation in the poem “Substitute”:
Life is quite simple now … Love, blackmail and sorrow.(8)
One could see her ironic tone. How could a wife's life of unfulfilled love be “quite simple”? The phrase and the word “quite simple” and “love” are used in an ironic sense. How could one find love in “blackmail” and “sorrow”? Furthermore, she says in the poem “Gino”:
This body that I wear without joy, this body burdened with lenience, slender toy owned by man of substance … [.]
(Das 1991: 57)
She feels no joy in her life because of lack of love, only lust. Kamala Das seems to suggest that in any relationship the woman's body becomes an easy target. The body is looked upon as a “slender toy” by men. Most of the men feel as though they have bought the body as one purchases a toy. In fact it is the woman who buys her bridegroom, mostly, by giving him/his parents dowry.
Furthermore, she says:
It will be all right if I join clubs And flirt a little over telephone
(Das 1967: 6)
When does a wife “join clubs” and “flirt a little over telephone?” It is only when the husband is not able to fulfil her expectations. Even if he knows of his wife's joining the club and flirting a little he will not object, because he has not done justice to her. Therefore, she wants to make her husband grieve when she dies, in a poem “I Shall Some Day”:
I shall some day leave, leave cocoon You built around me with morning tea, Love-words flung from doorways and of course, Your tired lust. I shall someday take Wings, fly around, as often petals Do when free in air, and you dear one, Just the sad remnant of a root, must Lie behind, sans pride, on double-beds And grieve. But, I shall someday return, losing Nearly all, hurt by wings sun and rain, Too hurt by fierce happiness to want A further jaunt of a further spell Of freedom, and I shall someday see My world, de-fleshed, de-veined, de-blooded, Just a skeletal thing, then shut my Eyes and take refuge, in nowhere else, Here in your nest of familiar scorn. …
(Das 1965: 52)
The wife is addressing, in the above lines, her husband. She tells him that she shall some day leave the cocoon which he has built around her. More specifically, she wants to escape from his “tired lust.” She wishes to leave him, so that he grieves over his loneliness, sans pride. Look at the phrase “your dear one”. It is biting irony. Not only does she prefer to die in the future but also to see her world, which is her body, “defleshed,” “de-veined,” and “de-blooded.” She wants to return just as a skeletal thing in order to show her husband that lust has no value. But why does she want to return to her husband after her death? She wants to come to him because he is the familiar scorner. No wife thinks of returning to her husband “de-fleshed,” “de-veined” and “de-blooded” like a skeletal thing. No man-woman relationship should be like this. She develops her anger over her husband on three counts as K. N. Daruwalla (1989) points out: a) the husband's “skin's lazy hungers” (b) “indifference” towards his wife and (c) “the wife's need for ideal love” which he can't provide (10-11).
Having failed in her search for the ideal lover, the woman turns to Lord Krishna and accepts him as her ideal lover. Anisur Rahman (1981) has rightly said: “Her disgust in failures led her to frantic search for the mythic Krishna, the ideal lover, in whom she has established her eternal bond: (11). Therefore, she says in the poem “Krishna”:
Your body is my prison, Krishna, I can't see beyond it. Your darkness binds me, Your love words shut out the wise world's din.
(Das 1991: 54)
Furthermore, the woman wants to escape the snares of sexual relationship with the lovers, because she says in the poem entitled “The Prisoner”:
I must some day find an escape from its snare.
(Das 1991: 55)
The word “snare” refers to lust which is found in the sexual relationships with the lovers; therefore, she wants to escape it.
After considering Lord Krishna as her ideal lover, she accepts her sins in the poem entitled “The Descendants”:
We have spent our youth in gentle sinning Exchanging some insubstantial love [.]
(Das 1973: 33)
The wife only says that she has sinned in her youth. She is conscious of the traditional Indian context. She knows that having a sexual relationship with lovers is nothing but “sin.” Since she is a worshipper of Lord Krishna, she confesses her sins to Him:
We are not going to be ever redeemed or made new.
(Das 1991: 43)
She still believes in tradition. According to Hindu philosophy and religion a man or a woman who commits a sin, in whatever form it may be, (here it is sexual relationships with the lovers) can't be “redeemed” or “made new”. According to Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita in text 14, 15, 16:
When one dies in the mode of goodness, he attains to the pure higher planets [.] (14)
When one dies in the mode of passion he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive activities, and when he dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom [.] (15)
When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life [.] 
[Bhaktivedanta and Prabhupada 1970: 677-684]
Since sexual relationship with the lovers is also part of the “mode of passion”, she can't be free from birth; she has to have a rebirth, therefore, the woman in the poem says “we are not going to be / ever redeemed or made new.”
To sum up Section II, the wife initially in order to justify her sexual relationships uses the Radha-Krishna myth. She moves beyond this to consider Lord Krishna as her ideal lover, and seeks salvation through him for her sins.
In Section I the wife's thoughts go back to her great-grandmother and grandmother in the absence of her husband's love for her, whereas in Section II, the thoughts go back to her early married days where she was subjugated by her husband as though it was his most normal desire. In Section I the extra-marital relationship is only with one person as the poems written during 1951-60 show, whereas in Section II the sexual relationship with the lovers is shown in an aggressive manner where she is in search of the ideal Lord Krishna like lover. In Section I there are no friendly figures, like the pock-marked face man, who resemble the ideal lover, Lord Krishna as in Section II. In Section I, the repentance is only for having committed the sin of seeking an extra-marital relationship in search of love, whereas in Section II it is not just repentance. There is some consciousness of divinity as she considers Lord Krishna as her ideal lover.
SECTION III: POEMS WRITTEN DURING 1971-80
The main emphasis in this section is on the importance of mutual understanding between the husband and the wife, and its failure. Unlike in Section II where the wife has to “pose,” “pretend” and “act as a happy wife,” she is given freedom by the man who is at the same time crude during sex. Finally both the husband and the wife, becoming conscious of their age, forgive each other in order to lead a satisfactory life.
Kamala Das's woman answers the question: “What is man-woman relationship” in the poem entitled “Composition” which she considers one of her favourite poems9:
Husbands and wives, here is my advice to you Obey each other's crazy commands(10) ignore the sane.
(Das 1973: 8)
Before analysing the above lines I need to disagree with Sunil Kumar (1992) when he reads the above lines as “she ironically pleads to all women to surrender to the male ego” (61). Kumar ignores the words “each other's”. Kamala Das's woman doesn't advise women to obey their husbands' commands. For that matter one could read it as if she ironically pleads with all men to surrender to the female ego. It has to be understood that Kamala Das's woman has come to realise that when the husband and wife do not obey each other's commands, it would result only in frustrating extra-marital experiences. The woman has learnt that in extra-marital relationship what a woman gets is more useless lust than what she gets from her husband. The body of the woman is looked upon as a slender toy (in “Gino”) owned by the outsider, temporarily. Therefore, she says “obey each other's crazy commands.” The word “crazy” may tempt us to read it in an ironic sense. But it is not irony that I see here because sometimes either the husband or the wife can be illogical. That is why the concept of mutual love is propagated by Kamala Das's woman. T. N. Dhar (1989) views that “understanding and mutual respect,” rather than ignoring of each other's commands, is what Das's woman “regards as the basis of love” (24). Vrinda Nabar (1994) also views that the man-woman relationship is in terms of “mutually fulfilling relationship” (87).
Now let us go back to the poem “Composition”:
When I got married my husband said, you may have freedom as much as you want.
The woman talks of her early married days again in order to reveal her husband's relationship with her. The husband assures her as the word “said” indicates, that she could have as much freedom as she wants. However, he has not stated what kind of freedom he has in mind. Bruce King (1987) interprets the word “freedom” in terms of sexual experiences and says that her “husband's willingness to let her have her sexual experiences [is] a further blow to her ego” (148). One could agree with King's interpretation as the wife has been involved in extra-marital relationship in search of a lover, an ideal lover like Lord Krishna in the previous sections.
On the one hand he gives freedom to his wife, on the other hand he is rude with his wife during sex. The woman says in the poem entitled “Glass”:
He drew me to him rudely with a lover's haste, an armful of splinters, designed to hurt and pregnant with pain.
(Das 1991: 103)
The husband's aim is nothing but to become a father. Therefore, he draws her into his room in order to make his wife pregnant. Kamala Das does not portray any change in the attitude of the husband since her poems of the 1950's. She experiences hurt rather than ecstasy with her husband. The adverb “rudely” shows how rude he is with his wife in the sexual act. He is not concerned about his wife's happiness.
Hence, the wife proposes mutual understanding between any husband and wife as the only way out. She clarifies her position to the reader in the poem “Composition”:
Reader, You may say, now here is a girl with vast sexual hungers, a bitch after my own heart. But, I am not yours for the asking.
She explains further in the poem entitled “The Stone Age”:
Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind, … Be kind … you build around me a shabby drawing room, And stroke my pitted face absent-mindedly while You read.
(Das 1973: 51)
She pleads with her husband to be kind with her and not be indifferent to her needs, for he only “stroke[s] absent mindedly” while he reads.
While the wife strives for mutual understanding, she reveals her problems and failure in the poem entitled “The Old Playhouse”:
I came to you but to learn What I was and by learning, to learn to grow but every
Lesson you gave was about yourself. You were pleased With my response, its weather its usual shallow Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth you poured
Yourself into every nook and cranny, you embalmed My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices. You called me wife, I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and To offer at the right moment the vitamins cowering Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and, Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your Questions I mumbled incoherent replies. … There is No more singing, no more a dance, my mind is an old Playhouse with all its lights put out.
(Das 1973: 1)
The wife's expectations of learning about herself are not realized. She is made to learn only about man's lust. She is called as wife by her husband, only a woman who looks after his needs and not a life partner. His “monstrous ego” would not allow him to treat her in any other fashion. She loses her will and reasoning ability and becomes a “dwarf”. She just mumbles incoherently. She says she can no more “sing,” or “dance.” She likens her mind to an old playhouse with “lights put out”. Obviously in any old playhouse there will not be lights to put on. The “lights” refer to the wife's mind. She has no new ideas.
In her continued effort to gain mutual understanding, the woman in the poem entitled “The Sunshine Cat” says:
[T]he men who knew her, the man She loved, who loved her not enough, being selfish And a coward, the husband who neither loved nor Used her, but was a ruthless watcher … [.]
(Das 1979: 22)
The man she loves only lusts after her. Being selfish and cowardly, he simply watches her suffer. Her husband ruthlessly watching her reminds us of what she asks him about her own self in the poem “Composition”:
I asked my husband, am I hetero am I lesbian or am I just plain frigid?
(Das 1973: 4-5)
It is natural for her to pose these questions because her husband neither loves her nor has concern for her desires.
Instead of answering her questions, the woman says:
He only laughed. For such questions probably there are no answers or else the answer must emerge from within.
She is frank in expressing her doubts to her husband, which is unusual. On the contrary, her husband only laughs at her doubts. Since the husband shows no understanding the wife says in despair:
I tell myself and all of you … fall in love, fall in love with an unsuitable person, flying yourself on him like a moth on a flame. Let there be despair in every move.
The wife not only tells herself but also women in general. She remarks that a mutually satisfying relationship is not possible. The repetition of “fall in love” emphasises her appeal to the female readers. One can notice the sarcasm in her words.
The wife is disappointed with her failure in having a satisfying relationship. She reveals her condition when she is with her friends in the poem entitled “Sunset, Blue Bird”:
When i am with my friends and talking i remember him and suddenly i can no longer talk they ask me what is wrong Why have you turned pale and i weakly shake my head nothing nothing. …
(Das 1973: 54)
The wife's mind goes back to her husband. She cannot continue her talk as she remembers her unhappy experiences with her husband. She has no intention of revealing to them her despair.
Having experienced failure in her efforts towards an understanding between the two, she makes a general statement about men lusting the woman, whether she is a wife or a whore in the poem entitled “A Losing Battle”:
Men are worthless, to trap them Use the cheapest bail on all but never Love, which in a woman must mean tears And a silence in the blood.
(Das 1979: 12)
Look at the word “bail”, a legal term. The word “all” is important here. She can bail them all, not with the power of love, but only with the body.
In another poem entitled “Ethics” the wife shows her husband's concern with physical lust rather than love:
This night he smiles at me, on my verandah under a rash of winter-stars, he smiles, the busy man must always smile at love; his eyes window shop, idly they caress my brow, my lips, my breast, ethically he can't afford more.
(Das 1991: 70)
The wife observes her husband's gestures which reveal that he is only interested in physical lust. Therefore, ethically he cannot afford more.
Furthermore, in the poem entitled “Ganashyam” the wife says:
His body needing mine, His ageing body in its pride needing the need mine And each time his lust was quietened And he turned his back on me. In panic I asked don't you want me any longer Don't you want me Don't you don't you[?]
(Das 1979: 18)
After the husband's lust is “quietened”, he turns his back to her. Therefore, the wife panics and asks: “Don't you want me / Don't you don't you.” Again the repetition of “Don't you” intensifies and heightens her agony. Therefore, she has to seek extra-marital relationship to find love in the poem entitled “The Stone Age”:
When you leave, I drive my blue battered car along the bluer sea, I run up the forty noisy steps to knock at another's door. Through peepholes the neighbours watch, They watch me come and go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me what he sees in me, a libertine, ask me the flavour of his mouth. … Ask me why like a great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts and sleeps. Ask me why life is short and love is shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price[.]
(Das 1991: 97-8)
The wife in the first half of the lines above addresses her husband. When the husband leaves, perhaps to the office, the wife drives her battered car; the word “battered” reveals that she is in need of love. She is even conscious of the number of steps she climbs. Why does she have to come to another's door to receive love? It is because the husband doesn't understand her and doesn't have concern for her feelings. The wife asks what does the lover see in her? Why does the man, like a great tree, fall on her breast and sleep? Why is love shorter than life? What is bliss and its price? Perhaps, the wife wants to say that since her husband is not able to understand her feelings and concerns, she is justifying her act; she also refers to the short-lived lust of her lover.
One is reminded of the poem “A Man Is a Season” in which she seeks love in another's arms during her youth:
A man is a season … To teach me this, you let me toss my youth like coins Into various hands, you let me mate with shadows, You let me sing … in others' arms. But I saw each shadow cast your blurred image in my glass, somehow The words and gestures seemed familiar. … I went astray. How would a blind wife trace her lost Husband, how would a deaf wife hear her husband call?
(Das 1979: 21)
The wife is made to seek men in extra-marital relationships, considering each man a season. She has been led to toss her youth like a coin changing hands. She complains that she has been made to mate even with shadows as he is not capable of mating with her. He lets her have affairs, therefore, the word “sing” is used as a metaphor. However, in each extra-marital relationship she finds the “blurred” image of her husband's lust. The word “glass” refers to her sexual vision. She sees the same gestures in the men as she does in her husband. There is nothing new, rather nothing of love, but only lust. She also claims, perhaps, she has lost her way. The men have only used her body just as one smokes a cigarette without any satisfaction and throws it into an ash tray. Therefore, the wife asks her husband, “how would a blind wife trace her lost husband”? Furthermore, she asks her husband: How would a deaf wife hear her husband's call? Who is responsible for her present condition? The husband. However, S. D. Sharma (1982) doesn't read the questions from the wife's point of view. He interprets them as “the husband['s] outcry: How could a blind wife trace her lost husband, how could a deaf wife hear her husband's call?” (46). Moreover, he also reads the poem as though a man is the speaker of the poem which is not the case. “You are eternity” refers to the legal husband and “the man is a season” refers to the lovers. She says the legal husband is “eternity” although he has treated her unfairly. She calls him this because she yearns for mutual understanding between her and her husband. She is in search of love with various men but constantly finds lust in them. She even reveals the lovers' intention during her relationship with them in the poem “The Sunshine Cat”:
[T]hey said each of Them, I do not love. I can not love, it is not In my nature to love, but I can be kind to you … They let her glide from pegs of sanity into A bed made soft with tears and she lay there weeping [.]
(Das 1979: 22)
The wife turns to the lovers to seek love. When she asks each of the lovers whether he loves her, he makes it clear to her that he is not interested in love but only in taking her to bed. They are not capable of loving her because they want to marry in the traditional manner, and therefore, they “cannot love.” Furthermore, it is not in their nature. They only take advantage of married women who are themselves in search of love which they don't get from their husbands. Doesn't it happen in contemporary society? Don't we see in newspapers or magazines under the caption “Crime Stories.” These men are kind to her until their aim is fulfilled, that is till they have an affair with her. On the whole, what happens to the wife? Tears fall on her soft bed and she weeps for she has been once again cheated and exploited. Monika Varma's (1973) contention is that “these men do not satisfy [and] they might even be symbolically that which she is given, against what she needs, and gropes for, but can't find” (25). S. C. Dwivedi (1992) views that the woman “longs for love” from them “but she gets lust instead” (68).
Having failed to get love from the lovers she calls them selfish people. She says in the poem “The Millionaires at Marine Drive”:
… no longer was There someone to put an arm around my Shoulders without a purpose, all the hands, The great brown thieving hands groped beneath my Clothes, their fire was that of an arsonist's, Warmth was not their arm, they burnt my cities, Down, it was not blood but acid that flowed, Through my arteries [.]
(Das 1991: 71)
No one including her husband is there to put an arm around her shoulder, to console her. They are selfish, fulfilling only their lust. They have not worried about her desire for love from them. All the hands including those of her husband's, thieve beneath her “clothes,” i.e., invade her body. They have fixed their aim on her body like arsonists and not like those providing warmth. She identifies her body with cities. They burnt her body. However, why does the poet use the word acid here? In any man or woman blood flows through arteries but the wife thinks that it is not the life-sustaining blood but the life-corroding acid that flows in her arteries.
At last she has stopped seeking fulfilment through extra-marital relationships for she has turned towards them but then has failed in her endeavour. Therefore, she says in the poem “The Wild Bouganvillae”:
… even my bed gave No rest, but like a troubled sea, tossed me on Its waves, and how I groaned. And moaned, and constantly yearned for a man from Another town. … Then, by And by, my love wilted, for I took long walks, Walked roads I had never Seen before [.]
(Das 1973: 30)
It is not only the lover who has made her suffer. Her own bed has also not given her solace. Her bed instead of giving rest, tosses her up like a troubled sea. The word “waves” refers to the lovers. The wife in Barche's words “groaned” and “moaned” and constantly “yearned for a man loving and a healing touch” (Barche 1991: 11). She has even gone to another town to find a suitable man who can offer love to her. Since she cannot find the lover even in another town, she says, “by and by” her love wilts, therefore, she takes long walks, to places she has not been to in order to forget her failure.
However, her mind changes from the search for love to a search for mutual adjustment. Let us see how the wife changes her attitude towards love so that it leads to a happy relationship. She says in the poem “Composition”:
It may be that in my heart I have replaced love with guilt and discovered that both love and hate are involvements.
(Das 1991: 77)
She feels guilty and she repents. It's only through this process that she can arrive at a meaningful relationship. It is not just replacing love with guilt but also discovering that both “love” and “hate” are involved in the seeking of extra-marital relationship, “love” because she is in search of it, and “hate” when this search fails. Hence, a change in the wife's heart. Furthermore, she says:
But this only signifies growth and, growth is natural. The tragedy of life is not death but growth[.]
(Das 1991: 77)
The wife starts philosophising about life. She sees the seeking of love as the first stage in the growth of a human being. The growth of a human being is natural. She realises that tragedy of life is not the death of an individual but the individual growing into an adult. She suggests that when an individual grows from a child into an adult he/she will go through tragic events just as the wife has gone through the process of seeking love and ecstasy in “other's arms.” She adds:
I have reached the age in which one forgives all. I am ready to forgive friends their loving, forgive those who ruined friendships and those who forgave and stayed on to love.
(Das 1991: 82-3)
The process of ageing enters here in the mind of the woman. She tells us that she has reached the “age,” i.e., she is no longer attracted by lovers, and she forgives all, all those who have had friendship with her although with the intention of fulfilling their lust. She also forgives those who have ruined her friendship. It is her husband who is responsible for her looking for love outside marriage, whereas her parents hold the responsibility for the problems in her marriage as discussed in Section I and II. However, at this point the wife forgives her husband and the husband his wife, and therefore, the words, “those who forgave and stayed on to love.” Both of them forgive each other and stick on, rather stay in love.
In Section I the wife seeks extra-marital relationship to fulfil her yearning for love; in Section II she seeks an ideal lover like Lord Krishna; in Section III initially she tries to lead a life of mutual adjustment, but fails due to the husband's non-cooperation. Therefore, she once again seeks extra-marital relationships. However, she feels guilty and gives up her search; instead she seeks companionship with her husband. Here, the wife feels the need to address the readers for the purposes of clarifying her behaviour. Repentance is not seen in terms of Hindu religion and philosophy. Rather, there is a stress on mutual forgiveness between the husband and the wife, a special feature in the development of man-woman relationship.
SECTION IV: POEMS WRITTEN DURING 1981-1993
The main thrust of this section is to show the success of a mutually fulfilling relationship between husband and wife; man's providing love to his wife unlike in previous sections; woman's non-acceptance of her husband's love and her seeking death as a possibility of self-emergence; the wife's recalling the mistakes of the parents and the husband for her unhappy relationship even at her later age; husband's and wife's forgiving each other for their mistakes so as to have a happy relationship, and finally the husband dying.
The successful man-woman relationship in terms of love with mutual understanding is achieved only at her later age. The wife has been yearning for love ever since her marriage. In the absence of love from her husband, she had to seek extra-marital relationships in search of love. Ultimately the wife achieves love from her husband. The wife says in the poem entitled “Flotsam”:
[S]o together we stumbled so clumsily Into lust, But pushing his urgent limbs away I fought to regain my body's poise till he cried I love you, you've no need to be afraid of me. When at last he left, scolded, sent away, alone On the white deserts of my sheets I wondered if I should have fought at all to save my aloneness, my terrible aloneness[.]
(Das 1984: 91)
Although the relationship starts clumsily with lust between the two, she regains poise and her husband utters “I love you” to her. This is the first time the husband “loves” the wife rather than lusts for her. The words “I love you” take the wife to an “evergreen world.” Furthermore, the husband assures her that she need not be afraid of his love turning into lust. The wife at last, succeeds in making her husband give up lust. The wife wonders whether she should have fought at all with her husband to save “aloneness”.
The man wants to provide love to his wife at her later age, rather old age. In the poem entitled “Age”, she says:
Love is youth time's magic; am I still entitled to its lure? Don't call on me, fastening your eyes on mine.
(Das 1984: 34)
The wife tells her husband that love is only youth time's magic. Notice she uses the word “magic” for love. She asks her husband whether she is still entitled to the lure of love. Furthermore, she requests her husband not to entice her. Not that she wants to take revenge on her husband by negating his call for love, but because she is no longer young. Presumably, there is a lot of difference in age between the two. However, by the time the husband realises how unconcerned he has been towards his wife and intends to give love, an ideal love like that of Krishna, she only seeks her death because of her self-realisation. The wife says:
I walked along the streets at dusk, Holding his hand in mine and sipped coffee In South Indian cafes where each waiter Who served us looked like another Jiddoo Krishnamurthy, and, lay against him all Through the winter nights; like a flag hoisted On a mountain range till then unclaimed, Unseen, was my cheek against his, And my heart against his, yes, I kept him Yours for a spell and now I return Longing for home and rest.
(Das 1984: 35)
The wife and the husband go to the “South Indian cafes,” she holding her husband's hand, to sip coffee. When the husband and the wife go to the cafes, each waiter looks like another Jiddu Krishnamurthy. However, they even spend their time lying against each other not in terms of lust but in love. The relationship seems to have reached its peak “like a flag hoisted on a mountain range.” They are content for a while, after which she realises her self. She longs to return home and to rest. The words “home and rest” refer to her seeking death.
The emergence of the wife's self is once again evident in the poem “Life's Obscure Parallel”:
Life's obscure parallel is death. Quite often I wonder if what I seem to do is living Or dying.
(Das 1991: 110)
The wife considers death life's obscure parallel. She wonders whether she is living or dying. She has undergone many difficulties in her life. The wife makes a profound statement about death in a poem entitled “Death Is So Mediocre”:
Death is So mediocre, any fool can achieve It effortlessly.
(Das 1991: 111)
The wife says death is inevitable to any being. She has become mature enough to realise this profound truth.
After this realisation, although she goes back to her past life, she does so with a deeper understanding about life. The wife thinks back on her past relationship in “Larger than Life Was He”:
There are no memories that enthrall no fond phrase capsuled in thought, It was never a husband and wife bond we were such a mismatched pair Yet there were adventures, I admit, he was free to exploit and I was free to be exploited. We were quits at every game we played I could have been Sita to his poem Had I been given half a chance. …
(Das 1993: 163)
While attributing the failure of the past relationship to her parents, the wife regrets the past. She regrets the lack of warmth between her husband and her. Furthermore, she feels it was not like a husband and wife bond between the two. They were mismatched. Despite all, the wife says that they had their adventures because her husband was free to exploit his lust and she was free to be exploited by her lover. The word “game” refers to their life. The phrase “[h]ad I been given half a chance” seems to suggest that she blames her parents for not giving her a chance to become a “Sita”.
The wife not only blames her parents but also her husband for having had no understanding. In the poem entitled “Cat in the Gutter”:
Cowardice was his favourite diet So who would tell him that when he made love, Grunting, groaning, sighing, with no sound to overpower me Only his limbs and his robust lust, I was just a high bred kitten, Rolling for fun in the gutter.
(Das 1984: 99)
The husband, says the wife, had been a coward. While he made love to her “grunting” “groaning” and “sighing”, there was no sound to overpower her. The word “sound” refers to her expectations of love, which never materialised. He either lusted after her or ignored her:
He peered into his office files till the supper turned cold … I cannot recollect a film, a play or a concert he took us to or a joke which together we shared[.]
(Das 1993: 62)
These lines from “Stock Tacking” show his total lack of interest, how he was busy with his office files without thinking about his wife's needs, be they going to a film, a concert or a play or be it light-hearted conversation.
Now, at a later age, both the husband and wife forgive each other so as to lead a contented life together. In the poem entitled “A Souvenir of Bone” the husband at first apologises to his wife:
If I an innocent forgive my innocence[.]
(Das 1984: 33)
The husband accepts his limitations. He has been unaware of her concerns, rather has ignored her concerns for love and mutual understanding. He now pleads with his wife to forgive him. Seeing the husband apologise, the wife also apologises to the husband:
If I am a sinner, please Forgive my sins.
(Das 1984: 33)
The wife asks her husband to forgive her because she has had many affairs.
To add to all her unhappiness, there is another one, i.e., her husband's death. In “Stock Tacking”, she says:
I have seen terror twist my husband's face to have heard the awesome rattle of his final breath[.]
(Das 1993: 162)
Mutual understanding, absent in Section III, is achieved in Section IV. The woman begins by blaming not only her husband (as in Section III) but also her parents for her plight. Her way out here is not through extra-marital relationships as in Sections I, II and III, but through questioning both her self and her husband. The woman emerges as a mature person here unlike in Sections I, II and III. She is even able to seek and confront death.
Based on The Best of Kamala Das (1991) I have divided the dates of the poems. This has made things easy for me and, I am therefore thankful to Kamala Das and the publishers of this book.
Bijay Kumar Das (1993) says that to his mind “An Introduction” had already achieved the status of a minor classic” (38).
I quote these lines of the poem from The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (New Delhi: Orient, 1973, Rpt. 1986), because in The Best of Kamala Das (1991) the verb is “said” whereas in the The Old … it is “told”. I use the later published by the author herself since it is authentic, whereas the former is edited by P. P. Raveendran.
One may wonder that the section says “Poems written during 1951-60” but the poems quoted in the text are from 1991 collection. In this book the poems have been dated. So one need not confuse between the collection of the book and dates of the poems.
P. K. J. Kurup in his article entitled “Portrait of a Tortured Woman as a Religious Rebel—The Poetry of Kamala Das” published in The Rajasthan Journal of English Studies X (1989): 16-22., borrows the lines from Dorothy Jones's article entitled “‘Freedom Became My Dancing Shoe’: Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in the work of Kamala Das” published in the book entitled Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on Her Work (Adelaide: CRNLE, 1986) and doesn't acknowledge this. I quote Kurup's lines: “The crux of Das's rebellion is continued in this very recognition and in her felt need to write frankly about the sexual politics in a society which expects woman to be modest, submissive and unobtrusive” (19). Even the quotation marks have not been used.
Kamala Das spoke at Meet the Author Programme, organised by the Sahitya Akademi and the India International Centre, at New Delhi on 19 July 1990. The words are quoted from this speech which is “Transcribed from Tape by Renu Mohan Bhan” and is published in Indian Literature. See Select Bibliography for the details of the article and dates.
In The Best of Kamala Das this poem is put along with the poems written during 1971-80. As opposed to this, I quote the poem from The Descendants (1967) because it is an authentic book.
S. C. Dwivedi in his article entitled “Kamala Das: My World Defleshed, Deblooded” published in Creative Forum (January-December 1992): 65-72, quotes these lines in his substantiation and says these lines are from the poem “The Suicide” which is incorrect. These lines are from the poem entitled “Substitute” published in the book entitled Kamala Das, The Descendants (Calcutta: Writers Workshop 1967): 6.
In an interview with P. P. Raveendran, she says: “[T]here are certain poems which are my favourites. One of them is “Composition” and this is the poem which I read everywhere” (Indian Literature 36.3 (May-June 1993): 146).
Sunil Kumar in his article entitled “The Poetry of Kamala Das: A Woman's Quest for Identity” quotes these lines and gives the title of the poem as “The Descendants” which is incorrect. In fact these lines are from the poem entitled “Composition”.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14434
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) and between audiences in the First and Third Worlds were much slower. Speed has not created equality among all critical voices, but nevertheless, we are at a new site, one that approaches what we might call “global literary studies in English”—a situation that requires a radical rethinking of the claims we have become accustomed to making when we produce literary scholarship. We can no longer claim knowledge of how literary texts function as cultural artifacts and as political tools without thinking hard about how such texts might play out in other locations; we cannot proceed with our scholarly projects oblivious to how our work speaks to scholarship or readerships produced from different locations.
Much of my interest in the challenges and excitement of this new phase of global literary studies was occasioned by my recent rereading of My Story, the 1976 autobiographical text written by Kamala Das, one of India's foremost women writers. Reading this autobiography in the late 1990s, I found that Das's account of her eventful and uneven blossoming, through childhood, youth, and adulthood into a writer, wife, mother, and sexually active adult, amounted to a wonderfully queer text. I was not surprised to find that my assessment of Das's autobiography had changed some twenty years after I first read it as a teenager in India. However, my late-1990s assessment of My Story as a “queer” text was clearly produced and complicated by several shifts—in time, in location, in the different trajectories of local literary criticisms, in feminisms, in popular and academic understandings of sexual practices and sexual preferences, to name a few among several variables. In the concept of “queerness” as I understood it from my United States academia-based location, I had finally found an interpretive frame that was adequate to the prodigious body of work by this exceptional Indian author. However, calling Kamala Das queer, in itself provides no grand resolution to the myriad challenges posed by her work; rather, it serves as an initial vantage point from which one can glimpse the changing English-language literary terrain of this new century.
Born in 1934 into an aristocratic, Nair1 Hindu family in Kerala, India, Kamala Das has the distinction of being one of the best known Indian women writers in the twentieth century. Writing in two Indian languages, English and Malayalan, Das is the author of many autobiographical works and novels in both languages, several highly regarded collections of poetry in English, numerous collections of short stories, as well as essays on a wide range of topics. Her work in English has been widely anthologized in the Indian subcontinent, Australia, and the West; and she has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Sahitya Akademi Award (the highest Indian literary/cultural honor) in 1985 and the nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984.2 From the 1970s when her career was at its peak, to the late 1990s, India-based, English-language literary critics have written extensively on Kamala Das. Yet, in this criticism, all the non-heteronormative protests and pleasures in My Story were (and continue to be) straightened out. This state of affairs emerges in part because, as elsewhere, many India-based, English-language literary feminists have a highly developed sense of patriarchal oppression but do not feel any compulsion or urgency to work through the links between heterosexism and the oppressive weight of patriarchal systems: their work on Das has tended to make her metonymic of their larger feminist project. Hence, although mainstream literary and literary feminist criticism in India (as well as in postcolonial feminist criticism produced from outside India) offers considerable discussion of sexuality in Das's work, such discussion continues to be almost exclusively on heterosexual relationships in these texts. In particular, the material in My Story that concerns same-sex desire or is otherwise too disruptive or contradictory to be of use to literary feminism is simply dismissed in the criticism as manifestations of Das's stylistic or personal eccentricities that border on artistic weakness.
In India, as in most locations today, there are multiple feminisms whose founding ideologies, practices, and foci differ dramatically. Thus, outside of literary readings of women's writing in English, feminist commentary from the Indian subcontinent has produced groundbreaking work on the ways in which the colonial and/or nationalist state has used gender and sexuality to its advantage and concurrently to the disadvantage of women whose lives are subject to such authority.3 In their introduction to A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economics of Modern India, India-based feminists Mary John and Janaki Nair have cautioned that “a focus on the conspiracy of silence regarding sexuality in India, whether within political and social movements or in scholarship,” must not “blind us to the multiple sites where ‘sexuality’ has long been embedded. In the spheres of the law, demography or medicine, for instance, sexuality enjoys a massive and indisputable presence that is far from prohibited.”4 Indian feminists have worked extensively on sexuality in these contexts, and this scholarship is at the forefront of globally cited feminist theorizing that works to reach a decolonized understanding of the relations of power and gender. Yet, as Jacqui Alexander has succinctly noted, even in feminist critiques that are cognizant of the importance of sexuality to institutional apparati, much work remains to be done “on elaborating the processes of heterosexualization at work within the state apparatus.”5 More specifically, literary feminism that champions Indian women's writing in English operates within and against the parameters of a middle-class notion of women's worth. From the 1970s to the present, feminist critics writing on Das have been willing to celebrate and second her critique of the institution of marriage, and of marital rape, of the obligation to wifely fidelity in marriage at all costs but not her critique of heterosexuality itself. Following Alexander, one could argue that such feminist projects unintentionally fall into the service of the state by striving to make heterosexual and reproductive roles (that are so necessary to the state and to citizenship) more amenable to women.
In this article, I examine some of the contradictions, challenges, and resolutions that emerge when we read My Story, written in English in India in the 1970s, in light of current feminist/postcolonial/queer theoretical interests. Given that the Indian subcontinental discussion on Kamala Das over the last thirty years has centered around very different and urgent feminist issues in her work, I turn first to the implications of discussing same-sex desire in Kamala Das's work in a United States-based journal like Feminist Studies. Despite its point of origin, this journal does travel outside the United States, and this special issue on India will circulate in Indian academic venues. Writing to this enlarged audience calls for the kind of theoretical and practical negotiation that will soon be required as a matter of course in this new era of global literary studies.6
KAMALA DAS AND LOCAL FEMINISMS
Already well known in literary circles for her poetry in English, it was the publication of My Story that earned Kamala Das national notoriety among the English-speaking elite in India.7My Story is to date the best-selling woman's autobiography in post-independence India. Vincent O'Sullivan notes that when My Story appeared in book form in 1976, it went through six impressions and thirty-six thousand copies in eleven months.8My Story is a chronologically ordered, linear narrative written in a realist style. It follows Kamala's life from age four through British colonial and missionary schools favored by the colonial Indian elite; through her sexual awakening; an early and seemingly disastrous marriage; her growing literary career; extramarital affairs; the birth of her three sons; and, finally, a slow but steady coming to terms with her spouse, writing, and sexuality. My Story set the terms in which Das's entire body of work has been evaluated by feminists and other scholars in the subcontinent and in the West. The standard Indian literary feminist reading of Das's work commends her for her determined protest against patriarchal norms and practices that oppress women and for her courage in continuously mining her own life experiences for material. Thus, much of this feminist championing of Das was intended as a corrective to the mainstream, masculinist reading of My Story as titillating trash.9
Outside the subcontinent, feminist literary critics who have written on Das have taken their cue from the local feminism which Das's work is shaped by and shapes in turn. For instance, United States-based scholars Ketu Katrak, Harveen Sachdeva Mann, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim have variously pulled Das into discussions on gendered resistance in the writing by Third World women.10 Katrak reads Das alongside Bessie Head and works through the themes of “mothering and m-othering” in their work. On sexuality in My Story, Katrak writes: “In Das, the sexuality is often so completely self-absorbed, so navel-gazing as to become both narrowly personal and problematically sensationalised and voyeuristic.”11 Mann reads Das's work and three other texts in English by South Asian women through a feminist framework that is attentive to the stakes of minority communities in Indian nationalist discourses. Mann reads these women writers in order “not only to underscore their contestations of the dominant patriarchal national discourse but also to articulate the heterogeneity and plurality operative within subcontinental women's resistance.”12 Lim's essays elaborate on the theme of self-empowerment in Das's writing by reading her within the context of Asian women writers and the larger context provided by a materialist analysis of Asian women. These scholars do not disturb the heterosexist logic of the usual considerations of sexuality in Das's work. Although this reveals the usual biases of literary criticism, more importantly, it also demonstrates their scholarly allegiance to one of postcolonial feminism's most important injunctions. What feminist postcolonial theory advocates to feminists located in the First World is as follows: First, we are urged to read outside the Western traditional canon; second, we are, as far as possible, to read Third World women writers with due emphasis given to the local context of their reception; third, in the best-case scenario we are to read these texts alongside the local feminist interpretations of their feminist value.13 Marilyn Friedman sets forth feminist guidelines for postcolonial studies in the 1990s, which is mostly accepted (in theory if not always in practice) by Euro-America-based feminist scholars:
It is most respectful to women in cultures and subcultures other than my own to remind myself repeatedly that they know, as I seldom do, what it is like to live as a woman in their cultures. Unless very strong reasons suggest otherwise, I should, thus, avoid activities and teaching styles that challenge the practices of their lives unless invited and welcomed by them to do so.14
Also, in an essay titled “The Burden of English” published in a collection on English Literary Studies in India, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak urges that we pay due attention to the “implied reader” of any text. Spivak writes: “The figure of the implied reader is constructed within a consolidated system of cultural representation. The appropriate culture in this context is the one supposedly indigenous to the literature under consideration.”15 However, this concern for the context that is “supposedly indigenous” (to use Spivak's term) to Kamala Das leads scholars to pay little attention either to same-sex desire in Das's work or to heterosexuality from the vantage point of the non-heteronormative.16 Given this situation, my attempt at a queer reading of Das's work, originating as it does from the South Asian diaspora, has no option but to accept the implications of going against the interpretive direction set by local feminist readings of Das's work. This encounter of one local feminism with another local feminism under the sign of diaspora is a scenario that is worth examining, not just for the purposes of this rereading of Kamala Das but also because diaspora studies provide a productive albeit tight discursive space that has been carved out in a rapidly changing world. And yet, as I hope this article will demonstrate, a queer reading of Kamala Das need not necessarily originate from or circulate only among the diaspora. As the anthology Same-Sex Love in India: Reading from Literature and History makes clear, there has been a long history of India-based writing on same-sex desire.17 This anthology, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, showcases Indian writings on same-sex “love,” in various genres, over a period of more than 2,000 years, translated from more than a dozen languages. In recent years there has been an increased volume of discussion on same-sex desire and homosexuality produced in Indian cultural/academic/literary contexts. Ashwini Sutthankar's groundbreaking edited collection of autobiographical “coming-out” narratives, fiction, poetry by Indian lesbians, titled Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, along with the controversies surrounding Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire in which two Indian sisters-in-law embark on a sexual relationship with each other, has brought homosexuality to the attention of the Indian popular and academic press.18 Given the current proliferation of new media and modes of communication, access to queer networks is not the exclusive privilege of those located in the geographic West.19 And in the last few years there is a growing cross-continental queer discourse that has gained in visibility and assurance with every new cultural production.20 This article then could be read as yet another product of this cross-continental discussion.
It is now de rigueur to begin such essays written from the First World with the rituals of a kind of “locational hand-wringing.” My reference is to preliminary statements and disclaimers offered by critics as they venture into texts or spaces where they feel only partially authorized to speak and yet compelled to speak.21 In an essay titled “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception,” Lata Mani makes several thoughtful connections between the “question of positionality and location and their relation to the production of knowledge as well as its reception.” Mani writes of presenting her groundbreaking work on sati to audiences in the United States, Britain, and India and of her surprise in learning that these different audiences saw completely different aspects of her work as “politically significant.”22 Following Mani, I am aware that Indian literary feminists see the protest against patriarchal oppression as the most politically significant feature of Das's work. Within such feminist plotting, it is Das's extramarital (hetero) sexual adventures that mount this protest against patriarchy. The same-sex encounters and erotics that abound within these pages, if noted at all, are immediately dismissed as distractions or as further proof of the distortions that patriarchal oppression forces on women.
In some ways, Das is the perfect “queer writer.” Her work is centrally preoccupied with sexuality and female pleasure that breaks out of a heteronormative matrix. Her work exemplifies the “resistance to the regimes of the normal” that Michael Warner has identified as the hallmark of queer.23 From the 1990s onward, queer theory has offered a terminology and a set of interpretive tools that can explicate deviations from both heterosexual and homosexual conventions. And unlike more disciplinarily anchored interpretive models, “no particular project is metonymic of queer commentary” as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have noted.24 Of course, Das herself utilizes the term “queer” for its sexual and, on occasion, nonsexual, purchase. For example, in her most widely anthologized poem, “An Introduction,” first published in 1965, Das uses “queerness” in the plural to indicate her multiple deviance from multiple norms. She writes of her choice to write in English and Malayam as follows:
… Why not leave Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, Every one of you? Why not let me speak in Any language I like? The language I speak Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses All mine, mine alone.
In “Composition” (1967), another often anthologized poem, she concludes a section with the flat declaration:
I have lost my best friend to a middle-aged queer, the lesbians hiss their love at me.
Das's use of queer marks both a continuity and a break with the term's presexual connotations. Clearly, her understanding of “queer” does not neatly overlap with the current usage of the term by queer theorists, even though both usages share a common late nineteenth-/early-twentieth-century history of the association of the term with homosexuality. For Das “queer” signifies sexually and otherwise—thus, at times exceeding the term's dimensions in queer theory.25
Yet, can one use a queer reading practice as currently espoused in literary/cultural studies to explain the work of an author who is quite solidly entrenched in an Indian context? One might argue that although the category of “queer” might provide a precise understanding of the complex texture of Das's texts, such export of Western-oriented theory reveals its “locality” when transported. A more complicated and, I believe, more accurate assessment is offered in John and Nair's introduction to A Question of Silence? in which they thoughtfully contest the very distinction between the “West” and “non-West” in the course of articulating their unwillingness to proffer “Indian” theories of sexuality. In response to the hypothetical question “Why bring up western theories [of sexuality] at all?” They write that
our response would be that “the West” is at once a particular geographical place, and a relation. From where we are, this relation is one of domination, and about as complicated as they come; to all intents and purposes, we are effectively located in the West. It is to the credit of feminists in India that they have refused to be silenced by accusations of being western-identified, and so unable to deal with the real India. Ironically enough, the very conception of the other of the West as being something to which western concepts do not apply (or only as an act of violation from which one must be redeemed) is itself a western legacy. Such constructions of cultural difference leave the West firmly in command.26
Here John and Nair's insistence on the global circulation of “the West” is congruent with my understanding of this new site of “global literary studies in English.” At the risk of belaboring the point, I wish to repeat that one of my goals here is to alert us to the ways in which literary-critical ideas and terms already circulate in a global framework albeit with different inflections in different locations. Consider, for instance, the use of the term “queer.”
My usage of the term “queer” in this article is mindful of both Das's usage and ongoing reformulations produced by queer commentary. Das's work queers our understanding of queer. Most importantly, it enlarges (in both chronological and spatial dimensions) the very notion of “queer” which is usually imagined as a purely First World phenomenon from the 1990s. Given that “queer” is constantly reformulated in usage, rather than attempt to work out a viable, global definition of the term, a more productive approach would be to focus on the issue of queer methodology as set forth by Judith Halberstam in Female Masculinity. According to Halberstam, a queer methodology is a “scavenger methodology” that focuses on what has been “deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies.” Further, Halberstam notes that a queer methodology “attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion to work toward disciplinary coherence.”27 To this I would add that a queer reading, such as the one in process here, has to refuse the academic compulsions to follow a set literary guide map for venturing into Third World texts—even maps drawn by progressive feminist, postcolonial cartographers.
I hope to achieve a reading of My Story that is attentive to the shape and objectives of the feminist literary criticism on Das; and yet, in being equally attentive to queerness, I hope also to be able to explain the elision of same-sex desire in the reception of this text. At the same time, I am quite deliberately calling sexual what was not hitherto seen as sexual—a stance that carries its own set of problematic considerations as Karen Lützen has so carefully demonstrated.28 However, I am not claiming that Kamala Das is a closeted lesbian waiting to be “outed” or resisting the same. She is not representative of the international phenomenon that Dennis Altman and others have drawn our attention to—namely, the internationalization of a certain form of social and cultural identity based on homosexuality that is one of the signs of a rapid globalization of culture.29 Same-sex desire in the work of Kamala Das does not operate along a hetero-homo divide, nor does it confer an identity as lesbian (a word used often enough in the autobiography) on the protagonist. Thus even while Das consistently encodes the homoerotic into her work, she just as consistently devalues its purchase. For instance, in a 1993 interview Das insists on certain distinctions and differences:
Feminism as the Westerns see it is different from the feminism I sense within myself. Western feminism is an anti-male stance. … Most of the feminists I met outside the country were lesbians—out and out lesbians. I do not think I'm lesbian. I tried to find out. I experiment with everything. I tried to find out if I were a lesbian, if I could respond to a woman. I failed. I must speak the truth. I believe we must abandon a thing if it has no moral foundation whether it be a belief, a political system or a religious system.30
Should such a statement from the author lay to rest an investigation of same-sex desire in her work? Putting aside the usual postmodernist disdain for authorial intentions and declarations, we must look at and beyond this statement if we are to capture all of its resonance. At the same time, we need not hold back on deconstructing this statement because of some chivalric notion of excessive solicitude for the Third World woman writer's authorial intentions. And what is surely characteristic about Das's statement is the assumption that “Indian-style” feminism and lesbianism (coded here as Western) have no shared ground.31 More importantly, the statement displays Das's characteristic reluctance to settle into and comfortably as well as consistently inhabit any one category of subjecthood.
READING SEX IN KAMALA DAS'S WORK
Over the years Das has proffered several contradictory accounts of the genesis of My Story. In her preface to the autobiography, Das claims that she began to write this text in the mid-1970s from her hospital bed as she grappled with a potentially fatal heart condition. She wrote the autobiography, she states, “to empty myself of all the secrets so that I could depart when the time came, with a scrubbed-out conscience” and in order to pay mounting hospital bills (p. vi). Since the 1976 publication of this autobiography, Das has repeatedly changed her stance on this topic in interviews and essays.32 She has presented herself as either too bohemian to care about revealing her sexual adventures and her periods of mental breakdown or, conversely, as the submissive wife following the dictates of her husband who was apparently more eager than herself to cash in on a spiced-up and heavily fictionalized account of her life. And yet, at every opportunity Das reverts to the convention that she is India's most unconventional woman writer with no regrets about her work or her foci. Das's calculated unreliability as a narrator of autobiography, of “confessional” poetry, and of fiction has exasperated critics. This slipperiness in her writing, resulting from a perennially unstable set of referential contexts, heightens the queer charge of the autobiography. In this section I provide a close reading of selected sections of My Story using a “scavenger” methodology to demonstrate how much in tandem heterosexual and homosexual desires circulate in these pages as well as to explain the very partial nature of the vociferous critical discussion of sexual pleasure in My Story.
Same-sex desire in My Story is always intimately bound to heterosexual relationships. Even at the level of structure there is no neat dichotomy between such sexual practices. For instance, Das chose quite explicit and titillating titles for most of the fifty short chapters that make up the autobiography.33 Chapter headings for thirty-eight of the fifty chapters are quite clearly sexual or at least hold the promise of some sexual content-ranging from Chapter 18: “Was every married adult a clown in bed, a circus performer?” to chapter 19: “Her voice was strange … it was easy for me to fall in love with her” to chapter 42: “The last of my lovers: handsome dark one with a tattoo between his eyes.” And yet there are no assurances that a chapter covers only those sex attractions and activities alluded to in the title. Furthermore, the sexual activities hinted at in the chapter title may not even be her own. For example, in chapter 10, titled “She was half-crazed with love and hardly noticed me,” Das describes her experiences as a nine-year-old in an all-girl boarding school where she shares a room with three other girls. The eldest and prettiest of her roommates is fifteen-year-old Sharada who has many admirers among the young schoolgirls. The chapter ends with the following passage that also provides the title: “The lesbian admirer came into our room once when Sharada was away taking a bath and kissed her pillowcases and her undies hanging out to dry in the dressing room. I lay on my bed watching this performance but she was half-crazed with love, and hardly noticed me.” (p. 47)
By the nineteenth chapter, Kamala, now fifteen, is herself enthralled by a series of older women—unmarried aunts, teachers, women who are family friends. Chapter 20 begins with Kamala being warned against associating with an eighteen-year-old college student (p. 90). Of course Kamala goes on to describe how in spite of (or because of) the warnings, she felt “instantly drawn to her. … She was tall and sturdy with a tense masculine grace. … When her eyes held mine captive in a trance, for a reason that I could not fathom, then I felt excited” (p. 89). In the summer of her sixteenth year, Kamala's father arranges for her to make an overnight journey by train to her grandmother's house, in the company of a group of professors and students. “As luck would have it,” Das writes, the “girl who was different from others” is part of the group. Das describes the seduction on the train:
I hate the upper berth, she said. She looked around first to see if anyone was awake. Then she lay near me holding my body close to hers. Her fingers traced the outlines of my mouth with a gentleness that I had never dreamt of finding. She kissed my lips then, and whispered, you are so sweet, so very sweet, I have never met anyone so sweet, my darling, my little darling. …
It was the first kiss of its kind in my life. Perhaps my mother may have kissed me while I was an infant but after that no one, not even my grandmother, had bothered to kiss me. I was unnerved. I could hardly breathe. She kept stroking my hair and kissing my face and my throat all through that night while sleep came to me in snatches and with fever. You are feverish, she said, before dawn, your mouth is hot.
A friend of Kamala's family meets the group at the station where they have to change trains, and another family friend invites the whole group to lunch. The college student coaxes Kamala to bathe with her and to allow herself to be powdered and dressed by her. “Both of us,” Kamala writes, “felt rather giddy with joy like honeymooners.” By the time they join their group, the meal is well underway, and their host, Major Menon, Das wryly reports, “seemed grateful to me for having brought into his home a bunch of charming ladies, all unmarried” (p. 91). As always, Das employs a quiet humor to undercut heteromasculine ambitions.
Das continues in the same passage to blend this romance with the girlfriend into the romance with her husband-to-be. Here, as elsewhere in this text, there is no setting up of a binary between opposing sexualities: in the very next paragraph of the same chapter, Kamala begins describing her courtship with a male relative. She learns from her grandmother that the family wants them to marry. This chapter ends a page later with this description of their first kiss: “Before I left for Calcutta, my relative pushed me into a dark corner behind a door and kissed me sloppily near my mouth. He crushed my breasts with his thick fingers. Don't you love me he asked me, don't you like my touching you. … I felt hurt and humiliated. All I said was ‘goodbye'” (p. 93). That Das intends the reader to compare these two sexual experiences seems obvious. The narrative clearly indicates which of the two furtive encounters is more pleasurable to Kamala. It is significant that this chapter in which Das meets and is courted by her future husband (events so important to the heterosexual plot and to the feminist reading) is titled: “She lay near me holding my body close to hers.” In the very next chapter (titled “His hands bruised my body and left blue and red marks on the skin”), Das writes of the visit of Madhav Das, her cousin and now her fiancé, to her home in Calcutta, during their engagement:
My cousin asked me why I was cold and frigid. I did not know what sexual desire meant, not having experienced it even once. Don't you feel any passion for me, he asked me. I don't know, I said simply and honestly. It was a disappointing week for him and for me. I had expected him to take me in his arms and stroke my face, my hair, my hands, and whisper loving words. I had expected him to be all that I wanted my father to be, and my mother. I wanted conversations, companionship and warmth. Sex was far from my thoughts.
(p. 95, emphasis mine.)
Having just read her long and elaborate account of her tryst with the girlfriend with whom she was “giddy with joy” like a honeymooner, how does the reader process this passage in which Kamala denies any experience of sexual desire even as her expectations of her fiancé are shaped by her pleasurable experiences with her girlfriend?
My Story has often been dismissed as sensationalist and melodramatic fiction, yet these very features of Das's writing allow her to interrupt the narration of everyday events with speculations that transgress the conventions of the autobiography genre. Right after the passage quoted above, Das writes:
I did not know whom to turn to for consolation. On a sudden impulse, I phoned my girl-friend. She was surprised to hear my voice. I thought you had forgotten me, she said. I invited her to my house. She came to spend a Sunday with me and together we cleaned out our bookcases and dusted the books. Only once she kissed me. Our eyes were watering and the dust had swollen our lips. Can't you take me away from here, I asked her. Not for another four years, she said. I must complete my studies she said. Then holding me close to her, she rubbed her cheek against mine.
When I put her out of my mind I put aside my self-pity too. It would not do to dream of a different kind of life. My life had been planned and its course charted by my parents and relatives. … I would be a middle-class housewife, and walk along the vegetable shops carrying a string bag and wearing faded chappals on my feet. I would beat my thin children … and make them scream out for mercy. I would wash my husband's cheap underwear and hang it out to dry in the balcony like some kind of national flag, with wifely pride. …
Like many of the passages in which Das leaves so much unsaid, this passage also ends with ellipses. We never hear of this girlfriend again—either in the autobiography or in any meaningful way in the many critical responses to this text.34 The watering eyes and swollen lips, we are led to understand, are the result of the heat and dust stirred up by their spring cleaning. Das's use of hyperbole and the melodramatic is extremely effective in registering the weight of the unspoken pain and pleasures of this afternoon. There is an undeniable subtext of longing that runs through this description of their Sunday together and which accounts for the virulence of the sudden outburst in which Kamala Das imagines her future as a “middle-class housewife.”35 What we also get here is a brief but clear glimpse of Das's awareness of the link between wifely duties and national pride—the very dynamic that Alexander describes succinctly in her discussion of the role of heterosexuality and reproduction in advancing national interests in the neocolonial Bahamas: “[L]oyalty to the nation as citizen is perennially colonized within reproduction and heterosexuality, erotic autonomy brings with it the potential of undoing the nation entirely, a possible charge of irresponsible citizenship or no citizenship at all.”36
Despite their contemplation of an “elopement,” these young women know that they cannot chose this option of living with and supporting each other as a same-sex couple. But what is also made clear through this episode is that young Kamala does not have the option of choosing marriage and motherhood either. Both the big and small details of this conventional heterosexuality are chosen for her. For instance, the narrative obliquely suggests that Kamala's marriage is arranged as early as in her sixteenth year and to this particular cousin, because at the time her parents' marriage was under great stress and at the verge of dissolution. Young Kamala's consent to this marriage is manufactured by her father through a postengagement courtship of a week during which he buys the couple tickets for shows and meals at expensive hotels (p. 95). Despite many misgivings, Kamala doesn't contradict her father when he declares that he is happy that she has “found her mate” (p. 96). Sexual choice is not an operative concept in this arena. And yet, Das goes on to chronicle the many instances in which she chooses to have affairs with men and, on occasion, fall in love with women.
Given these restrictions, it is significant that Das smuggles in a discussion of female sexual pleasure even as she protested patriarchal oppression. Much of this world of female sexual pleasure is created through Kamala's narration of her experiences with other women. Kamala Das is impressive in her ability to convey at once, a girl/woman who takes great pride in her sexual innocence even as she laments her crude awakening into heterosexuality. But this maintenance of the aura of sexual innocence requires that a whole range of pleasurable experiences be recast as innocent of sexual charge.37 Ultimately, however, one of the consequences of Das's deliberate weaving of these sensual moments of same-sex pleasure into her catalog of pleasurable and distasteful encounters with the opposite sex is to constantly make the heteronormative visible by interrupting it consistently.
The concept of same-sex desire and heterosexuality “interrupting” each other over the course of an individual's lifetime is not as conventional as is the theory that homosexual activity is a “stage” toward mature heterosexuality. Thus, one might argue that these events, such as the romance with the girlfriend, are no more than unremarkable markers of the passage from childhood to adulthood, especially in terms of sexual development. Over the course of several books and articles, Sudhir Kakar, contemporary India's foremost psychologist, has fashioned just such an “Indian” understanding of the sexual development of children and youth in India.38 Kakar notes that young Indian girls experience sexuality early in their lives through their interactions with children and adults of both genders. According to Kakar, Indian women feel the tension between the “memory of intense and pleasurable childhood sexuality” and “the later womanly ideal which demands restraint and renunciation.” The Indian woman, who is for Kakar synonymous with the Hindu woman, resolves this tension after marriage by weaving an identity for herself that evolves out of the “particulars of her life cycle and childhood” and “the universals of the traditional ideals of womanhood.”39 Clearly, much of Kamala Das's narrative about the pleasures she receives from (and gives) to both women and men, both before and after her marriage, disturbs Kakar's dichotomy between “Indian” childhood and adult sexuality with its strict “before” and “after” logic. It would be difficult to deny the sensual texture of Kamala's accounts of childhood visits with unmarried aunts whose beauty, amorous songs, asceticism, and poetry teach her “that love was a beautiful anguish and a thapasya (a fast/penance/quest)” (p. 21). Another young married woman, a family friend, the “exquisitely lovely and very fashion-conscious” Mrs. Kunhappa, shares beauty secrets and information on “the great orgasm” with the young teenager (p. 80). According to Kakar's precepts, although what Kamala, like other young girls, learns through such association with women is indeed sexual and sensual pleasures, such knowledge is given (and learned) exclusively as preparation for the heterosexual monogamous sexual life that awaits Indian girls after marriage. In Das's narrative however, these episodes circulate in such an evocative and meandering fashion that their impact on the protagonist cannot be curtailed when she exchanges her childhood for her marital bed.
One of the ways in which Das interrupts both the heteronormative and the homonormative is in her choice of love objects—women, men, and herself. After marriage, Kamala continues to “fall in love” with women and with men, and we are told that she embarks on several torrid affairs. One of these “carelessly mixed pleasures,” as she calls them, that is not given serious consideration by Das, her husband, or the critics, involves Das's love for her doctor. In chapter 32, Das writes of her trouble with a “women's problem” for which she requires hospitalization. Here she is tended to by a woman doctor who saves her from bleeding to death when she hemorrhages after surgery. Kamala falls in love with her and keeps going to see her in the clinic—kissing her, watching her, smelling her. She writes: “I kept telling my husband that I was in love with the doctor and he said, it is all right, she is a woman, she will not exploit you” (p. 152). Once again, this is exactly how most critics have read this relationship—so “safe” in terms of patriarchal exploitation that it does not warrant serious consideration. In the rest of the autobiography, Das writes at length about the sexual pleasures that husband and wife enjoyed together and separately.
And yet, almost all feminist interpretations of My Story reach their crescendo in the analysis of chapter 22, titled “Wedding night: Again and again he hurt me and all the while the Kathakali drums throbbed dully.”40 What Kamala records in this chapter is her initiation into heterosexual intercourse via marital rape—unsuccessful attempts at first and then, after a fortnight of attempts, successful. She becomes pregnant almost immediately and by the time her first son is born, Kamala Das has few illusions about her relationship with her husband. The consequence is that now, aged seventeen or eighteen, she decides “to be unfaithful to him, at least physically” (p. 107). Das's life story provides the perfect case study of the sexual violence that husbands can and do subject their wives to. Furthermore, in this case, the wife enters the marriage as a child bridge matched with a much older man and is soon a teenage mother. And much of Das's work examines, in unflinching and graphic detail, the sexual, emotional, and psychological violence that women may suffer in heterosexual domestic settings. In “The Old Playhouse” (1973, p. 54) she writes in the persona of “wife”:
… You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured Yourself into every nook and cranny, you embalmed My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices. You called me wife, I was taught to break saccharine into your tea
In another splendid poem titled “The Stone Age” (1973), a wife describes her sexual infidelity but only after establishing that the husband is a “fat old spider” who has turned her into a “bird of stone, a granite / dove.” Again, in the persona of the wife, Das writes: “You stick a finger into my dreaming eye” (p. 69).
Das's feminist readers, regardless of their location, proffer justifications for only those sexual activities that occur after marriage and repeatedly stress that she is driven to such behavior by a cruel husband and by his numerous infidelities. Hence, because the affair with the college student (as well as other minor crushes on other women and young men) happen prior to her marriage, they are elided by the literary criticism. At the end of the autobiography, Das describes how, after she was well established as a writer, she was constantly propositioned by strangers and even by male friends who had read her work and had concluded that she would sleep with anyone. At this point in the narrative, she declares: “Sex did not interest me except as a gift I could grant my husband to make him happy” (p. 213). Feminist critic Ranjana Harish uses this statement as proof that Das's sexual adventures had never been pleasurable for her. Harish insists that this authorial admission “ironically” confirms that Das's “transgressions” of the “sacred orbit of marriage” are embarked upon “out of sheer disgust and a burning sense of revenge [against her unfaithful husband].”41 Similarly, in “Sexual Politics and Kamala Das,” Iqbal Kaur sets out “to prove Kamala Das' distaste for sex.” Using Das's poetry and prose to prove her point, Kaur writes: “I would like to repeat that it is not lust or sex or carnal hunger but rather an escape from all this that drags her [Das] from man to man.”42 Furthermore, although almost every critic comments on the unpleasant sex of the early days of the marriage, there is no commentary on the joyous lovemaking of the later years when Kamala participates in and enjoys the husband's homoerotic sexual scenarios in which she is his “darling little boy.” Chapter 27 begins:
During my nervous breakdown there developed between myself and my husband an intimacy which was purely physical … after bathing me in warm water and dressing me in men's clothes, my husband bade me sit on his lap, fondling me and calling me his little darling boy. … I was by nature shy … but during my illness, I shed my shyness and for the first time in my life learned to surrender totally in bed with my pride intact and blazing.”
Here Kamala Das calmly discloses two “unmentionable” aspects of her life—her period of precarious mental health and her participation in perverse marital sex. What becomes difficult to integrate into an antipatriarchal reading is Das's candid account of how much sexual pleasure she found in these circumstances. Here Das disrupts the normative feminist narrative about “wifely suffering” at the hands of a sexually voracious husband. In this and other instances, Das's narrative queers the very institution of marriage by making marital sex appear perverse and enjoyable precisely for that reason.
HUSBANDS AND LOVERS
Another way in which Kamala Das interrupts the heteronormative is through the figure of “the husband” in her autobiography, fiction, and poetry. As recounted in the autobiography, one of the few conversations that Kamala and her fiancé have before their wedding is about Oscar Wilde. She writes: “He [the fiancé] talked about homosexuality with frankness. Many of us pass through that stage, he said” (p. 92). Despite his theory of stages, same-sex practice is not such a singular stage that the husband grows beyond. His obviously pleasurable relationships with other men continue past the wedding.
As narrated in the passage that serves as the second epigraph to this essay, even as Kamala determines to be unfaithful to her husband, she learns of his “friend” and “constant companion” (p. 118). The last three lines in this paragraph are among the most quoted sentences from this autobiography. Read, as is the usual critical practice, outside the context of Das's excruciating consideration of what sexual pleasures might lie beyond the heterosexual option (for men in this instance), these last three lines have been interpreted as that all-too-familiar tirade about the burden of being “a woman”—with one's breasts and genitals serving as the source and location of one's suffering. Interestingly, Das's most anthologized poem, the autobiographical “An Introduction,” contains a passage that seems to recount this exact incident—the passage that serves as the first epigraph for this article. Yet, in most close readings of this poem, critics do not dispel the illusion that the “youth of sixteen” whom the husband draws into the bedroom is necessarily the “I” (the sixteen-year-old bride that we all know Kamala was), and not a young boy—a “youth” as she so plainly tells us.43 The syntax works against the line breaks in this section of the poem. Thus the poem makes possible either a syntactically awkward heterosexual reading, or conversely, a fluent statement about same-sex desire that competes with the young bride's heterosexual ineptness. Critics appear to prefer the syntactically awkward interpretation. Similarly, in most critical readings of this poem, the lines about the “beaten” woman's body are read, despite her insistence that “he did not beat me,” as proof of the man's physical and sexual violence.44 In the lines that follow the passage cited in the epigraph, Das writes:
Then … I wore a shirt and my Brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored My womanliness. Dress in saris, be girl, Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook, Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, Belong, cried the categorisers.
In critical readings of this poem, these lines that express her dissatisfaction with her woman's body are read as the familiar “woman's complaint” under the yoke of patriarchy rather than a rejection of the hetero-gendered reproductive female body. The lines that describe her adoption of male clothes and short hair have not encouraged critics to consider whether the gendered roles assigned to both wife and husband under a heteropatriarchal45 order are being destabilized. Instead these lines are read as the beating down of her “natural” inclinations as a woman—distortions forced upon her by a sexually devouring husband. Das's listing of the categories available to the middle-class woman (girl, wife, embroiderer, cook, quarreler with servants) all assume a heterosexual and domestic foundation. In this passage, to refuse these domestic categories is to refuse the sense of belonging and shelter offered by heteropatriarchal arrangements.
A passage from another commonly anthologized poem, “Composition” (1967), again demonstrates how closely Das weaves heterosexuality and homosexuality. These constant sexual (re)orientations do not provide identities as much as they provide roles that intersect each other:
I asked my husband, am I hetero am I lesbian or am I just plain frigid? He only laughed. For such questions probably there are no answers or else the answers must emerge from within.
Somewhat exasperated by Das's meandering poesy in this lengthy poem, feminist critic Vrinda Nabar comments: “One can hardly blame him [the husband—for laughing]! There seems little excuse for such immature analysis, always carried to excess and singularly lacking in irony.” Nabar goes on to note that Kamala Das does not get profound nor provide “a dose of introspection … or some self-criticism” but instead goes into airing her doubts which, according to Nabar, consist of a “long moan” about “queers and lesbians.”46
In the critical texts on Das, the figure of “the husband,” never named in the autobiography, but Madhav Das in real life, stands in for patriarchy. This would make his homosexual tendencies a stumbling block but only if patriarchy were to be linked to heterosexuality. Male same-sex practices, such as those indulged in on occasion by the husband, are represented as another of his “sexual corruptions” that Kamala as his wife is subject to—irrespective of her degree of pleasure in participation. Basing her opinion on her reading of My Story, Nabar concludes that Madhav Das was “crude, insensitive, incapable of even basic human decency. He emerges as the worst kind of the conventional Indian male.” This is of course an assessment that Kamala Das encourages and embellishes repeatedly in her written work and interviews even as she provides examples of his interesting deviance from the “conventional Indian male.” For instance, Das comments in her autobiography and interviews that her husband encouraged her infidelities and even offered evaluations of each of her lovers. The husband in My Story is queer not simply because of his occasional same-sex liaisons but also in his disregard of one of the most crucial linchpins of the heteropatriarchal marriage contract—the insistence on wifely sexual fidelity. Commenting on one of the scenes in the autobiography in which Das and her husband discuss her latest lover, Nabar writes: “Amazingly, her husband was not outraged, only ‘irked’ because she had encouraged such a ‘stupid fellow.’ Similar statements, implying a tolerance of her extra-marital relationships on her husband's part, are scattered through much of Kamala's prose. They seem at odds with the image she commonly projects of him.”47 Kamala Das is quite consistent about the unconventionality of every aspect of her marriage. If this image of the husband is “at odds” with a “commonly projected image” of him, then it is at odds with the image that emerges from extant feminist criticism which has constructed him as patriarchy's archvillain—a necessary complement to the image of Kamala Das as a woman oppressed by the patriarchal hegemony embodied by her father and husband. Das in fact repeatedly demonstrates how incomplete and inefficient the whole machinery of patriarchal power can be in operation.48
Most importantly, we need to ponder the issue of Das's choice of the pseudonym, “Madhavi Kutty.” “Kutty” is a common suffix in Kerala across castes but particularly among upper-caste women. Kutty is also used as an affectionate suffix which is unmarked by gender and religion and best translates as “child” or “small one.” Hence, when a child is named after parent or adult, the suffix becomes a way to distinguish the adult from the child.49 Madhavi is however, the feminine form of Madhav, her husband's name. Why would Kamala Das make this gesture if the motivating force behind her writing was to protest her miserable marriage and her brute of a husband? Is her choice of pseudonym parodic? Is this another instance of Das's posturing as the ever-obedient wife who takes her very name from her husband? Kamala Das's use of her husband's last name “Das” for her publications in English was possibly an attempt to follow the practice in other parts of the country, especially in the English-language literary circles. If she were to follow the matrilineal naming convention, she would be known as Nalapat Kamala or Nalapat Madhavi Kutty. However, these versions of her name would reveal her identity to those such as her revered grandmother, who, Kamala Das claims, died without discovering that Madhavi Kutty, the writer of scandalous stories in Malayalam, was Kamala writing under a pseudonym.
In the preface to The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das (1994), Vrinda Nabar writes that the contradictory series of statements and decisions that Das has made over the years of being intensely written up and interviewed make her an unreliable narrator of her own life.50 Other scholars have made similar assessments—Ranjana Dwivedi gives an example that she finds representative of Das's contradictory self-presentation within the pages of My Story: “The book as many of her critics have noted is full of contradictions. … One may quote several examples to prove this inconsistency … e.g. an intense awareness of her ugly looks is a deep-rooted trait of [her] personality. She discusses it again and again, and still she presents herself as being chased and desired by several men!”51 There is a discourse about standards of beauty in operation here that accounts for Dwivedi's confusion. However, there is absolutely no contradiction for the reader who is attuned to the intense autoeroticism of Kamala's relation to her own body—in adolescence, in illness, in health, in the process of satisfying and unsatisfactory lovemaking. Das's representation of her own and other female bodies goes beyond the requisite description of the woman's body in heterosexual situations. In the many descriptions of heterosexual coupling etched in her poetry and prose, there is an excessive lingering on the body of the woman which is matched by a fading out of the male or a reduction of him into mere observer while the woman stands entranced by her own womanly flesh.
What also needs to be noted is that it is not just same-sex desire that disturbs the heteropatriarchal order in My Story and other works by Kamala Das. Rather, Das's queerness makes visible to her, and thereby to us, all that occurs at a tangent to the normative—the practices (and not all of them sexual) that have always existed at a slight angle to the heteropatriarchal. She observes and exposes those very aspects of gender and class inequality which social conventions have decreed invisible to “decent” women and to respectable women writers. For example, her understanding of the politics of (hetero)sexual power are gleaned from her observation of the seduction of servant girls by rich philanderers. Her childhood knowledge of power relations comes from learning that a self-administered abortion is the reason why the maid loses her job. Kamala's complaints about the drudgery of her own life are often and deliberately undercut by juxtaposing such complaints with descriptions of the severely cramped circumstances in which her servants live their lives.
I will also add that when same-sex desire floods the screen it is not something that is indulged in because heterosexual options for sex are closed. This is often the course that female sexuality takes in the South Asian narrative in which lesbian desire is an explicit feature of the story.52 Kamala Das repeatedly takes the wife outside the marital home and into hotel rooms, as well as the homes and workplaces of lovers of both sexes. And yet homoerotic situations are evoked only to be put aside again and again, in My Story as much as in her fiction. Why does Das repeatedly go through the pleasures of such disciplining? And how long can this strategy—that some may see as ultimately homophobic—be maintained? Some of Das's recent fiction, such as the short story “The Sandal Trees,” has only intensified this backtracking and crisscrossing over into same-sex relationships and back to heterosexuality with the possibility of return left open.53
It will be interesting to see how stalwart Das followers will read “The Sandal Trees” (Chandana Marangal), written by Das in Malayalam in 1988 and translated into English under her guidance by V. C. Harris and C. K. Mohamed Ummer in 1995. This story charts a four-decade-long sexual and emotional relationship between two women which carries echoes of the relationship between Kamala and the college girlfriend in the autobiography. And in this short story, Das is not reticent about making direct comparisons between the husband and the lover.54 In this story, it is impossible to read same-sex desire as a stage in growing up to be properly heterosexual or to easily mistake it for an insignificant attachment. “The Sandal Trees” cannot be processed through these theories and, instead, makes visible and legible the contours of Das's work that cannot otherwise be mapped even under the rubric of feminist criticism unless one is willing to discuss same-sex desire. Conversely, the explicit lesbian theme of “The Sandal Trees” does make same-sex desire in My Story look incomplete, incoherent, even embryonic. Although “The Sandal Trees” does not have the sly, insidious queer charge of My Story, in the current moment of the internationalization of homosexual identity-based politics, this short story may be more useful to lesbian causes in the Indian context than My Story.
Read solely on the national literary register, Das's 1976 autobiography would seem to have had its moment of attention and notoriety. Perhaps Das's December 1999 announcement that she is going to convert to Islam, change her name to Suraiya, and take to “purdah” (wearing the veil in public) will provoke a reassessment of the sexual politics of Das's earlier works in Indian literary and feminist discourses.55 Or, as queer activists in India become increasingly vocal about legitimating alternate sexualities, Das's empathetic portrayal of “freaks,” “eunuchs,” “sinners,” and other outcastes may merit reconsideration. However, from a strictly national literary framework, the seeming randomness of my choice of My Story, along with the cross-cultural citation style, and the partial readings, might seem to provide evidence of a dilettantish, First World-based, diasporic dabbling in the queer and unusual. What cannot be wished away is the gap between queer temporalities and the temporality of national literary histories.
It seems as if the female sexuality that Indian—and most other—feminism is comfortable with is that which is construed as “problematic” as in the awful early days of Kamala's marriage. Writing on African American women's sexuality, Evelynn M. Hammond has recently noted the impossibility of speaking it except in the context of violation or oppression (as in rape, lynching, incest, or a lack of reproductive control).56 In the Indian context as in the African American (albeit for different historical reasons), female sexuality has for too long been the topic that enters discourse only as the locus of potential or full-fledged problems. Thus, what we have is a literary-critical mainstream that in its most benevolent patriarchal tradition reads Das's dynamic representations of desire in purely aesthetic terms—that is, as literary theme (see n. 9). This stance is challenged by feminists who focus on the material, the autobiographical, and the symbolic political challenge to patriarchy encoded in Das's work. Less impressed critics have labeled Das a nymphomaniac or as suffering from a “sex addiction.”57 A queer reading of Das works with what is discarded in patriarchal and feminist readings, namely, the contradictory, the duplicitous, the parodic, the perverse, the incomplete, and interruptive.
Despite the politics of location that usefully interrupt a seamless application of theory to text, I do believe that queering Kamala Das is an extremely rewarding project. I have tried to demonstrate that reading Das as a feminist, antipatriarchal writer, while respectful of the local feminist projects that envelop this work, does not answer many of the enigmas raised by the dynamics of sexuality in her texts. Reading her texts as queer, however multiply defined that term may be, forces a discussion of sexuality and subjecthood that goes beyond the conventions of the unconventional and into less stable interpretations of her work. As Berlant and Warner have noted, queer commentary results in “unsettlement rather than systemization.”58 I have focused in this article on the gaps between different discussions on Das that are produced in different locations.59 I believe that each of these gaps illuminates the current situation in which English-language literary criticism is being produced around the globe with different sociocultural and academic foci but for audiences that overlap in ways not envisioned in earlier decades. This examination of My Story then, bares the pitfalls as well as the necessity of negotiating between locations as diverse as those of different academic disciplines, different literary lists, geographic locations, queer and national temporalities, languages, understandings of “queer,” feminisms, and sexual practices.
Nairs were a military class (in Kerala, southern India) who had been granted land by grateful kings over the centuries. By the twentieth century, Nairs were a powerful feudal class of landowners. Although Nairs enjoy certain distinct caste privileges, they are second in Kerala's Hindu caste hierarchy to the Namboodiris or the priestly caste. According to the matrilineal conventions of the Nair community, Kamala Das belongs to the Nalapat family, well known in Kerala for their contributions to Malayalam literature and culture.
For a detailed account of the many prizes and honors given to Das, see the chronology provided by Iqbal Kaur, Feminist Revolution and Kamala Das' “My Story” (Patiala, India: Century Twenty-One, 1992), ii-vi.
A comprehensive list of South Asian scholars producing such work would be lengthy-but to mention just a few names, consider the globally cited work of Bina Aggarwal, Urvashi Butalia, Kamala Bhasin, Uma Chakravarti, Veena Das, Mary John, Kumari Jayawardena, Madhu Kishwar, Ratna Kapur, Vina Mazumdar, Ritu Menon, Janaki Nair, Tejaswini Niranjana, Kumkum Sangari, Tanika Sarkar, Susie Tharu, and Sudesh Vaid. Then there are many diasporic South Asian scholars whose work on gender and the state have made solid contributions in setting the terms for these discussions—Inderpal Grewal, Ania Loomba, Lata Mani, Chandra Mohanty, Rajeshwari SunderRajan, and Gayatri Spivak. Please note that these lists are incomplete and that the distinction that I make between “South Asian” and “diasporic South Asian” is very unstable because several of the above named scholars might inhabit either category at different points in their careers.
Mary John and Janaki Nair, eds., A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economics of Modern India (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998), 1-51, 1. In their preface to the collection, Nair and John report that despite their best efforts they were ultimately unable to solicit contributions on homosexuality or on the sexualization of Kerala (viii). However, their excellent introduction to the collection discusses alternate sexuality and other aspects of the sexual economics of modern India in some detail.
Jacqui Alexander, “Erotic Autonomy as a Politics of Decolonization: An Anatomy of State Practice in the Bahamas Tourist Economy,” Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 63-100, 65.
In this essay, for instance, given the customary space constraints of journal articles, I have had to restrict my citations in several instances to “representative” scholarship rather than be able to catalog the entire body of work on Das, on postcolonial feminism(s), queer commentary, and other related issues.
Note that Das was awarded the PEN Asian Poetry Prize in 1963 and had a national and international reputation as a poet writing in English well before My Story was published.
Vincent O'Sullivan, “Whose Voice Is Where? On Listening to Kamala Das,” in Kamala Das, 179-94, 180.
Readers should note that Kamala Das's work can be placed within several literary contexts: Third World women's writing, South Asian postcolonial/feminist writing (in the subcontinent and the diaspora), the Indian national literary tradition, and Malayalam literature. These literary fields are not to be understood as concentric circles: they do not mimic geography but instead need to be envisioned as overlapping worlds. In Indian, literary critics routinely compare Das's poetic themes and style to the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Simone de Beauvoir. Also, Das occupies different positions in these three or four literary histories: her reputation in Australia, for example, rests on the interest in “new literatures in English” and more specifically on the volume Kamala Das. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar include Das's poem, “An Introduction,” in their Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: A Tradition in English (New York: Norton, 1985), 2247-49.
Among subcontinental critics of Indian women's writing in English, Kamala Das occupies a curious position. Her exceptional literary talent, especially as a poet, has usually been acknowledged by literary critics, even by those who despair at her choice of topics. Recently, in “Kamala Das—Need for Re-Assessment,” in Feminist English Literature, ed. Manmohan K. Bhatnagar (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1999), 4-9, 8, Sharad Rajimwale has argued that Das “inaugurates a new age for women poets [in India].” Such acknowledgment of Das's talent is not always forthcoming. In The Waffle of the Toffs: A Socio-literary Reading of Indian Literature in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), M. Prabha does not mince words as she reduces Das's work to “bedroom bardistry” in which “all her outpourings pertain to the pelvic region” (224).
Interestingly, in literary histories of Malayalam literature, Das is usually represented as a lightweight. Her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, and her maternal uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, are the more respected writers whose poetry and translations are given serious consideration, even in English-language literary histories of Malayalam. Her mother has been awarded the “Padma Bhusan,” one of independent India's high official cultural awards, and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1966. (Kamala Das herself won the latter prize in 1985.) Das's maternal uncle has been included in the highest literary canons of Malayalam literature. See K. R. R. Nair, The Poetry of Kamala Das (New Delhi: Reliance, 1993), and literary histories such as Krishna Chaitanya, A History of Malayalam Literature (Poona, India: Orient Longman, 1971); and Ayyappa K. Panniker, A Short History of Malayalam Literature (Trivandrum, India: Department of Public Relations, Government of Kerala, 1977).
Still, Kamala Das's autobiography immediately won the patronage of the established (mostly male) literary critics who, although not particularly inspired by feminism, were graciously willing to accommodate “feminine writing.” The father of English-language literary criticism in post-independence India, as the late K. S. R. Iyengar was often called, summarized his opinion of Das as follows: “Kamala Das is a fiercely feminine sensibility that dares without inhibitions to articulate the hurts it has received in an insensitive largely man-made world” (Indian Writing in English [New York: Asia Publishing House, 1973], 680). K. R. R. Nair insists that Kamala Das's confessional poetry and My Story are not to be read as autobiographical “in the conventional sense” but as “an imaginative and fanciful rendering of certain autobiographical experiences” (Nair, 103). Needless to say, feminist critics in the subcontinent and outside have read Kamala Das's life into her work and have done so, in part, to counter such masculinist reduction of her work to discussions of form and theme.
From the late 1970s onward Kamala Das has become for feminists a symbol of the oppressed lives that women live in traditional patriarchal societies and, more importantly, a symbol of the feminist protest of such oppression. For instance, Iqbal Kaur distinguished her own reading of My Story from other scholarly approaches by noting that “My Story is full of sensationalism only to those who read in it the story of a single lust-obsessed feminine woman seeking a life of physical pleasure, while … Kamala Das is a feminist woman trying to reject male lust which turns a woman into an object.” The writer of many books and editor of anthologies on Das, Kaur argues in her 1992 study that My Story is a serious social critique. Kaur lists over twenty such “social problems” that Das grapples with in the autobiography—problems such as “the power-imbalance in sexual relationships, animal-like existence of women, male treachery, infidelity in marriage, society's double standards especially of morality, purdah system,” and so on (Feminist Revolutions and Kamala Das' “My Story,” 4-5). Later in her study, when Kaur goes on to discuss the issues that were central to Indian feminism in the 1970s, her list looks very much like the earlier presented one citing Das's concerns in My Story (Feminist Revolutions and Kamala Das' “My Story,” 22).
Ketu Katrak, “Post-Colonial Women's Colonised States: Mothering and M-othering in Bessie Head's A Question of Power and Kamala Das' My Story,” Journal of Gender Studies 5, no. 3 (1996): 273-91; Harveen Sachdeva Mann, “‘Cracking India’: Minority Women Writers and the Contentious Margins of Indian Nationalist Discourse,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 2, (1994): 71-94; Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Terms of Empowerment in Kamala Das' My Story” in Perspectives on Kamala Das' Prose, ed. Iqbal Kaur (New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995), 87-111. Also see Lim, “Semiotics, Experience, and the Material Self: An Inquiry into the Subject of the Contemporary Woman Writer,” Women Studies 18 (summer 1990): 153-75.
See, for instance, the oft-cited essay, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1988), in which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes of the need to work toward escaping “the inbuilt colonialism of first world feminism toward the third” in order to “promote a sense of our common yet history-specific lot” (134-53, 153). Chandra Talpade Mohanty has also written persuasively of the need for Western feminism to problematize its “discursive colonialism” in the now classic “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (New York: Routledge, 1992), 51-80. Here and elsewhere we are urged to pay due attention to what is considered political in a feminist sense in the specific Third World location/text under investigation rather than impose a Euro-American, essentially colonialist, viewpoint.
Marilyn Friedman, “Multicultural Education and Feminist Ethics,” Hypatia 10 (spring 1995): 56-68, 65.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Burden of English,” The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India, ed. Rajeshwari SunderRajan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 275-99, 276.
If there was/is a section of the “implied readership” among whom Das's autobiography was well-received for the very features of the text that I highlight in this essay, there were/are no public accounts of this reception. This is not to argue that there is no lesbian and gay readership or such communities in India. For an overview of Indian gay and lesbian groups and their activities, see Sherry Joseph's “Gay and Lesbian Movement in India,” Economic and Political Weekly, 17 Aug. 1996, 2228-32. For a more up-to-date account, see Bina Fernandez, ed., Humjinsi: A Resource Book for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Rights in India (New Delhi: India Centre for Human Rights and Law, 1999).
See Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, eds., Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000). Also see Shakuntala Devi's The World of Homosexuals (New Delhi: Vikas, 1977), an interview-based study that is roughly contemporaneous with My Story. Sudhir Kakar's important psychoanalytical study, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India (1978; rpt., New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), contains some discussion of homosexuality. Also see the patronizing and voyeuristic account of gay male life-styles in contemporary India written by Arvind Kala, Invisible Minority: The Unknown World of the Indian Homosexual (New Delhi: Dynamic Books, 1992). Giti Thadani's Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India (London: Cassell, 1996) attempts to bring lesbians in India into visibility through interpretations of “the hidden realm of women's traditions” (viii), archaeological artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and accounts of same-sex coupling. Homosexuality and queerness inform numerous academic and other publications and cultural texts produced by South Asians in South Asia and in the diaspora. See, for example, the films of Pratima Parmar, Hanif Khureshi, Deepa Mehta, and fiction by Sohaila Abdulali, Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, Ginu Kamani, Vikram Chandra, Shani Motoo, Suniti Namjoshi, Shyam Selvadurai, and Vikram Seth. Also see Rakesh Ratti's edited collection of writing by queer, gay, and lesbian South Asians, titled, A Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1993). For queer readings of South Asian diasporic situations, see the work of Gayatri Gopinath, Geeta Patel, Jasbir Puar, Sandip Roy, and Nayan Shah.
Ashwini Sutthankar, Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1999); Deepa Mehta, dir., Fire (Trial by Fire Films, 1996). Also see Hoshang Merchant, ed., Yarana: Gay Writing from India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1999). Over the last five years, almost every popular Indian magazine has had a special issue or cover story on homosexuality. For example, see the special issues of Sunday magazines: “Glad to Be Gay: Indian Homosexuals come out of the Closet,” 16-22 Aug. 1992, and “Women in Love: Indian Lesbians Talk about Themselves,” 17-23 May 1998. For a comprehensive list of newspaper and magazine discussions on homosexuality in the Indian media (from 1984 to 1999), see Humjinsi. I would like to thank Shohini Ghosh for bringing some of these materials to my attention.
See, for instance, Lisa Rofel's “Qualities of Desire: Imagining Gay Identities in China,” GLQ 5, no. 4 (1999): 451-74, for a discussion of the opening up of a semipublic, internet-supported, transnational gay space in Beijing.
Note, for instance, the increased number of queer venues—parties, magazines, journals, conferences, and chat rooms that speak to cross-continental audiences. Also see the forthcoming collection of essays titled Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, ed. Ruth Vanita (New York: Routledge, 2001), which showcases queer readings of Indian cinema, Indian legal discourses, literary texts, popular media, and advertising. Contributors are based in India and outside.
See the opening pages of Susan Seizer's “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage,” Public Culture, 8, no. 1 (1995): 73-100, which provide a representative example of such a scholarly strategy. Also see Gayatri Gopinath's astute analysis of Seizer's work in “Homo-Economics: Queer Sexualities in a Transnational Frame,” Burning Down the House: Recycling Domesticity, ed. Rosemary Marangoly George (Boulder: Perseus/Westview, 1998), 133-50.
Lata Mani, “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception,” Feminist Review 35 (summer 1990): 24-41, 25, 27.
Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” PMLA 110 (1995): 343-49, 345.
Needless to say, current discussions around “queerness” do go beyond the domain of sex and sexual orientation. See, for example, Q & A: Queer in Asian America, ed. Alice Y. Hom and David L. Eng (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
John and Nair, 6.
Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 13.
Karen Lützen, “La mise en discours and Silences in the Research on the History of Sexuality,” Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, ed. Richard G. Parker and John H. Gagon (New York: Routledge, 1995), 19-32.
See Dennis Altman, “Rupture or Continuity? The Internationalization of Gay Identities,” Social Text 14, no. 3 (1996): 77-94; and the anthology, Coming Out: An Anthology of International Gay and Lesbian Writings, ed. Stephan Likosky (New York: Pantheon, 1992). For thoughtful reassessments of different aspects of this very internationalization, see Rofel; Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa, eds., Same-Sex Relations and Female Desires: Transgender Practices across Cultures (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Martin Manalansan, “In the Shadow of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic Dilemma,” GLQ 2 (1995): 425-38; and Gopinath.
P. P. Raveendran, “Of Masks and Memories: An Interview with Kamala Das,” Indian Literature 155 (May-June 1993): 145-61. After this response by Das, the interviewer, Raveendran, shifts direction to focus on religion. It would have been useful to have had Das elaborate on the rather enigmatic last sentence. Understandably, however, in Raveendran's context, the question of religion was more urgently in need of elaboration (and potentially more provocative) given the highly inflamed religious/communal mood in India at the time.
For more on this distinction between “Indian feminism” and same-sex desire in the context of Das's work, see my discussion of the critical responses to Das's short story “Iqbal,” in “‘Queernesses All Mine’: Same-Sex Desire in Kamala Das' Fiction and Poetry,” in Queering India. This sentiment that there is only a thin strip of shared ground between feminists and lesbians was recently espoused by some Indian feminists and feminist groups who publicly and deliberately distanced their own project from that of Indian lesbians in the discussions and protests following the December 1998 vandalism organized by the Shiv Sena (a fundamentalist right-wing Hindu group) against the screening of Deepa Mehta's film Fire in Bombay. From 1998 to the present, a series of exchanges (Madhu Kishwar in Manushi and the letters to the editor in response to her negative reading of Fire, as well as articles by others, reveal the complex and hardly comfortable relationship between feminist and lesbian activism in India at present. The intense discussion on female sexuality and its place in Indian feminism that Fire has generated is much too complex to be captured in a note. See Madhu Kishwar, “Naïve Outpourings of a Self-Hating Indian: Deepa Mehta's Fire,” Manushi 109 (November-December 1999): 3-14; and “Responses to Manushi [re. review of Deepa Mehta's film Fire],” Manushi 112 (May-June 1999): 2-11. Also see C. M. Naim, “A Dissent on ‘Fire,’” Economic and Political Weekly, 17-24 Apr. 1999, 955-57; Mary E. John and Tejaswini Niranjana, “Mirror Politics: ‘Fire,’ Hindutva, and Indian Culture,” Economic and Political Weekly, 6-13 Mar. 1999, 581-84.
See interviews with Raveendran and Shobha Warrier, “Interview with Kamala Das,” www.redifindia.com/1996/. Ranjana Harish cites two other interviews in which Das makes this claim and suggests that Das's retreat from her earlier “boldness” stemmed from her reaction to a Time magazine article that described Das as “the queen of Erotica.” See Ranjana Harish, “My Story: An Attempt to Tell Female Body's Truth,” in Perspectives on Kamala Das' Prose, 44-53, 52.
This was perhaps intended to draw the reader into each episode of the story as and when it appeared in serialized form in 1974 in the popular, weekly, Mumbai-based magazine, the Current.
For example, in Vrinda Nabar's eighteen-page summary of the autobiography, this relationship with the college girl is described thus: “She [Kamala Das] also developed a crush on her art tutor [male], a Bengali lady who taught her English, and even on an older girl who had an unsavory reputation as a lesbian!” (7). See Vrinda Nabar, The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994). There is no further analysis of the significance of this relationship between the two women. Also indicative of the dismissive treatment given to such attachments is the repeated use of the exclamation mark as punctuation in sentences that refer to same-sex eroticism.
Here, as elsewhere in this text, it is extremely hard to quickly gloss the complexities of the class/caste/family pride that inflects much of Das's view of the world. In this passage, her derision for the details of a middle-class life stems from the suspicion that this may well be the world that awaits her after marriage, despite the royal connections and the high literary/cultural standing of the Nalapat family.
See Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Junction Books, 1981). Faderman's scholarship, produced to explicate an entirely different scenario, offers some insight into Das's manipulation of innocence and eroticism. Commenting on the sexual relationships between European women in the eighteenth century, Faderman claims that “a narrower interpretation of what constitutes eroticism permitted a broader expression of erotic behavior since it was not considered inconsistent with virtue” (39).
See Sudhir Karkar, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (1989; rpt., New Delhi: Penguin, 1990), and The Inner World. Kakar has argued very forcefully for a theory of male sexual development in which same-sex desire, fantasy, and activities are not validated as manifestations of sexual preference or orientation but viewed as symptomatic of power dynamics in a hierarchical society (134-35). There is less discussion in Kakar's work of same-sex erotics for women.
Kakar, Inner World, 64, 56.
The reference here is to the Kathakali dance-drama performance that Kamala's father had arranged as part of the festivities around her ostentatious wedding. In his eagerness to consummate their marriage, Kamala's husband decides that they, bride and groom, will not stay up to watch the performance with the wedding guests. For discussion of the marital sex in the early years of Das's marriage, see Harish, Nabar, Katrak, and Kaur.
Iqbal Kaur, “Sexual Politics and Kamala Das,” in Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, 162.
See, for example, Prabhat Kumar Pandeya's interpretation of this passage: “Men may enjoy it [“mere carnality”] but not women and in such a situation, and it is a plenty, the woman may feel used, like a lavatory as the young typist girl of The Waste Land, and she is shocked and humiliated, her whole womanhood trampled by the hasty aggressiveness of the male. The defloration is always a traumatic experience for the woman.” See Prabhat Kumar Pandeya, “The Pink Pulsating Words: The Woman's Voice in Kamala Das's Poetry,” in Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, 33-43, 34. In his explanation of the poem, A. N. Dwivedi suggests that these lines imply that “she is married to a youth of sixteen.” See A. N. Dwivedi, Kamala Das and Her Poetry (Delhi: Doaba House, 1983), 114. Nabar (10) is the only critic who makes a link between this passage in the poem and the homosexual relationship between the husband and his friend described in My Story.
Iqbal Kaur's analysis of “An Introduction” provides a representative example of selective citation from the autobiography and poems that result in a tightly woven narrative about unremitting patriarchal oppression that culminates in outrage at the “beaten” woman's body. See “Sexual Politics and Kamala Das” (154-56). Also see Nair (17) and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, “The Loud Posters of Kamala Das,” in Kamala Das, 217-24, 218.
For a full explication of the ways in which heterosexualization works in collaboration with patriarchy, see Jacqui Alexander who builds on Lynda Hart's theory of heteropatriarchy in Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Nabar, 51, 52. Also see “The Doubt' (1967), a poem in which Das ruminates at length about the very gendering of individuals into the categories of female and male. For detailed queer readings of “Composition,” “The Doubt,” and other poems and short stories by Das, see my “‘Queernesses All Mine’”.
Nabar, 10, 11.
For example, her father might have efficiently arranged his daughter's marriage with the active collaboration of his wife and mother-in-law, but he is absolutely helpless when it comes to alleviating her unhappiness after marriage.
Note that Hindu women in Kerala rarely use caste names after their given name. The form used by Nair women was the name of the Tharavandu (family house) followed by the given name. For example, Das's mother's published under “Nalapat Balamani Amma”—Amma is another generic suffix attached to women's names in Kerala. I am grateful to Dilip Menon for discussing this matter of naming in the Nair community with me.
Ranjana Dwivedi, “Autobiography: A Metaphor for the Self,” in Between Spaces of Silence: Women Creative Writers, ed. Kamini Dinesh (New Delhi: Sterling, 1994), 115-25, 123.
See, for instance, Ismat Chugtai's wonderful 1942 short story, “The Quilt,” in The Quilt and Other Stories, trans. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda Hameed (New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1992); and Deepa Mehta's Fire.
Kamala Das, “The Sandal Trees,” in The Sandal Trees and Other Stories, trans. V. C. Harris and C. K. Mohamed Ummer (Hyderabad: Disha/Orient Longman, 1995), 1-27. For a detailed analysis of the kinds of acknowledgment of same-sex desire in Das's work that the conscientious critic will have to make when she/he reads “The Sandal Trees,” see my contribution to Queering India.
See “The Sandal Trees,” 5, 10, 13, 16, 26. Toward the end of the story, the husband concedes to the main protagonist, his wife, that he has always known that he “was a mere drizzle arriving hesitantly, timidly, after a full storm” (26).
For more on Das's conversion to Islam, see “I like Islam's Orthodox Lifestyle: Kamala Das” [Interview with Kamala Das], The Times of India, 15 Dec. 1999. [www.timesofindia.com]. The political and feminist implications of this announcement, which comes at a time when communal tensions around conversions (from the dominant Hindu religion to Islam and Christianity) are high, need to be studied at length and cannot be examined in a note. Also see www.rediff.com/news/1999/dec/13kamala.htm.
Evelynn M. Hammonds, “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality,” Feminist Genealogies, 170-82.
See the much-cited essay by fellow Indian poet Eunice de Souza, titled “Kamala Das,” in Indian Poetry in English: A Critical Assessment, ed. V. A. Shahane and M. Shivaramakrishna (New Delhi: Macmillan, 1980), 43.
Berlant and Warner, 348.
One of the silences in this article concerns Das's writing in Malayalam. Although this article makes evident that there is a substantial global discussion about Das's prodigious work in English that is conducted in English, there is no sidestepping the fact that neither myself nor most of the critics I have cited have the language skills requisite for a discussion of Kamala Das's entire oeuvre. There seems to be, as yet, no serious discussion of same-sex dynamics in Kamala Das's work in Malayalam literary criticism. My Malayalam reading skills are too recently acquired to allow me to read literary criticism in the language, but I base my assertion on extensive reading of work written in and translated into English and on consultation with scholars working in the literature. I would especially like to thank T. Muralidharan and Vanamala Viswanathan for generously sharing information on this issue with me.
Earlier versions of different sections of this article were presented at the twenty-sixth annual South Asian Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 1997, and at the Queer Globalization/Local Homosexualities Conference at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, CUNY, in New York, April 1998. I would like to thank Gayatri Gopinath, Judith Halberstam, Lisa Lowe, David Ludden, Chandan Reddy, Aparajita Sagar, and Lisa Yoneyama for helping me work through this material. I would also like to thank Houston Baker and the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture, for enabling my research in the South Asian Collection at the Van Pelt Library (University of Pennsylvania) in the spring of 1998. I am grateful to the anonymous readers and editors at Feminist Studies whose comments greatly improved the final version of this paper.
Epigraphs: See S. C. Harrex and Vincent O'Sullivan, eds., Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on Her Work (Adelaide, Australia: Center for Research in the New Literatures in English, CRNLE Writers Series, 1986), 7-9. All cited poems are from this source and will be referred to by page numbers in parentheses in the text. Also see Kamala Das, My Story (New Delhi: Sterling, 1976). All further citations will be from this edition and will be referred to by page numbers in parentheses in the text.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96
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.