Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4189
SOURCE: Kohli, Devindra. “Kamala Das.” Literary Criterion 12, nos. 2-3 (1976): 173-86.
[In the following essay, Kohli argues that Das's confessional poetry, with its unusual metaphors and original tone, represents a distinctly Indian voice that bows neither to the English modernists nor to Indian transcendentalist philosophy.]
Kamala Das was born on 31 March, 1934 in Malabar in Kerala. She was publishing short stories in Malayalam, her mother tongue, before she brought out Summer in Calcutta, her first volume of poems in English, in 1965. She was immediately and widely noticed and soon recognized as a poet of promise, for her poems were, and still continue to be, characterised by a striking vitality of metaphor and an originality of voice which cannot be missed: the authenticity of both demonstrated to the Indian poet in English that one could write well without parading Eliot and Auden in one's pocket and that one could be a distinctly Indian poet without striving to be one and without leaning on the crutch of transcendental philosophy.
At the conscious level, her favourite theme has always been the shadowy borderline between fulfilment and unfulfilment in love. For example, ‘The Dance of the Eunuchs’ objectifies through what is a familiar sight in India the contrast between the symbolic frenzy of the dance of the eunuchs and their actual ‘vacant ecstasy’ so that in reality their dance is mere ‘convulsions’. ‘In Love’ considers the gap between the sensuous completeness of sexual love, ‘this skin-communicated thing’, and the questions which, because the memory of the experience lingers somehow, pop up in the moody mind:
Of what does the burning mouth Of sun, burning in today's Sky remind me … Oh, yes, his Mouth, and … his limbs like pale and Carnivorous plants reaching Out for me, and the sad lie Of my unending lust. Where Is room, excuse or even Need for love, for, isn't each Embrace a complete thing, a Finished jigsaw, when mouth on Mouth, I lie, while pleasure With deliberate gaiety Trumpets harshly into the Silence of the room … At noon I watch the sleek crows flying Like poison on wings—and at Night, from behind the Burdwan Road, the corpse-bearers cry ‘Bol Hari Bol’, a strange lacing For moonless nights, 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.
It is part of the strength of Kamala Das's exploration of the love-theme that it also follows her compulsions to articulate and understand the workings of the feminine consciousness. Her best known poem in this category, ‘An Introduction’ is concerned with the question of human identity, but it effectively uses the confessional and the rhetorical modes in order to focus pertinent questions relating to a woman's or an Indian poet's identity in English. ‘Fit in’, they said. ‘Belong, cried the categorizers’. But she responds to this by transforming her alienation from ‘critics, friends, visiting cousins’ who say, ‘Don't write in English’, into a larger and more universal alienation (sexual, social, and artistic) that seems to characterize some of the best literature of our age and is perhaps at the heart of any attempt at self-exploration and self-integration. First, the freedom to choose her language, and a confidence in her creative talent:
The language I speak Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest. It is as human as I am human … it Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of the rain or the Incoherent mutterings of the blazing Funeral pyre.
Then, the puzzling adolescence and the pain of growing up:
I was a child, and later they Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair. 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 breasts and womb crushed me. I shrank Pitifully.
Followed by a desire to be even with the male world on its own terms despite the family and social pressures to conform to the traditional feminine role:
Then … I wore a shirt and my Brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl, Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook, Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, Belong, cried the categorizers. Don't sit On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows. Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to Choose a name, a role …
And finally, self-realization through empathy:
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. In him … the hungry haste Of rivers, in me … the oceans' tireless Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone, The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I in this world, he is tightly packed like the Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns, It is I who laugh, it is I who make love And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner, I am saint. I am the beloved and the Betrayed.
Kamala Das's tone of voice as well as the nature of her experience—its spontaneity and uninhibited treatment of a woman's experience—belongs centrally to the history of the recent years in which there has been a heightening of interest in the work and achievement of women, and women writers in particular. Not surprisingly, more anthologies of women poets have been brought out by women writers in the last few years in America than ever before. The important issue is the way in which a woman writer can redefine herself and her world without or, as some of them think it inevitable, by breaking away completely and violently from the traditional roles of women. In their introduction to Psyche: The Feminine Poetic Consciousness (New York 1973) Barbara Segnitz and Carol Rainey point out that a ‘conflict between passivity and rebellion against the male-oriented universe’ is one of the themes that preoccupies some of these women poets. Others go to the extreme: Denise Levertov warns: ‘Don't lock me in wedlock, I want / marriage, an / encounter—’, and Sylvia Plath, though she was capable of tenderness, was concerned more than any other woman poet with just the unbearability of being a woman.
Some of Kamala Das's poems will no doubt find a natural and honourable place in any future international anthology of contemporary women poets. And though she deals with the ‘conflict between passivity and rebellion against the male-oriented universe’, her poetry is in the final analysis an acknowledgement and a celebration of the beauty and courage of being a woman. Kamala Das is essentially a poet of the modern Indian woman's ambivalence, giving expression to it more nakedly and as a thing-in-itself than any other Indian woman poet with the possible exception of Amrita Pritam in Panjabi. The reason for this is, I think, that Das seems to have a good deal of the conventional woman in her makeup, so that not only can she speak of the common woman and her basic need for love and security with inside knowledge, but cannot help, in addition, expressing an ambivalence proceeding from her own duality, proceeding from, that is, the combination in herself of a need for domestic security and the desire for an independence, an independence consistent with a non-domestic mode of living. Married at the age of fifteen, and finding, herself tied, as she tells us time and time again, to a hollow relationship which she could not untie, Kamala Das's story, despite its sensationalism which is sometimes heightened by the directness of her manner, makes poignant reading and in essence strikes one as representative of a not so uncommon social phenomenon in India. When she speaks of love outside marriage, she is not really recommending adultery, but merely searching for a relationship which gives both love and security and which should have been hers right at the start. 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’. When Kamala Das mythologizes her search for true love, she identifies herself, as in ‘Radha Krishna’ and ‘Vrindavan’, with Radha, or with Mira Bai who relinquished the ties of marriage in search of Lord Krishna, the true and eternal lover who is also the epitome of the fullest consciousness that a human being can contemplate:
Vrindavan lives on in every woman's mind, and the flute, luring her From home and her 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 and fell over the brambles in the wood.
This interiorization of Vrindavan involves a living through of the conventional roles. ‘Captive’ in ‘The Descendants’, her second volume of poems (1967) describes her love as ‘an empty gift, a gilded empty container’, and herself as a prisoner of ‘the womb's blinded hunger, the muted whisper at the core’. This theme of the glory of childbirth as the fulfilment of love finds a fuller expression in ‘Jaisurya’ and invites comparison with Judith Wright, the Australian poet, as I have demonstrated elsewhere.1
Walk into the waiting room, I had cried When once my heart was vacant, fill the Emptiness, stranger, fill it with a child.
It is interesting that of the thirteen new poems in her third volume, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (Madras, Orient Longman, 1973), which reprints twenty poems from the previous two volumes, the poems which stand out are the ones which are more sharply concerned with the question of a woman's identity, with an added difference that this woman persona is also conscious of her ageing and decaying body. ‘Gino’ deals with a complex mood in which there is a conflict between the dream of ideal love and the inability to find it:
And, I thought, if I could only want Really, really want his love, we shall ride happiness Great white steed, trampler of unsacred laws. If I could only dislodge the inherited Memory of a touch, I shall serve myself in Bedroom-mirrors, dark fruit on silver platter, While he lies watching, fair conqueror of another's Country. I shall polish the panes of his moody eyes, And in jealous moods, after bitter words and rage, I shall wail in his nerves, as homeless cats wail From the rubble of a storm. But one only gets The life one deserves, and dreams only such dreams as The old soul can comprehend.
This is followed, or rather interrupted, by images of sepulchral journey on the hospital trolley:
I dream of obscene hands Striding up my limbs and of morgues where the night- lights Glow on faces shuttered by the soul's exist [sic]. And Of ward-boys, sepulchral, wheeling me through long corridors To the x-ray room's dark interior. (O, the clatter of the trolleys, with the dead on them, As loud as untimely laughter) And, of aeroplanes Bursting red in the sky … I should be dreaming his Peerless dreams, his dreams of sunlit villae [sic] and of fat Half-caste children, lovelier than Gods, and of Drinking wine in verandahs, he and I, ageing, And at peace, all disguise gone from us.
Suddenly, she realizes that the dream of love and peace is unreal, though it has heightened her consciousness that
This body that I wear without joy, owned By man of substance, shall perhaps wither, battling with My darling's impersonal lust.
The cumulative burden of domesticity, routine, sickness, and the anticipation of death are so sensitively portrayed that the final passage must be quoted in full especially because the word ‘convulse’ with its clinical association reminds us of the ‘convulsions’ of the eunuchs in the first poem in Summer in Calcutta:
I shall be the fat-kneed hag in the long queue The one from whose shopping bag the mean potato must Roll across the road. I shall be the patient On the hospital bed, lying in drugged slumber And dreaming of home. I shall be the grandmother Willing away her belongings, those scraps and trinkets More lasting than her bones. Perhaps some womb in that Darker world shall convulse, when I finally enter, A legitimate entrant, marked by discontent.
‘The Old Playhouse’ and ‘The Stone Age’ deal with the reality of the situation in which love is offered by another man rather than the husband. In the latter, the husband is seen as ‘old fat spider’ who weaves ‘webs of bewilderment’ around the womanpersona and builds the dead, stony, dull wall of domesticity, smugness, passivity, and turns her into ‘a bird of stone, a granite dove’. He is the perpetual irritant, an unwelcome intruder into the privacy of her mind: ‘With loud talk you bruise my premorning sleep, / You stick a finger into my dreaming eye’. Other men haunt her mind, and ‘sink / Like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood’. When the husband leaves, she drives along the sea and climbs ‘the forty noisy steps to knock at another's door’. At this point, the act of defiance having taken place, the deed done, freedom asserted, and the dull cocoon of domesticity assaulted, the lines suddenly become alive with the energy of questioning, and the theme of winning and losing, of reckoning asserts itself:
… Ask me, everybody, ask me What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion, A libertine, ask me the flavour of his Mouth, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like A great tree, felled, he stumps 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 …
Concern with disease, illness, decay, and death is at the centre of ‘After the Illness’, but what emerges from her reflections on the brevity of love is the mysterious force that keeps the lover filled with the thoughts of her survival. Apparently inspired by Kamala Das's recovery from a serious illness, the poem is concerned with the theme of survival: not merely of ‘the weary body settling into accustomed grooves’, but of her lover's love in spite of the fact that in her
… There was Not much flesh left for the flesh to hunger, the blood had Weakened too much to lust, and the skin, without health's Anointments, was numb and unyearning.
Filled with the thought of what was perhaps a miraculous survival, she finds herself wondering as to what sustained his love for her: ‘What lusted then / For him, was it perhaps the deeply hidden soul?’ It is characteristic of Kamala Das not to attempt to resolve the dilemma beyond the limits inherent in the very nature of the experience envisaged in the poem. To say this is not simply to point out the element of realism in her portrayal of her moods, but to underline her approach to experience which makes such a realism, if that is the right word for the borderline between the beauty of sexual love and that of spiritual love, possible. Kamala Das seems to suggest that perhaps the two are inseparable, but that she finds it difficult to experience this wholeness, this sense of completeness without a shadow of doubt and uncertainty.
In ‘The Suicide’ published in The Descendants and reprinted in The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, Kamala Das narrates her childhood memory of swimming in ‘a pale-green pond’ in her house in Malabar until she was reminded by her grandmother that she ‘was much too big to play / Naked in the pond’. Since then, ‘… the only movement I really know / Is swimming’, and the lover is like water or ‘a pale-green pond glimmering in the sun’ in whom ‘I swim all broken with longing’. The analogy between the lover and water is a vehicle of the poet's symbolic swimming in the forever changing and elusive realities of life. In its sexual connotations, the image can be compared to the nude swim in a poem of the same name by Anne Sexton:
I lay on it as on a divan I lay on it just like Matisse's Red Odalisque. Water was my strange flower. One must picture a woman without a toga or a scarf on a couch as deep as a tomb.(2)
Indeed, one might link Kamala Das not only with Sylvia Plath, but with Anne Sexton who ‘is a truer example of the confessional mode’. There is an appreciable commonalty of interests between the two poets as can be indicated here by referring to Anne Sexton's volume of poems Love Poems, and in particular to her poems such as ‘Little Girl, My string Bean, My Lovely Woman’, ‘In Celebration of My Uterus’, ‘For My Lover, Returning to His Wife’. And if one is led to write about Kamala Das's poems in psychoanalytical terms, it is not only because, as she herself indicates, she ‘must let my mind striptease’ and ‘must extrude autobiography’, but also because her poems, like Anne Sexton's, seem to be precipitated by the need to solve her personal problems through a kind of self-imposed therapy, though the significance of both these poets extends beyond the mere psychological basis.
In ‘The Old Playhouse’, we learn that love is perhaps no more than a way of learning about one's self, that its reward is an insight not into another's being, but really into one's own. One seeks in love the completion of one's own personality:
… love is Narcissus at the water's edge, haunted By its own lonely face, and yet it must seek at last An end, a pure, total freedom, it must will the mirror To shatter and the kind night to erase the water.
The poem is addressed presumably to the husband, and protests against the constraint of the married life: the fever of domesticity, the routine of lust, artificial comfort, and male domination. ‘You’ is presumably the husband who wants to tame the swallow, ‘to hold her / In the long summer of your love’ and restrict her ‘… urge to fly, and the endless / Pathways of the sky’. She comes to him because she wanted to learn what she was, to realize her true self. But instead she loses her freedom, and, dwarfed by his egotism, she is emptied of all her natural mirth and clarity of thinking:
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, 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.
Yet there is a sense in which Kamala Das feels the need to find such a freedom imposed on her not by choice but by the circumstances which breed the fever of domesticity. In ‘The Millionaires (sic) at Marine Drive’ the warmth which her grandmother, who died eighteen years ago, gave her still haunts the persona for no man has been able to give her such a love. The more recent shift in Kamala Das's love-theme is from the glorification of sexual love, of the man who fills her emptiness with a child, though she returns to it again and again, to a general dissatisfaction with the male character. It is perhaps consistent with the matrilinear tradition to which she traces her ancestry and with her general criticism of men for their failure to give her tenderness and warmth, that the only figure whom she presents as ideal is her great-grandmother:
… all through the sun-singing Day, all through the moon-wailing night, I think Of her, of the warmth that she took away.
And, contrasted with her,
… all the hands The great brown thieving hands groped beneath my Clothes, their fire was that of an arsonist's, Warmth was not their aim, they burnt my cities Down …
All she wanted was tenderness, and ‘an identity that was lovable’, but instead her circumstances have brought her the pain of growing old with ‘a freedom I never once asked for’:
When I got married my husband said, you may have freedom, as much as you want. My soul balked at this diet of ash. Freedom became my dancing shoe, how well I danced, and danced without rest, until the shoes turned grimy on my feet and I began to have doubts. 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. I have lost my best friend to a middle-aged queer, The lesbians hiss their love at me. Love I no longer need, with tenderness I am most content, I have learnt that friendship cannot endure, that blood-ties do not satisfy. and so, with every interesting man I meet, be it a curious editor, or a poet with a skin yellowed like antique paper, a skin older than Jesus Christ, I must most deliberately whip up a froth of desire. I must let my mind striptease I must extrude autobiography. The only secrets I always withhold are that I am so alone and that I miss my grandmother.
Thus there is a marked degree of discontent in Kamala Das's work which explains its double-edge of rebelliousness and tenderness. Although the freedom which she has acquired is a Janusfaced gift, it is valuable. It has given her an individuality, a gusto, a courage, and above all poetry, although deep down there are also the dark whispers of mortality, intimations of the truth that ‘our loneliness is eternal’ and that ‘We are born with great hollows that need to be filled, for us to feel to complete.’ This does not however make her look for comfort in philosophy, or find protection in a falsified image of life like Denise Levertov's hypocrite women because
… how seldom we speak of our own doubts, while dubiously we mother man in his doubt!(3)
Courage and honesty are the strength of Kamala Das's character and her poetry; and the courage lies in not only being able to admit that one has aged, when one has, but in also being able to assert in the fact of it that in the final analysis one has no regrets and that one has lived beautifully in this beautiful world, and that one can
… look at my maker if at all that is possible with no apology for my past exuberances, no extenuations, for deep inside I know well that I have lived beautifully in this beautiful world …
That such an assertion is not a matter of mere hindsight, though hindsight is a necessary gift to an imaginative sense of one's growth, but a flowering and a patterning of the anticipations, the hints and guesses contained in ‘I Shall Some Day’ from Summer in Calcutta which is reprinted in The Old Playhouse and Other Poems:
I shall some day leave, leave the cocoon You built around me with morning tea, Love-words flung from doorways and of course Your tired lust. I shall some day 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 some day return, losing Nearly all, hurt by wind, sun and rain, Too hurt by fierce happiness to want A further jaunt or a further spell Of freedom, and I shall some day see My world, de-fleshed, de-veined, de-blooded, Just a skeletal thing, then shut my Eyes and take refuge, if nowhere else, Here in your nest of familiar scorn …
‘The Crystal Glance of Love: Judith Wright as a Love Poet,’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature, June 1971, pp. 42-52.
Love Poems, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1869, p. 14.
O Taste and See, New York, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2350
SOURCE: Mishra, D. S. “The Confessional Mode of Kamala Das: Romanticism and Realism.” Contemporary Indian English Poetry: A Revaluation, edited by Vallabh Vidyanagar, pp. 55-62. India: Sardar Patel University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Mishra situates Das's poetry in the confessional genre and discusses her attempts to mythologize her personal experiences.]
Kamala Das, a recognized feminist poet, writes “autobiographical poems” to “mythologize” her personal life. She expresses her strong feeling of love and admits her inability to realise it in the world of self-centred men. Obviously, her poetry is suffused in emotion. This emotion seems to be a subjective emotion, but it is not so. It is really the psychological consequences of poetic experience and knowledge. Her poetry, therefore, is not merely the confession of “the facts” of her life; it is also the expression of universal truths experienced by an individual soul that longs to be one with men and with the world.
How does Kamala Das “mythologize” her personal life? What are the conventions that govern the structure of her poems? Efforts are made to answer these questions in this chapter. In a sense, the structure of her poetry is “atectonic”, for it is not immediately discernible. It seems to flow and uncoil itself in a spontaneous, haphazard and rambling way as her moods dictate. But within her moods, there is an inborn “orderliness” or a visible structure. And this structure, I find, is the fusion of the conventions of Romanticism and of Realism. But what are the conventions of Romanticism?
Romantic poetry, we are told, has a determinate speaker in a specific setting at a particular moment of time. It uses a fluent vernacular which sometimes rises to a formal speech. It begins with the description of a landscape. An aspect of the landscape evokes the process of the poet's memory and mediation. Romantic poetry, thus, moves in a circle from present to past and back to the present, imitating the structure of the speaker's thought. This view of Romantic poetry is stressed by M. H. Abrams:
(The greater Romantic lyric presents) a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feelings which remains closely involved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision or resolves our emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation.1
This definition is generally applicable to the structure of “Composition”.2 The poem opens with a determinate speaker who comes face to face with the sea:
Ultimately, I have come face to face with the sea. In the beginning the sea was only the wind's Ceaseless whisper in a shell, But, lying beside my grandmother, quite often I thought that I could hear at night the surf breaking on the shore, The sea was only two miles away. That was long ago. Before the skin, intent on survivals learnt lessons of self-betrayal.
Certainly the use of “I” suggests the Romantic mode. This ‘I’ is none but Kamala Das herself who undergoes a highly personal experience, She is set against the sea, The setting of the sea is suitable to the subject of the poem which in brief, is certain ‘facts’ of the speaker's life that are responsible for the loss of her innocence. The decay of the “red house” and the death of the old woman help us understand this theme of the loss of innocence. The speaker clearly says that her “growth” is tragic because it forces her to replace “love with guilt”:
The tragedy of life is not death but growth, the child growing into adult and, growing out of needs, discovering that the old have black-rimmed nails and scalps that emanate a sweet, mouldy smell.
There is a colloquy between the speaker and her husband. When she marries, she says, her husband tells her to have “freedom” as much as she wants. And she freely enjoys her freedom to the full. Yet she is not satisfied because she does not get selfless love to satiate her soul. So she stops having a longing for love. She says, she is content with only tenderness. But even tenderness is not easily available to her; she finds that friendship cannot endure for long. Naturally, she has to pose to have a passion to suit the occasion. So she is alone and she misses her grandmother who loved her very much.
This colloquy is in simple language. In fact, the speaker uses a fluent vernacular: “Freedom became my dancing shoe / how well I danced, / and danced without rest”. However, sometimes this vernacular rises to a formal speech: “I must let my mind striptease / I must extrude / autobiography”.
Why does Kamala Das confess what her husband said and what she did. She does so because she perhaps feels that it might cultivate an attitude of indifference in her. She comes to know that she has lived a life of “Involvements”: “and discovered / that both love and hate are involvements”. Now she wishes to be indifferent and “uninvolved”:
All I want now is to take a long walk into the sea and live there, resting, completely uninvolved.
But her longing for ‘rest’ is neither possible nor desirable. One has to move and grow due the flux of time. The desire for rest appears to be “a childish whim” and “a minor hunger” to the speaker. Now she feels that she must discover herself in others and be immortal:
Ultimately I will feed only the hunger to feed other hungers, that basic one. To crumble, to dissolve and to retain other things the potent fragments of oneself. The ultimate discovery will be that we are immortal.
But such a discovery seems to be a distant possibility for her. Meanwhile, she sees no escape from “cages of involvement”. So she sets her mind on her only “freedom to discompose”. This new awareness certainly prepares her to face the problems of life courageously.
Thus, the speaker does contemplate, she also gathers a few morals from the experiences of her life. She says that all husbands and wives should “obey each other's crazy demands” so that they can turn their home into “a merry dog-house”. Further, she advises us to “fall in love with an unsuitable person” to experience despair and meaninglessness of life. Finally, she wants us to accept the stark reality of life and to suffer consciously with a hope that one day we might discover “that we are immortal”.
The poem, it must be noted, begins in the present: the speaker comes face to face with the sea. She contemplates the scene and recalls her experiences of the past. Memory enables her to learn “few lessons” and to face the present with equanimity. Clearly, the poem swings between the present and the past and finally settles in the present. The structure of the poem, it may be said, imitates the structure of the speaker's contemplation as she struggles towards self-understanding.
Generically, “Composition” can be placed in the romantic tradition, and yet even a cursory reading of the poem may point to us that it is quite unlike such romantic poems as “Frost at Midnight” or “Ode to a Nightingale”. It has a factual documentation quite alien to the romantics. Moreover, it does not have the dense web of symbolic implication which is generally detected in romantic poetry. For example:
My First school-house is now a brothel and the ladies sun themselves in the lawn in the afternoons With their greying hair, newly washed Left undyed. Who can say, looking at them, that they are toys fit for the roaring nights? There must be something symbolic here. But I do not remember what.
How, then, can we characterise the technique of “Composition”? It may be said that “Composition” also possesses the distinctive features of realistic poetry. Realism, it is noted, is concerned with giving a truthful impression of actuality as it appears to the normal human consciousness”.3 And realistic poetry must fulfil three requirements. First, it should describe normal situations and average characters in ordinary setting. Secondly, it should renounce the use of farfetched images and metaphors. Finally, it should reproduce actual speech and approximate prose rhythms. “Composition” is a realistic poem, for it meets all the three conditions. It narrates ordinary events in actual speech. The speaker herself admits the truth:
Only those who like to listen, listen. What I narrate are the ordinary events of an ordinary life.
In reality, the speaker confesses what her husband said when she married and what her grandmother talked about her house of “Four hundred years old”. Occasionally she records her impressions of the sea which has been two miles away from her grandmother's house. She avoids farfetched images as she narrates. But she does use metonymy as a stylistic device. The question remains to be asked: what is metonymy?
Metonymy, Roman Jacobson4 says, is a figure of speech based on the relations of contiguity. Jacobson argues that any verbal discourse has generally two poles of connections between words or word-groups. They are the relations of similarity and of contiguity. If, for example, the stimulus “hut” produces the response “poor little house”, the relationship is one of similarity. If, on the other hand, the response to stimulus “hut” is “poverty”, the link is one of contiguity. In metonymy, thus, the focus shifts from one term to closely related another term. Jacobson believes that metaphor and metonymy are related to romantic and realistic poetry respectively:
The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realised that it is the pre-dominance of metonymy which underlies and actually pre-determines the so-called “realist” trend. Following the path of contiguous relations, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the character to the setting in space and time.5
In “Composition”, Kamala Das metonymically stresses the loss of her innocence due to her growth in time. She describes the “surf” that breaks on the shore and the “red house” that crumbles. Furthermore, her decay and degeneration are metonymiolly indicated by the description of the old woman who died “lying for three months, paralyzed”. Finally, her encounter with sea is very significant. The sea, we notice, is the central imagery of the poem. It establishes a relationship between the present and the past and vice versa. Moreover, it is related to her ardent aspiration to be immortal. Conversely, it points to her endless strains and strifes:
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.
“Composition” succeeds in reproducing the actual speech and in introducing the prose rhythms. Many critics are not happy with this characteristic; so they dismiss the poem by saying that it has incorrect language and loose form. But James Merrill asserts that ‘prose’ is the remarkable poetic style: “You hear a voice talking in prose, often a very delightful voice which can say all kinds of odd things. For me, to get something of that into poetry was a pleasure and even perhaps an object”.6 Surprisingly, Robert Lowell says the something in the “Symposium on “Skunk Hour”:
“I felt that the best style for poetry was none of the many poetic styles in English, but something like the prose of Chekhov or Flaubert”, (p. 108). Therefore, the use of ‘prose’ In poetry is not a drawback; it is a distinctive poetic style Consciously adopted by Kamala to express her longings and dreams, her alienation and despair. For example,
I was busy growing, I had then no time at all for the sea. But there was off and on a seascape in my dreams, and the water sloshing up and sliding down.
Those who thought my life precious cried, do not go there, we shall have no peace with you sleeping under that tottering roof.
To be frank, I have failed.
To sum up, Kamala Das adopts a confessional mode which includes both romanticism and realism. Most of her poems including “Composition”, therefore, achieve a poetic realism which seems to be an outgrowth of romanticism. Her latter poetry, however, exhibits selective realism that presupposes a certain degree of idealisation, It employs enough of reality to evoke our sympathy; at the same time it idealises this reality to avoid painful sensations. “The House Builders”7, for example, introduces us to poor house builders who “Crawl up the cogged scaffoldings / Building houses for the alien rich”. These neglected house builders are very weak. On some days they sing, but their songs do not last for a long while. They are certainly not lucky enough to experience hero's happiness. Yet these “toymen of dust” are said to be the fathers of light. They have native grace and hence they can cast cool shadows and bestow vast shelters even on unbelievers.
“Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric”, From Sensibility to Romanticism ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (New York: Oxford, 1965), pp. 527-528.
Kamala Das, “Composition”, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (Orient Longman Ltd, 1973), pp. 3-10.
‘Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Franke J. Warnke and others, (Madras: Macmillan, rpt. 1975), p. 685.
“The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles” in Roman Jacobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1956), p. 77.
Ibid., p. 78.
Contemporary Literature interview. p. 4.
Kamala Das, “The House Builders”, Collected Poems Vol. 1, p. 1.
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Summer in Calcutta 1965
The Descendants 1967
The Old Playhouse and Other Poems 1975
Tonight, This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy 1979
Collected Poems 1984
The Anamalai Poems 1985
Kamala Das: A Selection, with Essays on Her Work [edited by S. C. Harrex and Vincent O’Sullivan] 1986
Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das 1996
Tharisunilam [Fallow Fields] (short stories) 1962
Tanuppa (short stories) 1967
Pathy kathakal (short stories) 1968
Thanuppu [Cold] (short stories) 1970
Premathinte vilapa kavyam [Requiem for a Love] (short stories) 1971
Draksakshi Panna [Eyewitness] (juvenilia) 1973
My Story (autobiography) 1976
The Alphabet of Lust (novel) 1977
A Doll for the Child Prostitute (short stories) 1977
The Heart of Britain (nonfiction) 1983
Kamala Das: A Collage (plays) [edited by Arun Kuckreja] 1984
Padamavati, the Harlot and Other Stories (short stories) 1994
The Sandal Trees and Other Stories (short stories) [translated by V. C. Harris and Mohamed Ummer] 1995
The Path of the Columnist (essays) 2000
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SOURCE: Nair, K. R. Ramachandran. “Napalat House.” In The Poetry of Kamala Das, pp. 76-82. New Delhi, India: Reliance Publishing House, 1993.
[In the following essay, Nair addresses the significance of the poet's ancestral home, Nalapat House, to several of her important poems.]
Kamala Das is at her best as a poet of private sensibility. Her dreams do not overstep her reach. Though she has the modern Indian woman's ambivalence, her consciousness is firmly yoked to the world around her, a world characterised by ecstasy and pain, love and despair. Her poems are the gestures that counter the luridness of the world. She is essentially conventional in her mental makeup and her outbursts are always restrained by the age-old sober proprieties of her Nair lineage. One of the recurring symbols in her poetry is the ancestral house Nalapat with all its inspiring associations. These associations include the nostalgic memories about her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, father, brother and sons. Some of the finest poems have their source in these familial memories.
Kamala Das belongs to Nalapat family, well-known in Kerala. Her mother Balamoni Amma is one of the most outstanding Malayalam poets and her grand uncle Narayana Menon was a scholar-poet of considerable reputation. Nalapat house has been a typical Nair tharavadu (family house). Kamala Das has been emotionally attached to this house and all its traditions. The Nairs of Kerala have been traditionally a matrilineal community unlike most other Hindu sects in the country. There is a sort of pride bordering on familial ego that grips every member of a great Nair family. Today the Nair community is slowly changing from its matrilineal moorings to nuclear family set-up where the father is dominant. In My Story (Chapter 4.) Kamala Das gives a picture of Nalapat tharavadu complete with details. The Nalapat house had a padipura (gate-house), a muttam (court yard) and two poomughams (porticos) the bigger one usually used for the ottam thullal (a form of Kerala classical dance) performances. There were servants' quarters and an ara (attic). There was a small temple situated inside the main hall. As in most ancient Nair families, Nalapat house also had a sarpakavu (snake-shrine) and sradhapura (a house where rituals connected with death were conducted). There was a bathhouse, one or two thozhuthu (cattlesheds) and nellukuthupura (paddy-husking yard). The main tharavadu was an old red building about four hundred years old. To the east of the house lay lush paddy fields and ‘from the west the blue and frothy Arabian sea roared at night’. (My Story—p. 13)
I had a house in Malabar and a pale-green pond I did all my growing there In the bright summer months.
Nalapat house with all its feudal associations, attractions and traditions is a central symbol in Kamala Das's poetry. The poet had spent most of her life in distant urban centres where her husband was employed. A wistful desire to return to her family house and estate had been haunting her all through these itinerant years until she settled in Kerala in 1982. The family house and environs of her childhood survived as a symbol of innocence and often she regretted leaving them for the dubious pleasures of urban life. In 1973 Kamala Das wrote,
I should never have walked out of my red-tiled home in Malabar around which the Westerly and the trees weave silken music. I should never have taken off my heavy jewellery and the white muslins. I should never have written poetry in any language but Sanskrit. The process of change, the imitation of the city-type was itself a long illness, a nausea in the brain.
The inconsolable regret at the loss of childhood bliss is the source of some of the most haunting poems of Kamala Das. These poems mark a vigorous but sentimental search for mental peace and emotional tranquillity away from the horrid artificiality of urban family life. Two poems in this category, ‘My Grandmother's House’ and ‘A Hot Noon in Malabar’ appeared in Summer in Calcutta. The first is a sentimental evocation of the affectionate memories about the house ‘where once I received love’. The house has, now, withdrawn into silence after the death of the grandmother. The striking imagery of the ‘brooding dog’ for darkness enacts the pathos of desolation and gloom that envelops the house now. An affective strain of nostalgia spreads when the poet contrasts her present aridness with the splendour of childhood at Nalapat house.
… I lived in such a house and Was proud, and loved … I who have lost My way and beg at strangers' doors to Receive love. …
In the other poem the ‘home in Malabar’ once again appears as a place of refuge and rest for the harassed poet. The several items that constitute the fabric of the poet's nostalgic memory reinforce the image of undefiled innocence and rustic simplicity represented by the ‘home’. The boredom of urban domestic life is submerged in the flood of memories loaded with primitive innocence. The whining beggars, the fortune-tellers with their caged parrots, the Kurava girls, the bangle-sellers and tired strangers who want a temporary asylum present a spectrum of the hot afternoon scene in the Malabar home. The poem juxtaposes the innocent past with the defiled present. It closes with a confession of the agony of being alone.
… To Be here, far away, is torture. Wild feet Stirring up the dust, this hot noon, at my Home in Malabar, and I so far away. …
A writer on Kamala Das's poetry discovers a parallel between ‘A Hot Noon in Malabar’ and Browning's ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ 2. Though both the poems express nostalgia, only a strained exercise could establish any parallel between the two. Browning's poem stands on a different plane because it combines nostalgia with patriotism whereas Kamala Das's sentiment is purely personal and therefore, does not transcend the confessional level. There are no other striking similarities between the poems.
The grandmother and Nalapat house appear in ‘The Suicide’ and ‘Composition’ (The Descendants). In ‘The Suicide’ the poet retreats from an impulsive desire for death and takes refuge in the memories related to her grandmother, the sea, the pale-green pond and the white lover. In ‘composition’ the memories about the grandmother are mixed up with the whisper of the surf breaking on the shore. The ‘red house’ looms large as a symbol of comfort and ageless dignity as a contrast to the poet's life of despair.
I have failed I feel my age and my uselessness.
The grandmother and the house are raised to a myth. Once the grandmother kept a ‘lighted lantern’ on the window—sill throughout the night and waited for the poet to come and spend the night in talk. The lamp shone through the night like the unabated love of the old lady and evoked brightness in a world otherwise pitch dark. In ‘Blood’ (The Old Playhouse and Other Poems) the ancestral home and the great grandmother are identified. The ancestral home is described and the great grandmother is portrayed with humour and detachment. There is a culminating poignancy in the poem when the cremation of the great grandmother is described in terms of the crumbling of the great house. The poet's meditations on death, decay and Time give an added poignancy to the structure of emotions in the poem.
Two other poems in which Nalapat house is the central metaphor are ‘No Noon at My Village Home’ and ‘Evening at the old Nalapat House’ (Collected poems). The first poem presents the picture of the neglected house through an imagery of gloom and darkness. Obviously the house had fallen into neglect since the death of the old grandmother. The owl in the trees, dust on the window- sills and the fireflies accentuate the weirdness of the neglected house. The second poem is thematically an extension of the first. This is old Nalapat house eighteen years after the death of the grandmother. The house is now being looked after by a caretaker. A weirdness is imparted to the house by the suggestion that the house has been taken over by the ghost of the grandmother.
… only my grandmother walks there Then, though dead for eighteen years and wispy As a shred of mist, walks on the white sand Of the courtyard where she watched us play as Children, a long long time ago. …
The claustrophobic imagery of ‘the barred doors’, the wild animal and bird symbols and the grotesque metaphor of ‘roots like truncated necks’ evoke the ravage Time has brought on the ancient house. There is evocation of Nair ethos in the first two lines of the poem.
No lamps are lit at the Nalapat house When the first star comes. …
An oil-wick lamp is lit in every Nair home at the fall of dusk and its absence indicates that the house has fallen on evil days. It is to this wreckage of a ruined world that the poet returns with ‘bruised memories’.
‘The Millionaires at Marine Drive’ recalls the warmth of the grandmother and contrasts it with the fire of male attention she has been receiving.
Eighteen years have passed since my grandmother's death; I wonder why the ache still persists. …
A sense of incurable loneliness is crystallised in the lines
… no longer was There someone to put an arm around my Shoulders without a purpose. …
All the male hands that descended on her shoulders have been ‘thieving hands’ and their ‘fire was that of an arsonist's’. From the idealisation of the grandmother, the poem moves on to a note of detestation of the male. The poet regrets the way she has wasted freedom for the frailties of life. The early rising doves fed by the millionaires at Marine Drive flutter their wings like laughter crazed with pain. She has been one of them all through her life since she left her grandmother.
… Oh, why did I mix my Pleasures like I mixed my drinks to pass out So soon on the velvet couch of life?. …
Besides these poems with Nalapat house and the grandmother as their central symbols, there are a few others in which delicate domestic sentiments are evoked. Kamala Das has been essentially attached to her family and the conventional Nair modes. The primary source of her emotional sustenance has been her attachment to the members of the family—the grandmother, mother, father and children. Even when there were occasional ruptures ad disillusionments in her relationship with the husband, she never faltered because of her firm roots in the soil of family affection. She grumbled about her husband's unconcern for her, his lack of sympathy with her aspirations and above all about his spider-like lust. In spite of this, she has been intensely attached to him and was able to feel hurt when he was hurt. There are moments, as revealed in My Story when she was even exhilarated in his company and felt uneasy and crestfallen when he was away. By all accounts, Kamala Das's husband must be a liberal minded man capable of passionate love for his poet wife and ready to share her ecstasies and agonies. She has never resented her role as a wife and mother. She has resented the role of a wife as slave, as a sex object. She treated sex unaccompanied with love as lust. Kamala Das's domestic poems bring out the felicities of human relationship with a touch of pathos. Three of these poems ‘Peripeurperal Insanity’, ‘A Requiem for My Father’ and ‘Another Birthday’ invoking three different strains of domestic sentiment have been already discussed earlier. ‘My Mother at Sixtysix’, a poem of fourteen lines, derives its poignancy from the poet's sad awareness of her mother's debilitating old age. This awareness dawns upon her abruptly during a journey to the airport. She saw
… her face ashen like that Of a corpse and realised with pain That she was old as she looked. …
The childhood's fear, the fear every child has about its mother's death, gripped the poet; but all she did was ‘smile and smile’. In ‘Middle Age’ there is a dormant consciousness of one's own irrelevance when' children are no longer / friends but critics, stern of face and severe with their tongue. This sense of irrelevance is the gnawing pain in middle age often rendered sharper by the children's expostulations.
… You have lived In a dream world all your life, it's time to wake up, Mother You are no longer so young, you know.
1. Kamala Das—‘The She-mouse Returns Home’ Imprint, October 1973. p. 19
2. Anisur Rahman—Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das New Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1981: p. 34
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SOURCE: Raveendran, P. P. “Text as History, History as Text: A Reading of Kamala Das's Anamalai Poems.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 47-54.
[In the following essay, Raveendran examines how Das's later, more political poems, embody tension between the timelessness of the landscape and the minutiae of human history.]
Anamalai Poems are a series of short poems that Kamala Das wrote during her sojourn at the hills of Anamalai in Tamil Nadu following her defeat at the parliamentary elections of 1984.1 Although she has reportedly written twenty-seven poems as part of the sequence,2 only eleven have so far been published.3 Inhabiting a space “too near [the poet' s] nerve”,4 and expressing the pain and anguish of a lonesome soul, these poems provide 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. They are different from her earlier work in that here one would not find narrated childhood memories, marital disharmony, anxieties regarding old age and other “ordinary / events of an / ordinary life”,5 which, in a sense, are the staple themes of her earlier poetry. The Anamalai Poems celebrate the self in the tradition of the classical Tamil akam (“interior”) poems.6 What is laid bare in each of the poems in the sequence is an interior landscape far removed from the world of mundane reality. Inasmuch as the seemingly unchanging hills of Anamalai constitute an escape from the ever-changing world of politics in the wake of her debâcle at the polls, these poems can be regarded as embodying the ahistorical other of what politics implies. However, aside from providing a quiet retreat for dejected electioneers, the visibly superb peaks of Anamalai can also stand as a sign for the invisibility of the life that they conceal within their foothills. This reading of the poems, then, is certain to reveal how they represent the historiography of their times, almost, in the words of T. W. Adorno, “unbeknown to themselves”.7
History, in other words, operates both on the visible and the invisible layers of Anamalai Poems. At the visible layer it reveals itself in terms of 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—or the speaker—traverses the mountain paths of Anamalai only to be recognized by a bird who cries out her name in apparent wonder. This implies a movement in thought, 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, from the world of dreams to that of “rude awakening”:
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.
The dialectic of the movement in this poem is such that even as the poet remains part of the dream world, her voice turns out to be its opposite, its other. A further irony here is that awakening into the world of reality becomes for the speaker a mark of expulsion from “warm human love”. If the speaker in the poem is to be believed, she who initiates the act of communication is, at the end of it, excluded from community and, by implication, from history.
The “I” here, as well as the reference to “voice”, suggest the theme of the self and the other. Kamala Das's obsession with the self, which has been described elsewhere as “the ideology of intimacy”, has grave historical and political implications.8 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 mistry 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 attempt on the part of the self 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.9 In this poem the hills are described as occupying a space outside time with neither “clocks” nor “cocks [to crow] the morning in” (p. 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 grows 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 mistrust about the healing powers of verbal communication. Walking alone, “no longer seeking comfort in human speech” (p. 49), is preferable to all kinships, all blood-ties. This is different from the anxiety about 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, never resolved, was a direct outcome of the poet's growing fears about her deteriorating health, and about death. The 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 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 …
But while the movement of the lines reproduced above, and their images of loneliness and gloom, tend insistently towards absolute subjectivity, they are also symptomatic of a kind of tragic lyricism which, according to Georg Lukacs, is the mode appropriate to the soul “gripped by the torment … of solitude and devoured by a longing for community”.10
This “longing for community” is the invisible text of the Anamalai Poems, and is worked into the paradigmatic stratum of the poetic experience. That there is a definite correspondence between this and the syntax of interiority examined above is not surprising since 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”.11 What is being suggested is that interior journeys need not always signal the subject's flight from history. It can, on the contrary, signify a deeper involvement with history. While the more conspicuous flight from history, embodying the historicity of the text, manifests itself as a function of the syntagmatic axis of the poem, the deeper involvement with history is more a matter of the textuality of history rather than the historicity of the text.12 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, as against pure interiority, the sign “home” in the poem just quoted conjures up a whole semantic environment of comfort and conviviality domesticated by contemporary capitalism. “Home” here, as well as in the other poems in the sequence, is a metonymy for “the ordinary events of an ordinary life” that Das's early poetry celebrated. In the first poem in the sequence, “home” evokes the image of a person physically expelled from his/her territory; in the fifth poem it is, like dreams, an enclosed private residence. The description of the “longest route home” as “the most tortuous” in the eighth poem, while referring syntactically to an inward journey, cannot avoid suggesting metonymically the arduous task of making oneself “at home” wherever one is.
The above examples are only a brief 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 the poems written earlier, for example, “Delhi 1984” or some of the “Colombo” poems, all set squarely in the politico-historical context. Written against the backdrop of the carnage against the members of the Sikh community in India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, “Delhi 1984” also contains a reference to “home” in its fourth line:
The turbans were unwound, the long limbs broken and bunched to seem like faggots so that when such bundles were gifted to their respective homes, women swooned …
But this is no interior journey. The lines evoke the ruthless manner in which Sikhs were massacred in the communal riots of 1984, the political turbulence shattering the presence of “home” as an example of domestic calm. The idea reappears in “Smoke in Colombo”, one of the several poems written while Das was in Sri Lanka, at the peak of the war between the Tamils and Sinhalese in that country.
On that last ride home we had the smoke Following us, along the silenced Streets, lingering on, though the fire was dead then in the rubble and the ruins.
What is interesting to note here is that the phrase “that last ride home” can neatly substitute the phrase “The longest route home” (p. 156) with which the eighth poem in the Anamalai sequence begins, exemplifying the operation of the dialectic of interiority/exteriority at the immanent level of the poetic context.
From the poetic context to the cultural context is but a few steps, as the above examples again 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, as a member of a postcolonial society, is doubly alienated from mainstream literary culture, constituted as it is by patriarchal and colonial values. That Kamala Das has chosen to write these poems in the language of the erstwhile coloniser complicates the matter.13 The fact is that Kamala Das's poetry cannot, in contemporary circumstances, escape a feminist reading and a postcolonial reading, and this is yet another way of talking about the historicity of these texts.
A fundamental assumption of a feminist-postcolonial reading of artworks is that the mainstream culture—defined either as patriarchal or as colonial—subsumes “otherness” by means of various textual strategies. The question of otherness and, by implication, of the self, therefore, becomes a matter of paramount importance for the postcolonial woman writer. For example, Susan Willis has shown how black women writers use “I” in order to construct a site of ideological resistance for themselves, which in a sense is a historical project: “The ‘I’ proclaims voice, subject and the right to history and place”.14 In fact the prevalence of autobiography as a major form of creative expression among Afro-Americans can be related to the attempted retrieval of the voice by a repressed group in order to find a place for itself in space and time. Anamalai Poems dramatises one such attempt by a deterritorialized subject to relocate itself in a significant way:
Yes, from each city I lived in, each dusty small town, I stole out often to walk this winding road, laying aside my poor body that had perhaps no home, no territory to call its own.
The theme of invisibility that recurs in poem after poem is a correlate of this sense of deterritorialization:
There was none to see me or recognize but the bird hidden in the silver oaks …
At times I feel that I hide behind my dreams as the mountain does, behind the winter's mists
No, not for me the beguiling promise of domestic bliss, the goodnight kiss, the weekly letter that begins with the word dearest not for me the hollowness of marital vows and the loneliness of a double bed where someone lies dreaming of another mate a woman perhaps lustier than his own.
Perhaps the best way to tackle the gender issue in Kamala Das 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 in the essays written in English in the 1970s, such 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 Kamala Das has never tried to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism. In fact she has been quite vociferous and consistent in her denouncement of what she regards as 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 to being a lesbian utterly scandalized Kamala Das.15 Her smugly conventional admiration for the “masculinity” of such world leaders as Fidel Castro and Nasser16 is unlikely to render her popular with feminists. Her response to the gender question is not the studied analysis of a feminist. It is spontaneous, more of a gut response, and hence highly ideological. But although her answers to gender problems do not coincide with the standard answers of feminist activists, a strong feminist self-consciousness runs through all her writings. While this self-consciousness may not always be obvious 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 her culture without at the same time making overt comments on it.
The upshot of the above analysis is that, notwithstanding the apparent posture of self-absorption in the text of Anamalai Poems, there is a historical subtext at work in the series that resists its assimilation to a voice of pure interiority. Instead 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, as readers, confronting a social construct produced at a specific historical moment. The impact of Kamala Das's poetry must ultimately be traced to its historical dimension as well as subjectivity.
Kamala Das contested and lost the general elections to the Parliament of the Union of India from a constituency in her home state, Kerala, in 1984. After living almost all her life in cities outside Kerala, she had on her return thought of making a mark on the people by her idealism. She contested as an independent candidate and hoped to get a few lakh votes and, in the process, opportunities to meet the poor and the depressed of the land. But when the results came, she was surprised to find only 1780 votes in her favour. That upset her a great deal coming after a month's tireless campaigning. Severely depressed, she was advised to rest and was taken to her sister's home in the Anamalai hills. The Anamalai Poems were written while Kamala Das was recuperating there. In a recent interview with the present writer, Kamala Das has talked in detail about the generative context of these poems. See P. P. Raveendran, “Of Masks and Memories: An Interview with Kamala Das”, Indian Literature 155, 1993, pp. 150-51. For a personal account of her experiences as a candidate in the parliamentary elections, see Kamala Das, “A Poet at the Hustings”, The Best of Kamala Das, Kozhikode: Bodhi, 1991, pp. 165-70.
P. P. Raveendran, op. cit., p. 151.
Her statement in the interview that about fifteen or twenty of these poems appeared in Indian Literature seems to be the result of some mix-up. In fact only eight of the Anamalai Poems appeared in Indian Literature (1985). Seven of these were later reproduced along with three new poems belonging to the series in The Best of Kamala Das. The ordering of these poems in The Best of Kamala Das is slightly different from the order in Indian Literature. As the selection and arrangement of the poems included in The Best of Kamala Das were suggested by the poet herself, it is reasonable to assume that the ten poems printed in this volume are the sequence Kamala Das would wish to be preserved as Anamalai Poems. There is another poem—“The Anamalai Hills”—closely related to the sequence but which the poet has placed at the end of the section preceding Anamalai Poems in The Best of Kamala Das.
P. P. Raveendran, op. cit., p. 151.
Kamala Das, The Best of Kamala Das, Kozhikode: Bodhi, 1991, p. 81. All quotations from Kamala Das's poetry are from this edition. Further references will be made in the text.
Tamil akam poems are mainly love poems, whereas the Anamalai Poems are not immediately about love. Edward Thomas's poems of the self come closer in spirit to Anamalai Poems. For a selection of classical Tamil poetry see A. K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985.
T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, London: Routledge, 1984, p. 262.
See P. P. Raveendran, “Introduction: The Ideology of Intimacy”, The Best of Kamala Das, op. cit., pp. ix-xvii, for a development of this argument.
See above, note 3.
Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock, London: Merlin, 1971, p. 45.
T. W. Adorno, op. cit., p. 169.
The theoretical position I take here can in certain ways be related to the views that Adorno gives in parts of Aesthetic Theory. My analysis can partly be seen as an elaboration of Adorno's observation that “in relation to one another, art works are hermetically closed off and blind, yet able in their isolation to represent the outside world” (p. 257). For Adorno's views on the merits and deficiencies of the immanent analysis of artworks, see Aesthetic Theory, pp. 257-60.
See Vilas Sarang, “Introduction”, Indian English Poetry since 1950: An Anthology, Bombay: Disha Books, 1990, pp. 1-38, for a comprehensive discussion of the language question in Indian English poetry.
Susan Willis, “Black Women Writers: Taking a Critical Perspective”, Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, eds. Gayle Green and Coppelia Kahn, London: Routledge, 1985, p. 213.
Madhavikkutty [Kamala Das], Dayarikkurippukal, journalistic writings in Malayalam, Kottayam: Current Books, 1992, p. 116. In the interview, she makes a similar point. See P. P. Raveendran, “Of Masks and Memories: An Interview with Kamala Das”, op. cit., p. 159.
Madhavikkutty, Dayarikkurippukal, op. cit., p. 146.
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Blackwell, Fritz. “Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das.” Journal of South Asian Literature. 13, nos. 1-4 (1977-78): 9-14.
Comparative study of the use of Hindi mythology in Das's poetry.
de Souza, Eunice. “Kamala Das.” Osmania Journal of English Studies 13, no. 1 (1977): 19-27.
Takes issue with some of the stylistic devices—for example, repetition—that Das uses to evoke pathos in her confessional poetry.
Dwivedi, S. C. “Kamala Das: My World Defleshed, Deblooded.” Creative Forum 5, nos. 1-4 (January-December 1992): 65-72.
Examines Das's attempts to establish her identity as an Indian woman writing in English in postcolonial India.
Elias, Mohamed. “The Short Stories of Kamala Das.” World Literature Written in English. 25, no. 2 (1985): 307-12.
Explores nostalgia in postcolonial India in ten of Das's stories.
Geok-Lin Lim. “Terms of Empowerment in Kamala Das's My Story.” 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.
Presents a critique of Das's feminist writings in postcolonial India.
George, Rosemary Marangoly. “Calling Kamala Das Queer: Rereading My Story.” Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (fall 2000): 731-63.
Discussion of the treatment of sexuality in Das's writings.
Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “Perfected Passions: The Love Poetry of Kamala Das and Judith Wright.” Literary Half-Yearly 20, no. 1 (January 1979): 116-130.
Comparison between the works of Das and Australian poet Judith Wright.
Jain, Jasbir. Women's Writing: Text and Context. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1996, 316p.
Contains several essays discussing Das's poems and short stories.
Kumar, Sunil. “The Poetry of Kamala Das: A Woman's Quest for Identity.” Creative Forum 5, nos. 1-4 (January-December 1992): 57-64.
Examines Das's work in the context of a feminist confessional tradition.
Kurup, P. K. J. “Revolt: ‘The Self’ in the Poetry of Kamala Das.” In Contemporary Indian Poetry in English. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1991, pp. 107-79.
Detailed reading of Das's poems in relation to Indian tradition.
Lal, P. “Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, pp. 67-68. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
Reviews Das's first collection of poetry, Summer in Calcutta.
Manohar, D. Murali. Kamala Das: Treatment of Love in Her Poetry. Gulberga, India: Jiwe Publications: 1999.
Discusses the role of sexuality in Das's poetry.
Murali, S. “Writhing in Vacant Ecstasy: Reading Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, pp. 113-21. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
Provides a nihilist reading of Das's poetry.
Narayan, Shyamala A. “A Note on Kamala Das's My Story.” Commonwealth Quarterly. 9, no. 3 (1978): 148-53.
Provides a brief summary of Das's autobiography.
Nigam, Alka. “No More Masks: The Poetry of Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, pp. 99-106. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
Explores Das's confessional poetry and suggests that the unmasking of women's private selves is an imperative role for female authors.
Rao, Vimala. “The Poetry of Kamala Das: Limits of Over-Exposure.” Commonwealth Quarterly 5, no. 17 (December 1980): 17-28.
Argues that Das's confessional style has not notably developed through the course of publication of three volumes of poetry.
Raphael, R. “Kamala Das: The Pity of It.” Indian Literature. 22, no. 3 (1979): 127-137.
Discusses pathos in Das's confessional poetry.
Raveendran, P. P. “The Ideology of Intimacy.” In The Best of Kamala Das, pp. ix-xvii. Keralam, India: Bodhi Books, 1991.
Argues that the concept of the “disinherited self” in Das's poetry enables her to explore the tensions between traditional Hindu transcendence and modern secular activism.
Satchidanandan, K. “Transcending the Body.” In Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das, pp. 9-18. Kerala, India: DC Books, 1996.
Discusses Das's poetry in terms of her encompassing the Hindu and Malayalam traditions.
Singh, Mina Surjit. “The Confessional Voice of Kamala Das.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, pp. 89-97. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
Explores Das's place in the tradition of confessional poetry, comparing her work with that of such poets as Robert Lowell.
Uma, Alladi. “What's in a Genre: Kamala Das's My Story.” Literary Criterion, 32, no. 3 (1996): 69-75.
Comparison of Das's poems with her autobiography.
Vijayasree, C. “The Art of Memory: A Note on Kamala Das's Poetry.” In Perspectives on Kamala Das's Poetry, pp. 134-41. New Delhi, India: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.
Argues that memory in Das's poetry provides a record of the past for a writer who is “doubly colonized” as a woman writing in English in a postcolonial society.
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; Contemporary Women Poets; Feminist Writers; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: Nabar, Vrinda. “The Old Playhouse and Other Poems.” In The Endless Female Hungers: A Study of Kamala Das, pp. 62-82. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Nabar provides extensive stylistic and thematic interpretations of Das's later poetry.]
Kamala Das's third volume of verse, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, appeared in 1973. It was published by Orient Longman and contains 33 poems, of which 14 had appeared in the first book and 6 in the second. This gives us only thirteen new poems in six years, a fact which speaks for itself.
Kohli has already listed the 20 poems which had appeared in the earlier volumes. They are “The Freaks”, “In Love”, “Love”, “Summer in Calcutta”, “An Introduction”, “The Wild Bougainvillea”, “My Grandmother's House”, “Forest Fire”, “A Relationship”, “The Snobs”, “Corridors”, “Loud Posters”, “I Shall Some Day”, “Drama” (all from Summer in Calcutta), and “Composition”, “The Suicide”, “Luminol”, “Convicts”, “Palam”, and “The Descendants” (from The Descendants).
In this third book there are no radical shifts in tone, no obtrusive breaks made with the essential themes and approaches of the first two. It combines the essence of both volumes, the uninhibited abandon and enthusiasm for life seen in Summer in Calcutta and the shadow of death, suicide, disease and old age found in The Descendants. At the same time it is clearly the book of an older woman. Even The Descendants had a certain “youthfulness” about it because disenchantment, cynicism and despair had been new emotions, the poet had in the process of experiencing and absorbing them. This sense of novelty is absent in the third volume, where a definite feeling of having lived life in all its variety manifests itself. What appeals to and disturbs us, moreover, is the seeming inability to learn from experience, to withdraw, to show restraint. The poet is like a moth which, having singed itself, must still fly into the flame, till it is destroyed completely.
Kamala's autobiography indicates that this is, in fact, what happened to her in life. According to her version, she recovered from the metaphoric burns she sustained in the process, to allegedly devote herself to another lover, this time a spiritual one. Many of the new poems suggest that the experiences incorporated swept her along till they destroyed her inner resources. There is a clearer sense of the vision described in “Ferns”. The day of reckoning, for Kamala, was obviously drawing nearer.
The title-poem is one of Kamala's finest attempts to depict incompatible relationships. It bears out what I said earlier about this being an older woman's book. In spite of the intensity of the emotions it expresses, there is a sense of exhaustion, of defeat, of having had more than she can take. The Descendants had also contained similar moments, but they were usually redeemed by a spirited comeback. Here, however, the mood of surrender is dominated by a feeling of suffocation:
Your room is Always lit by artificial lights, your windows always Shut. Even the air-conditioner helps so little, All pervasive is the male scent of your breath. The cut flowers In the vases have begun to smell of human sweat.
This tone is in a sense new to Kamala's writing. One of her chief strengths had been her ability to write of love honestly, not in order to romanticise or soften, but to describe even what had conventionally been hardly mentioned—the smell of the body, sprouting hair on chests and elsewhere, menstrual blood, uneven teeth, etc. Here however the same details, when brought in, do not convey exultation but staleness. The stagnation of love is intentionally and ruthlessly revealed through the fetid atmosphere in the room. The all-pervasive male scent of the lover's breath is no longer erotic, and human sweat gives off only rank odours.
To appreciate the poem fully it becomes necessary to understand that it is not addressed, as critics commonly suppose, to the husband. Kohli presumes it is autobiographical “in the light of what Kamala Das says about her own relationship with her husband.”1 Having assumed this autobiographical element it is natural for him to infer that “It protests against the constraint of married life: the fever of domesticity, the routine of lust, artificial comfort and male domination which Kamala Das asserts that she has known and found abominable in her life. ‘You’ is, presumably, the husband who wants to tame the swallow who is the woman persona.”2
The reason for drawing such a conclusion is undoubtedly the one half-line in the poem which reads: “You called me wife”. Other than that, there is little evidence to presume that the poem is addressed to the husband. On the contrary, its effectiveness lies in the fact that it is obviously a poem about an extramarital relationship.
The lines move slowly, echoing not merely the poet's inertia but also her sense of oppression. The opening lines make it clear that the lover has an overbearing personality which makes him want to smother the natural instincts of his woman. “Planned” adds a touch of deliberation to the lover's acts, making them seem pre-conceived and far from spontaneous. “The long summer of your love” also suggests unnaturalness: love, like everything natural, must have its seasons. An unchanging summer only becomes monotonous, especially for the persona, here compared to a “swallow”. It is further indicated that the relationship was clearly a long and serious one, for divided loyalties are hinted at: “homes left behind”.
If the first few lines tell us that the relationship, as deliberately planned and executed by the man, virtually holds the woman captive, the ones which follow undermine the theory that the poem describes her husband. The poet tells her lover that she did not go to him out of mere desire for another man but because she wanted to find herself. This is hardly the state of mind in which Kamala had entered into marriage, for she was young, inexperienced, and had willed herself to be romantically in love with her husband. It is, however, a fairly typical example of her fantasy about finding salvation through love.
The lover is described as being pleased with her body's “usual shallow / Convulsions”. This, again, indicates that he was not her first: earlier sexual experiences had confirmed this pattern of bodily response (“usual”). The consciously matter-of-fact tone used to portray the relationship underscores its more unpleasant aspects, as for example the servile subjugation of the woman to her lover's needs:
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and To offer at the right moment the vitamins.
This hardly suggests the give-and-take of a happy relationship. While such servility characterises many routine marriages, what makes it more horrendous, more mechanical here is that it describes a relationship outside marriage, a “voluntary” one as it were, and yet one which displays all the weakness of an unequal partnership in marriage. The lover's monstrous ego transforms the woman into a grotesque creature, a “dwarf”. Her personality is unnaturally diminished. She becomes incoherent and subservient. The resurgence of her old spirit, ironically, heralds the inevitable resistance to his sapping influence. “The summer begins to pall”. It has been an unnatural summer, anyway, lit by “artificial lights”. The “ruder breezes” and the smell of smoking leaves are symbols of the open air, of freshness, of freedom.
Tragically, the old spirit revives at a time when Kamala's resources are exhausted. In an extremely unusual and evocative metaphor she describes her mind as “an old / Playhouse with all its lights put out”. Nothing could more effectively convey the collapse of her psyche, of her essential vitality, than this image of derelict, and abandoned place of entertainment. Even the illusion of salvation through love no longer sustains her—the strong man's “technique” is to serve love in “lethal doses”. And love itself, Narcissus-like though it be, must ultimately break through its illusions to freedom, even if it means that it is destroyed in the process.
Subdued defeat and resignation are present in a very different kind of poem, Gino, which is about a foreign lover who had wanted to marry her but was not strong enough to “dislodge the inherited / Memory of a touch”. The first of the poem's three parts deals with conflicts arising out of this memory of another love. Very characteristic Indian images denote this other lover—his kiss is like the sting of a krait, a striking analogy which evokes the image of a lover planting on his beloved's mouth the treacherous kiss of betrayal and death. The damp Indian July, rotting odours and all, is in contrast to her present lover, a foreigner, remote from it all. He will possess her in an alien setting where only her exotic appeal matters: “dark fruit on silver platter”.
That momentary picture of civilised comfort is rapidly substituted by more discordant dreams. They mirror the actual reality of the poet's life. Dogged by illness and physical discomfort, her dreams become nightmarish memories of what has been done to her, and of what may yet lie in store: the hospital corridors, the X-ray room, even aeroplanes bursting into flames in a war-torn country.
The second part of the poem is much briefer. It dismisses the lover and the possibility of a life with him. His expectations, as revealed in the first section, had been of sunlit villas and beautiful, half-caste children. The poet rejects these because of her awareness that they can never materialise, chiefly because of the cultural differences between the two of them. The lover's dreams are wishful, as dreams generally are. They lack even a remote contact with the reality of their situation. There can be no merging of their “bloods' / Tributaries”. She must stay rooted in her environment, her body becoming gross with the years.
In the third section, which too is short, reality is visualised in images of the future. The woman's roles shift. She becomes, in turn, the “fat-kneed hag” in the bus queue, the patient in hospital, even the grandmother “Willing away her belongings, those scraps and trinkets / More lasting than her bones”. There is a sense of history repeating itself here, for the lines recall the grandmother's legacy of useless dolls in “Captive” (The Descendants). Kamala's occasional feel for images is also apparent in the way the housewife in the bus queue is depicted: “The one from whose shopping the mean potato must / Roll across the road”.
It is not surprising that, after a life lived in these unpromising grooves, the poet will leave the world “marked by discontent”. The earlier resilience which had enabled her to move from one emotional experience to another, without being affected in any essential sense, has been finally overtaken by fears of the future, particularly of ill-health and of old age.
A theme which Kamala uses with increasing tedium is her childhood, and the old ancestral house with all its intrigues, its rituals, its nobly-born inhabitants. She seems unable to say anything very specific or new about these. The pattern remains more or less the same. “Blood”, a poem about her great-grandmother reverts to the old family-house, as the poems on her grandmother had earlier done. Only in a rather striking outburst towards the end (“O mother's mother's mother”) is our attention drawn to what is only dimly present in our consciousness: the matriarchal system of societal relationships to which Kamala belongs.
This is an unusual theme. Judiciously used, it could have given much of her autobiographical poetry a definite interest. My Story uses it repeatedly or, at any rate, obtrusively assumes the reader's awareness of it. In the poetry, on the other hand, the absence of its hold on the poet diffuses the significance of much of the writing. Unless aware of the matriarchal pattern, it is difficult to appreciate fully in “Blood” the great-grandmother's agony over the ancestral house or the poet's vow:
O it hurts me she cries, Wiping a reddened eye For I love this house, it hurts me much To watch it die. When I grow old, I said, And very very rich I shall rebuild the fallen walls And make new this ancient house My great grandmother Touched my cheeks and smiled.
The great-grandmother's concern is not merely an emotional one. She is the head of the family, and her approach may be compared to the sorrow an ageing patriarch would feel for a crumbling house. Similarly, while the great-grandmother addresses the poet and her brother, it is the poet who responds to this sense of family honour.
At another metaphoric level, the lines are also full of a tragic irony. The death of the house need not be interpreted literally in terms of its physical decay. It could also refer to the corruption of the old bond, of traditional values, and the erosion of the moral fabric on which the house / family-circle had been built. In this sense, the poet's declaration is ironic. As she says over and over again in her writing, her life has largely dishonoured the family. It has shamed them, alienated her from them and from the traditional ethics of her childhood. She can hardly be seen as a suitable Redeemer of the fallen house.
Kamala does say some of this explicitly in the last part of the poem. The creaking rafters of the old house haunt her during the still nights in every town she lives in. She knows that rats and termites now make their home there, and the knowledge makes her uneasy: “I have let you down / Old house, I seek forgiveness …”
Unfortunately, this kind of self-flagellation is too frequent in Kamala, too facile, one might say, to have any meaningful impact. She attempts to bring in a new, ironic note at the very end when she dissociates herself from her ancestors, owning full responsibility for her desertion:
Call me callous Call me selfish. But do not blame my blood So thin, so clear, so fine The oldest blood in the world That remembers as it flows All the gems and all the gold And all the perfumes and the oils And the stately Elephant ride …
This echoes an earlier section of the poem where the great-grandmother is shown glorying in the “oldest blood … thin and clear and fine”. Elsewhere, Kamala had indicated the awesome implications of the pride the family took in its lineage: “I felt drab among my people. I had grown up hearing the stupid talk about the blue blood that was supposed to be flowing within our veins. I feared that one day I would get hurt and ordinary red blood would gush forth from my wounds, startling all.”3
A very puzzling paradox in Kamala's work, one which occurs over and over again, is her fine sensitivity at times to what will “work” best in her poetry, contrasted with her seeming obtuseness at others. In “Blood”, the great-grandmother is described as having been married to “a prince / Who loved her deeply for a lovely short year / and died of fever, in her arms”. This account appears rather palled in comparison with Kamala's version in My Story:
Within a year she was married to the Raja of Chiralayman who was stout and had heavy sensual lips. At nineteen she suddenly became very frigid and came away to Nalapat House carrying her little daughter with her, offering no explanation at all. I have watched her so often scrubbing the soles of her feet and cleaning her toenails meticulously twice and thrice each day and I have then suspected that her overdeveloped sense of hygiene had something to do with her separation from her husband. She must have thought messy the discharge of the marital obligations.4
Some of these details could have been used to advantage in the poem. It is difficult also to see how Kohli finds in “Blood” an “admirable restraint in tone and tautness of line.”5 The lines he quotes are hardly suggestive of what he describes as “the assured clarity of outline, the sombre control of nerve, and the poise of movement which is at once graceful and firm,” which he sees as showing “that the poet is in command of herself in a moment of personal reckoning.”6 I refer to the long passage which begins:
I had learnt by then Most lessons of defeat, Had found out that to grow rich Was a difficult feat. The house was crouching On its elbows then, It looked that night in the palled moon So grotesque and alive.
Kohli in fact quotes the entire passage of 22 lines, all of which more or less follow the awkward rhythm of the ones quoted above. The weakness of the poetic line is matched by poverty of thought and image. One has only to compare these lines with some of Kamala's better work in this volume (“The Old Playhouse” and parts of “Gino”, for example) to see that they are hardly representative of her talent at its best. Kohli is right when he speaks of the poem as being “touchingly autobiographical”)7 but somewhat indiscriminate in assessing its poetic merit.
More appealing poetically is the short poem “Nani” which is also based on an episode in the poet's childhood. Its theme is the tragic suicide of a young, pregnant, unmarried maid who was seduced and betrayed. The start of the poem has a pendulum-like movement, which is in keeping with the turning-rope at the end of which Nani swung till the police claimed her corpse. The grim reality of Nani's suicide acquires a grotesque flavour because of the children's mistaken sense of enjoyment in the out-of-the-ordinary:
When the wind blew Turning her gently on the rope, it seemed To us who were children then, that Nani Was doing, to delight us, a comic Dance …
The incident is used to bring in a certain philosophical dimension. The poet tells us that a couple of years later, when she asked her grandmother about Nani, she appeared not to remember who Nani was. Kohli accepts this at face value: “Time moves on and the incident is forgotten by the grandmother but not by the poet.” The poem, however, suggests that the grandmother's attitude is one of evasion rather than forgetfulness: it is a “designed deafness”. It is from this that the poet is led to conclude that “Each truth / Ends thus with a query”. This end comes about when those who have the answers do not give them to those who ask. And it is the common pattern of human intercourse, where truth is evaded, especially if it is unpleasant.
Kohli therefore appears somewhat off the mark in seeing the poem as ending “in an abrupt manner with the poet admiring the ‘clotted peace’ of the dead. Perhaps the poet identifies herself with the dead, but paradoxically the imagery which evokes the peace of the dead belongs not to the world of the dead but to the living and continuing world of life in the embryo, passion in the veins, and life-blood in the soil …”8
Perhaps it would be useful to quote the actual lines:
They are lucky Who ask questions and move on before The answers come, those wise ones who reside In a blue silent zone, unscratched by doubts For theirs is the clotted peace embedded In life, like music in the koel's egg, Like lust in the blood, or like sap in the tree …
In view of the fact that these lines lead out of the “designed deafness” which ends the query of truth, it would appear that there is a certain irony implied in the statement that those who are satisfied merely with the asking, not with the actual answer, which does not seem to concern them, are the “lucky” ones. The poet definitely does not identify with them, for hers is the other state where answers must be found at all costs. She does not belong to the breed of “wise ones” whom no doubt can threaten. She is willing to grant them a certain peace of mind, but remains aloof from it herself. At the same time, some confusion of images makes the end a little ambiguous. For the images used to describe that peace are powerful. Perhaps the logical interpretation would be that the music in the koel's egg, the lust in the blood, the sap in the tree, if not allowed to manifest themselves, are really not symbols of vitality but of a kind of life-in-death. Hence the peace the “wise ones” experience is “clotted”, not smooth or unblemished.
Kamala was in Calcutta during the years of Partition. The outbreak of communal hatred had affected the lives of those around her. In her autobiography she describes those days when horrors seemed to mount hourly. Her Muslim ophthalmologist's body was found mutilated and dumped in a dustbin. Her father's resourceful driver kept in his glove compartment a Muslim fez cap and a Hindu turban to ensure his safety in all areas of the city. “Once we saw a lorry filled with laughing people, mostly Sikhs, carrying aloft the yellow body of an old woman impaled on a spear.”9
Communalism is an emotive theme, and one which offers easy mileage for the exposition of progressive views. It is to Kamala's credit that “The Inheritance”, which is about religious hatred, is sombre, restrained and unpretentious. It is more convincing than Gieve Patel's poem on a similar theme, “The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel's, He Being Neither Hindu nor Muslim in India”, because there are no stances taken. Kamala is plumb within the vortex of hatred, it is her “inheritance”, however much she would like to reject it. The poem bristles with the irrationality of religious hatred, an emotion which is both powerful and all-pervading, an “ancient / Virus” assimilated willy-nilly into our collective unconscious. It is not confined to any religion or group of people and, in this respect, differs from the posture of the outsider in Gieve Patel's poem. In Kamala, the inheritance is ironically the opposite of what every religion professes to teach: love.
The mosque, the chapel-bells and the Brahmin's chant are balanced in a simultaneous movement, productive of “hearts grown scabrous with hate”. The Biblical, archaic overtones of the religious messages underscore the horror of what is being preached:
Slay them / who do not Believe, or better still, disembowel their young ones And scatter on the streets the meagre innards.
The invocation to God which ends the poem is deliberately ironic, for the statement the poem makes is that the true purpose of belief in Him has been long forgotten. He is exploited by those who claim to serve Him, hence the reference to “religion / Purified in the unbeliever's blood”. The irony is effective because of our sense of the poet's anguished conviction that this is indeed so.
I have already drawn attention to the shift in the tone of Kamala's love-poetry in this volume. The body's vulnerability is especially apparent. Biographically, this obsession with physical “weakness” could be traced to Kamala's frequent states of ill-health, some of them quite serious. Also, age and repeated experiences of a certain kind in her love-encounters no doubt combine to produce a more sceptical, subdued, even at times, resigned outlook.
In “Glass”, the associational qualities of the image are presented in shifting scenarios. In the beginning, the woman visits her lover in the role of “pure woman, pure misery / Fragile glass, breaking / Crumbling …” There is, however, a certain complexity in the image. While glass appropriately implies fragility, something that is transparent (therefore “pure”) and easily destroyed, its other related qualities do not necessarily imply positive values. Broken glass can also hurt, and this fact is used to give the poem a certain twist. We are told that the lover drew her to him with rude haste but, at this point, her “fragile” womanliness is abruptly transformed into an “armful / Of splinters, designed to hurt, and / Pregnant with pain”.
There is, in other words, an unexpected transference of roles. While the glass-image is in character, the emotional pattern becomes a little difficult to follow. We cannot easily move from the depiction of a “fragile” woman to one who not merely hurts with intent but actually goes on to profess that this is second nature to her now:
Why did I not tell him then that I no longer care Whom I Hurt with love and often without? With a cheap toy's indifference I enter others' Lives, and Make of every trap of lust A temporary home.
The poem's chief strength is the blunt honesty which makes no attempt to conceal the woman's motives. One is willing to go along with her belief that she renders these men a service, giving “a wrapping to their dreams / A woman-voice / And a / Womansmell”. One is even willing to overlook the Freudian quest for the father with which the poem ends. But the rather confused manner in which the glass-image is used is another matter. Had Kamala been a little more judicious, this could have been a very fine, complex poem.
“The Prisoner” uses the same theme of geographical mapping that “The Old Playhouse” had used so remarkably in its opening passage. In both, geographical boundaries and topography are symbols of the poet's freedom boundaries. But “The Old Playhouse” used them to describe a deliberate attempt on the lover's part to ensnare her and hold her captive, while in the present poem the poet, already a prisoner, appears to be willingly so. There is no restlessness, and the poem's chief charm is the almost academic curiosity with which the poet studies the contours of her lover's body. Though the analogy used is that of a convict studying his prison's geography, there is a lightness about the whole which prevents it from appearing unduly oppressive.
Kohli's interpretation of the poem is highly imaginative and well-worked out. Referring to Kamala's use of the word “trappings” to describe her lover's physical charms, he says: “Trapping is doubly significant. On the one hand, it suggests the trappings of lust from which she must free herself to know true love. On the other hand, it suggests the soul's cry against its mortal dress. Generally the convict attempts to escape from the prison only to return to his usual course of life. Thus perhaps Kamala Das is speaking of the freedom which brings further imprisonment, of the escape which brings one back to more snares and more trappings. Either way there is a trap, and since body and soul are not envisaged by Kamala Das as separate, there is little qualitative difference between losing one or losing the other.”10
Kohli even refers us to “The Suicide”, first published in The Descendants and included in this volume, to support his claim: “Bereft of soul / My body shall be bare / Bereft of body / My soul shall be bare …” Seductive as his interpretation is, I must differ in seeing the poem as much simpler. It is tempting to read a plethora of suggestions into the comparisons made in the poem between the poet and a convict. I doubt, however, from the evidence in Kamala's other writing, notably her prose, whether she goes in much for such elaborate patterns. The basic analogy is that both she and the convict seek possible modes of escape. “Trappings” should really be seen as no more than the physical characteristics which make her lover so significant to her personally. As I said earlier, even the talk of escape does not really carry with it much more than the realisation, lightly stated, that the relationship will have to end one day. Since this is so, she ought to school herself to be detached about her lover's body. This discipline would, hopefully, make the break easier when it becomes necessary.
Unlike “The Prisoner” which has its undeniable appeal, another short poem, “Love”, is not thin as to hardly justify its existence. Earlier published in Summer in Calcutta, it is difficult to see why it appears here again. I quote the poem in full:
Until I found you, I wrote verse, drew pictures, And, went out with friends For walks … Now that I love you, Curled like an old mongrel My life lies, content, In you …
In spite of the unusual simile “mongrel” to denote her love, the rest of the poem is slight beyond redemption, very amateurish, and more like an exercise in poetry than the real thing. It does not hint at the intensity which Kamala is capable of conveying even in poems which do not always work very satisfactorily.
Another unsatisfactory short poem is the one dedicated to “Kumar Gandharva”. The singer is merely a peg on which the poet hangs her unexplained anguish. Though “cocooned” in the shelter of Gandharva's singing, her ears lose their peace in every little pause. The poet is presumably at a concert, for the impression created is that of the hostile, external world trying to enter her self-built haven. All the same, the images used to describe her plight sound baffling we are told that her ears, in every pause, must
Like the silent mouths of fish Sucking at the air, draw with gasps The tendrilled, shadowed sounds.
What are these sounds, and why do they symbolise a kind of menace, the loss of the poet's sense of safety? Also, was it necessary to compare ears to the silent mouths of fish? There is after all something very definite and characteristic about the movement a fish makes while breathing. It is difficult to transfer this function to the ears, no matter how willing one is to suspend one's disbelief.
Unlike most of the new poems about the man-woman relationship, “After the Illness” has a certain romantic fervour which is unconventional because there is no illusion here, and no scope for idealising. Rather, it is the absence of these that makes the poem seem poignant without being either sentimental or repetitive. As its title suggests, it describes a phase after an illness, but one in which the poet is reunited with her lover.
What strikes us most here is the unusual sense of peace between the lovers. “Peace” may seem an odd word in view of the lover's “soft, suffering face” and the wasted body of the poet. I use it, however, to describe the difference between the lovers' exchange and the very intense, emotion-charged drama which characterises most of Kamala's other love-poetry. The lover's acceptance of her physical unattractiveness is heightened by his vulnerable desire for physical proximity, his face against her knee while he tells her how he had willed her to survive. As the first few lines of the poem indicate, the reunion is almost a rebirth. Not only has there been no death after the illness, but a reawakening into this surprising state where the lover looks beyond her body.
As elsewhere with Kamala, the bodily details are unsparingly listed: the lover is described as having noticed
the high greens of my illness, the bones Turning sharp beneath the dry loose skin, the yellowed eyes The fetid breath …
These are hardly romantic details. Yet, the lover had not merely noticed them but has not let them affect his feelings. There is a certain serenity in the poem, largely the result of the knowledge that the poet is unattractive and yet beloved. In the aftermath of the illness, which had left her emaciated, the blood “Weakened too much to lust”, the lover's devotion creates a sense of security. This is apparent in the poem's mood of quiet acceptance. It is, all the same, such an unusual display of romantic loyalty that the poet cannot help but be amazed at it.
The poem ends with the author pondering over the mysterious source of her lover's passion. According to Kohli, “It is characteristic of Kamala Das not to attempt to resolve the dilemma beyond the limits inherent in the very nature of the experience envisaged in the poem.”11 While this statement is essentially true of Kamala's writing as a whole, such a resolution does not appear necessary in the context of this poem. It is not a particularly profound dilemma; in fact, it is no more than rhetoric masquerading as speculation, and it ought to be recognised as such. The poem is complete in itself, refreshingly different from much of Kamala's other work. Kohli goes on: “To say this is not simply to point out the element of realism in her portrayal of her moods, but to underline her approach to experience which makes such a realism, if that is the right word for the borderline between the beauty of sexual love and that of spiritual love, possible.”12
I see this as unnecessary mystification of an uncomplicated attitude. For Kamala is essentially uncomplicated. She does not possess the intellectual stamina for intricately thought-out “approaches” to her experiences. Her responses are usually spontaneous and most often dominated by emotion. Even the uncertainty which ends the poem, though beautiful, is very much of the moment. It is emotion recollected in tranquillity, if you like, but no more than emotion all the same. Words like “realism” are not necessary since her dominant characteristic has always been her “honesty”, whether or not it works within a particular poem. Nor is this so-called awareness of the “borderline between the beauty of sexual love and that of spiritual love” all that special to her. Further, it seems more accurate to describe what Kamala talks about in the poem as an “alliance” of, rather than a “borderline” between the two.
It would be a mistake to assume that the mood in this third volume is consistently morose or that it lacks the frenzy of Kamala's earlier poems of passion. While undoubtedly an older woman's book, occasional poems make it apparent that her former uninhibited involvement in the game of passion still surfaces from time to time. The difference of course may be that her feelings are now aroused less easily.
In “The Stone Age”, this eruption of strong sexual ardour is contrasted with the poet's married life. The “fond husband” merely cramps her style, enmeshing her in webs of domesticity. These are symbolised by the “shabby drawing-room”, and his “loud talk” which breaks in on her escapist dreams in the early morning. There is something faintly disturbing about the unattractive image of the “Old fat spider” to denote the husband. The spider's webs, moreover, are woven out of its own venom and waste, and are insubstantial.
After the initial outburst against the husband, the substance of her daydreams is explicitly stated. They involve “strong men” who “cast their shadows” and “sink / Like white suns in the well of my Dravidian blood”. The presence of darker subterranean passions and needs is expressed through the image of the “drains” which “flow beneath sacred cities”.
These daydreams moreover are soon realised. No sooner does the husband leave for work than she drives her battered car to her lover's home. In a bold image of the neighbours watching her arrivals and departures, Kamala brings alive the feel of such a situation in the Indian context. It sums up brilliantly the aura of scandal such a liaison would create. The last few lines of the poem describe the lover and her responses to him:
Ask me, everybody, ask me What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion, A libertine, ask me the flavour of his Mouth, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake Before it clasps my pubis. 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.
Kohli, who also quotes these lines, is of the view that “At this point … the lines suddenly come alive with the energy of questioning, and the theme of winning and losing and the underlying sense of exhaustion assert themselves.”13 I doubt whether one can demarcate the poem in this way, contrasting the “life” in these lines with, by implication, their lack of it earlier. It is true that the tone of the poem changes here from the irritated withdrawal of the earlier section when the husband is singled out for reproach and disdain. But the energy expressed is really the sense of release when the husband leaves and the poet sets off for her rendezvous. It is easy, also, to identify the presence of guilt in Kamala as a diatribe against her husband. His presence restricts her style; only when he leaves is she able to dismiss for the moment the bonds she has pledged herself to observe.
The lines which end the poem, besides being extremely forthright, have a compelling urgency. They are not merely bold, but also intimate, and capture very successfully her uncontrolled abandon to this affair. What is remarkable about them is that Kamala actually creates poetry out of the very explicit details they contain, that she almost approximates to the erotic nature of ancient Sanskrit love-poetry and, most important, that she does so from the female point of view. This is a woman in a state of abandon, one who exults in her body's response to her lover's arts, and asserts that now indeed, more than ever, were it bliss to die. It is the moment for itself, perfect even if it were to be the last, and the questions posed are only a way of saying so.
The emotions which motivate such abandon are partially explained in “The Corridors”, which had also appeared in Summer in Calcutta. The poem describes a recurring dream in which the author wanders along the silent corridors of a house to enter rooms filled with laughing, friendly people, whose names she cannot recollect and whose relationship to her remains a mystery. There is a feeling of growing panic at her sense of being a perpetual stranger, “tramping the lost / Lanes of a blinded mind”. Walking up from the dream, she finds that far from being surrounded by friends she is in fact alone, even her lover having abandoned her bed. Trying to count the number of her friends is hopeless, for she is in fact an outsider, always on the fringe of a crowd, playing a role and known as something / somebody other than the person she really is.
This inability, expressed over and over again, to open up before a roomful of people, to feel at home in a crowd, perhaps gives the private moments of the poet their own limitless frenzy. It is as if wanting to belong but too awkward to make the necessary gestures in front of a large number of people, she fulfils her need to be loved, to be accepted emotionally, in these intimate encounters. Hence the frequent sense, in them, of a life complete in those moments.
This state of mind is also apparent in Kamala's autobiography, especially in her account of her last meaningful relationship with a man. As it makes clear, this was also her most significant affair, and she was hopelessly caught in the strong trap of her sexual emotions. The relationship, obviously with a powerful politician, is probably the source of poems like “The High Tide” and “Sunset, Blue Bird”.
The first of these is simply about a powerful man falling from favour. There is a sense of Browning's “Patriot” in the implied contrast between the man's past and present status. Browning's poem, however, is a dramatic monologue, spoken by the actual victim of fortune's changing favours. In “The High Tide”, there is no such characterisation. The victim's story is told by his lover, the “poetess … who loves him / Without rhyme or reason”, and who “now turns her face away” because she cannot bear to see what his downfall has done to him.
There is very little to the poem apart from this personal giveaway detail which indicates that the man was more than a stranger. However, Kamala achieves a certain tone and interest by using several devices. One of them is to refer to the lover as “the king”, thereby suggesting something more than the mere failure of an ordinary individual. “The king had lost his power” indicates a more momentous event. The images of kingship are sustained throughout: the valet, as well as the dancing girls, and the cringing crowd of yesterday. The king's messenger is represented by the telephone, which stays silent except for a wrong number. This silence sounds his defeat louder than any messenger of old could have done. An archetypal note of doom is brought in when the king imagines he has callers:
He shouts out to his valet, Who is knocking at the door, who is there, knocking at my door? It's only the wind, the servant says, the sea is wild This morning, there is perhaps a high tide on.
This image of the wind and the sea being mistaken for human visitors and voices is effective. It also has a certain primal appeal, implying a relationship between man and Nature which older literatures exploited more effectively. The wind and the high tide are brought in once again at the end of the poem to contrast the king's present loneliness with his revelry in the past, and the crowds who flocked to see him.
In “Sunset, Blue Bird”, the poet has in turn been deserted by “the king”. It is a “prose-poem', an unusual form for Kamal. It is unpunctuated, intentionally so, for even capital letters are omitted. Each unit is separated from the other by a series of four dots. Perhaps because of the prose form, the poem reads more successfully than it would have done in conventional verse. The prose makes it easier to overlook the syntactical weaknesses which, in verse, would have been unflatteringly obtrusive: “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. …”
These are hardly among Kamala's more inspired lines and one can, after reading three books of her poetry (this is the last poem in the third volume) imagine what she would have made of them in “free” verse. The true interest of the poem does not lie in any memorable insights, images or phrases, but in the anguish of the woman at being abandoned by her lover. It is a tone not really present in the “new” poems in this volume; it belongs partly to the earlier poetry. So does her absorption in the lover even though the affair is over: “everywhere i look i see him everywhere … i do not look i see him i see him in all i see him in everything like a blue bird at sunset he flits across my sky. …”
So might an adolescent speak of an infatuation! Yet a certain sombre mood in the poem makes it clear that it is an older woman's poem. It does not have the resilient quality of Kamala's earlier poems about the pain of loving. There is, on the other hand, an underlying sense that even the ability to experience the agony of such a relationship is rapidly passing away. And the poem's climax, the event which alarmed her lover into this betrayal, adds to her dignity even while it shows up his cowardice: “after a year two yellow moons waxed and waned without a sign of blood and i told him lying on his lap i told him and suddenly the sun set on that beautiful face his breath was heavy in my ear he said not a word. …”
There is one more prose-poem in this volume, somewhat longer and more complex in design than the one just discussed. “The Swamp” ostensibly takes its name from the swamp in Malabar into which the poet tells us she once sank with a wail one hot morning during the rains. The way the poem's several themes develop, however, makes it apparent that the swamp is also metaphorical, that it denotes the depths of passion in which she now flounders, vowing that she will some day “rise … stalk out of his bed … sleepwalk along the marine drive he will be then just another man just another season and the summer would burn down to black ash in his garden.”
As these lines make apparent, the technique used in the poem is similar to that in “Sunset, Blue Bird”: no capital letters, no conventional punctuation. In contrast to the shorter poem, however, there is an attempt to compose each development of the poem's several themes into verse-paragraphs.
Much of the substance of this poem is directly autobiographical, being about the poet's childhood, especially in the first part. Here, the present is punctuated by flashbacks into the past: the poet's grandmother, wearing the jewels of a virtuous life, the poet herself born fair and growing to be the “first dark girl in the family”, even the “bhagvatis oracle” promising to protect her grandmother's descendants from “illness and untimely death”.
Contrasted with this background of virtue, and of faith in such things as oracles, is the image of the poet in the present: a “tainted bush” from which even poisonous snakes retreat. The past is evoked in order to underscore her movement away from it. At the family snake-shrine, she had prayed for a mate like her present lover, “the richest the strongest the deadliest”. He has all the deviousness of a snake, is “armed with cunning and violent hates and mistrust”, but he sheds them all in bed with her. Even so, he cannot satisfy her inner “locus of anguish”. He answers a certain fundamental need in her, no more, for he does not give anything more of himself than his “well tanned body”.
Like “Sunset, Blue Bird”, the prose form conceals a host of technical limitations. How else to account for the fact that one overlooks lines like “virtue is the richest jewel yes yes yes but he is the jewel i prefer to wear”; or, “when i was ill my three year old son was brought to me amma he said leave this hospital come home with me even if i had died that week i would have walked as a ghost to my home and him so much of me was taken out and sent in jam jars to the pathological lab but what the lab did not need lay under sheets in room five sixty five and thought longingly of that little boy.”
In spite of such lapses the poem has a compelling, even hypnotic momentum. Its form is not easy to explain, for it is not one which Kamala had turned to very consistently in the sporadic verse she had since written. Perhaps the very attempt to impose a discipline on her verse collapsed when these poems were written. Or perhaps their inner logic seemed best suited to the prose-form. At any rate, in both, the dependence on the lover is greater than in the other unpublished poems included here. In spite of the poet's bravado at the end when she talks of leaving her lover and walking along the sea-front, her desolation when he rejects her is forceful: “often after taking leave i open his door again and see him at his desk signing letters with the glasses with the stern look with the do you want something the change is so complete that i am silent and in silence must move away.”
[Kohli, Davindara.]Kamala Das, [New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, Indian Writers Series, 1971.] p. 117.
In answering my questionnaire.
[Das, Kamala. My Story. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1976. London: Quartet Books, 1978.] p. 125.
Kamala Das, p. 104.
ibid., p. 105.
ibid., p. 106.
ibid., p. 108.
My Story, p. 61.
Kamala Das, p. 113.
ibid., p. 115.
ibid., p. 114.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3113
SOURCE: Das, Kamala, and Eunice de Souza. “Kamala Das.” In Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets, pp. 29-40. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[In the following interview, Das discusses her writings and her life.]
Kamala Das was born in 1934. Her collections of poetry include Summer in Calcutta (Delhi: Rajinder Paul, 1965), The Descendants (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (Madras: Orient Longman, 1975), Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (Kottayam: D.C. Books, 1966). With Pritish Nandy she published Tonight This Savage Rite: The Love Poems of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1979). Collected Poems was published in 1984 (Trivandrum: Nava Kerala Printers) and her autobiography My Story in 1976 (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers). She has published one major novel, several novelettes and volumes of short stories in Malayalam, under the pen-name Madhavikutty. She has also published short stories in English and in English translation. She was awarded the PEN Prize in 1964, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for fiction in 1969, the Chaman Lal Award for Journalism in 1971, the Asian World Prize for Literature in 1985, the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award in 1988, and the Valayar Award and the Sahitya Parishad Award in 1998. In 1984, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan.
[de Souza]: I'm interested in knowing something about the influence of your mother on you as a writer. She's an icon in Kerala.
[Das]: My mother's writing did not ever generate any controversy. Her poetry was exactly what society prescribed for a respectable woman-poet of her time. She wrote of a mother's all-consuming love for her children. The women in her poetry called their husbands ‘master’. Although born a Nayar, that is, into a matrilinear and matriarchal community, she fell under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi whose background was unashamedly patriarchal. I sensed the hypocrisy so evident in my parents' marriage and decided never to emulate them. Although my mother wrote incessantly of her happy marriage, I heard her quarrel with my father every night. I used to wake up from sleep at midnight hearing the sounds of their quarrel and lie in my bed, trembling with unease. My mother had been ordered to wear khaddar a day after she married my Gandhian father. I disliked the austerity thrust upon people by Mahatma Gandhi. I yearned to wear coloured silks and jewellery.
Did you ever discuss your work with her?
No. I did not ever discuss my work with her. We belonged to two different worlds and the paths we trod were dissimilar.
But your first encounter with poetry was her work?
Yes. When we were in school in Calcutta, my father worked for a British firm. We had a number of servants, so my mother could spend a great deal of time writing. Every time I came home from school, I saw her lying on a four-poster bed, writing. I thought it was a woman's job to write. My mother didn't read her work to the children, but she used to read out lines or poems to my father who was an old-fashioned gentleman. I wrote my first poem when I was six and showed it to my mother. Recently I found my ninth-standard textbook in which I had written a love poem for my English teacher who was forty-eight years old. I was thrilled to find it. My mother wrote some poems about me, one of them about teaching me to walk. It's a well-known poem which people memorize. Then she turned to theosophy and her poems were not as simple as the earlier ones, and my father was not so thrilled with them.
The editor of a book of your short stories mentions that you did not want your grandmother to know about the kind of things you wrote about in Malayalam, adultery, for instance. She seems to have been a force in your life too.
I visited my grandmother during my summer vacations. Unlike my mother, she believed in demonstrating her fondness for me. She kissed me, plaited my hair, and slept beside me on the same bed. She was puritanical, so I wrote my stories using a pen-name, Madhavikutty.
A commentator has mentioned that your frankness is part of your upbringing as a Nayar woman. From what you have said, it doesn't seem to be an integral part of being a Nayar woman.
I was not brought up as a Nayar woman. My father was the family bread-winner and he treated us all like menials. The servants were paid salaries, we were not.
Even so, you write with great freedom, and without the protection of irony. I don't know if you think of yourself as a feminist, but I'd like to claim your poems for feminism.
Others see me as a feminist. I see myself as a feminine creature who loves the company of brilliant men and women. I am not very gender conscious. I don't believe in the feminist demand for abortion. The clergy here love me for that! And abroad they were shocked to hear me sound like Mother Theresa!
You and other women (including myself) who write ‘confessional’ poems have been frequently attacked for writing about the ‘self’. It's seen as personal rather than universal, restricted. But as feminists say, and I agree, ‘The personal is the political.’ When you write about yourself you are also evoking others who have known similar experiences of claustrophobia, alienation, devaluation.
What else is literature? Unless you have an experience to write about, your writing will become second-grade. It becomes like writing history about Akbar. You don't know their feelings. When you write about your own feelings, it is authentic. I like authenticity. I've written plenty of novellas, short stories, plays and essays in Malayalam. When I write about other people, I don't feel fulfilled as a writer. I don't find my face floating above the words. I could be clever like a carpenter who knows fretwork but cleverness was never my motive. I categorize people as people/clever people. Cleverness is not part of the human being. It's something you acquire. You don't write to impress an audience, but you have to get it out. It's attacked by people because it is not what they want to consume. It's for yourself to relieve the moments of pain which only a very young person can suffer. By being yourself you are helping society. My mother is now senile, but she graces the place. There she is. I can't imagine the house without her. She matters by being who she is. Because of my writing many people feel they can come and talk to me. That wouldn't have happened if I had written about fraudulent experiences. I think women make better writers because they don't feel they have to conceal their experiences. I have a number of social commitments but everyone thinks only about sex in relation to my writing.
The idea is we should write about myth and history.
There are so many historians writing history. The only myth that you will want to retain is: ‘I am different.’ I am an entity. It is only as that entity that you can write, produce art. I am innocent enough to think that what I write is new to others. You remind them, ‘This was love.’ I use my body in assessing my lines. If they give me goose-flesh I use them. If they do nothing to my skin I don't touch them. They will be dead lines, like dead skin.
There's the freedom to reinvent oneself too, isn't there? I'm thinking of your autobiography My Story. I'm also thinking of one of my early poems ‘Autobiographical’. It's an invention for a persona. I think of autobiography too as a form of fiction.
I'll not swear everything in that book happened to me. I exaggerated a little bit. You may not have had sex but it figured in the thoughts. If there was an opportunity, who knows? If it's red, make it redder. It's the artist's freedom to deepen the colour. I must have been a very bold young woman. I've been through so many avatars. I can barely remember the person who wrote those passionate poems. Sex I've forgotten. I don't need it. How can I talk about it? It's all of no consequence now. I wrote the book because I thought I was on my deathbed. I needed to be remembered as one who lived a spectacular life.
Your present avatar seems to be a very happy one. You are widely respected in Kerala, and have a popular following. And of course abroad your name is synonymous with Indian writing in English.
I used to think old age would be a terrible time. There are disabilities, but no frustrations. I've picked up strength. I've become very strong. I feel rooted in Kerala. I wasn't so comfy in Bombay. I belong to one of the oldest families in Kerala. In Bombay nobody knows this and Nalapat House [in Trichur district, Kerala] meant nothing. In Kerala you don't have to be rich to be respected, but you have to belong to certain families. People trust me here. They come here for comfort. All the griefs come to roost here. My life was bad at the beginning, but I changed my husband to suit my needs, and towards the end it was a good marriage. But until my husband died he kept me like a child. If I had remained in Nalapat House I would have remained powerful. Anyway, my husband had Parkinson's disease and I looked after him. I had always had this romantic longing to cook for a poor man I loved.
Did Bombay give you anything?
Well, I wouldn't have dreamt of having an affair here in Kerala. Bombay gave you the freedom. I did have some friends there, but not the way they come here. During Emergency Ayub Sayeed filed a suit against me. The Kerala government called me to Kerala as their state guest to report on feasible tourist sites, otherwise I might have ended up in jail. Later I went back to Bombay a triumphant woman, when the Emergency was lifted.
I'm told that among the young your following is tremendous.
They flock around me. They need me to speak the truth. It's their religion. No covering up.
What was the reaction to Summer in Calcutta, your first book in English?
Everyone reviewed it. They had not read such poetry from an orthodox Hindu background. It was unsettling for them. What if their wives started to write or think like Kamala Das? Now I'm fully accepted. They put me on committees. At the time some bitter critic said that I was not even good-looking! I'm not going to deny relationships. I couldn't have written without them. Of course, I wasn't having relationships to find writing material! I was trying to live a life with a little bit of love in it. Toast with a little jam! My marriage was dry toast. It didn't mean I stopped loving my husband. But I wanted someone to go walking with me, swimming with me, play badminton with me. My husband was not interested in these things. Why blame me for being happy? They ask me to deny these things. Why should I? I don't consider such to be a sin.
I'm not a physical person. I never wrote about women's lust because I never felt it. Women pretend, in order to be part of the game. I wrote about men's lust. Celibacy suits me. I like to be physically free and clean. Sex is a messy job but if you have to produce children you have to go through it. At the time I wrote it was necessary for women to write like that. Now it's no longer such a brave gesture. My husband used to like the fact that others found me attractive. I hated him for saying, when I wrote, ‘Make it hot!’ If I disappointed him, he disappointed me. It wasn't a good marriage, but it was a good relationship. We were friends. He was proud of my success, especially when I was called abroad. I was an emotional person. I wanted to be loved. No one told me even the facts of life. I was pushed into the murky waters. My husband never read my love poems. He thought my love was Sri Krishna.
Krishna and Radha appear in your poetry and your stories.
My grandmother would say Krishna is your greatest friend. I thought nobody would be as good as Krishna. I believed that until ten years ago, until I realized Krishna too could be a myth. I've moved away from temples and religions. No edifice can contain God. Religions have an expiry date. If you move away from religion, you go closer to God. The myths are like costumes. You don't need them. Religion is not relevant. I love the character Radha. I've written plenty about her in my stories in Malayalam as well. I always think of her waiting for him who never came back. I don't think any love is completely reciprocated. In one of my stories Radha smeared sandalwood paste on her breasts. She fell asleep, and when she woke up, he still hadn't come and the sandalwood paste was dry. She felt it was such a waste of sandalwood. I understand her. I see her as a human being.
The theme of adultery in the Radha-Krishna stories?
Adultery has always thrilled me. My favourite reading was Anna Karenina. I liked Madame Bovary. I would have been satisfied if I had been punished like them. If I committed a sin it was in a sinless way. I gravitate to wicked men. I come from a house of virtue. My uncles, my brothers are all very ‘good’ people.
Are there any other Malayali women writers who were outspoken?
Lalithambika. She belonged to the priestly Namboodiri caste. She wrote stories against such customs as keeping women virtual prisoners in the house, marrying young women off to very old men. Nayar women were different. A wife could just leave the husband's clogs outside the door if she no longer wanted him. I am fully aware of a woman's privileges. But some families went out to patriarchal areas and learnt bad habits. My mother became the most respected of the women writers, a cult figure, but she didn't shock anyone. One day Ismat Chugtai came to our home at Bank House in Bombay, and when she heard a line of my mother's ‘O master at your feet …’ she said, ‘Balamanni Amma, why did you do this to us?’ But my mother was not following any fads.
Do you have much contact with writers in Kerala?
Here in Cochin where I am based now, writers meet at my home on the first Sunday and read their new work. They like to say, ‘Our ideas are lofty.’ The loftier you get, the more artificial the poetry. They are completely out of touch with reality. I've tried translating Malayalam poetry. But the translated poems can't stand international scrutiny. Internationally, the tone that is appreciated is a casual tone, even if one is speaking about death. Malayali poets read a lot but I can't hear any original voices. They don't write from their own lives, but from what they've picked up. The novel is better. We are influenced by Latin American writers. Twenty years ago we fell under the spell of Kafka, Dostoevsky. Latin American writers are very fashionable just now. Everything has to be political to get an award here. The literature is so muddied. I can't hear an authentic voice.
But Kerala is a good place for writers. It's a good place in the sense that it brings them money. Novelists do well, and columnists. For some writers there is a strong sense of audience—M. T. Vasudevan Nair who makes all the women cry. There's Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai's Cheemeen. I'm not fond of such superstitions as the ones that appear in his book. If the woman is unfaithful the husband's boat will sink. But Pillai is a cult figure, like my mother.
We are always told that significant things are happening only in the languages, and not in English.
I think they are not referring to poetry but to the novel. But I think of culture as a river. There is even the River Saraswati which disappeared. Perhaps it disappeared into ourselves and we have to find the source within ourselves if we are going to write.
You've read abroad many times. What was it like?
When I was going to read at Columbia I was told to be careful not to be politically incorrect. India is free but the U.S. is not, I discovered. I was so scared. I have some friends there, Ted Ricardi and his wife. They told me to look at them if I was nervous. If they felt I was a politically incorrect person they should not have brought me over. I'll never change. My poem ‘Composition’ is politically incorrect because it contains the phrase ‘lesbians hiss’. I was told to delete such references as it would hurt people. When I was in Germany, one of the professors said to the audience that I would interpret my own poems. I asked him to interpret them. He made the poem he read some kind of post-colonial thing. I didn't understand a word. I'm not political. Another professor said I was a deeply religious poet when he was reading a simple love poem. I whispered to his wife that he was making a mistake. Then I realized that one poem can be interpreted in many ways. The poem is out of your control once it is published. A teacher can give the poem strength or weaken it.
You're an activist now? In the two days I have been here, you've had so many requests to attend functions, give speeches about children's rights, pose with orphans.
I'm a part-time activist. It should not become chronic, the everyday climate of my life. Garnish with misery. Don't make it a meal. I like fun. I want to be able to help too.
You say you are not political. But you have stood for elections.
Yes, in 1984 and I lost. Recently I was asked by Ajay Bharat, a new party formed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to be their candidate in Kerala. I was to be the only candidate. But I don't feel up to it. I would have enjoyed campaigning. In 1984 I campaigned for a month. I would have done so now if I had the health.
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