Guest Author: Sanjukta Bose
I had the fortune of reading Kamala Das’s poetry only in university, as part of my coursework. Until then, my reading of poetry was mostly limited to authors who were a combination of male, white, dead; with the occasional Sylvia Plath and Maya Angelou thrown in. I’m privileged to have studied a course, which, despite relying on a canon that sometimes did veer towards the aforementioned combinations, instilled in me the habit of reading women. For that I will always be grateful.
The fact that Das’s writing resonates with women even today might perhaps lead one to the alarming realization that nearly a generation later, the plight of women in society hasn’t seen much improvement. But on the other hand, it is also a thing of solace to be reminded that I am not the only misfit.
Das enjoyed a culturally enriching childhood in a family of great literary figures in Kerala- her mother, Balamani Amma was a poet, and her grand uncle Nalapat Narayana Menon was a writer. Das always had a penchant for writing. She was six when she wrote ‘sad poems about dolls who had lost their heads and would remain headless for eternity’ for her manuscript magazine.
As much as her childhood allowed her the leisure to pursue her literary interests, her life after marriage made it that much more difficult to spend time on her passions. At age 15, she was married off to Madhava Das. Her life after that became a series of duties that she was expected to perform as a wife, daughter-in-law and mother. But her unquenchable thirst for expressing herself through writing never left. Das would write for hours at night, after she had spent all day finishing chores around the house. She had no writing table of her own and would sit at the dining table where she’d cut vegetables, and after all the plates were cleared and her family was asleep, she would begin writing. Her tenacity, passion and dedication towards her craft is the reason we know her today as the ‘Mother of Modern Indian English Poetry’.
In fact, Das also relied on short stories and paintings to express herself. She was also a celebrated columnist. In an interview, she spoke about how being a poet in India was a difficult job because poetry doesn’t sell in this country. “I have to become a columnist to survive. It has been quite a hard life for me. That must have helped me survive and to keep myself afloat. I don’t have any regrets. Some people felt I should have concentrated upon one single medium,” Das said. Her decision to experiment with different media was because remaining confined to one medium would have bored her.
In her poem titled An Introduction, Das writes about her freedom being stifled; her womanhood defined merely by a set of instructions that tell her what she can and cannot do. She believed that she had the wrong gender for her occupation “because women were expected to confine themselves to the realm of the kitchen and it was not a role entirely accepted by society. A woman had to prove herself to be a good wife, a good mother before she could become anything else. And that meant years and years of waiting.”
To those who question her and cage her in their narrowness of thought, she asks,
Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you?
Das continues with her rejection of norms that dictate how she ought to behave as a woman, as a lover,
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. Don’t play pretending games.
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love…
Bijay Kumar Das in his readings of Das’s poetry declares that “Kamala Das is not only a poet of love, she is the poet of body.” In her love poems, Das yearns not just for the union of her and her lover’s souls, but also of their bodies. Her direct, unapologetic expression of her sexuality, her urges and her desires was not just controversial, but also unheard of during the times that she was writing in. Here was a woman who was unafraid of owning up to her sexuality and celebrating it.
By articulating her sexuality and desires in her poetry, Das was simultaneously chipping away at the male dominance that characterizes heterosexual romantic relationships. Notable poet and critic Shiv K. Kumar had observed, “If there is, therefore, a recurring element of sex in her work, it is more to expose it as a form of male dominance than to glorify it. All that Kamala Das is trying to do is to salvage the Indian woman from the sexual exploitation of man, her husband or lover.”
While Kumar’s observations are indeed correct, I think that Das’s poetry was as much a critique of male dominance as it was a celebration (and even glorification) of women enjoying sex and pleasure simply because they too deserve to give in to the desires of their bodies. What makes her a trailblazer is her complete rejection of the notion that women’s desires are subservient to that of the men in their lives.
In the poem Stone Age, Das writes from the perspective of a woman stuck in a dull marriage seeking love and the fulfillment of her desires from another man. As I said earlier, no one at the time had ever written about the emotional deprivation and loneliness of women stuck in loveless marriages. Das’s rhythmic descriptions of female pleasure are an oasis in a hot desert. The following lines from Stone Age are proof of this,
Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, 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.
However, it would be unfair if I didn’t also offer a critique of Das’s writing while appreciating it. The Looking Glass is one of her most popular poems and rightly so. As she writes about how “getting a man to love you is easy”, she evokes images of female sexuality which challenged society’s taboos. Das writes,
Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.
As she continues, she writes about the pain and loneliness that engulfs her once her lover has left her. It is here that I find myself one with her critics who opined that Das was a ‘proto-feminist’ at best. In her longing for her lover, she finds her body has lost its sheen, its beauty and charms. Is a woman’s body desirable only when there’s a man around to touch it? Das writes,
A living without life when you move
Around, meeting strangers, with your eyes that
Gave up their search, with ears that hear only
His last voice calling out your name and your
Body which once under his touch had gleamed
Like burnished brass, now drab and destitute.
In The Dance Of The Eunuchs (published in her first collection of poetry, Summer In Calcutta), Das directs her gaze towards the transgender community- she sees them as victims of patriarchy, just like herself. Their singing and dancing reflects their “vacant ecstasy”. Das is known especially for her vivid imagery, but in this poem her gaze appears to reflect the violence of fetishization. To me, her attempts at humanizing their pain ends up being a dehumanization of their personhood. The following lines reflect my discomfort in bequeathing upon her the title of a feminist,
And wailed, and writhed in vacant ecstasy. They
Were thin in limbs and dry; like half-burnt logs from
Funeral pyres, a drought and a rottenness
Were in each of them. Even the crows were so
Silent on trees, and the children wide-eyed, still;
All were watching these poor creatures’ convulsions
Nevertheless, a critical reading of Kamala Das’s poetry in no way invalidates her words and her contributions to Indian writing in English. No engagement with modern Indian poetry is complete, or even possible, without acknowledging Kamala Das’s contributions to it. Her politics may have been imperfect, but to completely sideline her work because of it would also be unfair. Das remains a pioneering voice in Indian poetry, and her words continue to inspire women like me to love and celebrate ourselves. She was the first one to speak about female sensibilities in a world dominated by male universalism, and for that, her legacy will live on.
- An Interview With Controversial Poet Kamala Das: Link
- Kamala Das – The Mother of Modern Indian English Poetry: Link
- Paradigm Shift In The Reading Of Kamala Das’s Poetry – Bijay Kumar Das.
Sanjukta Bose is a financially irresponsible student of literature, whose greatest possession is her growing pile of unread books.