Points of View
Volume VIII Number 1 Summer 2001 ISSN 0971-605X
Editor K K Sharma
Lovers of the poetry of Kamala Das are puzzled. What forced her to change her name and her religion? The reasons she has given in her interviews are not convincing because they are coming form a personality who till now had been the champion of honest writing, in her works presented the interconnected realities of personality and culture without distorting the facts of either the personality or culture. Remaining Kamala Das she could have loved Islam. In fact, in the birth of Suraiya, we have lost Kamala Das. The present paper is a tribute to the earlier Kamala Das who with her poetry of rare charm and truthfulness had engaged the hearts of readers for nearly three decades.
To build an epic saga out of the predicament and dread of the lost self has been an effort of the major poets of this century. The poetry of Kamala Das is an outgrowth of this modern emphasis of the “I” as the crucial poetic symbol. A poet’s raw material, she says, is neither stone nor clay; it is the poet’s personality. She confesses she could not escape from her predicament even for a moment. The uniqueness of her poetic utterance lies in the fact that as a woman she braves the risk of exposing her naked self, and given the conventionality of India women it is her rare achievement. Extreme honesty and truthfulness are the most impressive characteristics of Kamala Das’s poetry. Women are forced to lie for survival. And as Adrienne Rich, in her essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” say, “Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted’, for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds have been mystified to us” (1979:190). My Story, with its honesty, courage and willingness to reveal the most intimate aspects of her life, marks a turning point in the history of modern Indian writing. Her poetry removes skin after skin from her psyche and in the manner of confessional poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and W.D. Snodgrass, it has been an effort to remove the mask that covers the poet’s actual face. To accept what we are, and what we feel, and to come up with that with no intention of “telling it slant” is the new direction in women’s writing and in India Kamala Das is the champion of honest writing.
Elaine Showalter in her book, A Literature of Their Own, charts out three phases in the evolution of female literary tradition and calls these Feminine, Feminist, and Female stages. During the Feminine phase the women writers attempted to equal the achievements of male culture. The Feminist phase enabled women to reject the constraints of womanhood; they made literature a stage from dramatizing the suffering of women. During the Female phase women stopped protesting and imitating men and turned instead to female experiences. (1977:139). Thus instead of extending the male conventions, women poets have cut loose from male hegemony and seek another more authentic and personal voice. In this endeavor, they link themselves inextricably to their cultural environment which forms a collective experience, binding women writers to each other across time and space. The poetry of Denise Levertov, Nikki Giovanni and Jean Arasanayagam dervies mostly from the masculine tradition, yet the flashes of vibrant strength emerge directly from their feminine experiences. The poetry of Kamala Das, like that of Judith Wright, Erica Jong and Anne Sexton, drawing heavily on the personal life, shows an involvement in intimate feminine experiences. But whereas Erica Jong and Anne Sexton fall into the pitfalls of sentimentality and sensationalism, the poems of Kamala Das create a feeling of genuine pain, which moves the readers. It is her sincerity of feeling and her honesty to won the incongruity that creates pain. The cry of her heart is the cry of any ailing and aging wife; and this is how the personal blends with the universal:
From the debris of house-wrecks
Pick up my broken face,
Your brides’ face,
Change a little with the years.
I shall not remember
The betrayed honeymoon;
We are both such cynics,
You and I,
If loving me was hard then
It’s harder now
But love me one day
For a lark
Love the sixty-seven
Kilograms of ageing flesh
Show me what our life would have been
If only you had loved. (1988:204)
The crux of Kamala Das’s poetry is a search for an identity. In this process of self-search she oscillates between her nostaligic past and nightmarish present. Past is a symbol of security, love and freedom, and present stands for insecurity, pretensions and bondage of society. Her consciousness lies stretched between these two poles; it is drawn towards the positive past but held back by the negative present. One emotion, however, that is common to both the states, is that of pain. On excavation she finds only:
Deep, deep pain
To be frank,
I have failed. (“Composition”)
In her past, amidst all the comforts, the pain peeped in through various creeks. In her early childhood she was very sentimental. She wrote “sad poems about dolls who lost their heads and had to remain headless for eternity” (1988:8). The rift between her father and mother also left a permanent mark on her personality. Her mother’s timidity only created “an illusion of domestic harmony” (1988:5). The traditional society tried to clip her wings of freedom:
Dress in saris, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with the servants. Fit in. Oh,
She turned rebellious and wore shirts and trousers of her brother, cut her hair short and ignored the fetters of her womanliness. She asked for love
not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door. (“An Introduction”)
The closing of the door was like drawing iron curtain on the childhood days. Soon the experience took the place of innocence, betrayal of virginity, and indifference of involvement. The transition was not gradual but abrupt, and this was the transition form androgyny to femininity. Femininity means a woman’s conscious way of being in the world. Kamala Das in her poems writes directly of her inner world.
When she comes to her present self, she finds that there are “selves” beyond her self which pop up from within and pain oozes from each self. She identifies herself with all that suffers. She is unhappy “because of the animals that get slaughtered for no fault of their own. I am unhappy for the human beings who get slaughtered, bombed…. Who has got the right to be happy now knowing that right around the corner this new cult of terrorism is flourishing” (An interview). The larger chunk of this self, however, remains parched for want of love. Her idea of love is “caring for another, having plenty of time for another. I want a kind of love that is all pervasive like ether- love which creates its own balming climate” (An interview). In fact, longing for pure love and its failure, is the major theme of her poetry. Her dream of love is the kind of feeling we find in the eagerness of a river mingling with the sea, in the blushing of dawn effacing itself in the brightness of the day, in the waiting of a newly opened flower to be caressed by the shimmering moonlight, and in the pining of Radha for Krishna.
She finds herself reduced to a mere archetype, a finished woman. Her marriage demanded a surrender of herself and a surrender of personal desires. Love and marriage seemed to her to be two poles. She wondered, “Was every married adult a clown in bed, a circus performer?” She concluded, “I hate marriage” (1988:70). This gave rise to an ambivalent situation- extreme love of body and extreme loathing of body. Abundance of body images in women’s writing reveal the strong belief of contemporary women poets in the uniqueness of womanhood. They talk openly about the subjects which till very recently were considered taboo for women poets. In India, Kamala Das, admitting the demands of body, creates a new ethos and a new heritage:
….You were pleased
With my body’s response, its weather, it’s usual
Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth,
Yourself into every nook and cranny,
My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices. (“The Old Play House”)
Preoccupied with the flesh, she swings between experiencing body as something sacred and also as rotten and filthy. She reveals an exceptional audacity to own the demands of her body. “I had lost during that illness the resemblance to anything human. I looked like a moultling bird. My skin had turned dark and scaly….Like the phoenix, I rose from the ashes of my past. I forgot the promises that I had made to God and became once more intoxicated with life, my lips had without rest uttered the sweet name of Lord Krishna while I lay ill, but when I recovered my health I painted them up with pink lipstick. On moonlit nights once again I thought wistfully of human love” (1988:170).
Her parched self steps outside marriage in search of love. Her husband was “nearly all the time away touring in the outer districts. Even while he was with me, we had no mental contact with each other. If at all I began to talk of my unhappiness, he changed the topic immediately and walked away” (1988:15). When she could no longer bear loneliness she became “Carlo’s Sita”. Her search for an ideal lover, however, had begun early in life:
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 ocean’s tireless
Waiting. (“An Introduction”)
Looking back from a disciplined and mature angle, she calls it “animal lust”. The confession of having this animal lust in My Story was like a bomb that shook the utter complacency of our society. In an interview, Kamala Das reveals the purpose of this confession: “I needed to disturb society of this complacence. I found the complacence a very ugly state. I wanted to make woman of my generation feel that if men could do something wrong, they could do it themselves too. I wanted them to realise that they were equal. I wanted them to remove the gender difference. I wanted to see that something happened to society, which has such strong inhibitions and which only told lies in the public.” Her impatience with such a society strikes a chord of recognition among the feminists today. Adrienne Rich in America at about the same time made an effort to drag women out of a similar complacency through her writing. Kamala Das, like Denise Levertov and Carolyn Kizar, wants women writers to have the freedom to write without affectation. Blunt and colloquial, they criticize women for various forms of hypocrisy.
The poetry of Kamala, Das, though it deals with the personal experiences of the poet, derives less from alienation; it tries to assess the destiny of personality in culture and presents the interconnected realities of personality and culture. The inner crisis of her reality is brought about by the crucial facts and artifacts of social reality. The survival of personality is caught in the flux of desire, frustation, and insecurity on the one hand, social fear, hypocrisy and injustice on other. Her poetry struggles with both the inner and the outer turmoil. She makes no effort to distort the facts of either the personality or our culture, but in moments of intense pain wishes to transcend both:
I shall some day leave, leave the cocoon
You build around me with morning tear,
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 your dear one,
Just the sad remnant of a root, must
Lie behind, sans pride, on double beds
And grieve (1988:168).
The title of the article is from the poem entitled “The Poem as Mask” by Muriel Rukeyser.
Das, Kamala. 1988. My Story. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt Ltd.
Das, Kamala. 1992. An Interview with Iqbal Kaur. The Tribune. Jan 19.
Rich, Adrienne. 1979. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence New York: W.W.Norton & Company Inc.
Showalter, Elaine. 1977. A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelist from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Referenced in : Perspectives On Kamala Das’s Poetry ED. by Iqbal Kaur P-101