Kamala Das (1934 – 2009)
The personal life experiences of poets inform their poems, even if the influences are not evident. However, in modern confessional poetry the poet is singularly concerned with episodes and events in his or her own life. Inward emotions and turmoils — marriage, depression, mistreatment, loss, and anger are major themes and it can come out as dark and negative. It is all about the self. Sylvia Plath in American poetry is a good example. In her poem Daddy she recalls her father only to murder him in her memory. Long after his death she resented the male dominance he held over her:
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
In English poetry in India there is no better exemplar than Kamala Das. She responds to critics who find fault with her choice of language to write poetry by defending it in the poem Introduction:
… Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, halfIndian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don't
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
The poet is fully in control and using language exactly as she wants to, and achieves the purpose she has in mind to express her distinctive voice and assert her independence. In the following poem taken from her first collection Summer in Calcutta she confesses a dark secret without naming names – that she was molested in her own house by a relative:
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.
However, the poem has a marvellous ending in which she enfolds every reader into herself:
… I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I
Her marriage marked the beginning of an ill-treatment that lasted long, for the man who who groped her was her relative, K. Madhava Das, to whom she was soon given away by her father as a bride, with less due diligence than a man would invest in buying a new car. She writes in a poem:
Father, I ask you now without fear
Did you want me
Did you ever want a daughter
Did I disappoint you much
With my skin as dark as yours
And my brooding ways
It is narrated in a biography that the reason she was married off at age fifteen without finishing her high school was because she did poorly in mathematics! Such an infliction and abandonment was particularly galling to her, who came from a Nair society where women were supposed to have a high standing. In her case the literary antecedents of her mother (Balamani Amma, the poet) and her grand-uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, a renowned writer, should have elevated the standards for women’s educational attainment and imposed greater respect for women. That Kamala Das did not take a stand and turn down the match (it was always within the daughter’s right to refuse the suitor, even if she could not choose on her own) was the beginning of a lifelong burden, and she confesses her lack of courage in a letter to her sister Sulochana in 1958: “I was persuaded to marry, and had no courage to refuse to do what even my father wanted me to do. I have not shown by word or sign that I felt trapped. Let down and disillusioned.”
She says in a talk: “My sons have taken the name of my ancestral house, Nalapat, our family being matriarchal. But I took my husband’s name to make him feel that he belonged, and to make him respectable.”
But there was one in her family whom she truly loved, whose care for her she reciprocated in double measure. “My grandmother was my favourite human being,” she said. She recalls her with longing in the poem My Grandmother’s House:
There is a house now far away where once
I received love. That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence,
You cannot believe, darling
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved...I who have lost
My way and beg now at stranger‘s doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?
The great tragedy of Kamala Das’ life was that one so hungry for love, so relentless in her search for love, was denied affection from the most reliable of human sources – parents and spouse. In many respects her poetry follows the career of her life; it is the trajectory of a search for love denied.
She characterised her own wedding night as rape: “Then without warning he fell on me, surprising me by the extreme brutality of the attack. I tried unsuccessfully to climb out of his embrace. Then bathed in perspiration and with my heart palpitating wildly, I begged him to think of God.”
One of the poems which is difficult to reconcile with her reputation as a feminist is the stark one describing marital relations, called the The Looking Glass. In it she advocates that the woman should pander to her man’s self-image as the strong protector, while she should act soft, lovely, and submissive:
… 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.
The images in the poem that elevate it to poetry lies in the phrases ‘musk of sweat between the breasts’ and ‘warm shock of menstrual blood’. They are a lusty choice of words, never used before to convey the sexual aura surrounding a woman. The poem is meant as advice to an untutored bride, but one wonders if this can form the basis for the equality sought in modern marriage; is it not rather an acquiescence in the ancient ways of male domination?
Kamala Das had a lot to put up with in her failed marriage as she makes clear in her poem The Freaks. As the partners are about to copulate she wonders:
Can this man with
Nimble finger-tips unleash
Nothing more alive than the
Skin's lazy hungers? Who can
Help us who have lived so long
And have failed in love? The heart,
An empty cistern, waiting
Through long hours, fills itself
With coiling snakes of silence. .....
I am a freak. It's only
To save my face, I flaunt, at
Times, a grand, flamboyant lust.
So, she was play-acting in her marriage, knowing she was bound by custom to satisfy her partner sexually, regardless of his lack of tenderness, and his callous disregard for her own satisfaction.
The use of enjambment in which the sense of the line continues from one to the next without pause is often present in Das’ poems. However, the device is not used for the usual purposes: to hurry the lines, or to cause a break in the rhythm of the free verse she writes. Often the sense is broken at a peripheral preposition, in this case ‘at’, or in the previous quotation ‘of’; the run-ons are arbitrary.
Her real achievement is in the remarkable images she throws up, for instance – coiling snakes of silence – and the multitude of similar striking imagery that populate her poems.
Literary pursuits were hers by inheritance from her grand-uncle and her mother. She buried herself as a girl in the library of Narayana Menon and read the classics: Oscar Wilde, translations of Anatole France, Turgenev, Flaubert and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the original. Whitman’s collection of poems left its mark on her in many ways. She extended her self-taught literary preparation by staging plays in Malayalam of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (which her grand uncle, Narayana Menon, had translated), and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. Denied much formal education she learned by doing: “From my eighteenth year I have spent half the nights constructing stories that were saleable.” Recall this was already three years into her failed marriage and it was her husband who was egging her on to make money by writing.
Much later she attributed her ability to awaken from the torpor of her marriage captivity to her wide reading: “Ask the books that I read why I changed. Ask the authors dead and alive who communicated with me and gave me the courage to be myself. The books like a mother-cow licked the calf of my thought into shape …” Her grand-uncle also instructed her about the importance of thinking, along with reading, in order to develop one’s individuality. “This philosopher encouraged me to develop a sense of superiority that might have been illusory, but that nourished my spirit.”
Kamala Das and Arundhati Roy
Whitman most especially provided a model and a nourishing spirit. She looked on his lines from Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry as an invitation to participate in his vision. “I went into his poetry as one enters a new continent, with expectation and always a little out of breath … I felt at times that the poet from the far off country was looking down with hypnotic eyes from the sky above our red-tiled house.” She is recalling these lines of his great poem, Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry:
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in
unknown ways be looking upon you;
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the
She took many things from Whitman: the free verse, the use of repetition, the ubiquitous ‘I’and the discourse with nature. She said: “With him I exult in being alive physically, in being able to see the world as he saw it possessing the good of the earth and sun, exulting in my identity received by my body, exulting in the fact that I do not crave for riches …”
Her marriage, though painful, fertilised her poetry: “All the grief inflicted on me by my husband paid dividends. All the struggles proved useful later. Poetry came oozing out like blood out of injuries.” She further records in a 2006 documentary film: “If I had been a loved person I would not have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being. I would write about calm. I would write about happiness, and a lovely love life and to want to live so that it would be an incentive for life.”
A poem celebrating the birth of Jaisurya, her youngest son is filled with joy. It is one of her brightest poems:
It rained on the day my son
Was born …
… And, then, wailing into light
He came, so fair, a streak of light thrust
Into the faded light. They raised him
To me then, proud Jaisurya, my son,
Out of the mire of a moonless night was
He born, Jaisurya, my son, as out of
The wrong is born the right and out of night
The sun-drenched golden day.
A great quality of hers is vouched for by those who knew her personally; it was her ability to reach out to those who attacked her. She said: “Hate is a thorn in the flesh. I would rather prefer to love them, if love is not very difficult to achieve. I try.” Her ability to forgive her husband and be kind to him, especially in the years of ill-health before his death, is the most stirring spiritual accomplishment in her life.
People have seen obscenity in Kamala Das’s writing because she talks of sex and love-making. But is it really so? Her contention is: “When I talk of love making I’m thinking of Radha and Sri Krishna sporting— how Radha’s anklets used to jingle when he was on her … If I visualise Krishna, the God of all Hindus, sporting with his girls, how can I think of sex as something unclean?”
Indeed in the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva we read in the Twelfth Part:
Set your golden anklet on my bed like the sun
Throbbing breasts aching for loving embrace are hard to touch
Rest these vessels on my chest! Quench my love’s burning fire!
Offer your lip’s nectar to revive a dying slave, Radha!
(translation by Barbara Stoler Miller)
Perhaps the most scandalous thing that happened to Kamala Das was to be asked by her husband to “be nice to his boss.” He was pimping his wife in order to gain preference in his career and she timidly acquiesced. She used to go to the Taj Hotel at the Gateway of India to meet a man old enough to be her father, “a true Brahmin of the priestly class” she says, who apparently was gentle with her and never had intercourse, but bought her books, taught her Sanskrit and educated her. She was thirty at the time.
Morning at the Apollo Pier is a poem that celebrates that affair, a poem she has performed on stage for audiences:
Welcome me, lying down, dear love,
And remain so,
It is morning now at Apollo Pier
There is a choppy sea
And on the pavement like sleek birds freed from cages
Beautiful men inadequately loved walking
To find a fatigue in their limbs
They tell me, all my friends, that I am finished
That I can write no more
They tell me that your love is
A morass where I must sink, if not today,
Tomorrow. But, hold me, hold me once again
Kiss the words to death in my mouth, plunder
Memories. I hide my defeat in your
Wearying blood, and all my fears and shame.
Your flawed beauty is my only refuge.
Love me, love me, love me till I die...
This was not the last time she performed the service. Later in his career when he was hankering after a international assignment as a consultant, Madhava Das made her “be nice” to another person who could land him a posting. She dutifully followed instructions and he got the assignment. But she became a celibate with his permission when he came back from one of his trips and showed her a photo of himself with a catamite in his lap. This turned her off for good, and though she kept house dutifully for him there was no more sleeping together.
The Neermathalam tree and its yellow flower (Crateva magna) recreated the nostalgia of the old ancestral home of the Nalapat family for Kamala Das
It was the collection Summer in Calcutta that made her reputation. With the fame she started preaching a new morality, that marriage without love was meaningless, and one could justify the resort to affairs outside of marriage under those circumstances. But when she was propositioned it was not necessarily for love, but for lust, and she would rebuff many:
… all hands
The great brown thieving hands groped, beneath my
Clothes, their fire was that of an arsonist’s,
Warmth was not their aim …
Yet she had numerous affairs, and is not ashamed to counter defiantly: "Why does the mud-lark roll itself in the mud? You have to forgive me. I’m a writer. I have to experiment.”
At one point in her life she was a celibate for twenty years, she says, and hated sex. She derived all her satisfaction from from the emotional and spiritual aspect of a love affair sans sexual intimacy. She had an aversion to sex and ascribed her love affairs not to the attractiveness of the men, but her own idealisation of them as mythical figures. When challenged whether she felt joy in sex she answered in traditional platitudes about Hindu mores and how a woman could never admit she enjoyed it. She pictured marriage as a suffering for women: “The marital bed is a cross. We are not supposed to show lust. You’re just a body, and the lord and master uses that body.”
Writers are always seeking material for their works and taking copious notes to transform whatever happens to them into narratives and psychological insights that later form grist for their novels or poems. This metamorphosis happens even to the lovers, in these words of hers: “… put him under a microscope, dissect him, analyse his thoughts, his words. After a while he is no longer the man you held in your arms at night. You have cut him up into slivers, everything is burst open, he is seeds and pulp and juice all spread out on your writer’s table.”
The most bizarre event in her life took place in 1999 when she was duped by a lover. It was in the seniority of her life, much after she had ceased to feel any burning in her loins. She was 65, Sadiq Ali was 38, and he had two wives already. He charmed her with his sonorous voice, his recital of poems, and his smiles. After a flirtatious visit to her apartment mediated by a cousin of hers, there followed daily phone calls, ending with an invitation to his country house. She accepted, feeling once again the long-forgotten carnal desires of her younger self. She was duly seduced, being reduced by ardour to the state of a quaking artless maiden. Later she described her feelings with poetic imagination: "When he entered me it was the first time I had ever experienced what it was like to feel a man from the inside.”
He promised marriage if she converted, which she did promptly. But he dithered and and she waited for a wedding that never came, by then herself transmuted into a black burqa-wearing woman and apparently unable to find a way back to her old life. Her Hindu family refused to have her in their fold again for fear of death-threats to them by extremists.
She tried to live the life of a famous convert to Islam and got invited to the Arab sheikhdoms where Malayalis work in the Gulf and was lionised there; she liked the attention. But afterward she was left forlorn, with a poem to remember the passion by, called This Coming Friday:
At least now
I did love him more
than I ever loved you
I found bliss in the scent of his perspiration
This Friday let it happen
Chop off my limbs that curled round him
like creepers around a tree
Remove my lips that kissed him
and went on kissing
this heart that loved
and was exhausted from loving …
It was on Fridays that executions took place in Saudi Arabia. She notes “it is the searching that makes the poet go on writing. If you find someone, the search is over, and the poetry is over.”
I cannot fold
my wayward limbs to crawl into
coffins of religions.
I shall die, I know,
but only when I tire of love;
tire of life and laughter.
Then fling me into a pit
six feet by two,
do not bother to leave
any epitaph for me.
When she died in 2009 at her son Jaisurya’s place in Pune her body was flown to Thiruvananthapuram and buried with State Honours in Palayam Juma Masjid, according to Muslim rites, as she wished.
1. Kamala Das Selected Poems Edited & Introduced by Devindra Kohli (Penguin Press), 2014
2. The Love Queen of Malabar by Merrily Weisbord (McGill Queen’s University Press), 2011
3. Kamala Das — A Critical Spectrum Edited by Rajeshwar Mittapali and Pier Paolo Piciucco (Atlantic Publishers and Distributors), 2013