Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.
Indian writing in English, as a genre, is characterised with a multiplicity and variety when it comes to themes and modes of representation. Kamala Das is one of the many distinguished voices of the subcontinent, known for her impassioned responses against oppression and subjugation of woman in the Indian context. Her poem “An Introduction” is an appropriate introduction to her poetic identity and helps the readers to understand Kamala Das as a poet of singular merit.
Politics as Domain of Men
The poem is titled “An Introduction”, which means a formal presentation of oneself. The poem is a detailed account of Kamala Das’ life and her conflicts starting from her childhood and early adolescence. She begins the poem with a reference to politics, as a domain beyond her knowledge and expertise.
I don't know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
Interestingly, this poem was published in 1965 (in the anthology Summer in Calcutta) and the following year saw the revolutionary rise of female power in politics in the shape of Indira Gandhi who becamne the first woman Prime Minister of India in 1966. Therefore, one may say that, when this poem was written, politics was still considered to be a domain of the man, dominated by male figures.
Establishment of Identity
The lines which follow are equally interesting:
I amIndian, very brown, born inMalabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
The poet goes on to declare her identity as “Indian”, emphasises her dark skin without hesitation and specifies her expertise in three languages. Born and brought up in Malabar, Kamala Das’ native language is Malayalam. Besides this she also wrote in English. What is interesting in this line is the statement “dream in one”. What language do we dream in? Dreams tend to have a language of its own. It does not necessarily be the mother tongue or any language of the waking life even. Perhaps she refers to the language of the unspoken voices which construct dreams.
What emerges from the first few lines of this poem is a straightforward personality who knows her limitations, her strengths and her priorities. She sees herself as an Indian above all, not constrained by state boundaries or regional communal borders. She becomes a representative voice of every Indian woman who belong to the same circumstances.
Language and Creativity
The next few lines show her assertion of self and her rejection of dominating voices telling her what to do with herself and her creativity:
Don't write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
The word “they” stands for all those voices which try to limit her expression, laying down codes which are governed by patriarchy. English, being considered as the language of the powerful masters who once ruled the nation, is not supposed to be used by the apparently powerless female writer. Kamala Das is unabashed about her use of English. She openly claims her linguistic distortions and hybridizations as her originality. This was an attitude which in Salman Rushdie was seen as a linguistic revolution later on, specially in his concept of “chutnification”. Das is seen to advocate the same kind of liunguistic freedom and personalization. For her, language is a medium of communication, it is a mode of self-expression. Therefore, it is personal. At the same time, she talks about ownership of language. This is an important statement to make because, when it came to women, ownership is a highly problematic word. She breaks a lot of boundaries to claim such kind of linguistic rights which show her revolutionary spirit.
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
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
She goes on to further define the quality of this language. She relates her language to her emotions, her desires and beliefs. The cawing of the crows and roaring of the lions are languages of instinct. They are not ornamented by human intelligence and artificiality. Kamala das wants to say that her language is as instinctive and honest as these voices of the uncorrupted world of animals. On the other hand she distinguishes her voice from the sounds made by inanimate objects of nature such as the storm, rain, clouds or funeral pyre. These objects emit sounds not from any conscious agency of utterance but as random wavelengths. Kamala Das is very specific about the element of agency in her utterance and the consciousness behind it.
Watch my complete class lecture on this poem " An Introduction" for a complete analysis and explanation
Body and Politics of Representation
After this she goes on to give a detailed account of her childhood and adolescence. She shows how her body was considered to be the marker of her development and is the site of definition when it comes to feminity:
“I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.”
The recurrence of the word “they” reinforces Kamala Das’ impatience with the commanding voices of patriarchy. She mentions her growing stature and her changes of puberty as a process of humiliation. This is not just a personal truth but is a reflection of how almost every woman undergoes a change in the way society looks at her while she crosses the boundary of adolescence. Maturity is judged by the bodily changes and not by any intellectual changes.
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.
She goes on to talk about her earliest experience of love and sexual encounter. Sadly, even before she grew a legitimate consciousness of love, she was thrust into a marriage at the age of fifteen, with a young man she hardly knew. Marriage and subsequent consummation was not seen as related to desire of the famale body but as social methods to legitimise procreation. Her husband did not show any violence, but the sexual act itself, which had nothing to do with her consent or desire, was an act of shock and violence. It made her crushed under the pressure of expectation. Sadly, the two organs that she mentions, her breast and womb, are related to reproduction and child rearing. It shows that she was crushed under the expectations of motherhood. A woman’s worth was defined only by her reproductive capabilities. There was hardly any recognition of a woman’s worth beyond these.
Consequently, the first signs of rebellion is seen in the form of rejecting her physical attributes of femininity:
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.
The short phrases, examples of a good feminine way of life, are universal markers. A woman’s dress, her behavior, her activities are constantly under surveillance. The recurrent use of “they” is noticeable again. A woman’s world is defined by non-intellectual activities of compliance and submissive actions. In a short few phrases Kamala Das brings out the pre-coded limited world of a typical married woman and her petty mundane life. She uses the phrases in a climactic way to reach the central phrase of the poem “Fit in” with great emphasis.
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 …
This is where Kamala Das vehemently expresses her disgust for the “categorizers”, all those people who feel comfortable in seeng human beings as pre-defined blocks without individualities. Madhavikutty is the pseudonym that Kamala Das used while writing in Malayalam. The society is seen to allow a woman creative expression so long as the creator is behind a mask. A woman speaking her mind often finds strong objection from her family, her relatives who feel threatened because of their inherent insecurities. A woman is also not seen as an individual who may have legitimate psychological trouble. It is as if every psychological trouble she experiences is a ploy to gain attention. It is seen as a “game” and is denied any serious consideration.
Love and Desire as Rebellion
Kamala Das continues, as if in a trance, to talk about her love and her desires:
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
Clearly, this is an open rebellion against every expectation that society has of her as a model married woman. She talks about falling in love, something that involved her own desire and preference. This is where the poem becomes truly confessional because this is where she bares it all. There is an exposition of her innermost self laid bare. In her autobiography “My Story”, Das uses the recurrent image of Lord Krishna to define her love for this man she mentions. In this poem too she universalizes her relationship “he is every man
Who wants. a woman, just as I am every Woman who seeks love.” She uses traditional metaphors of the ocean and the river to further emphasize this universality. In doing so, she links man to desire and woman to patient waiting. Although this may seem regressive because she falls back on traditional metaphors and reiterates traditional representations of masculinity and femininity. However, one has to remember that such traditional links are established because of what society expects from individuals when it comes to love and sexuality.
Individual to Universal
Speaking of identity, the poem reaches a point where Kamala Das directly addresses the readers in terms of identity and human potential:
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.
She deliberately uses the pronoun “he” because it is the privilege of the man to own and assert an identity. Every human being is a possibility, like a sword in a sheath. She goes on to elaborate on how she is not just one woman but every woman who feels persecuted and oppressed:
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.
These images all speak of women breaking under the pressure of expectations. The woman drinking alone is a woman who is rejected by society. The woman who makes love and feels ashamed is a victim of being judged every time she expresses and acts upon desire. Finally, the image of the girl, dying with a rattle in her throat, is the horrific image of femaile infanticide which is a curse of the Indian subcontinent. From her birth to death, a woman faces every persecution which Kamala Das thinks of as her own. In doing this she establishes a link with every woman, in a sort of universal sisterhood. This is seen as a significant marker of modern and post modern feminist writing.
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.
The confession continues to the point where the poet takes every responsibility of her actions. She sees herself as a sinner because desire and acting upon it is often considered sinful for women. Sin, one must remember, is quite different from “crime”. While the latter is defined by law, the former is religious in connotation. In a society where women are seen as unintellectual agents of procreation, often defined by religion as prone to temptation and fall, Kamala Das judges her actions of desire and creativity as sinful. At the same time, she knows that she has suffered like a saint and has performed the miracle of self-representation. She claims to be a true individual, and takes every responsibility of her actions. She does not wish to present herself just as a victim, but as a voice as well. Above all she knows that she can relate to every other woman in her suffering and her joys.
The poem ends with a remarkable statement: “I too call myself I”. It is interesting how she plays with the pronoun “I”. The poem begins and ends with this word. When she says this, it is as if she asserts her rights to call herself “I”, even though she is a woman who is supposed to have no right over herself. While this poem is an introduction to Kamala Das’ self, it ends up being an introduction into every woman’s self who asserts her individuality. On one hand, the poem is written in a confessional mode and is autobiographical in nature. On the other hand, it becomes a universal voice of the creative female writer. Therefore, this poem is both personal and universal in tone. It talks about Kamala Das, the individual and Madhavikutty, the creative voice.
"An Introduction" A Representative Feminist Poem of Modern India
Agency and creativity are the central concerns in Kamala Das’ writings. She was perpetually tormented by the traditionalist’s subjugation of female creativity. Her conversion to Islam, in 1999, that that accompanied with a lot of controversy, was perhaps a mode of asserting this agency. While she found no sanction of her individuality in her traditional, conservative native religion, Islam perhaps offered her that individual access to divinity.
Nonetheless, in this poem, “An Introduction”, Kamala Das effectively demonstrates her life and her innermost anxieties in terms of gender-representations, identity, choice and judgement. This is, therefore, a representative poem of Indian Feminism of modern India.
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© 2020 Monami
Chandrasekhar Rajendra Raut from Nagpur on September 26, 2020:
great! expecting more such in-depth articles from you!