Sunday, 18 December 2016

Someone Else's Song - Kamala Das

Someone Else’s Song

- Kamala Das

I am a million, million people
Talking all at once, with voices
Raised in clamour, like maids
At village-wells.

I am a million, million deaths
Pox-clustered, each a drying seed
Someday to be shed, to grow for
Someone else, a memory.

I am a million, million births
Flushed with triumphant blood, each a growing
Thing that thrusts its long-nailed hands
To scar the hollow air.

I am a million, million silences
Strung like crystal beads
Onto someone else’s

This .poem is from Kamala Das’s first poetry collection, Summer in Calcutta (1965). It’s included in the generous selection of her work by Devindra Kohli, published last year under the Penguin Modern Classics imprint. From Kohli’s detailed introductory essay, we learn that Kamala Das was born in 1934 into an aristocratic and literary Nair family in the Malabar region of Kerala. She was educated at home and at a European Catholic school in Calcutta, and, at the age of 15, underwent an arranged marriage to an economist and banker working in Bombay, Kalipurayath Madhava Das. She published her short stories from an early age, and in 1953, apparently to avoid shocking her grandmother with her romantic flights of fancy, took the pen name Madhavikutty – “the child-wife of Madhava”. It was around this time that she began to write poems in English. It was the language she chose for all six of her published poetry collections.

Das presents a little self-portrait in another early poem: “I am Indian, very brown, born in / Malabar, I speak three languages, write in / Two, dream in one.” (An Introduction.) She goes on, in the same poem, to launch her linguistic manifesto, arguing fiercely against the demand that she should write in her Indian mother-tongue: “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 as human as I am human …” The tone is a reminder that Walt Whitman’s verse was an important discovery for Das.

Das’s poems often have a forbidden, male muse, but the muse of the American-English language is equally important. It represents her permission to write poetry in free verse, and to write personally, as part of a lived quest to reject subservience and refuse “to play at pretending games …” Her gift for personal memoir imbues her poetry, too.

Someone Else’s Song is not one of her outwardly bold confessional statements: it seems to spring from a mood of uncharacteristic hopelessness. The confidence lies, rather, in the understated handling of lyric form. She has found a simple, traditional mould and combines it with a powerful metaphorical language to dramatise the struggle for autonomy. It’s not a typical Das poem, but its existence helps bring her more declarative and formally liberated work into sharper relief.

Each incantatory stanza is introduced by the same assertion, “I am a million, million …” The sound is both melancholy and lulling, as if the “million, million”, with its childlike shorthand for vast indeterminate quantity, somehow numbed and erased the persona. (The comma suggests that the number has more to do with music than mathematics.) To be a million things is overwhelming, and Das is perhaps at her bravest in imagining such a universally multiplied and scattered identity.

The poem’s subtler device is a narrative one: the first stanza, essentially, is about voices, the second and third consider death and birth, and the fourth reverses the opening theme, voices, to silences.

It’s often in Das’s figurative language that the Indian richness of her English-language writing makes itself felt. Her image here of those noisy, chattering “maids / at village-wells” is wonderfully fresh, simple and effective. Politically, the plural “village-wells” is suggestive. This highly literary poet, from a family of poets, must also aspire to “contain multitudes” like her country and her mentor, and be ready to make things happen in language that’s not wholly dependent on educated eloquence. The voices offer possibilities to a writer, but she needs to have control of them and not disappear among them.

The death imagery in the second stanza seems to take the form of pustules which quickly mutate into seed-heads, and, as the image takes hold, become means for an indefinable further life, “Someday to be shed, to grow for / Someone else, a memory.” In the covert narrative of the poem, death precedes birth, but the trajectory from the vulnerable living voice to its survival through memorial could be seen as a distinctly writerly one. To grow merely for “someone else”, and become a memory, might indicate wasted potential, but it could also imply the glimpse of immortality.

Violent, even shocking images dominate stanza three. Although the “births” are “flushed with triumphant blood”, what is born is a frightening “Thing” – growing visibly, even as it’s being born, its long nails capable of scarring air. This imagery may suggest the goddess Kali. Das, of course, could be imagining these births as metaphors of artistic productions: in that case, how do works of art turn on their creator? Perhaps the answer is that, because they reveal the self, they are susceptible to being used as weapons. Alternatively, these beings could simply be children, hungrily clawing away at their mothers’ lives.

Pared-down lines in the final stanza seem to die wistfully on that single word, “Song”. But perhaps the elegiac shape is another seed that posits a new beginning. The reduction to “a million, million silences” is complicated, after all, by the transformation of the silences to “crystal beads”. Although still at the beginning of her career when she wrote this poem, Das already had strong voices in two languages, and knew she could sustain her songs and make them heard. But she is surely speaking here as much for others as for herself, others who may be silenced, socially or politically. Their silences, too, are potential points of eloquence. Someone Else’s Song is riddled with their questions: the maids at the village-wells are still asking them.

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