Sunday, 18 December 2016

Radical Feminism in Kamala Das’s Poetry

 Radical Feminism in Kamala Das’s Poetry

- Javed Hussain Khan, 
Sardar Patel University

Kamala Das has apparently received scant critical attention in this country insofar as her poetic creations are concerned, and even such attention largely borders on the judgmental. What has been highlighted in criticism of her poetry is her obsession with sex and promiscuity. Having considered the entire gamut of her poetic creation objectively, we find that her so-called obsession with sex and the vehemence with it finds articulation in her poems is the product of her deep concern against the issue of gender discrimination. It is in this sense that there is evidence of radical feminism in Kamala Das’s poems in English or English translation, no matter what her critics might have had said so far.

Our aim in this paper is not only to show how her poems address a range of issues like love, lovemaking, loneliness of women, and their physical, psychological, and sexual exploitation, but also to explain how it cannot be merely coincidental that there is almost total similarity between Das’s concerns and those of other feminists during the second wave of feminism from mid-1960s to 1980s, which manifested as radical feminism some time towards the middle or end of the 1970s. We hope to be able to argue that a good look into the poems that form a part of collections of poetry like Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), culminating with Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996) contain sufficient evidence of radical feminism.

Accordingly, we have divided this paper into six sections beginning with a brief historical account of the developments in the feminist movement. on feminism, We shall devote the sections that follow the first and preceding the last to identify and elaborate on the significance of the titles of major poetry collections and poems of Kamala Das respectively by examining closely sixteen of her major poems and relevant portions of the other important poems, and then draw upon the features identified in the first section to cite evidence of their reflection in Kamala Das’s poems. We shall also make an attempt to explore the appropriate texts to trace the development of the ‘myth and legend’ of Krishna and the crucial strands of thought in Kamala Das’s poems to place the man-woman relationship as she sees it in its proper perspective. We shall conclude our discussion by making certain observations on the basis of the major points made in the preceding sections.


History takes note of three waves of feminism. The first-wave of feminism appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century in the USA and Europe and lasted for a major part of the 20th century. It came by way of a response to the liberal politics and problems of the industrial society when the feminist movement began to seek access and equal opportunities for women. The second-wave of feminism followed in the 1960s to 1970s in post-war western model of welfare societies in response to other ‘oppressed’ groups like the Afro-Asians, those practising other forms of sexuality, and the rise of the New Left. Associated as it was with demands for radical reforms and differential rights, this wave continued all the way through to the 1980s to 1990s. The third-wave that followed subsequently from the mid-1990s onward focussed on issues born out of the inevitable shift to a postcolonial and post-socialist world order. An offshoot of this manifested itself in what is called the ‘grrl’ rhetoric that seeks to address the problems of equity and differentiation and the polemics of evolution vs revolution.

Feminist writers who lived and wrote during the second-wave of feminism sought to raise their voice against all forms of oppression based on gender, colour of the skin, and a different sexual orientation, seeing these as a contradiction within the western model of the welfare state. It took a radical turn in the wake of demands for drastic reforms and equal rights in the 1980s and 1990s when this wave reached a peak. The latter part associated with radical turn is ordinarily referred to as radical feminism. Radical feminism thus marked the beginning of revolutionary political views primary aimed at advocating, as a part of their demands, the restoration of balance by seeking to eliminate the heavy bias in favour of men, and other related issues. A close consideration of the key ideas that informed and structured the discourse in radical feminism brings to light the use of the following set of premises:

1        Patriarchy, prevalent in all societies, leads to gender-specific claims to superiority on the ground that the seed of man (the phallic principle) helps bring a new life into being and ensures the continuity of the family.

2        Patriarchy ignores the fact that gender inequality has no legal basis and women do not belong to a ‘sex class’, and this leads to oppression and exploitation of women for non-/extra-scientific reasons like biology (anatomical structure), the institution of marriage (making equals unequal), and heterosexuality (disapproval of other forms of sexuality) as it does in case of social class and ethnicity.

3        Institutionalized relationships which show a complex of hierarchies like father-son, husband-wife, superior-subordinate, male-female etc were used to pave the way for the subsequent establishment of an investor-investment kind of structure, leading to gender and economic exploitation.

4        Share in control over technology and development is necessary for ensuring women’s liberation as it would free them from the processes of conceiving, bearing babies, childbirth, and the subsequent responsibility for their nurture.

5        All men are neither ‘the class enemy’ of women nor all male-female relationships are oppressive and exploitative in nature, with the fight being restricted to the demand for a fair share of control over development, which was an exclusively male preserve thus far.

6        Women, unlike men, experience a dual form of exploitation because men exercise some or the other form of unnatural authority to oppress women both at the workplace and within the confines of their homes and this high-handedness essentially symbolizes the treatment of women as a commodity.

Thus, radical feminist movement, it appears from the discussion above, battled patriarchy on the ground of its (a) phallic-centred claims to superiority, (b) use of institutionalized hierarchies and structures to perpetrate these claims, (c) sole control over development, (d) use of biology and heterosexuality to create restrictions, (e) commodification of women at home and at work, and (f) insensitive treatment of women for childbirth. This formed the basis for the ‘grrrl’ rhetoric in the mid-1990s.

The term ‘grrrl’ is a reference to a young woman considered to be independent and strong or aggressive, especially with regard to her attitude to men or her own sexuality. It found its entry into the English lexicon sometime between the beginning and middle of the 1990s.1 The third-wave of feminism, believed to have been launched by an underground feminist punk rock movement called the ‘Riot grrrl’ had its origins in the USA. It sought to advocate female empowerment by addressing issues like rape, domestic violence, sexuality, patriarchy etc considered to be forms of discrimination and subordination by almost all versions of feminism. We cannot help observing that the noun form ‘grrrl’, which resonates the ‘grrr’ sound associated with both protest and warning made by certain categories of the wild life, derives its name and legitimacy from that underground punk rock movement. This is not to draw, in any way, a parallel between ‘grrrl’ as a word ‘grrr’ as a sound but have taken liberty to mention it largely due to that resonance there. Independent and strong women’s use of ‘girrl rhetoric came to be recognized as an artful, aggressive and effective discourse pattern reflecting their attitude to men and sexuality.


We seek to identify and elaborate on the significance of the titles of major poetry collections of Kamala Das in this section by examining closely sixteen of her major poems and relevant portions of the other important poems and drawing upon the features identified in the first section to point out the evidence of their reflection in Kamala Das’s poetry. We shall focus attention on the indicative references contained in the self-explanatory titles of her major collections of poetry mentioned to begin with.

We find that the word ‘summer’ used in the title of the collection Summer in Calcutta, which is ordinarily taken to mean the warmest season of the year, can also be used mean the mature stage of one’s life, work etc. Kamala Das said she found her growth ‘gratifying’ due to the ‘many avatars, avatarams in one life’ in response to a question on her evolution as a writer in her famous Warrier interview.2 She admitted to the interviewer that she was eager and ‘in a hurry’ to go through all that ‘experience’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things; never realized when she had grown old; and does not even at that given point in time, arguing that ‘one is ageless’ within one’s own self. Kamala Das, who was born in 1934, was given away in marriage at 15 and mothered her first child Jaisurya at the age of 16. She admits in the Warrier interview that she was not mature enough for childbirth at that time and perhaps did not understand what conception and motherhood entailed, asserting thereafter that ‘I was mature enough to be a mother only when my third son was born.’ A person matures both in terms of chronology and experiences and becomes more sensible and wiser over a period of time.

The term ‘descendant’ used in The Descendants is also especially suggestive because it presupposes an ‘ancestor’, ‘ancestry’ and a genealogy. The descendants may be a part of a nucleus, or a larger family consisting of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on, but the fact remains that they derive their legitimacy and fortunes from their ancestors within a feudal structure. Ancestry brings with it family tradition, or ‘a way of life’ as our sages tells us, including customs, rites and rituals. Kamala Das drew her ancestry from the aristocratic matriarchal Nair community of Malabar on her maternal side and the peasant class with a strong influence of the Gandhian principles of austerity on her paternal side. So she had in her a veritable blend of the genes of the aristocracy and the commoner which seems to us to have been reason for a confusion of identities in her. The tradition in the aristocratic Nair community was to cremate their dead in the southern compound of their traditional matriarchal home, Nalappat House. Paying his tribute to her in The Hindu Vijay Nambisan quotes her as having told her neighbours before leaving Kerala in 2006 that she would ‘return here after death, in whatever form, as a bird or a deer’ and that she would be a ‘part of this earth’.3

Max Muller traces the probable ancestry of the Nairs to the union between the ‘Nagar’ community of ‘Naga’ farmers and sailors and ‘Aiyar’ community of cattle breeders and warriors, which inhabited the area between Lothal and Sind where River Sindhu flowed into the Arabian Sea. This union created a new community of ‘Nayars’ later named the ‘Nairs’. The Nairs were swordsmen from the west coast of India who subscribed to a matriarchal (Marumakkathayam in Malayalam) system of society. The Nair women enjoyed liberty, and commanded respect, prestige, and power under the right to property through inheritance and descent. This system was legalised through a royal decree during the second Chera Empire after the Empire lost a majority of its Nair fighters in the Chera-Chola wars.

The matriarchal system was structured around a family ‘house’ (Tharavadu in Malayalam) which was controlled by the mother, her brothers and younger sisters, and her children. The oldest brother (Karanavar in Malayalam) acted both as the head of the household and the manager of the family estate. Since children in the family traced their descent from their mother, they were considered as belonging to her family, and such family owned the property collectively. The law had a provision to club the children’s share in the property with that of their mother’s in any division of property if and when it took place in future.

An obligatory tradition in the community necessitated a ritual when a Nair girl reached puberty. Her parents invited a ‘bridegroom’ chosen from the Machcham-Pikkars as per the established tradition fashioned through the ancient Royal writs, to ‘marry’ her in a formal ceremony known as ‘Thaalikettu’. Formalities like comparing horoscopes, setting the date, the auspicious hour (Mahurat) etc were followed. The girl was taken in procession to a tank for a bath by one of the girl’s would-be sisters-in-law, dressed thereafter in bridal attire, bedecked with jewellery, brought back to her house, and was seated in a separate room. After a sumptuous feast, the family Brahmin, or her brother, would tie a piece of string (Prathisara-bandham) round her wrist amid singing of ‘Subhadra Veli’ (commemorating the Arjun-Subhadra marriage) by the Ambalavaasi Brahmin women. These women then garlanded the groom and invited him for marriage. The groom was given a traditional welcome, and the girl’s brother or maternal uncle washed his feet. The groom then tied a ‘Thaali’ round her neck in a ceremony. The groom’s men, the Machchampi, escorted the girl into the ‘Manavara’, a decorated apartment in the inner part of the house, where both the couple were expected to ‘cohabitate’ for three days. On the fourth morning, the family Brahmin removed the string tied round the groom’s and bride’s wrists on the first day and performed purificatory rites. The couple was once again taken to the neighbouring tank to bathe, after which the bride’s father and uncle would bid farewell to the groom with gifts like rings, ear-rings, money and clothes.4

Moving on to the next collection, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, we find that the word ‘playhouse’ could have at least two meanings: (a) a theatre, and (b) a small model of a house wherein children store their toys and play with them. Although the word here is not hyphenated, it could have been taken as the expression with origins in 1870s ‘to play house’ which is suggestive of ‘having sex’. We use it in a more innocent sense in which it is taken in the rural countryside in India. Children enact the roles of elders in terms of traditions, customs, beliefs etc while playing with their dolls. We have a fine example of this in Aa Mani (1984), a Kannada play by the late Kirtinath Kurtkoti, translated into Hindi as Woh Ghar (That House), and subsequently made into a television film by actor-director Girish Karnad.5 The play is about how a children’s game in an old house loses innocence and turns serious when the children begin to enact real-life situations like marriage and a death in the family. It has a happy end, however, with the ‘mother ghost’ residing in that house appearing before them to bless them, and to tell them in a typical fashion, quite Eliotesque in nature, that the past does not impede the present but tends to enhance it.

One is also reminded of Nora’s complaint to her husband Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House that their home ‘has been nothing but a play-room’, she has been his ‘doll-wife’ and like her who was ‘just as at home Papa’s doll-child’, her children have been her ‘dolls.’6 This is not to suggest that Kamala Das had read Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House or Kurtkoti’s Aa Mani. We use these two examples only to buttress the point we had made about the word ‘playhouse’. For, the ‘playhouse’ appears to symbolize the girl-woman narrator’s painful experiences as it does in Kamala Das’s “An Introduction”.

The title Only the Soul Knows How to Sing is similarly quite enlightening. ‘Soul’ is a reference the spiritual or immaterial part of a person, which is often regarded as immortal. However, at the same time, it is marked by its use to refer to the moral, emotional, or intellectual nature of a person. The ‘moral’ aspect of an individual’s personality relates to goodness or badness of his/her character or behaviour, and his/her ability to distinguish between right and wrong in life, and thus with social conduct as per the norms prevalent in a given society. Some of it is universal in nature and endorsed by communities as a whole. The emotional aspect is related to strong instinctive feelings, such as love, fear etc prevalent in a person’s mental make-up in varying degrees of intensity or sensibility. Since ‘emotion’ is instinctive in nature, it is innate, native or inborn, and not something that is learnt. What is learnt, however, is the way in which to manage emotions by exercising emotional control within a family and a social set-up. Obviously, this is associated with the process of nurture and maturing and is but a part of it. The intellectual aspect relates to the use of the faculty of reasoning, knowing, thinking, and understanding. One can achieve balance in responding to a stimulus if one learns to keep emotions out of the process by separating it from the intellectual aspect.

Kamala Das seems to have had in mind the basic meaning of ‘soul’ as the spiritual or immaterial part of a person, often regarded as immortal, when she settled on this title for her penultimate collection of poems. To ‘sing’ is a verb that ordinarily means to use musical sounds set to a tune. It is quite apparent that Kamala Das has used ‘sing’ not in its ‘literal’ but in a ‘literary’ sense, which serves to remind us of Bernard Shaw’s use of élan vital or life force7 in Act III of Man and Superman (1903) through Anna; and Frederico Garcia Lorca’s use of duende through the youngest of Bernarda’s daughters, Adela, in The House of Bernarda Alba (1936).

Life force (originally élan vital), coined by Henri Bergson, is a term most commonly used in biology to mean a hypothetical force which figures in the theory of creative evolution as an extension of the development of organisms to substitute Darwinian theory of evolution.8 He used it to mean ‘the urge or impulse’ which is not only ‘an essential part of all human life’ and ‘the fundamental source of human action’ which was for him ‘the source of efficient causation and evolution of human life’ through successive generations. Bergson sought to promote the concept of élan vital by extending the Victorian notion of vitalism thus appropriating the idea of ‘soul’ in the sciences. Arguing that development took two routes, instinctual and intellectual evolution, he observed that the former resulted in insects, and the latter variant in human beings. Shaw uses the concept of life force to outline the Anna’s search for superman through Duan Juan in Act III of Man and Superman.

Lorca refers to duende citing from Manuel Torre’s argument that it is ‘a mysterious force that everyone feels’ which ‘no philosopher has explained.’ The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as ‘the ability to attract others, through personal magnetism and charm’. However, Spanish scholars relate it to something that ‘surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet,’ and this makes it something innate, leading a person to break into a dance like a dancer as Adela does in The House of Bernarda Alba.

On hindsight we feel that the twin concepts of élan vital/life force and duende draw their origin in the stirring of the human soul for some reason or the other. Kamala Das uses the term soul to refer to the ātmãn which, according to the Indian belief system, never dies. The body decays and perishes but the ātmãn remains intact, and reappears recurrently in other bodies as manifested in the theory of rebirth until such time as it attains moksha, i.e., it is freed from the cycle of life and death. This bears semblance with Emerson’s argument of the merging of the soul and the oversoul.

We consider the features identified in the first section and cite evidence of their reflection in sixteen of Kamala Das’s poems chosen on the grounds of: (a) their recurrence in her poetry collections, underscoring their importance9 to her, and (b) our belief that they are germane to any discussion on the poetry of Kamala Das. We use other important poems but only to illustrate the points we make in the following sections.

A person’s introduction, whether by his/her own self or by others, usually begins with the name of the one being introduced by himself/ herself or others. Yet “An Introduction” begins with a negation, which has nothing to do with the name, but with an assertion of fact in normal cases: ‘I don’t know politics’. Disinterestedness in politics is made good by the narrator expressing her satisfaction with her knowledge of the current political leaders in India. She describes herself as a brown multilingual Indian, a native of Malabar, one who dreamt in one language but wrote in two. Her use of the term ‘dream’ with ‘language’ as a complement is suggestive of her comfort level with it and creativity at its best helping her convert to a verbal form her emotional experiences in the language concerned, probably her native language. Her second language, obviously English, met with social disapproval due probably to its non-native nature as the language of the colonisers. She responds to this with the observation a language belongs to one who uses it, irrespective of whether he/she is native to it. A user naturally crafts the ‘other’ language to suit his/her purpose and that is how individual styles of use in speech or writing evolve.

Language is believed to be a vehicle of thought and it becomes so naturally in due course as the user gets habituated to its use much in the same way as he/she gets habituated to things he/she does regularly. The narrator calls this her ‘speech of the mind’ which helps her give expression to her thoughts, and quite unlike ‘the/Incoherent mutterings of the blazing/Funeral pyre.’ Conceding the fact that her gradual transition from childhood to adolescence had caught her unaware, she argues how she realised it only after she was told about it and saw the signs of it setting in. She complains that she was pushed into a bedroom with ‘a youth of sixteen’ and the doors were closed on them when she asked for ‘love’, and how her ‘sad woman-body felt so beaten’ after that experience.

We find oblique reference here to the ‘Thaalikettu’ in the Nair tradition. Young as she was, this strange experience changed her and made her non-conventional both in appearance and attire. The traditional-minded in the family asked her there onward to behave like a normal girl/woman, to adopt a name, to ‘fit in’, ‘belong’, and to stop playing ‘pretending games’ or behaving like a nymphomaniac ‘jilted in love’. This experience of the first ‘man’ in her life, who could have been anyone and be called by any name, led her to believe that ‘he is every man/Who wants a woman, just as I am every/Woman who seeks love’. Drawing a line of distinction between a man and a woman, she observes that while the man’s passion equals a ‘hungry’ river eager to merge into the sea, the woman’s desire approximates the ‘the oceans’ waiting tirelessly. The subsequent feeling of shame after love-making confuses her, making her feel both the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saint’, and the ‘beloved’ and the ‘betrayed’, though both experience the same joys and aches.

Kamala Das’s poem “My Grandmother’s House” brings back to our mind as readers the fact that children are very fond of their grandparents, especially their grandmothers. Children in the Nair families, following the tradition, lived with their parents in their maternal grandmother’s house. The narrator’s longing to return to revisit her childhood is what makes this special as a poem, for it reflects the sense of belongingness, and satisfaction of having been treated as special and loved in it. This nostalgia is negated immediately with the impersonal reference used in the phrase ‘that woman died’ to refer to her grandmother, which is disturbing. It is disquieting because one never ever refers to a loved one in third person terms. It is true that nostalgia grips us because there is no going back to the relations and times which caused it in the first place. The yearning remains, even increases, and can be stifling as is the case here. The frequent use of oxymoron as in ‘blind eyes’, ‘the frozen air’, the synecdoche in ‘an armful of/darkness’ and the transferred epithet in ‘a brooding/dog’ tend to buttress the point that the narrator is apprehensive about her proud feeling of having ‘lived in such a house’ and of being ‘loved’ in it. She confesses to having gone astray, seeks to trudge a lonely path in life, and seems doubtful whether seeking and receiving some love from others was really worth the effort made. However, we do not know whether her claim is real or imaginary. It could be only a way of protesting the hurt.

From the narrative about the grandmother’s house, we move to another narrative of an experience camouflaged as one in the kindergarten. A ‘kindergarten’ is a class or school for very young children but its usage in the poem “Punishment in Kindergarten” appears to be that of inexperienced youth rather than very young children. We do still recall instances when we caused offence to our teachers by breaking the rules in our kindergarten class and the consequential punishment we were handed down. This poem seems to be a recollection of the verbal reprimand: ‘Why don’t you join the others, what/A peculiar child you are!’, reminding us of the categorizers’ demand that the child-woman in the family ‘fit in’, ‘belong’ and desist acting like a nymphomaniac. The poet camouflages her narrator’s experience by introducing along with her narrator, ‘a blue-frocked woman’ as her kindergarten teacher. The teacher, trying hard to spend some time with her boyfriend who had joined them on a class picnic, reprimands her student who had tagged along. She refuses to relive the pain it had caused and is content in the fact that her ‘mind has found/An adult peace’ leaving behind it all the agonies it had been through. Interestingly, her reaction to her classmates laughing at her is adult-like because she found it strange that they made light of the pain in her tears even as she expected them to empathize with her and console her.

Kamala Das uses the ‘looking glass’, a mirror, as an image in her poem “The Looking Glass” to protest against male arrogance even in matters of love and love-making. This protest is directed against men who expect women in their lives to be ‘honest’ about their ‘wants’. The narrator’s use of words like want and seek (“An Introduction”, lines 44-46) requires a closer scrutiny. Want is a strong word involving authority, power and a strong desire or need bordering on almost being an exclusive right.10 Seek is a meeker option meaning a search or an effort to find or obtain, involving humility and submission. The act of seeking is what Kamala Das calls a thapasya. Indian philosophy treats a seeker as a sādhaka, or a spiritually disciplined person aiming to attain the high­est degree of realisation. Love is sought not demanded, for it takes the lovers by surprise. Philosophers and seers use several epithets for love like caring for the other, sha­ring with the other, sacrificing for the other, and the feeling of oneness and equality that knows no subjugation. It is the sheer joy of the moment when all fuses into one, into a cosmic unity, which Osho Rajneesh calls sādhana,11 but becomes a source of pain when substituted by lust. Lovemaking, without the feeling of oneness and equality or of love, is an example of lust in action. Satiation of lust can only yield some sort of physical release, but fails to help restore emotional equilibrium. Kamala Das may not have stated this very explicitly, but has implied it in several poems in lines like the one in which she says, ‘Love is not important, that makes the blood/Carouse, nor the man who brands you with his/Lust’ (“Jaisurya”, lines 21-23; added emphases).

Words that deserve careful examination in this case are the verbs ‘carouse’ and ‘brand’, for to carouse is to make merry, especially by drinking large amounts of alcoholic drinks, and to brand is to mark something by burning or as if by burning, especially by way of establishing ownership. Love neither knows ownership, nor possession, nor does it cause the carousal of blood that is symptomatic of a state wherein pleasure takes precedence over fulfilment. This kind of lovemaking is mechanical, and hardly leads to fulfilment. The narrator in the poems finds it trifling, and is forced to generalize about men: ‘Men are worthless, to trap them/Use the cheapest bait of all, but never/Love’ (“A Losing Battle”, lines 3-5; added italics), with the ‘cheapest bait’ turning out elsewhere to be ‘the wrappings of hairless skins’, a crude depiction of the female genitalia, and worthless is a complement there expressing contempt.

Moreover, the noun ‘want’ refers to a strong ‘need’ and the verb ‘need’ expresses a ‘lack’ and, notwithstanding Kamala Das’s use of it as a noun, it still seems to imply a ‘lack’. The pronoun ‘her’ in place of ‘their’ adds to this negativity, for love is a mutual need and love-making involves mutual consent and acceptance. Therefore, that ‘her’ in the poem is suggestive of arrogance. Her man needs her to accept him as the stronger one, a paragon of perfection worth admiration, ‘graceful’ and more passionate than she is, and her ‘only man’. There is vainglory in the male ‘belief’ that the woman is the one ‘seeks’ and he is the one ‘sought’; and she the one who ‘wants’ and he the one who ‘fulfils’ those wants. The narrator uses this sarcastically to remind men that love and fulfilment in love being mutual ‘needs’, they are not gender-specific. She is disgusted that her gift of her ‘endless female hungers’ do not find reciprocation in the form of his own ‘endless male hungers’ as his arrogance makes him believe that he exists to satiate female ‘hungers’. The narrator protests vehemently against this preposterous claim, when she says: ‘getting/A man to love is easy, but living/Without him afterwards may have to be/Faced’ (lines 16-19).

Interestingly, ‘get’ is a causative verb which in this context means to ‘attract’, ‘entice’, or ‘entrap’ (the last two being negative) and ‘love’ here means ‘to make love’. Therefore, it may be easy for a woman to ‘entrap’ man to ‘seek’ satisfaction of her ‘endless female hungers’, but the difficulty lies in taming and holding him for long, for he gives her to understand that he not only knows ‘what’ a woman ‘wants’ (ridiculous!) but also knows how to satisfy those wants. His vanity leads him to believe that he neither ‘seeks’ love nor knows how to ‘seek’ it, but only knows the ‘gift’ she desires and ‘gives’ her ‘love’ as a gift, expecting nothing in return, not even allegiance and attachment. The narrator in the poem is apparently justified in ridiculing such a claim.

We move to the next important poem, “The Old Playhouse”, which appears to be woven around a ‘pun’, a figure of speech involving humorous use of a word or words with two or more meanings. The ‘playhouse’ is both a reference to a theatre where plays are presented, and a toy house in which children play and wed off their toys in imitating the tradition of marriage. It begins with the narrator making a sarcastic remark about her lover who had planned to ‘tame’ a ‘swallow’12. Such antithetical usages connote aiming at achieving the impossible by seeking to change the nature of what one wishes to tame because that would require a superhuman feat.

The narrator tells her oppressor that her intention in coming to him was not to experience what it was to be in another man’s arms ‘but to learn/What I was’ and, by doing so, she wished ‘to learn to grow’. She does not want to know ‘who’ she was but ‘what’ she was much as the narrator in yet another poem asks herself, ‘am I hetero/am I lesbian/or am I just plain frigid?’ (“Composition”, lines 65-66; added italics). Hetero- (sexual attraction to the opposite sex), homo- (sexual attraction to the same sex), and bi- (sexual attraction to both sexes) are forms of sexuality, and frigidity a psycho-physical condition of being cold and unresponsive sexually. The first is acceptable, the second considered deviant, and the third is frowned upon socially. The study of psychology tells us that a substantial number of adolescents have confusion about their sexuality when they feel attraction to the members of their own sex or both the sexes at the same time, or have fears about their cold and indifferent response to sex stimuli and are confronted with the need to make choices. The feeling could have a devastating effect.

The words ‘what I was’ seem to be, in many ways, a reference to such a situation in life. It is not as if the narrator wants ‘to gather knowledge’, for that is something she had already. She seemed to be interested in trying to understand her response patterns to different stimuli. Her complaint is that his ‘monstrous ego’ turned her into ‘a dwarf’, which is yet another antithetical pair, and made her lose her ‘will’ (the faculty which helps a person decide what to do) and ‘reason’ (motive, cause, or justification). Consequently, her ‘mind’ seems to have turned into ‘an old/Playhouse with its lights out’ with the song and dance giving way to a sinister silence. She complains that his ‘love is Narcissus at the water’s edge, haunted/By its own lonely face’ and the nightfall alone would help erase the reflection and restore normalcy. 

Nymphomania and satyriasis are instances of hypersexuality in women and men respectively. Rao (1977) defines hypersexuality as a ‘morbidly exaggerated desire to have coitus with members of the opposite sex.’ It is seen as ‘a disease of sexual expression coupled with the pathological concern to satisfy one’s ego by gloating over one’s sexual conquests.’ A hypersexual is a person who has sex with multiple partners in an experimental way. When a person learns to identify himself/herself, he is either potent or impotent, and heterosexual or homosexual/lesbian in his/her sexual orientation. A male who lacks the sexual drive is usually considered to be impotent because the natural instin­ct is dead in him for whatever reasons. The narrator in Kamala Das’s poem, “Composition”, asks herself whether she is a normal human being, ie a heterosexual.  If she were not to be so, then she can only be a lesbian (supposedly deviant in sexual behaviour) or else just plain frigid.

Frigidity, which is also referred to an orgastic ineptitude, is a medical term used for ‘sexual unresponsiveness in women’ who are either un­able to reach an orgasm despite experiencing pleasure in coitus, or are unable to derive pleasure from coitus without having any dislike for sex, or are even resentful or have an aversion to sex­ual intercourse. Scientific research conducted in the subject and reported by Rao (1977) shows that frigidity is the result of one or more of the following reasons: (a) negative influences in upbringing making sex appear bad; (b) past tragic (sexual, romantic etc) episodes; (c) dou­bts about physiological/ psychological adequacy; (d) per­sonality/character discrepancies due to religious indoctrination; (e) fears, anxieties and worries; (f) male ignorance/selfishness; (g) hatred for husband/lover; (h) orgastic ineptitude owing to inferior status/lack of understanding of sex before marriage; and (i) orgastic ineptitude as a symptom of organic disease/s.


Kamala Das’s poems deal with issues that are of common concern although the finer sensibility they bring with them may not be a part of our regular experience. The charge of exhibitionism hurled against her seems appealing but we need not allow ourselves to be carried away by it, for one would readily grant that her poems open newer vistas of awareness. We need to remind ourselves of the fact that all art con­ceals as much as it reveals and it is this inherent dichotomy that perhaps leads us to appreciate it. The artist has to fight a running battle with himself/herself to give an adequate expression to ‘self’ in his/her artistic creation. It is a battle between the two selves: (a) that of the artist who desires to say it all, and (b) that of the private person in him/her who shies away from any real revelation.

Overtly, Kamala Das stands exposed to the charge of being obscene but a foray into the inner recesses of the artist’s mind through her poems is a revealing experience. Therein lies the saga of anguish and agony a woman, which may not necessarily be of her own making. The faç­ade easily shatters and the tautness of a carefree attitude gives way to a despair that “few of her poems have, in fact, escaped”, says Parthasarathy cautiously. The frank liberal-mindedness undoubtedly looks unus­ual in the Indian context. More so, as the private person, the other self of the creative artist, seems to hold most of the traditions of the Indian society close to her heart. The tone of desperation in ‘I shall build walls with tears,/She said, walls to shut me in’ (“The Sunshine Cat”, lines 13-14; added italics) is the proverbial last straw to have broken the camel’s back. The woman in the poem would build ‘walls with tears’ not only to shut herself in but also to shut out the reality, making the phrase an explosive symbol.

Another image that emerges is that of the woman clinging to the chests of the ‘band of cynics’ despite their inexperience, unmindful of their ‘new hair’, ‘their smells’ or ‘their young lust’ only ‘to forget’ the sheer selfishness and cowardice on the part of all the men who ‘knew’ her and the husband ‘who loved her not enough’. The image here is one of a man who had abdicated his responsibi­lities. The woman in the poems complains in a fit of rage that all she got when she asked for love was either ‘that kind of love’ or ‘tears and a silence in the blood’, horrible extremes to say the least!

The resultant resentment makes the woman generalise about men. She implies that they are beasts, lustful, licentious and heart­less brutes! Lust can never be accepted as love, for it means a strong sexual desire, especially when uncontrolled or considered wrong. Love, on the other hand, is a strong feeling of fondness for another person, especially between members of a family or between people of the oppo­site sex. To have a feeling of fondness is to love and be loving in a kind, gentle, or tender way. Love loses its sheen when the moment of inti­macy lacks kind, gentle, or even tender handling of the loved one. Only str­ong and uncontrolled sexual desire is then left and this, in turn, be­comes the motive of action. Certainly, this is an abomination for those who consider love as the greatest gift of God to humankind.

The subject of attack in that symbolism in ‘kindergarten’ apparently seems to be on the lack of understanding and inexperience that informs the behaviour of the kids in the age group of two to five years. Kamala Das obviously suggests that the irresponsible and indifferent behaviour of adult males is akin to the world of the kindergarten with all its disorderliness. The world we live in is full of categorizers, the tradition-bound conservatives, who want and expect everyone to fall into the slots meant for him or her. For example, they would like a girl to ‘Be wife.... Be embroiderer, be cook,/Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,/Belong’ (“An Introduction”, lines  34-36; added  italics). Their de­mand that a girl must ‘fit in’, ‘belong’, and thus be a part of the system evolved by the categorizers is not acceptable to the woman in the poem. The word belong means to be suitable or advantageous or to be in the right place.  The right place for a female, according to the conservatives, is the hearth and home because they feel that woman was created to be so. She is required to keep her man happy and to be able to do that success­fully she must satisfy his two hungers: one for food and the other for cohabitation. Clearly, this is abhorrent to the feminists of the radical kind and their sympathisers who believe in the equality of the sexes.

Categorizers are the main cause of this system of inequity that they perpetuate through their support. The flirting kindergarten teacher ‘wanted’ the girl-child to ‘join the others’ and, because she failed to do that, says angrily, ‘Why don’t you join the others, what/A peculiar child you are!’ (“Punishment in Kindergarten”, lines 6-7; added italics). Quite obviously, that little girl was trying to seek shelter in the arms of the cruel teacher who was so busy romancing with her boy-friend, whom she had brought along with her on picnic, that she had no time for her. The phrase, ‘join the others’, means doing what is thought to be normal, usual, as the conservatives would have us believe. One who fails to fall in line, fit in, and join the others is dubbed as queer, not in the derogatory sense, but in the sense of strange. The use of the word peculiar as an adjective relates the child to what is strange or unusual, especially in a troubling or displeasing way. It would indeed be very unpleasant if people were to seek to perform the roles not assigned to them and insist on taking on other roles. That seems to explain the aversion of an average male to women taking on a militancy though to be unusual in them and, hence also his reaction to their demands for the restoration of equality.

Love is a human need and, whether male or female, partners in life are both the givers and recipients at the same time. A corpse is a corpse and not a male or a female, for it ceases to have a sexual identity, a mark of the living beings. The use of the impersonal pro­noun ‘it for a corpse in Kamala Das’s poem, “The Doubt”, is signifi­cant. Among the non-native users of English, a baby is also referred to as ‘it’, probably because the helpless baby is not aware of his/her sex at birth. The identity, which it subsequently acquires, ceases with death. If death were to shatter the barriers of this kind, it only goes to prove that all these barriers and differences are man-made.

Indian philosophy holds that the soul or the ātmān mingles with the jīva to make the jīvātmān, which binds the five elements called the panchmahābǖt: ether, fire, air, earth and water. The body disintegra­tes, when the corpse is cremated, and the elements so released merge into their respective sources. A fact of this kind also supports the idea of equality. Identity of some kind is necessary for a being (jīva) and seems to be important in this world of mithya and maya.


We shall explore appropriate texts to trace the development of the ‘myth and legend’ of Krishna and the crucial strands of thought in Kamala Das’s poems in order to place the man-woman relationship in its proper perspective in this section.

The narrator in Kamala Das’ poems rejects the male notion that his relationship with woman is limited merely to the duration of coitus because for a woman, it is the beginning of a series of emotional upheavals. Implied in her complaints is the inequity of this relationship, which firmly repudiates the idea of unity and equality inherent in the motif of Radha-Krishna in the Indian tradition.

Love and lovemaking as represented in that motif are acts of continual surrender and fusion into a single entity to form a wholesome unity. It is symbolic of unity and devotion and that is how it is seen as a part of līlā. For Kamala Das, it forms the basis of what she chooses to call thapasya, a phonetic corruption of tapasya13, which is a feminine form of the word tap. Tap in Hindi is possibly derived from tapas meaning variously as austerity, self-mortification, or self-restraint. Tap, i.e., penance or self-mortification, is undertaken with a view to attaining spiritual knowledge (jnāna) or salvation (moksha). It makes sense to remember that sex is not a taboo in the Indian context, especially in view of the vital role it plays in creation. The worship of shivling, like the worship of the phallic symbol as a part of the Dionysian ritual at the time of harvest season in Greek city-states mentioned in the Greek classics, provides us with sufficient evidence of how sex is not a taboo in any ancient tradition. Shivling is worshipped in this country not only as a symbol of cosmogenic but also of progenitorial creation.

The Indian ideal of unity of the sexes is the ideal of the divine love of Radha-Krishna and this stands negated when the two bodies of the lovers united in coitus cease to experience the unity of souls. The rationale for such a point of view lies in the ancient Indian Scriptures, which reveal that every form on earth has its prototype in heaven, and everything flows from the unique act of creation reflected in the infinite I AM that has been celebrated in numerous literary creations in various Indian languages. Love and lovemaking, in a context of this kind, can only be seen as an act of complete surrender and devotion. The Radha-Krishna motif is an affirmation of this truth.

The Radha-Krishna legend is a complex one. Lord Krishna, ‘who had formerly been an ecstatic god of Dionysian character’,14 has earned the dubious distinction of being the most notorious of the gods in the Indian pantheon simply because līlā, which is the most misrepresented and misunderstood part of the legend. The so-called liaison of Krishna with his beloved Radha is believed to be the extension of their lives in Golaka, cast in the image of its prototype Vaikuntha which was the abode of the God of gods, Lord Vishnu. Lord Krishna, who is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, had taken birth in human form to rid the earth of all evil, with the promise of an eternal return on every occasion when evil surpasses good on mother earth.

It is indeed interesting to note how the Brahmavaivarta Puranam, which is a sacred text of a very late compilation of an uncertain date believed to be the sixteenth century, notes how Radha and Krishna are one and the same. Radha finds a mention in the Bhakti texts as Krishna’s divine equivalent. She is a distinct character only in the Brahmavaivarta Puranam, wherein she is reported to be identical to Krishna right from the beginning. So identical is Radha to Krishna that Lord Brahma proclaims to her in the Brahmavaivarta Puranam that she was the outcome of the body of Krishna and indeed equal to him in every respect. Confessing how it was very difficult to say which one of them was Radha and which Krishna, Lord Brahma observes that if Krishna represented the soul, Radha was the body containing it, i.e., its recipient.15

This way, creation would become impossible in the absence of either of them and, more so, because if Krishna were the informing spirit, Radha was the eternal productive goddess. The relationship gets a new meaning whose effect on this world of mithya and maya is astounding when it is juxtaposed with Lord Krishna’s remark that ‘as the potter cannot make a jar without clay, so I cannot create without you… Oh Goddess, you are always my container’.16 What this obviously suggests is that man and woman were created to be complementary to each other and, thus, each is incomplete without the other. Herein lies the basis of unity.

The ideal of love, it will bear repetition, is for us the image of Radha-Krishna who are prototypes of men and women like us. The divine Krishna is the same as his consort, the celestial Radha. The appearance of their unity as two separate entities is the immediate consequence of the desire of god. The “Prakkriti Khanda” of the Brahmavaivarta Puranam takes note of this process of separation in what is termed as the “desire of the wilful” Lord Krishna, who was all volition, desire as he divided himself into two parts. The right side of Krishna’s body became Krishna and the left side Radha. Here lies the secret: the heart is situated on the left in the rib cage.

However, that is not all. This cosmogenic creation necessitated the birth of playmates and Krishna not only caused the birth gopas similar to himself out of the pores of his skin but also cows and bulls in recreating Vaikuntha in Golaka. Similarly, Krishna’s consort, Radha, created gopis identical to her from the pores of her own skin.17 Thus came into existence the new world of Radha-Krishna. The act is one of līlā and so was the sporting of Radha-Krishna.

Dallapiccola (1982: 206) explains in the glossary section of her book Krishna, The Divine Lover that the word līlā is often translated as a ‘sport’ or ‘whim’ and applied to “the spontaneous, unpremeditated act of creation or destruction”. Our present context would make it an act of creation, not destruction. Since the gopas and the gopis were the creations of Krishna and Radha respectively and also since Radha was but a part of Krishna, Lord Krishna’s ras līlā with the gopis in Vraja was but only Krishna’s sporting with Radha much in the same way as the gopis’ sporting with the gopas was only Radha’s sporting with Krishna.

The carefree attitude of Radha can be attributed to her knowledge of this reality, which is her insulation from all manner of social criticism. It is in this sense, then, that the sex act becomes a continual renewal of the unity seen in the Radha-Krishna legend. This is also the reason why the woman in Kamala Das’s poems regrets the loss of this unity and equality so very vital for the man-woman relationship to blossom into a healthy state of existence.

The Christian philosophy explains that Eve, the first woman, was created out of a rib taken from the left side of Adam’s body. This is also where the Indian philosophy related to the Radha-Krishna legend shares similarities because the divine Krishna caused Radha to be created by splitting his own body into two and Radha took shape out of the left side, giving rise to the concept of ardha nāreshwar. The left portion of a human body contains the heart and thus a woman is ruled by her heart, and that is why she is very loving and caring in nature, implying thereby that man is left with all the cunning, scheming, selfishness etc, as an affront to those among the male species who cherish love and care.

Kamal Das’s poetry has been categorized as ‘confessional’. A confessional mode of writing poetry does not necessarily make the poetry ‘confessional’ in nature. Although the word ‘confession’ means an acknowledgement of a fact, sin, guilt etc, it also can be used to mean a statement of one’s principles. Perhaps, such an understanding made Jussawalla (1973) opine that Kamala Das’s writing of love, sex and loneliness in the tone of an insistent confession ‘may be meant to touch some of the deepest points in the reader’s subconscious’ or be a ‘part of an elaborate private therapy’ she used.18 If we take this not just as an assumption but a statement of fact based on a close study of her poems, then the narrator in these poems is only acknowledging facts and stating principles in life. However, we do feel tempted to examine the part such confessions play in ‘touching the deepest points’ in the reader’s subconscious, and how these may be a part of ‘a private therapy’.

The term confession is a ‘sacrament’ for orthodox Christians, and means a sacred symbolic ceremony. However, this term is defined in the Prayer Book Catechism used in orthodox Christian Churches as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.19 Orthodox Christian faith recognizes seven sacraments: baptism, the sacrament of water; reconciliation; Eucharist or the Holy Communion; the Holy Spirit, or confirmation, i.e., baptism by fire; matrimony or marriage; holy orders; and the anointing of the sick. These are a part of the articles of Faith for them. Anticipating a moot question on the reason for Kamala Das, who subscribed to a religion other than Christianity, taking resort to a Christian sacrament, we feel the need to respond by stating that there is adequate evidence which leads us to believe that the poet was making a clean breast of things for the entire womanhood, and the aim is to seek reconciliation with the self and the world around. One of the meanings of the verb ‘reconcile’ is to demonstrate compatibility with what exists both in one’s argument and practice. We need not mistake the narrator’s tone of reconciliation in the poems as an act of surrender but a demonstration of her new-found ability to live on her own terms and yet retain her right to protest against, accept or reject what does not fit into her own ideology. We submit that confessions have a proven therapeutic value since they touch ‘the deepest points’ in the reader’s subconscious, and force them to think, reflect and revise their own reactions, thus making it ‘a private therapy’ for a person making a confession.

The narrator in the poems discards all masks and presents before the readers a picture of the suffering womanhood and cries a halt to it. She demands equality in everything including love. Basically an Indian in terms of her sensibilities, she is a modern-day Radha seeking to resurrect her Shyam by whatever means she can. Frustrated by the fact that it is not in man’s nature to love, she reminds us of how love for a woman is an act of giving, or surrender to the man in her life, and a tapasya, which gets her love as an act of kindness. She probably thought that she would find love in the younger males but even with this crowd that she dubs as the ‘band of cynics’, she meets with failure. That failure was only to be expected and the narrator confesses that she found in them only a lustful longing for exper­ience. Psychologists tell us that a male stepping into adolescence usually takes a sexual encounter as an opportunity to prove his manliness to the rest of his gang, and that is as far as it goes. 

The narrator recounts similar experience when she observes that after the event, each one of them parroted similar lines to what were ob­viously her cries for love: ‘I do not love, I cannot love, it is not/In my nature to love, but I can be kind to you.’ (“The Sunshine Cat”, lines 9-10; added italics). The use of the negation (not) with the affirmative forms of auxiliaries, especially in do not and is not is quite revealing. If we take, for example, the first utterance: I do not love, and examine the implications flowing out of it, then we find that it can mean (a) I do not love you, or (b) I do not love you but I am only being friendly if we assume that do not is used for emp­hasis, or (c) I am simply doing what I am expected to do, or (4) Love means nothing to me. The last one is obviously the meaning we are looking for because it fits in well with the following utterance: It is not in my nature to love. The re­velation becomes more pronounced in the use of the contrasting subor­dinate clause: but I can be kind to you.

The narrator’s experiences in these poems evoke nearly the same kind of fear that an animal trapped by carnivores has. This fear elicits sympathy and she reacts to it, the mention of the physical aspect of love, and a situation that reeks of thraldom: ‘It is a physical thing, he suddenly/End it, I cried, end it and let us be free’ (“Substitute”, lines 35-36). She finds it difficult after the event to accept the fact that her man sho­uld give her a false feeling of being much in love during their love-making, and should shatter her pleasurable illusion by turning away thereafter. This is to her a complete rejection of the divine union. Juxtaposed with the contempt of the mere physicality of the act, or what the woman in the poems derisively calls that kind of love in: ‘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’ (“An Introduction”, lines 25-20; added italics), we arrive at the meaning: ‘That was the only kind of love,/This hacking at each other’s parts/Like convicts hacking’ (“Convicts”, lines 8-10; added italics).

To hack at is a terri­ble phrase, for it refers to the use of an axe for ‘a rough cutting move­ment or blow’. People may hack at wood but those who hack at the living things can only be called assassins, murderers facing a possible conviction under the law if proved guilty. The implication is that violent lovemaking, devoid of the feelings of love, leads to the death of that fine feeling of fulfilment: ‘We lay/On bed, glassy-eyed, fatigued, just/The toys dead children leave behind’ (“Convicts”, lines 3-5; added italics). The spark of recognition, of fulfilment, of joy, when absent from the eyes of the so-called lovebirds after the event, makes them look like ‘the lifeless toys left behind’ by dead children, and the only natural reaction is ‘loving him,/I found no courage then even to be kind’ (“The Proud One”, lines 9-10).

Sin is born out of man’s disobedience of God according to the philosophy of religions, and saintliness an attribute of a person with a holy or completely unselfish way of life. No human being, is cent per cent a saint or a sinner, or else he/she would have attained moksha (salvation) from the eternal cycle of life and death. Alexis Zorba explains succinctly in Kazatzakis’ novel Zorba the Greek that a man is both God and Devil at the same time.19 This re­presents the duality of human nature. God created man in after Himself but man’s (Adam and Eve’s) thirst for knowledge pro­pelled him to seek the freedom to chart the course of his own life, causing him to defy the Lord. Satan had appeared before Eve in the form of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and asked her to taste the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge that God had forewarned them against, and this is how man became both the betrayer (of God) and the betrayed (by Satan). Adam’s succumbing to the temptation led to the couple’s fall from grace, and expulsion from Paradise to eternal suffering in the world.

The narrator observes that love is life-giving and reinvigorating and acts as a restorative. Sex, she argues in “The Doubt” is not only the union of bodies but also of souls. Men and women’s souls yearn for their partners and not bodies that are subject to afflictions. The myth of ‘sexual’ behaviour does not hold because sex is not always the focal point of human relations. The narrator confronts the question of morality head on, chides the categorizers that like everything else in life including truth, morality is relative in nature, and each epoch in the seeks to redefine it in keeping with the changing needs of the times.

Kamala Das observes that relationships need to be put on an even keel in tune with the rights of the individual in the drama of life. The looking-glass presents us with the picture of ruined relation­ships and the series of events contributing to this sorry state of affairs and helps restore a semblance of sanity by jolting us out of our slumber. She confirms the view that the institution of marriage had been created for subjugation of the fairer sex.  The experiences that find mention in “The Sunshine Cat” and “Composition” lead her to state that the assignment of roles in marriage was ‘arranged in (the) most hum­orous heaven’.

We do not subscribe to the idea that either Adam or Eve was to blame for their fall because it was the handiwork of Satan. The woman in Kamala Das’s poetry alternates between the im­ages of Eve and Radha. Bernard Shaw seems to use Anna’s effort to create a superman in Act III of his Man and Superman as a hint that women have taken a lead to avenge this slight. If that were to be true, then they would be taken as the leaders and no leader can be led. That would then explain their abhorrence of the very idea of subjugation as it negates not only the idea of leading but also of equality. The narrator musing about love and the root of the process of subjugation in one of the poems argues: ‘Perhaps it had begun as a young man’s most/Normal desire to subjugate a girl’ (“The Proud One”, lines 1-2; added italics). Subjugation is not a very happy usage because it suffers the handicap of being a word from political lexicon, and is reference to a process within the world of power-games where mighty people, groups, countries etc conquer or seize power from their weaker counterparts. Neither the Western concept of lovemaking nor the Indian concept of ratikrida involves any power-game. Coercive sex with a woman amounts to a ‘rape’ in the eyes of the law, for a rapist is seen as violating twin fundamental rights to equality and informed consent in satiating his lust. Psychologists confirm that rape is as perverted a form of sexual behaviour as are the other deviant forms of sexual beha­viour.

Unlike animals, according to the Thomistic view of the universe are gifted only senses by nature but human beings have both intellect and senses. Civilised behaviour differs from the unrestrained animal behaviour. It is true that the sensual aspect of human behaviour may defy logic and reason. However, there is also an unwritten code of conduct that pre­vents human beings from displaying lack of concern for others or for that matter restraint in behaviour though the fact that the animal in us is hardly under control in private is an acknowledged fact. The militant denunciation of a woman’s meek surrender to the brutal assertion of man’s rights comes through quite clearly in a poem wherein the narrator asks: ‘Woman, is this happiness, this lying buried/Beneath a man?’ (“The Conflagration”, lines 1-2; added italics).  The phrase ‘lying buried beneath’ bothers the readers in us, for ‘bury’ seems to have multiple layers of meaning there. To ‘bury’ someone is to consign his/her dead body to the bowels of mother earth, to a tomb, or to the waters of the sea; or to put or hide someone/something underground; or even to conceal or relegate someone/something to obscurity. Lovemaking presuppose mutual consent and equality and this entails to active rather than passive participation but the Indian concept of pati parmeshwar in case of a married woman is a belief firmly embedded in the female psyche through indoctrination right from childhood. None can be equated with God, not even a married woman’s husband for her. For, this violates the principle of equality reflected in the legend of Radha-Krishna. What place, then, can one accord to shame in this scheme of things with the primordial līla being replicated by a couple after having sworn allegiance to each other in this world and hereafter?

Shame is not the same as shyness demonstrated in man-woman relat­ionship. Shyness is lack of boldness or nervousness in a person when he/she is in the company of others. This is a quality that has somehow come to be associated with women. Shame is a painful feeling of guilt, wrong­doing, inability or failure experienced. Guilt is experien­ced when a person realises that he/she has broken a moral code. It involves the knowledge or belief of wrongdoing, or what is called moral wickedness. The narrator in one of her poems, for instance, complains: ‘it is I who make love/And then, feel shame’ (“An Introduction”, lines 55-56; added italics), but at the end of the same poem, we get to learn that the narrator calls herself ‘I’ because every man in her life calls himself ‘I’, a personal pronoun used impersonally. The ‘I’ there represents ‘each and everyone’ in his/her assertion of indivi­duality. If lovemaking were to evoke a sense of shame in the partners in love after the event, then there is adequate reason to abstain from it but this is not the case in that poem.  The sense of shame experienced there is due to the realisation of the inequity because the process reported reveals that there was ‘the hungry haste of the rivers in him’, which perhaps made him insensitive to his woman’s needs, and ‘in her the oceans’ tireless waiting’ which might have made her appear to be insatiable.


We would like to use in this section the features of radical feminism that we had discussed and summarised in the first section. Since we found that there are three pairs of features which are interrelated, we decided to put them together and this gave us a total of three larger features: (A) phallic-centred claims to superiority and the use of institutionalized hierarchies and structures to perpetrate phallic-centred claims; (B) use of biology and heterosexuality to create restrictions and sole control over development this way; and (C) commodification of women both at home and at work and thus the insensitive treatment of women for childbirth.

Phallic-centred claims to superiority and the use of institutionalized hierarchies and structures to perpetrate phallic-centred claims.

Kamala Das launches the strongest protest possible against phallic-centred claims to superiority by the male section of the society in her poems like “An Introduction”, “A Losing Battle”, “Composition”, “Convicts”, “The Doubt”, and “The Freaks”. Since we have already discussed “An Introduction” in detail in section 2 of this paper, it will suffice our purpose if we cite the relevant lines from the poem to illustrate the point here. Following her narration of an experience matching in description with the ‘Thaalikettu’ ceremony in the ancient Nair tradition, the narrator speaks about the attitudinal change that it about in her: ‘Then … I wore a shirt and my/Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored/My womanliness’ (lines 31-33).

A superficial reading of those lines may make them seem ordinary, but a closer scrutiny reveals a sense of devastation leading to an emboldened spirit that makes her throw her coyness to the winds. Those lines typify the blurring of the lines between feminine and masculine grace, and yielding place to the abandonment of tradition for the espousal of modernity through appearance that defies gender patterning. The protest grows the loudest when the narrator says in a matter-of-fact manner, ‘I met a man, loved him.’ The categorizers turn against her for like: ‘Call/Him not by any name, he is every man/Who wants a woman, just as I am every/Woman who seeks love’ (lines 44-47). While a surface reading of the lines tells us of the stoic nature of that statement implying that names do not matter in love-making as far as it is good, the deep structure embedded in them gives them a different meaning. Obviously, ‘want’ and ‘seek’ are in a tussle there, highlighting a deep divide between a ‘demand’ that ‘expects compliance’ and ‘a supplication’ that needs ‘acceptance’.

The idea of avenging a wrong would take any of its male readers by surprise: ‘Men are worthless, to trap them/Use the cheapest bait of all, but never/Love...’ (“A Losing Battle”, lines 3-5; added italics), or doubts the narrator has about her own sexual orientation, ‘Am I hetero,/Am I lesbian,/Or am I just plain frigid?’ (“Composition”, ll. 65-67; added italics) would force the reader’s to harbour similar doubts if the feeling is of the same kind as the narrator experiences in poem after poem in Kamala Das’s poetic creation. Similarly, in the aftermath of a sexual encounter, the question that the tired lovers (the convicts in “Convicts”) ask each other, ‘...we asked each other, what is/The use, what is the bloody use?/That was the only kind of love,/This hacking at each other’s parts/Like convicts hacking...’ (ll. 6-10; added italics). Surprisingly, the word used to stir the readers is ‘convicts’. A convict, if we were to draw its meaning chiefly from history, is a person who is serving a prison sentence handed down through a legal process after being proved guilty of having committed a crime etc. One wonders whether the reference there is yet again to the history of human kind which was responsible for creating categories like husband-wife, lover-beloved, fiancé-fiancée etc. Humankind committed the crime of eating the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge quite against the wishes of God, their creator. Using the analogy of how after death, we identify the dead body not as male or female, but give it a gender-free reference ‘it’, the narrator in “The Doubt” asks, ‘...Does it/Not mean, that we believe/That only the souls have sex and that/Sex is invisible?’ (ll. 3-6; added italics). Or, the confession that the narrator has to make  in “The Freaks” but which she does quite sarcastically, ‘I am a freak. It’s only/To save my face, I flaunt, at/Times, a grand, flamboyant lust.’ (ll. 18-20; added italics). A freak is a monstrosity, an abnormal person. In colloquial usage this means an unconventional person, and this unconventional make-up may owe itself to the fact that the person under consideration is a fanatic of a specified kind or an addict, especially a drug addict. This tends to give the so-called nymphomaniac tendencies the shape of an abnormality.

Use of biology and heterosexuality to create restrictions and sole control over development.

“An Introduction” offers several instances wherein the narrator in the poem scoffs at the use of institutionalized hierarchies and structures to perpetrate phallic-centred claims. For instance, this is evident in the lines, ‘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...’ (“An Introduction”, ll. 27-29; added italics). What followed was that kind of love which left her ‘sad woman-body’ feel ‘so beaten’. The social categorizers told the narrator, ‘...Dress in sarees, be girl/Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,/Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,/Belong...’ (ll. 35-38; added italics)  and gave her an admonishment, ‘...Don’t sit/On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.’ (ll.38-39), but instead to ‘Choose a name, a role’, stop playing ‘pretending games’, stop resorting to schizophrenic behaviour or ‘be a/Nympho’ and to give up crying ‘embarrassingly loud when/Jilted in love…’ (ll. 41-45)

The use of the impersonal pro­noun ‘it for a corpse in Kamala Das’s poem, “The Doubt”, is signifi­cant. Among the non-native users of English, a baby is also referred to as ‘it’, probably because the helpless baby is not aware of his/her sex at birth. The identity, which it subsequently acquires, ceases with death. If death were to shatter the barriers of this kind, it only goes to prove that all these barriers and differences are man-made.

Commodification of women both at home and at work and insensitive treatment of women for childbirth.

For example, in “The Looking Glass”, the woman narrator bemoans the fact that ‘Getting a man to love you is easy/Only be honest about your wants as/Woman.’ (ll. 1-3) ‘Oh yes, getting/A man to love is easy, but living/Without him afterwards may have to be/Faced.’ (ll. 16-19)

Or, in “The Old Playhouse”, ‘It was not to gather knowledge/Of yet another man that I came to you but to learn/What I was, and by learning, to learn to grow, but every/Lesson you gave was about yourself.’ (ll. 5-8) The complaint about roles they were forced to play: ‘You called me wife,/I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and/To offer at the right moment the vitamins. Cowering/Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and/Became a dwarf.’ (ll. 12-16) That ‘dwarf’ there symbolizes the diminishing of the stature. A vehement attack follows thereafter: ‘The strong man’s technique is/Always the same, he serves his love in lethal doses...’ (ll. 25-26). Or the beauty of the analogies drawn in a play with philosophy as in “The Suicide”: ‘Bereft of soul/My body shall be bare./Bereft of body/My soul shall be bare.’ (ll.1-4) ‘Only the souls know how to sing/At the vortex of the sea.’ (ll. 13-14) and the punch in ‘Bereft of body/My soul shall be free./Take in my naked soul/That he knew how to hurt./Only the soul knows how to sing/At the vortex of the sea’ (ll. 134-139) in the same poem. Then the sad realisation: ‘But,/I must pose./I must pretend,/I must act the role/Of happy woman,/Happy wife.’ (ll. 40-45)

In “The Sunshine Cat”, the narrator complains bitterly, ‘They did this to her, the men who know her, the man/She loved, who loved her not enough, being selfish/And a coward, the husband who neither loved nor/Used her, but was a ruthless watcher...’ (ll.1-4) and even more vehement complaints about how ‘...the band/Of cynics she turned to, clinging to their chests where/New hair sprouted like great-winged moths, burrowing her/Face into their smells and their young lusts to forget/To forget, oh, to forget, and, they said, each of/Them, I do not love, I cannot love, it is not/In my nature to love, but I can be kind to you’ (ll. 4-10), coupled with the reaction: ‘...I shall build walls with tears,/She said, walls to shut me in.’ (ll. 13-14)


Kamala Das faced charges of nymphomania and a show of obscenity by her critics until her death on 31 May 2009. The narrator in her poems comes through clearly and sharply to any unbiased reader as a rebel, a staunch feminist, rising in revolt against a phallocentric world. These poems reveal a radical feminist ideology which moved the poet to talk of sex and the meaninglessness of both marital and adulterous adventures quite fearlessly. We believe that she had done this in an attempt to wake the society up to the need for gender equality in terms of space and rights. The descriptions, narrations, rhetoric etc indicate, implicitly or explicitly, the existence of the features of radical feminism in them. It is surprising, therefore, when we find Raveendran (1994) arguing that Kamala Das, often labelled as ‘a feminist’, was never known ‘to identify herself with any particular version of feminist activism’.20 This appears to be far from the truth, for quite to the contrary, a close reading of some of the poems we discuss draw attention to the fact that the ‘evidence’ of ‘nymphomania’ and ‘obscenity’ is essentially a corroboration of the existence of radical feminism in her poems.

Her poems can be taken easily as the product of an exercise of both ‘self-expression’ and ‘self-realisation’. The sponta­neity of expression may make them appear obscene because the narrator in her poems does not mince her words. The simultaneity of the attempts to cling to the trad­ition and the yearning to help affect a change gives the poems a sharp­er edge. The ambivalence reflected in them, although at a superficial level, makes them more attractive. The poem read as a whole implies that the ‘I’ in “An Introduction” repre­sents both men and women. Sex is accepted as a categorial relationship which has social sanction according to the In­dian belief system. The prohibition imposed by social custom on a free public debate on sex still holds. Even if we appreciate the fact that this is sheer hypocrisy, we accept sex not only as the means of progenitorial creation but also a source of spiritual fulfil­ment bordering divinity. We do not need corroboration beyond the fact that the erotic art in the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the scientific handling of eros in Kamasutra adequately testifies the celebration of love as an art and an important part of our lives in ancient India.

Love for Kamala Das is tapasaya and not a paradigm of the lustful longings of the lovers whose minds ‘are willed to race towards love’ with the race degenerating into an ‘idle tripping … over puddles of desire’ (“The Freaks”, lines 6-9).  It is not surprising that the so-called race only unleashes ‘skin’s lazy hungers’. Another ugly truth brought home is the never-ending trauma of a woman doing everything possible to keep hold of her man. The animal in him threatens to stray away the moment the eternal ‘other woman’ flaunts ‘a gaudy lust’ and is a ‘lioness to his beast’ (“A Losing Battle”, lines 2-3). Juxtaposing this with the complaints of the narrator who is left with little option to flaunt ‘a grand flamboyant lust’ as a ‘face-saving’ device to keep her man from straying (“The Freaks”, lines   19-20), we discover how the age-old institution called marriage tames a woman to ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’ as per the dictates of the categorizers and their world, the metaphoric kindergarten! This is what creates the crises of identi­ty of all kinds, even the sexual identity.

Kamala Das’s agitation on behalf of women unfortunately makes her forget that this defence mechanism works both ways. Men must also flaunt their flamboyant lust and boast about their so-called sexual conquests using fictional accounts to keep themselves in the reckoning, or else they would face ignominy of dubbed mamma’s boys and be reduced to nonentities. The poet contests the charge of being a nymphomaniac by vehement defending herself, citing ‘the sad lie/Of my unending lust’ (“In Love”, lines 6-7). The lethal combination of ‘sad’ and ‘lie’ makes the phrase a double negative, with ‘sad’ meaning shameful and/or deplorable and ‘lie’ a false statement with the intent of a deception. We find her accepting the fact that she had resorted constantly to using a deplorable feint as a spokesperson for women, using ‘my’, a personal pronoun impersonally, as a qualifier for the phrase ‘unending lust’. Here, then, is a reliable piece of evidence in support of our contention about her being a radical feminist.

Kamala Das must be credited with the fact that she accepts sex as ordinary a need for a human being as are food, shelter, security etc, not for women alone. Hence, it is unfair to single out women as nymphomaniacs and/or as passive recipients. The narrator in her poems does not want women to remain silent sufferers of all humiliations but to be bold enough to demand fairplay and equality in status because the soul knows no difference between sexes. Biological make-up accounting for the difference needs to be kept out of bounds in this great debate. Nature did not make man superior, and the creation of man-before-women argument is as much a subject of dispute as is the egg-first-or-chicken argument. There is neither any ambiguity in the fact that woman is the creative principle as all reli­gions recognise this truth nor in the fact that men are also required to prove their masculinity and have the necessary ability to stand by their women in the times of crises.

It seems to us that the narrator in Kamala Das’s poems is troubled by the question of the growing chasm between the ideal and reality. The ideal of equality in man-woman relationship is far from attained in real life, the unity of man and woman in coitus is only a mirage and the woman in the poems is determined not to rest until such time as it is restored. That explains why the radical feminist in the poet is up in arms.

Kamala Das confesses of women’s failure in bringing about a chan­ge in the male psyche. Yet there is room to believe that changes are bound to come with the passage of time. Women’s refusal to follow the dictates of the tradition will ensure that.

These poems seem to questions why women must adopt certain roles based on their biology, just as it questions why men adopt certain other roles based on theirs. They appear to be seeking to draw lines between biologically determined behavior and culturally determined behavior in order to free both men and women as much as possible from their previous narrow gender roles. They appear to initiate a movement intent on social change of revolutionary proportions.

Finally, to conclude our discussion, we shall make some important observations in this section.
It seems to me that the woman in Kamala Das’s poems is troubled by the question of the growing chasm between the ideal and reality.

We expect intellectual honesty from an artist. True, the artist must work within the bounds of decency to define and redefine reality as well as human sensibilities. Honest expressions of truth are seldom obscene if they were to be seen entirely as fair. Or else, the cave paintings, the sculpture on the pillars and domes in our temples and palaces – the symbols of our national heritage and pride – would also fall in the category of the obscene.

Open expressions of love, of what love stands for, and of how love is different from lust are issues that make Kamala Das’s poems what they are. Interestingly, this is where we locate her radical feminism.

The ideal of equality in man-woman relationship is far from attained in real life, the unity of man and woman in coitus is only a mirage and the woman in the poems is determined not to rest until such time as it is restored. That explains why the radical feminist in the poet is up in arms.

We are, therefore, persuaded to believe that Kamala Das and other radical feminists like her have been subjected to unfair criticism.

1        Grrl, accessed from, is reported to have been derived from,, etc in a footnote in the entry.

2        See the Shobha Warrier’s Interview with Kamala Das. Details in the Works Cited section.

3        Vijay Nambisan, “Caged bird who knew no cages” (A Tribute), archives of The Hindu; accessed from:

4        F Fawcett, Nairs of Malabar (Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1990). Also see the relevant information which was accessed, collected and collated from a website:

5        Woh Ghar (Hindi), television film directed by Girish Karnad in 1984 is based on Kirtinath Kurtakoti’s Kannada play Aa Mani.

6        Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House (Project Gutenberg e-book), Act III, before she leaves him forever. Accessed from:

7        Henri Bergson coined this term in his philosophy to refer to the creative force within an organism that is responsible for growth, change, and necessary/desirable adaptations.

8        “Life force”, accessed from <> on 1 January 2012; for explanation on ‘creative evolution’, please refer to Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907) translated into English in 1911.

9        “The Freaks” figures in all the four collections. “An Introduction”, “Composition”, “Convicts”, “Luminol”, “My Grand Mother’s House”, “Summer in Calcutta”, “The Descendants”, “The Suicide”, “The Sunshine Cat”, “The Inheritance”, “The Looking Glass”, “The Maggots”, and “The Old Playhouse” appear in three of these collections. Poems like “Punishment in Kindergarten” and “The Doubt” appear only in one collection, but these have been included because these are germane to her creative output. Some of these are yet to receive critical attention.

10    The expression ‘want’ is also used in line 2 in Kamala Das’s poem “The Looking Glass”. Want and desire are words that are important in the language of desire and power. An example of this is found in D H Lawrence’s short story “The Prussian Officer” wherein the apparently queer Army Captain tells his young orderly on whom he has a crush, ‘I want you this evening… I want you tomorrow evening also…’ in response to the young man’s request to be allowed that evening off for a date with his girl friend. It is obvious that what looks like an innocent statement gathers a different connotation in the context of this discourse pattern in that short story in D H Lawrence, The Complete Short Stories, Volume I (William Heinemann, London, 1955; 1960 reprint), p.101.

11    Tapas is the root word of tapasya as explained in the glossary section in Anna L Dallapiccolo (ed), Krishna, The Divine Lover: Myth and Legend through Indian Art (New Delhi: B I Publications, 1982), p.210.

12    Acharya Rajneesh, Sambhog se Sadhana Tak (Osho Commune, Pune). This author has read the Hindi version of the work and has chosen to make a free translation of it in English as From Coitus to Meditation.

13    W M Spink, “The Elaboration of the Myth” of Krishna and Radha in Anna L Dallapiccolo (ed) (1982).

14    The act of taming is one of domesticating by accustoming an ‘animal’ or someone wild and animal-like, given to moving around freely, through the imposition of restrictions. A ‘swallow’ is a swift-flying ‘migratory’ bird with a forked tail. The term ‘migratory’ is used to refer to change of habitation seasonally.

15    W M Spink in Anna L Dallapiccolo (ed) (1982).

16    Ibid.

17    Adil Jussawalla, “The New Poetry” in Walsh, William (ed), Readings in Commonwealth Literature (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973), p.83

18    P P Raveendran, “Text as History, History as Text: A Reading of Kamala Das’ Annamalai Poems” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1994, p.52.

19    Beth Guide, “A Review of Sacraments of the Catholic Church”,; and Canon Denis Moss and Dr Simon Harding, “The Sacraments”,, accessed on 21 January 2012.

20    C S White, “Krishna as a Divine Child” in History of Religions, Vol. 10, No.1.

21    See Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (Tr Carl Wildman, Faber & Faber, London, 1961), p.239.

Works Cited

Das, Kamala, Summer in Calcutta, D C Books, New Delhi, 1965, 2004.

Das, Kamala, The Descendants, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1965, 2nd edition, 1991.

Das, Kamala, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, Orient Blackswan, 2004, reprint.

Das, Kamala and K Satchinandan, Only the Soul Knows How to Sing, D C Books, New Delhi, 1996, 2009.

1        “Radical Feminism” ( and Jan Creaser and Ben Li (2000), “Radical Feminism” compilers for Gauntlet Publications Society (

2        Bhanot, Preeti (1998), Kamala Das: “Biography”, Spring 1998 (available on:

3        Dallapiccolo, Anna L (ed) (1982), Krishna, The Divine Lover: Myth and Legend through Indian Art. New Delhi: B I Publications.

4        History of Religions, Vol. 10, No.1, August 1970/71, p.159.

5        Jones, Ernest (ed) (1953), Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

6        Kazantzakis, Nikos (1961), Zorba the Greek Tr. Carl Wildman. London: Faber & Faber.

7        Lawrence, D H (1955), The Complete Short Stories, Volume I. London: William Heinemann. 1960 rprt.

8        Myers, Jack and Michael Simms (eds) (1989), The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, New York and London: Logman.

9        Rao, B Sridhar (1977), Sex Problems and Their Management. Bombay: Jaico Publishers.

10   Sen, R N (Tr) (1920), The Brahmavaivarta Puranam. Allahabad: Benarasi Das.

11   Spink, W M, “The Elaboration of the Myth” of Krishna and Radha in Anna L Dallapiccolo (ed) (1982).

12   Walsh, William (ed) (1973), Readings in Commonwealth Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

13   White, C S, “Krishna as a Divine Child” in History of Religions, Vol. 10, No.1.

(Source: Radical Feminism in Kamala Das’s Poetry, The Commonwealth Review, Special Number on Diversity in Commonwealth Literature, Vol.XXI, 1, 2012 (ISSN: 0974-0473), pp.96-134.)

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