The general critical opinion regarding the poetry of Kamala Das is that she is obsessed with love and rather than finding salvation in art, her poetry speaks of continuing disappointments in love. As a confessional poet, she writes about sexual frustration and desire, of the suffocation of an arranged love-less marriage, of the futility of lust and of the loneliness and neurosis that stalks women especially. But it is also true that so far as universal and unconditional love is concerned, it always springs from appreciating goodness. Such type of love expects nothing, expresses everything, bears and holds even the worst of anything. All these ingredients of selfless love are present in Kamala Das’ My Grandmother’s House, a poem which beautifully captures the nostalgic desire of the poetess for her ancestral home, Nalapat House, at Malabar in Kerala, and reflects a vivid description of her childhood days when her grandmother was everything for her.
Nature of Quest in Post-Independence Indian English Poetry: A General Assessment
In a broad manner, Post-Independence Indian English Poetry is undoubtedly characterised by a quest for love and an unrelenting effort to reassert its native values and traditions. Poetry in this generation tries hard to set its roots and develop its own artistic credo. It is a well-known fact that the seed of Indian writing in English was sown during the period of the British rule in India. But now the seed has blossomed into an ever-green tree, fragrant flowers and ripe fruits. The fruits are being ‘tasted’ not only by the native people, but they are also being ‘chewed and digested’ by the foreigners as well. After Independence, when a respectable national identity has been achieved, Indian Poetry in English began to make its newness felt. Poetry became inward-looking in the hands of the poets like Jayanta Mahapatra, A.K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Arun Kolatkar, Kamala Das and others who changed their perspective from the rhetoric of the nation to the rhetoric of the self. They adhered to a shift—the shift from the macrocosm of the country to the microcosm of the self. After Independence, the poets began to leave behind the revivalist tone of Indian nationalism invoking legend and myth and celebrating the motherland. They also left behind the tradition of picturesque imagery, of leaf and flower, forest, tree, deer and python. On the other hand, their poetry is about the self, about the individual rather than about the community. However, some of them have sought in their history, or in their mother tongues, or even in their families, a source of renewal. From the late 1960’s, a vigorous campaign was conducted through anthologies by poets, in which an anti-romantic canon was consolidated, chiefly by Saleem Peeradina ( Contemporary Indian Poetry English: An Assessment and Selection, 1972), R. Parthasarathy ( Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, 1976) and Keki N. Daruwalla ( Two Decades of Indian Poetry: 1960-80, 1980).
About Kamala Das in brief:
Kamala Das, also known by her one-time pen name Madhavikutty, is one of the most significant contemporary Indian poets writing in English who has received wide acclaim and many awards for her poetic achievements, some of them being the P.E.N. Asian poetry prize, Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for fiction, Asian World Prize for literature, Kendra Sahitya Academy Award, etc. Kamala Das has attempted to touch and feel life in a meaningful way, and in the words of K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, she is ‘’aggressively individualistic.’’ The ideas, which she has expressed in her poems and in her autobiography, My Story, appear to be similar. In her autobiography, she says, ‘’I wanted to empty myself of all the secrets’’ (Das, Kamala, 1988: Preface). She doesn’t like to hide anything and would like to disclose all the secrets.
Kamala Das was born on March 31, 1934 into a conservative Hindu Nair (Nallappattu) household possessing royal ancestry. Her mother, Balamani Amma, was a well-known poet and writer in Malayalam. Kamala spent several years in Calcutta, where she went to Catholic Schools. She was married fairly early, before she finished her college, and so she happens to be perhaps the only leading Indian English poet without a degree to her name. She had embraced Islam in 1999 at the age of 65 and assumed the name Kamala Suraiya. She also took active participation in politics in India and had launched a national political party, called the Lok Seva Party. The foremost aim of the party is to focus wholly on humanitarian work as well as provide refuge to orphaned mothers and promote secularism. In 1984, Das had also contested the general elections to enter the parliament, but lost.
Kamala Das’s first collection of poems Summer in Calcutta (1965) upset the phallogocentric discourse of Indian English Poetry and changed its history. The other collections of poems The Descendents (1967) and The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973) have equally vociferous feministic stance. Her poetry is replete with images which cover the entire spectrum of emotions from desire to passion, frustration to dejection and scorn to despair. Like an average Indian girl, Kamala Das accepted the inevitable married life, its responsibilities and the male atrocities, but not without lodging a forceful complaint against the hollow marital relationship. She was in search of ideal love relationship based on mutual trust and emotional communication.
Themes in the Poetry of Kamala Das:
Kamala Das is indeed an iconoclast who has asserted her identity on the firmament of Indian English Poetry by her honest and candid poetic lines that breaks the hypocritical veneer of man-woman relationship in traditional Indian society. Her poetry is indeed a celebration of the universal experience of the self, love-despair, anguish, failure and disgust against the traditional mode of gender manifestation apprehended through a feminine Indian awareness. Her poems have a self-affirming way of life for the female protagonist as an intelligent, self-aware, confident and integrated personality with the aptitude and ability to live life on her own terms.
Kamala Das appeals, in poem after poem, for a love beyond the body, or what she calls ‘’ the skin’s lazy hungers’’. The husband’s/ lover’s arms reaching out to embrace are described as ‘carnivorous plants.’ While a lot of her poetry is about love and sexuality, her treatment of these themes is unconventional and goes against traditional modes. Thus her poetry is filled not with the images of beauty but with the images of dead yellow skin, the slack mouth of an old man, or the body as burden she has to carry. Thus she writes in A Request:-
When I die
Do not throw the meat and bones away
But pile them up
Let them tell
By their smell
What life was worth
On this earth
What love was worth
In the end.
Reason behind quest for true love in Kamala Das’ poetry:
The poetry of Kamala Das has a unique place in the Indian English Poetry because in her poetry one comes across the resonant themes of oppression and violence in an unmistakable manner, and to overcome the traumas of suffering and violence, she started devoting her time to writing work. She did not experience a happy union with her husband and by virtue of her husband’s male egotism, she experiences a constant frustration and fissure. Since she is a frail woman, she fails to subdue her husband and this fact makes her married life really tiresome. She felt that she was losing her identity as an individual for she was degenerating into a puppet expected to perform in tune with her husband’s demand:-
‘‘ 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. I lost my will and reason, to all your
Questions I mumbled incoherent replies. The summer
Begins to fall. ( The Old Playhouse and Other Poems ).’’
It is for this reason that she desires to flee from her husband—
‘‘ I shall someday leave, leave the cocoon
You built around me with morning tea…
I shall someday take wings, fly around…’’ ( Summer in Calcutta ).
In this context, the observation of A.N. Dwivedi is worth quoting—‘’ It should, however, be remembered that Kamala Das wrote her poetry against a more conservative and tabooed society… She has, therefore, more to say about the pathos of a woman emerging from a passive role to the point of discovering and asserting her individual liberty and identity.’’
In an essay entitled ‘‘ Obscenity and Literature’’, Kamala Das writes—‘’ In one of the Sanskrit plays written on palm leaves by an unknown writer, I came upon a fascinating passage. Radha abandoned for some years and lovelorn, entreats a traveller to go to Mathura and give message to Krishna. When asked to describe her lover she says with tears in her eyes—‘ I do not remember his colour or his height or even his face, all I remember is the bliss I felt when he was inside me, like a seed inside the earth…’ So love is the only pastime that involves the soul.’’ The passage is sufficiently vivid in bringing home to the readers the poet’s attitude and craving to true love throughout her life. Now, this quest for true and selfless love is beautifully explored in the poem ‘’My Grandmother’s House’’ which maintains a sharp retreat of the poet to her childhood days in the Nalapat House where her grandmother lived. The poem also reminds the readers about Charles Lamb’s nostalgic recollection of his childhood days along with his great grandmother Mrs. Field, as reflected in the essay ‘‘Dream Children: A Reverie’’.
My Grandmother’s House
There is a house now far away where once
I received love…… That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence, snakes moved
Among books, I was then too young
To read, and my blood turned cold like the moon
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of window or
Just listen to the frozen air,
Or in wild despair, pick an armful of
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom door like a brooding
Dog… You cannot believe, darling,
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved… I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?
‘’ Love is a behaviour.’’ A relationship thrives when the lover and the loved are committed to behaving lovingly through continual, unconditional giving—not only saying, ‘’ I love you’’, but showing it.’’
–Dr. Jill Murray
It is a well-known truth that generally most of the grandchildren are pampered and petted by their grandparents, and it is for this reason that the grandchildren are more attached to their grandparents’ selfless and unconditional love. Further, it is also true that grandparents are more matured than the parents in handling their grandchildren. It is in this context that Kamala Das’ My Grandmother’s House draws the attention of the readers because the poem beautifully records the eternal and unconditional bond of attachment between the grandmother and the child Kamala. The poem is also enchanting for its nostalgic appeal from the beginning to the end.
My Grandmother’s House:- as a quest for true love:
Published in 1965 in Summer in Calcutta, the poem, consisting of sixteen lines, is a sustained description of the sense of security of a grandmother’s house at Malabar in Kerala where the self of the poetess attains some sort of integrity. Here the poetess, though somewhat lonely, is free to dream her own fantasies, her desires to be connected to a more interesting world. The memory of love which she received from her grandmother is associated with the image of her ancestral home, where she had passed some of her happiest days in her life, and where her old grandmother had showered her love and affection to her. As the poetess now lives in another city, a long distance away from her grandmother’s house, the memories of her ancestral house make her sad. So the poem springs from the poetess’s own disillusionment with her expectation of unconditional love from the one she loves, and the image of the ancestral home stands for the strong support she received from her grandmother.
According to Kamala Das, the grandmother’s house is singular in the sense that it was filled with the all-pervading presence of her grandmother. But after the death of the grandmother, the house had become an isolated and remote entity, echoed by the phrase ‘far away.’ When the grandmother died, even the house seemed to share her grief, which is poignantly expressed in the phrase ‘’ the House withdrew.’’ The poetess asserts that with the death of her grandmother, silence began to sink into the house. Her blood became cold like the ‘moon’ because there was none to love her the way she wanted. Kamala Das, at that juncture, was small enough to read books. But she was emotional enough to understand the true meaning of love. After the death of her grandmother, the worms on the books seemed like snakes, in keeping with the eeriness of the situation. Kamala Das also asserts that the deserted house looked like a desert, with reptiles crawling over here and there. She now longs to ‘peer’ at the house that was once her own. She has to peer through the ‘blind eyes’ of the windows as the windows are now permanently closed. The air is frozen now, as contrasted to the situation when the grandmother was alive. Although the poetess pleads with us to ‘listen’ to the ‘frozen’ air, it is just a case of impossibility. Neither is the air a visual medium, nor can air cause any displacement because it is ‘frozen.’ In wild despair, she longs to bring in ‘’an armful of darkness.’’ Here, the word ‘darkness’ has a positive connotation of a protective shadow. It also reflects the comfort inside the room. This ‘’armful of darkness’’ is the essence of her nostalgia. With this piece of darkness, she can lie down for hours like a brooding dog behind the door, lost in contemplation. The speaker claims that in her quest for love, she has now become wayward. Ironically, she addresses her husband as ‘’darling’’, and talks of the lack of love in her life in the same breath and tone. As she is now suffering with the intensity of grief, her pursuit of love has driven her to the doors of strangers to receive love at least in the form of ‘a tip.’ She hankers for love like a beggar going from one door to another asking for love in small change. But she does not get it even in small change or coins. Previously, she was ‘proud’ as she did not have to compromise on her self-respect. But now she has to move in the maze of male monopolistic chauvinism, and beg for love in the form of change. But her love-hunger remains unsatisfied, and there is a big void, a blank within her, she seeks to fill up with love but of no avail. So, the entire texture of the poem makes it clear that Kamala Das’ grandmother was indeed an embodiment of unconditional love.
As one go through the text in an intense manner, one cannot miss the dominant tone of despair and suffering or what Keats calls ‘the fever and fret’ of the poetess’s own personal life. Kamala Das has also provided the detailed information regarding her experiences in her autobiography, My Story, in which she writes—‘’ After the sudden death of my grand-uncle and that of my dear grandmother the old Nalapat House was locked up and its servants disbanded. The windows were shut, gently as the eyes of the dead are shut. My parents took my great grandmother to the house called Sarvodaya where she occupied noiselessly the eastern bedroom on the ground floor, shaded by the tall mango trees through the leaves of which was visible the old beloved house. The rats ran across its darkened halls and the white ants are raised on its outer walls…’’ (Das, Kamala,1988).
The reason behind the intensity of love which the speaker feels for her late grandmother lies in the dichotomy between past and present. If the past was idyllic to the speaker, the present is characterised by lack of love and hypocrisy. As the ‘grandmother’ represents the time gone by, a time marked by love and innocence, the speaker fails to reconcile herself with the present time, and above all, comes to the realisation that she has lost her way for ever. In other words, the sense of belonging seems to have been replaced by a sense of being an outsider. That the speaker’s perception has undergone a radical change can also be justified from the lexical point of view. While in the beginning of the poem the use of the word ‘’house’’ has a sense of cordial reception, the use of the word ‘’door’’ towards the end of the poem represents a barrier to gain an entry into the house. In such a scenario, when there is a clear conflict between past and present, the speaker’s quest for true love and her nostalgic appreciation of the past seems to be really touching and endearing.
Thus, the poem, My Grandmother’s House, indeed takes the form of a confession comparing the poetess’s present broken state with that of being unconditionally loved by her grandmother. Further, the essence of beauty in the poem lies in the fact that the poem contains the feeling which we all have in our mind. As we are busy in our routine-based life, we don’t have time to think about our childhood days. But as soon as we go through the poem, we are transcended back to our childhood memories in a flash, and our soul begins to cry out—‘‘Oh, What days it were…!’’
- Das, Kamala, My Story, Sterling Publishers, 1978.
- Das, Kamala, Summer in Calcutta. Delhi: Rajinder Paul, 1965.
- Dwivedi, A.N. Kamala Das and Her Poetry (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2000).
- http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/ kamala das
- Rahman, Anisur. Expressive form in the poetry of Kamala Das. Delhi: Abhinav, 1981.
K.R. Srinivas Iyengar, Indian Writing in English, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1985.