By Ajanta Paul
While it may be considered unfashionable and academically gauche to critique a single poem of a poet who has a sizable oeuvre and a considerable repertoire, I persist with my intention of discussing “An Introduction” by Kamala Das which continues to resonate and engage with the ongoing dialectics of literary conversations and evolving tastes. The points of view expressed in the poem are of particular significance to the modern Indian writer practising her art in an ethnically diverse, multilingual, polyphonous, and often contentious colloquium of creative accents.
Kamala Das was a prolific poet and writer with a lacerating honesty which stripped the cover off conventional social morality. She addressed several themes including women’s role and position in patriarchal society and their autonomy (or lack thereof) regarding the use of their minds and bodies, along with childhood memories, sensuous enjoyment of nature, love and liberty among other concerns.
Rebel, iconoclast, provocateur, leader – Das was all of these, and more. While she was occasionally criticized for what was perceived to have been her attention-seeking tactics (as some believed her uninhibited exploration of female sexuality and her religious conversion to have been) she was, for the most part, recognized to have been a formative, even foundational influence on the younger generation of Indian poets writing in English at the time, steering the evolving genre in the post-colonial context along significant channels.
It is interesting to note how “An Introduction,” a poem published fifty-five years ago (in Das’ first notable collection of poetry, Summer in Calcutta in 1965), retains its freshness and relevance even today. It explores the position of the poet showing how in the complex geometry of spaces occupied by individuals – racial, social, familial, biological and artistic – Das was a figure at the centre, a voice from the margins, an outlier in alternative scenarios and a female essentialist, all at the same time.
Das walks with characteristic confidence into the strident debate on political awareness in the opening lines of the poem where she declares: “I don’t know politics but I know the names/ Of those in power, and can repeat them like/ Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.” “Power” is an important concept, construct and correlative in Das’ poetry and it is, perhaps, fitting that she uses this word at the outset of the poem, invoking in the process the rhetorical energies at work in a newly independent nation, the hollow epistemology of a cursory familiarity with merely the names of leaders evident in a mechanical parroting from rote memory, the hypocrisies and affectations that often attend political posturing and, by extension the sense of entitlement permeating the masculine outlook in the man-woman relationship, in general. The reference to Nehru, in particular, points to the ubiquity of politicians in Indian life as also, the anglicized elite which he represented.
Das deftly extends the notion of “politics” from its conventional narrow association with statecraft and governance to the nuanced discourses of patriarchy and its manipulations of female autonomy, and to that of linguistic anxieties inherent in a polyglot, class-stratified post-colonial context which attaches value to the different languages in use according to the social conditioning of its calibrated categories. Both sexual and linguistic politics are, as everyone knows, involved with “power” in their own ways, the one through gender and the other through race, ethnicity and class. In a sense, Das is referring to a dual disempowerment summed up later by post-colonial critics as the “double displacement” of women in their capacities as colonial subjects and patriarchal victims. An aspect of this double displacement incidentally had been voiced by black American female poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, who, too, had perceived the dual victimization of women effected through racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression. In poem after poem such as “The Mother,” “The Crazy Woman,” “Sadie and Maud,” “A Sunset of the City” and “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell”, Brooks explores the pathology of passivity enforced upon doubly disadvantaged persons with little access to authority.
When Das says, “I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,” she is affirming her overall national identity, the first marker of that identity being skin colour, in her case “very brown.” It is a proud acknowledgement and assertion of her racial identity – a skin in which she belongs. The reference to her birthplace points to the complexities of identity wrought by territorial affiliation in a multiethnic society like that of India where the regional is subsumed in the national and vice versa.
Having positioned herself in both national and regional contexts the speaker proceeds to address the question of language. The two lines: “I speak three languages, write in/Two, dream in one” invariably appear to me as a miniature manifesto of sub-continental linguistic practice, at least among those privileged enough to have received a reasonably ‘good’ education. She informs the reader about her facility with languages – her oral proficiency in three, namely Malayalam, English and Hindi/Bengali, her writerly activity in two, namely Malayalam and English and her propensity to dream in the universal language of the human subconscious.
Das fluently incorporates the dramatic accents of direct speech in the lines: “Don’t write in English, they said, English is/Not your mother-tongue,” catching in their immediacy the carping criticism of officious relatives and outlining, at the same time, one of the fundamental premises of the post-colonial linguistic debate. The division between the inherited and the acquired language and the favouring of the mother-tongue over the foreign one for creative expression runs counter to the ingrained post-colonial fascination for English, the colonizer’s language over regional vernaculars. The speaker’s angry retort as to why she should not be left alone and be allowed to speak in any language she liked is directed at “critics, friends, visiting cousins,” every member of the meddlesome extended family who tries to rob her of her creative volition and linguistic liberty, foisting on her instead the stereotypical notions of the preferred medium. The question posed by the speaker, “Why not let me speak in/Any language I like?” is a direct challenge thrown to her personal detractors. It is, at the same time, a plea for the writer’s fundamental freedom, to be allowed to exercise her choice of linguistic medium vis-à-vis her literary expression.
Thus, language as Das sees it, no longer remains a neutral medium of communication but is appropriated, owned and used by the speaker who leaves her personal stamp on it. She claims and possesses it, declaring, “The language I speak,/ Becomes mine, Its distortions, its queernesses/ All mine, mine alone,” in a reflection/inversion of the acquisitiveness and aggrandizement carried out by the European colonizer. In this regard, one is reminded of Homi K. Bhabha’s use of the term “hybrid” for the mixed language of newly-freed nations, and of the fact that Bhabha supports this hybrid as a means of expression for the oppressed. Das, too, celebrates this hybridity and the “ambivalence” located by Bhabha in the split identity of the post-colonial subject as a means of his/her empowerment (Bhabha, 85-92). The speaker, here, proud of her racial identity does not feel the need to conform to the “Queen’s English” or the BBC variety but is content to use her version of the same, howsoever ‘flawed.’ It is a classic instance of the ‘colonies writing back’ in a spontaneous and confident, though self-conscious, mode of literary expression.
The vernacular sensibility and the cultural references which inform the speech and writing of the non-native user of English necessarily imbue the language with “distortions” and “queernesses” that make it peculiarly her own. This self-assurance manifested in the poet’s use of English is linked to the subject position of the speaker as a free citizen of a sovereign nation whose hybrid speech is a reflection of her assimilation of another culture which necessarily changed her understanding of her own (for better or for worse) and influenced her development. In a sense, Das echoes and corroborates what Raja Rao had astutely expressed in his Foreword to Kanthapura, “We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have to look at the large world as part of us,” reminding one of the Indians’ needs to write in their authentic voices as also to absorb the macrocosmic currents in a bid to remain true to the dualities that constitute the core of their post-colonial identity.
This double-edged vision advocated by Rao is probably one of the shaping aesthetics of Indian Writing in English, leading to a language that is Indian in sensibility, English in grammatical expression and in-between in idiom. While this may sometimes make for a rare felicity of expression, it may also account for the so-called “distortions” mentioned in the poem. This latter phenomenon – the curiously ‘blemished’ aspect of the English language (if one may use the word) which becomes on the speaker’s tongue “half English, half Indian,” for all its comic effects – is a measure of both the veracity and the vulnerability of the human condition, as the poet maintains, “funny perhaps,” but “honest” and as human as she is human. In testifying to her incompleteness and imperfections the language, as Das uses it, not only reflects the speaker’s fraught core but is also, an extension of her nature and personality. “It is as human as I am human, don’t/You see?” she rhetorically asks giving it an anthropomorphic equivalence that is as original as it is interesting.
Interestingly, while Raja Rao had, thirty years before the publication of “An Introduction” advanced a possible aesthetics of reconciliation of disparate influences in post-Independence Indian Writing in English, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her influential essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” nearly twenty-five years after the publication of the poem maintains, “In the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (Spivak, 287), articulating thereby not only the voicelessness of the post-colonial woman but also her invisibility, cast as she is in “shadow,” along with the dual disempowerment suffered by her as referred to earlier. The poem in its relation to these seminal articulations (by Rao and Spivak) may be seen as a site of controversy, looking both back and ahead, with an unending potential for engendering fresh debate and plural perspectives.
It is only after advocating an audacious assimilation of English by the Indian poet flexibly transforming it into her peculiar instrument of expression that the speaker deals with its communicative efficacies as a poetic medium. “It voices my joys, my longings, my/Hopes,” she says, drawing attention to poetic language as a vehicle of emotional articulation. She goes on to insist that language is as useful to her “as cawing/Is to crows or roaring to the lions,” emphasizing its essential utility as human expression and communication – “human speech.” It is the speech of a sentient being as she proceeds to point out, the utterance of one who is aware of her surroundings and not the incoherent speech of sensate, vegetative nature.
From an examination of linguistic politics in a post-colonial culture the poem moves on to a recuperation of the speaker’s experience of growing up into a woman. “I was child, and later they/Told me I grew,” poignantly captures the speaker’s bewildered apprehension of the rite of passage to adulthood. Ironically, even the intensely personal experience of adolescence is sanctioned, mediated and validated by others, referred to as “they” in the poem. The lines referring to the speaker’s introduction to puberty allude to Das’ marriage at the age of fifteen expressing the trauma of the child bride in the throes of transition from girl to woman.
“When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask/…he drew a youth of sixteen into the/Bedroom and closed the door” captures the confusions of an adolescent forced into sexual relations with a stranger. The following lines – “He did not beat me/But my sad woman-body felt so beaten”- bare the patriarchal oppression and domestic abuse associated with women’s condition the world over. Physical violence is not the only evil that destroys and defeats a person. The surreptitious violence of gendered social expectations through their accumulated pressure can accomplish the same. The lines “The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me./ I shrank Pitifully” illustrate precisely this point underscoring the speaker’s imprisonment within the socially-ordained and determined role of a woman who is known primarily for her reproductive function. Instead of allowing a woman to burgeon into her full potential, the comprehensive total of all her faculties, she is restricted by society, diminished and “crushed” to fit the pre-determined image of societal expectations – the Orwellian image (albeit in a different context) of the face of the imperial colonizer changing to fit the officially constructed and popularly subscribed to mask of the same. In terms of post-colonial theory in shrinking “pitifully”, the poet/speaker dwindled into a slave once more. In these lines Das demonstrates the intricate and perhaps inevitable interpenetration of gender with biology, physiognomy and identity.
The next three lines – “Then…I wore a shirt and my/Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored/My womanliness” – is a reference to the androgyny that growing girls in inimical situations sometimes sport in denial of the physical manifestations of their impending womanhood fearing their imminent imprisonment in the cage of that image and all that it stands for. The family, usually a microcosm of society, zealous in its conservative guardianship, insists on emphasizing the female identity of the girl-child. The lines, “Dress in sarees, be girl/Be wife, they said”, underscore the connections between gender identity and clothes, imposing sartorial compulsions, not choices on the girl. The ubiquitous “they,” the collective third-person pronoun, as used here is formidable in its combined might as a social and cultural censor laying down and implementing the rules and proscriptions of a fearful ethical code governing familial and social life. Vague and shadowy as the word “they” is within the angst-ridden ambit of the poem it is not any less forceful or domineering for its nebulous quality.
The woman’s female identity, highlighted through her feminine attire, is next ascribed with the conventional social roles envisioned for her down the ages. The lines – “Be embroiderer, be cook,/ Be a quarreller with servants” – enjoin upon her the housewifely roles that women are expected to discharge in daily life, as in seamstress, cook and domestic supervisor. “Fit in. Oh,/Belong, cried the categorizers” capture the affected agenda of the social majority enforcing the mechanical mantra of a mindless conformity to prevalent practices. It is the chorus of the community, the homogenizing slogan of the “establishment” as these constituencies seek to perpetuate the status quo and bring everything to the level of a common denominator. More than half a century on, these lines continue to haunt the lives and consciousness of women across ideological and class lines. The lines – “Don’t sit/On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows” – conflate the contrary images of the archetypal tomboy and the housebound voyeur and are as relevant today as they were more than five decades ago.
The speaker’s exhortation to be “Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better/Still, be Madhavikutty” is a cry from the poet’s heart. She says instead of conforming to the stereotypical roles socially determined for them, women should listen to their inner voice, nurture their talents and be the creative or/and professional artist they long to be. “Amy” is the autobiographical “Aami” of My Story, “Kamala” is the poet writing in English, while “Madhavikutty” is the authorial alias for Das’ Malayalam fiction. The split personae of the single self, each articulating many told and untold stories, collide with and complement each other in a subtle palimpsest of passions.
“It is time to/ Choose a name, a role,” the speaker continues emphasizing the need of the hour. In the logocentric ambience of present society, it is imperative for women to choose the role they want to play in life and also, their own names as Kamala Das, the exemplar did, forging a courageous trajectory for others to follow. It is sometimes the custom in certain Indian regions to change the names of brides giving them a new identity consonant with the ethos of the marital home. Such an appropriation of a subject’s identity through a radical re-christening and subsequent dismissal of her accumulated agency by people in control naturally negate the very personhood of the individual subjected to such power play.
The lines “Don’t play pretending games./Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a/Nympho” hauntingly recuperate the role-playing and the play-acting that often characterize a woman’s daily interactions. The word “games” takes on various meanings in the nefarious negotiations of overlapping contexts as in political ploys, feminine wiles and sexual foreplay in the ludic exchanges of everyday life. “Schizophrenia” points to the split personalities that frequently emerge from an indulgence in such “pretending games.” Instead of adopting false, though socially prescribed and endorsed identities, women are encouraged to be their honest selves, advice that is sound at all times.
The speaker continues with the exhortatory tone in the lines “Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when/ Jilted in love…,” mimicking the accents of genteel society which frowns on such emotional displays only to delve into one such outpouring herself. She recounts her love for a man who is “every man” just as she is “every/Woman.” While the man is everyman in the biological sense, his sexual drive epitomising him the woman is the archetypal female or the generic woman in search of ‘love.’ The lines – “In him…the hungry haste/ Of rivers, in me…the ocean’s tireless/ Waiting” – contrast the libidinous urgency of the man with the infinite patience of the woman. The lines may also refer to the rapacious greed of the colonizer and the passive submission of the subjugated country suffering the former’s depredations. The image of “waiting” is rife with symbolic possibilities. The woman “waits” for her man to return home, she “waits” for his directives, she “waits” for the nine months of gestation to give birth. This “waiting” may also refer to the long wait of the colonized nation while submitting to imperialist plunder.
The final twelve lines of the poem are taken up with the problematic unravelling of identity with which it had begun. “Who are you, I ask each and everyone,/ The answer is, it is I.” If earlier the speaker had been occupied with a delineation of her own identity, at the end of the poem she is concerned about the identity of others which she realizes is intimately linked to her own. The last lines explore the identity of this “I” through the activities attributed to it. The lonely midnight drinker, the frequenter of hotels in strange towns, the lover who later feels ashamed about his act and the man dying with a rattle in his throat are all versions of this protean “I,” the dispersed and dissonant elements of a single entity. Polarizations dissolve as opposites converge in the figures of the “sinner” and the “saint” and in those of the “beloved” and the “betrayed,” in the fluid incorporation of the self and the Other in the ambivalences of the post-colonial outlook.
Having located the “Other” as “I”, the speaker proceeds to blur all distinctions that separate the objective from the subjective. If “he” in the poem represents an authority-figure and “they” social critics then “I” is the bender of binaries. It is the universal ego that recognizes no classifications demonstrating Das’ dismissal of man-made differences on the basis of race, caste, class and creed. To that end the speaker says, “I have no joys that are not yours…” ending with a revised and renewed nomenclature of self – “I too call myself I,” the circularity of the phraseology beginning and ending with “I” enacting the inclusionary inter-connectedness of things.
Whether read as a quest for identity – of a political and social subject, woman and artist; a polemic against prevailing social mores; or a prescription of probable personae and alternative attitudes – “An Introduction” is a poem which rewrites itself in the discourse of the present age, both with regard to the current patriarchal resurgence of chauvinist tendencies and its effect on female agency as also in the use of the English language in globalized times. In so doing it necessarily negotiates a terrain of travesties, a contested site redirecting the congested traffic of outworn ideas as it clears the way for new pathways of thought and practice in the crowded concourse of a nation still searching for signposts to identity.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.
Rao, Raja. Foreword to Kanthapura. OUP, 1989.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberge. Macmillan, 1988. Pp. 271-313.
Dr. Ajanta Paul is an academician, administrator, critic, poet and author, currently Principal & Professor of English at Women’s Christian College, Kolkata, India. She has published several books of criticism and imaginative literature including The Elixir Maker and Other Stories (Authorspress, 2019). Dr. Paul has been featured in print magazines and online journals including Youth Times, The Telegraph Colour Magazine, The Statesman, The Bengal Post, Setu Bilingual Journal, Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry, Millennium Post, Indulge Express, Indiablooms, Transworld Features and Magic Diary Initiative.
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AN INTRODUCTION was the first life changing poem I read in college and Das’ bravery and wit have since become a part of my lexicon and has since been echoed by my sister as well.
It was a gift to reintroduce myself to her courtesy your analytical work here.
I’ve read KANTHAPURA too in college so reading your work here was like going back to my undergraduate years, easily the best period when I discovered some absolute gems which will forever remain with me.
I’m glad the piece made you nostalgic, and that it resonated with you.