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Updated: August 23, 2011 10:56 IST

The feminine sensibility of Kamala Das

M. S. Nagarajan
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“I am different; I am an entity” — Kamala Das

With the receding of the romantic tradition, the second wave of Indian poetry in English emerged just around the beginning of post-Independence era. R. Parthasarathy's Ten Twentieth-century Indian Poets publicised the works of these ‘academic' poets, among whom the most audacious — particularly in her protests against patriarchy and embracing of matrilineal culture with a romantic fervour, the exploration of female sexuality and the sexual desires of women — and, in the words of K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, “aggressively individualistic,” is Kamala Das aka Madhavi Kutty, the so-called icon of Indian feminism.

Kamala Das was bilingual; she wrote poetry in English and the novel, as well as her daring memoir, in Malayalam. Thanks to her confrontational style and penchant for a shocking profusion of normally forbidden details in her vernacular writings, she established herself as a potent new voice. A great deal of her is all too familiar: her marriage; her ‘sexy' novels; her conversion to another religion; her cultural accomplishments, et al.

The book under review, edited by Devindra Kohli, is an armload of glowing reviews and essays. Negative reviews of poetry, of any kind, are notoriously rare, and this book is no singular exception to that rule.

In her heyday, Kamala Das's works evoked a dual, mutually exclusive, response. Some western critics felt shy of treating her as a major figure, tended to brush her aside as very often “over-rated” and one with a very restricted range of experience, and found her “consistently inconsistent.” The articles in this volume, with the exception of a memory piece, were published in the '80s and '90s.

Suguna Ramanathan's imposition of Lacanian psychoanalytical theory of signification on the poem Composition is much too heavy a burden for the undemanding poem to bear. P.P. Ravindran, one of the fervent defenders of Das, discovers a historical subtext at work in the Annamalai Poems and concludes that the “impact of Kamala Das's poetry must ultimately be traced to its historical dimension as well as subjectivity.”

Critical scrutiny

What Das needs is “critical scrutiny, not unalloyed praise” says Keki Daruwalla in his essay “Not Equipoised Enough.” He finds her ‘Sri Lankan' poems sentimental, sounding “a bit like political soap opera.” Her “mired metaphor and over cluttered image” display a woeful lack of discipline in her writing. Krishna Ryan's intentional defence of Das in his short piece “Mixed Metaphors” does not meet Daruwalla's accusations fair and square.

However, the addenda to this essay throw a good deal of light on the alleged confessionalism in Das's poetry. “The ‘I' of the dramatic monologue denotes only the protagonist … The ‘I' of the confessional poem stands, quite literally, for the person who wrote it…” The poet speaks to the reader something about his life without the mediating presence of imagined event: something analogous to washing dirty linen in public. This raises the larger question as to the appropriateness of unwisely applying the term confessionalism — as practised by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath — in relation to the poetry of Das.

Satchidanandan's discussion in his essay, “Transcending the Body,” is fulsome and most comprehensive, placing Das in the historical context of Indian poetry in English. Her poetry should not be equated with the stereotypical feminist poetry that concerns itself with the body with a penchant for anti-male stance.

Her whole “oeuvre becomes a declaration of the greatness of love that even while being expressed through the body also transcends the body.”

There are two essays by Devindra Kohli, editor of the volume. “Remembering Kamala Das” labels her a “natural poet,” who evolved subconsciously without any academic background, without much of knowledge of scanning verses. If at all she had any view of poetry, it could be summed up in the notion “that the origin of her poetry lies in a search for lost or unattainable love.”

There is no gainsaying that the feminine sensibility of Kamala Das is poles apart from that of Sarojini Naidu or Toru Dutt or any other Indian woman poet for that matter. And the book demonstrates this by meticulously reconstructing the themes and variations in the works of Das, a significant literary personage: her self-loathing, her frustration, her metaphysical angst, her moments of anguish and distress. Kohli's book, which offers a richly detailed account of Kamala Das's life and works, is good enough for whetting the literary appetite of those interested in the Indian poetic scene.

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