Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



Search for Freedom and Affirmation of Desires in the Poetry of Kamala Das

Dr. Beena Agarwal, Associate Professor, Department of English, D.S. College, Aligarh (UP)


In the discourse on feminist writings, these has been a persistent curiosity and investigative urge to explore the strength of the creative impulse essential to study the turbulent flow of emotions to articulate the inarticulate. The creative expression operates as a mechanism to break the obsessive silence of women and other marginalized communities of society. In the galaxy of Indian English poetry, Kamala Das is the only celebrated name who expresses her silence and resistance beyond the domains of social compulsions and the oppressive system of relative morality. Her concern no longer remains confined to the presentation of women’s identity within the framework of social paradigms but constructs the private spaces of female desires, dreams and needs to construct the full humanity of women’s inner world that unconsciously seeks its fulfillment in her ‘endless hungers’ and desperate affirmation of her sexual desires. The deviation and unconventional endeavours crush women’s quest for self-revelation, self-fulfillment and self-actualization. The absence of mental bonding and the realization of the pain of loneliness breaks the inside of the fortified self of women and leaves them frustrated, lonely and isolated.    The desire for carnal fulfillment only leads to a greater vacuum and nothingness in women’s self and the idea of “stone image” floats within his consciousness. In Kamala Das’ poetry ‘love’ inspite of being replete with sexual background has a comprehensive framework that is inclusive of emotional longing, sexual fulfillment and self-affirmation. It is said:

In Kamala Das’ poetry two aspects of love have been described the real fulfilling love and the pure carnal and or commercial love. The women’s voice coming from the two kinds of love amply clarifies that mere cruelty is never sought often, nor it is fulfilling. Men may enjoy it but not women and in such situation, and it is a plenty, the woman merely feels being used like a lavatory as the Young Typist Girl of The Waste Land and she is shocked and humiliated. (Prabhat Kumar: 14)

She presents expression of love as a justification for the bitter realization of world experience that perpetually marginalizes and abuses the position of woman in patriarchy. She conceptualizes the feminine consciousness not in context of social order but in context of her personal sexual desires that are often crushed in the name of social inhibitions and recommended patterns of patriarchy. In the poem “Composition” she defends her vision and Ideology regarding female desires and admits:

I also know that by confessing
By peeling off my layers
I reach close to the soul
And the bone’s
Supreme indifference. (“Composition”:30)

The confession is an inevitable necessity of women’s self to search out the inner layers of the invisible soul.

Kamala Das in her poems pours out her pain within the bonds of marital life in the name of customs and rituals. Mechanical bonds of intimacy increase the weariness and burden of women’s life and sensibility. In the poem ‘The Old Playhouse’ she reveals how her inner self revolts against the treacherous love making of her husband. His passions remains confined to her body and she uses it in the best possible manner without touching the layers of her sensibility. Kamala Das uses her pen to explain the pain of these contemptuous moves that intensify contempt and bitterness instead of working for synthesis. She reveals:

You are pleased
With my body’s response,
Its weather, its usual shallow.
Convulsions, you dribbled,
Spittle into my mouth, you poured
Yourself into my nook
And crony. (The Old Playhouse: 7)

It is obscene and obscure picture of the triumph of male or female body. The responses of these moments increase the emotional crisis of women’s tortured self. There is no space for equal sharing in this ritualistic code of marital harmony. In the poem “Words”, she constructs the idea how  a woman seeks a compensation for her lost identity in the creative writings because woman like man survives with the world of her personal imagination. She compares the urge for self-expression with ‘blast of burning air’ because her silent responses to undesirable conditions transform into the form of poetic expressions. It becomes a compulsive urge to be transformed into creative urge to avoid fatal consequences of thwarted sensibility. Kamala Das on the lines of Sigmund Freud defends ‘Sex’ as an integral creative form of human sensibility. Woman is neither weak nor insensitive. Accepting the power of words, she admits:

Words are a nuisance,
But they grow on me like leaves on a tree
They never seem to stop their coming
From a silence, somewhere
Deep within. (“Words”: Summer in Calcutta : p.11)

The urge for creative expression for unexpressed suffocation suggests that woman is endowed with the same sensibility as man and the denial of this leads to  an urge to end this imbalance in gender-based social relations.

In the poem “The Freaks”, Kamala Das takes stride to expose the oppressive and whimsical behaviour of her husband. To intensify the effect of contempt she presents him ‘Sun stained’ and further elaborates the minute details of body in lustful presentation. Simultaneously she reflects on the oddity of female existence where a woman is forced to accept unconditional physical intercourse. Without conducive and positive response even her “female hunger” remains thwarted and unfulfilled. The phrases used by the narrator “Sun stained cheeks”, “dark caravan”, “stalactites of uneven teeth”, “mumble finger prints”, “lazy hungers” indicates the perverted to male sensibility against the animal passion of males. It exposes the fact that women is no longer a passive partner in the marital sexual relationship. Kamala’s Das perception of women’s sexual desires is based on the realistic realization of feminine psyche. Women seeks her own spaces both at physical and mental level in sexual relations. The contempt comes on the surface in the confession:

But the only wander tripping
Idly over the paddles of
Desire... can this man with
Nimble finger tips unleash
Nothing more alive than the
Skins Lazy hungers? (“The Freaks” : Summer in Calcutta)

Submission of Kamala Das echoes D.H. Lawrence’s conviction that marriage is not a battles of sexes only. The idea of contempt and resentment against forced and undesirable relations continues in the poem “The Sunshine Cat” where she promotes the idea that entanglement in compulsive sexual relations ruins women’s identity and latent security what Shashi Deshpande defines as “Intrusion”. The brutal attack at the privacy of a women is the worst form of humiliation of female freedom.

She expresses her anguish on the realization how the selfish and dominant behaviour of husband promotes the psyche of disgust and perversion. She calls her husband a “ruthless watcher” and asserts male lust can never be a part and parcel of female sensibility. Being disgusted with treacherous attempts of her husband to protect her ego, and seek the possibilities of extra marital relation. The quest for extra-marital relationship is not a deviation but safer mechanism to seek the fulfillment of lost passion. In the last line of the poem, beloved considers herself “half dead woman” because she becomes weak and insensitive to all secret moves. The disgust for conjugal relationship turns out to be protest against the moves of the husband. Kamala Das defends non-conformity and rejection as a self-protective mechanism that can ensure woman possibilities of survival. The poem “Introduction” records Kamala Das’s vision of revolt against the traditional roles and modes of survival. She makes a candid confession of women’s thwarted sexual desires. Sexual relations become only a ritual. She expresses her realization of the agony of ‘Sad Woman’s Body’ and realizes the pain of her breast. The following confession seems to be awkward but a defense of reality that makes woman weak and insecure. The hollowness of this relationship comes on the surface:

For, he drew a youth of
Sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door.
He did not beat me,
But my sad woman –
Body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts
And womb crushed me. (“Introduction” : Summer in Calcutta : 59)

What Kamala Das mentions is the unfortunate predicaments of every woman within the institution of marriage. She points out that there may be specific joy and ecstasy in the life of husband but women feel isolated in absence of independent female joy. In personal relations, a woman looks forward to emotional bonding first and physical ecstasy afterwards. She makes a confession of this pain:

Betrayed, I have no
joy which are not
yours, no
Aches which are not
yours, I too call myself I. (“Introduction” : Summer in Calcutta : 59)

Kamala Das in her poems pours out the pain of unexpressed agony of women. Simultaneously, she defends that each woman survives in private world of her own with her absolute control over her faculties and triumphs. She raises a new voice against the colonized - colonizer syndrome that governs the entire spectrum of man woman relationship. This demarcation leads to segregation in this power based relationship. Simon de Beauvoir admits:

The position that women occupy in the society is comparable in many aspects to that of racial marginalities in spite of the fact that women constitute numerically at least half of the human race. (Parshley : 9)

The negation of human identity constitutes the psyche of marginality and survives with the perpetual burden of subordination and inferiority. It further constitutes the suffocation and protest to thwart away the existing ideologies. Kamala Das adopts poetry as a medium to break the silence and slumbers that confirm the process of subordination and emancipation. Her poetry is a call for the emancipated identity of women folk. Her poetic vision is closely associated with the vision of women’s emancipation. She asserts:

I need to disturb society out of its complacence, I found the complacence a very ugly state. I wanted to make women of my generation feel if that if women could do something wrong they could do it themselves too. I wanted them to realize that they were equal. I wanted to remove gender difference. (Interview with Iqbal Kaur : 165)

Kamala Das in her celebration of women’s hunger constructs the broad spectrum of women’s human identity and sensitivity that is beyond the domain of existing binary. In the poem ‘A Losing Battle’ she pours out her apathy for the perverted passions of males that ruin, the sanctity of female. She exhorts that a woman should be calculative and selfish to avoid the traps of male sexuality because passivity is fatal to women. She establishes that love for women is sacrifice but man often accepts it as safer outlet for his lustful desires. It is clear from the following expression:

Men are worthless, to trap them
Use the cheapest bait of all, but never
Love which in a woman must mean tears
And a silence in the blood.
(“A Long Battle”: Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: 48)

In the poem “confrontation”, she expresses her restlessness to break the barriers of the four walls of house. She advises women to come to life by asserting their independence because the world is wide and varied beyond the physique of husband. She makes a bold confession, “Women is this happiness, this lying buried, Beneath a man.” (“Confrontation”, The Descendants, p. 20)

Kamala Das presents feminist experience of the collective consciousness as an insider as well as outsider. Her contempt for mechanical bonding in marital life is an expression of her own suppressed agony. In the poem The Old Play House, she compares herself to be the “Swallow” and her husband as a “Captor” who wants his absolute hold over her will and body. She expresses her disgust for mechanical sex that tends to ruin and control women physically and mentally. Her resentment voices the suffocation of women in monotonous domestic rituals of everyday life. She almost cries out on the bitter realization of her ridiculous position:

…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,…
(“The Old Playhouse”, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, p. 1)

It is expression of agony as well as a challenge to the irrational control of social conditions on female body and mind. Women has need to survive with herself respect, freedom and power of independent judgement. The male desire to relegate women to margins humiliates women in unconscious way. The realization of this unexpressed suffocation is well expressed in obsessive revelation, “Even the air conditioner helps so little, all pervasive is male scent of your breath.” (The Old Playhouse : 1) Kamala Das accepts reconciliation of women as a ‘mute’ and ‘passive partaker’ in the drama of sex is only a fallacy. Tearing the veil of dramatic delicacy, she admits:

I must pose
I must pretend
I must act the role
of happy woman
Happy wife. (“Suicide”: 34)

In Kamala’s Das’s perception of marriage is no longer a sheltering canopy but a gateway for uncompromising captivity, a loss of liberty both at physical and mental level. She portrays “marriage” as a “game of cruelty”. In the poem “Of Calcutta” her female ego comes on the surface, she confessed that with her husband. She has been reduced to a ‘trained circus dog”. Her pain comes on the surface:

My spirit, where the mute tongues my desire?
Our childhood city is distant now....     (Summer in Calcutta: 54)

For her marriage is a loss, the loss of liberty, loss of dignity and loss will and reason. In the poem entitled “I Shall Some Day”, she expresses her desire to escape from the world of bondages. In the poem “The Doubt” her personal indignation moves in the direction of generalization, and she establishes that every human being equal and there is no distinctive between the two categories of human beings. She condemns male-propounded definitions of feminity. She expresses her disgust for the total submission of his wife. She recalls the images how all limitations are imposed on her will in name of feminine morality. Kamala Das expressed her desire to launch out “new type of morality” and make relentless efforts to break the image “Angel of home” to realize the absolute potential of female self. From being an object, she search out the spaces to play the role of a subject. The ties and binary paradigms of matrimony lead to loss and chaos in women’s lives. Regarding this dimension of insecurity, Mulk Raj Anand comments:

No woman in our land is beyond the threat of rape because of the suppressed energies of the male, through the taboos of patriarchy which deny sex before marriage and make male young into wanton animals who assault any victim, when possessed by lust. (Anand: 3)

Kamala Das in her poems defines the imbalance of power relations in context of silence and speech. She recalls the experiences of her parental home where are the power of taking vital decisions was the privilege of male members. Sex issue was a prohibited discussion for women. It results in the formation of a specific feminity psyche where women’s ideology of sex remains limited to the concept of ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’. Being suffocated with these oppressive ideologies, Kamala Das openly rejects the traditional feminine world. She opens a new era of enlightenment and rational justification of gender-centric power structure. C.R. Nambiar writes:

Kamala Das occupies a central place among the noted female writers of this country by seeking to liberate female sex from the attitudes established by the conventions – ridden patriarchal society. (Nambiar: 119)

Kamala Das raises her voice to break the web of silences both in terms of thoughts and languages she expresses the possibilities of “New Life” far and above the traditional conventions. She expresses her anguish not as a silent spectator but as an insider surviving within the paradigms of her own pains. She admits:

I am tired of my generation and I don’t like them one but, all their moralizing, all their pretenses. I can’t stand any more of the lies they tell, the poses they strike... I don’t understand them, they can never understand me. (Kamala Das: Survey: 1990)

It is the distinction of Kamala Das that she nurtures the dream that the language skills can work as a tool for of women’s empowerment. Within her family she restricted to achieve exposure in language skills women are allowed to speak and write in mother tongue. She clamours for freedom to use “any language I like”. She admits:

Don’t write in English, they said
English is not your mother tongue.
Why not leave me alone
Critics, friends, visiting cousins.
Every one of you? Why not let me speak
And language I like.    (“As Introduction”, Summer in Calcutta : 59)

To break the barriers of guilt and shame, she makes elaborate description of female body. In order to conquer the limitations of female physique, traditional dress codes, and prefers to bear ‘shirt’ with ‘short hair’. With utter disgust she challenges the monopoly of male monopoly and intends to construct an identity on her own conditions in terms of dress, language and desired role models. She mentions that a woman suffers isolation and sense of loss in menial domestic work. She finds it meaningless and tiresome. She seeks possibilities of unconventional roles as a process of transformation of women’s role models. Iqbal Kaur comments on the radical vision of Kamala Das, “Kamala Das with an intense desire for sexual revulsion, she wants a utopian state of affairs in which the equal boundaries of gender do not exist.” (Iqbal Kaur: 206)

In the poem Nani, Kamala Das expresses her indignation on the traditional roles of women that are responsible for their mortifications and shameful existence. She was forced to hang herself for the shame born out of lecherous and lustful designs of ‘unknown citizens’. She admits that for a women her own body leads to undesirable actions and inflictions. She admits:

Nani, the pregnant maid hanged herself
In the privy the day
For three long hours
Until the police came,
She was hanging there
A clumsy puppet, and 
When the wind below
Turning her gently out the rope. (Nani: The Best of Kamala Das: 19)

To realize the burden of male domination, she seeks emancipation from the bonds of loves, matrimony, ritualistic sexual relations, and ethics of marital harmony. Her exceptional frankness in the treatment of these issues is a sign of resistance or a mechanism to save her ego from being lost in oblivion. In the poem “Looking Glass” transgressing the barriers of moral cementations, she asserts that woman has every right to take maximum pleasures of sexual act. She suggests that a woman should stand naked before a mirror and make her partner also to stand before her side. It is not criticism but a method to cut the knots of restrictions imposed on female desires and female physique.

She asserts:

Stand nude before the
Glass with him
So that he sees himself
The stranger one
Ad believes it so, and
You so much more
Softer, younger, lovelier... (“The Looking Glass”, The Descendants: 25)

She asserts that a woman retains her sensibility to observe and to analyze the perfection of man’s limbs. The strength is to be recollected to look at the “jerky way” of male members. It is her effort to break the barrier of “conditional behaviour”, that subjugation and slavery at mental level. She adopts a revolutionary way to write on the subject of ‘love’ and ‘sex’. She seeks equal spaces in the scheme of things. The lines of argument adopted in the poem “Composition”, “Introduction” and “The Old Playhouse” evince that Kamala Das portrays voyage from the slumber of suppression to the state of awareness and affirmation. She seeks the spaces of life for women breaking the bondages of silences manifested in terms of language, female body, tributes of feminity and women’s irresistible desire for equal participation and equal sharing. She makes efforts to restore status to women breaking the barriers of sexual colonialism. In her approach negation and non-conformity have been adopted as a mechanism of affirmation of female voices and female identity. For her mental emancipation from conventional ideologies constitutes the hard grounds of liberty and equality.  


Works Cited

Anand, Mulk Raj. “In Yama’s Hell: Indian English Writing About Women. Between Spaces of Science: Women Creative Writers (ed). Kamini Dinesh. New Delhi: Sterling, 1994.

Das, Kamala. Descendants, Calcutta: Writer’s Workshop, 1967.

Das, Kamala. Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das, D.C. Books, Kerala: Kotayam, 1996.

Das, Kamala. Summer in Calcutta, New Delhi: Everest Press, 1965.

Das, Kamala. The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, Madras: Orient Longman, 1973.
Kamala’s in Interview with Iqbal Kaur “I Want to Disturb Society” Perspective on Kamala Das’ Poetry (ed.) Iqbal Kaur, New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.

Kaur, Iqbal. “Protest Against Sexual Colonialism”, Gender and Literature, B.R. Publishing Co-operation, New Delhi, 1992.

Nambiar, C.R. “The Quality of Kamala Das”, Modern Indian Poetry in English (ed.) Nila Shah, Creative Books, New Delhi, 2000.

Pandey, Prabhat Kumar. “The Pink Pushing Woods: The Women’s Voice in Kamala Das’ Poetry”, Perspective on Kamala Das’ Poetry (ed.) Iqbal Kaur, New Delhi : Intellectual Publishing House, 1995.

Parshley, H.M. Translator’s Preface in Simon de Beauvoir The Second Sex, Penguine Books, 1972.