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Theme of Love in Kamala Das's Poetry

Kamala Das (1934-2009) was one of the most distinctive and original of Indian poets writing in English. Although she wrote only six volumes of poems, Das stood out as an Indian English poet by virtue of the sincerity and ―uninhibited frankness of her poetry (Naik 2004:208). Das‘ poetry reveals her concern for woman and search for genuine love. She looks into a woman‘s consciousness and places two aspects before her readers: ―First, the relationship of man and woman the second, the woman‘s quest for true love. She writes poetry because of inner compulsion, a need on the part of the poet to come to grip with her urgent inner problem by externalizing it in poetry ( Kirubahar et. al 2010:98). Quest for love, or rather the failure to find emotional fulfillment through love, is the central theme of Das‘ poetry, and her greatness as a love poet arises from the fact that her love poetry is rooted in her own personal experiences. It is an outpouring of her alienation and sense of frustration. This article makes an attempt to focus on how the poet‘s quest for love develops out of her alienation, by selecting three poems
from her first anthology, Summer in Calcutta.

The greatness of Kamala Das as a poet is often attributed to her love poems, so much so that she is called the queen of erotica. She has indeed written extensively on love and passion. Most of her poems deal with the theme of unfulfilled love and yearning for love. However, she does not belong to the tradition of the English love poets such as Donne and Rossetti. As Ahmed observes, ―But to those readers whose notion of love poetry as a subgenre is shaped by poets like Donne, the Rossetts, Swinburne, Morris and others, Das may prove challenging. The experiences in Das‘ love poems can not be assessed at their face value. She writes of the pains and wounds of love, of the final disillusionment and very seldom of fulfillment in love. Love is a mere dream to be sought for in the world of fantasy and myth. These loveless poems are elegies on the death of love against which even a marriage, often drab and banal to the person, is no insurance (Ahmed 2005 : 79) An alternative to love is death and hence the two finds place in her poetic canvas.

The note of profound anguish in Das‘ poetry issues from her experience of alienation from early childhood. This leads her to an awareness of identity crisis. Her autobiography My Story reveals that she is alienated as a child from her father, a symbol of patriarchy and from her mother who all the time lay on the bed, writing poetry and therefore had no time for the children. She experiences alienation even from her classmates and teachers at the English Boarding school in Calcutta. She depicts her brother and herself in her autobiography as the children of loveless parents. She says, ― Gradually our instincts told us to keep away from limelight (My story P 5). By ‗limelight‘ she means affection, the desire of attention in every child. This painful sense of alienation makes her write sad poems at a very early age about dolls that lost their heads. Thereafter she feels isolated from her own Nair community that understood her. Above all, her premature marriage isolated her grandmother and the Nalapat house, her safe haven. The marriage intensifies her sense of alienation. She soon realizes that the union through the marriage is only a physical union and nothing else. Lust comes in the guise of love - the ―Skin‘s lazy hunger‖. So, the female persona feels betrayed in every way. Alienation inevitably leads to loneliness which is one of the recurrent themes of her poetry. She often gives a visual presentation of this loneliness: ―At three in the morning/ I wake trembling from dreams of a stark white loneliness/Like bleached bones cracking in the desert sun was my loneliness…..(―Ghanashyam‖). However, as a child she is alienated in the company of the ―white children‖. She sinks into the morass of loneliness and remains so through out her life. This alienation is emotional and spiritual. It further intensifies as a result of her humiliation and domination. ―Humiliated at the boarding school by the Britishers and at home by the brutally domineering husband, she becomes a psycho-pathological dwarf: Cowering beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and/ Became a dwarf(―The old play house). (Ahmed 2005:80). Das also feels alienated from the society which has been largely male dominated. Her embracing of Islam in 1999 caused great dismay to many Indians and the Hindus shunned her. However, her poems are the outcome of her intensely felt personal experiences which she express honestly and with great conviction. According to B.K. Das, childhood and memory are the chief sources of her poetry. She has often been compared with such modern confessional poets as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton who made an effective use of the confessional mode to unburden the psychological pressure that overrode their sensibilities. Like the modern poets, she uses the confessional technique to peel off the layers of her self and to reveal the pain, honour, miseries and frustrations that engulf her. In poem after poem, she speaks of her failure in love or need for love. She expresses her experiences and passions with an openness and frankness unusual in the Indian context. She does not advocate free-sex but constantly voices her quest for a relationship which gives both love and security, and which should have been her right from the beginning.

The first published volume of Kamala Das‘ poems Summer in Calcutta (1965) sets the tone for her entire poetic output. The fifty poems of this anthology, except a few, deal with the theme of love or failure of love in her life. The opening poem of this poetical work, ―The Dane of the Eunuchs‖ was written against the background of the poet‘s sudden contact with ―a man who had hurt me when I was fourteen years old (My story, P.15) In this poem she finds an objective correlative in the dance of the eunuchs to represent the theme of suppressed desire within. Dancing eunuchs are a familiar sight in India but in Das‘ poem their whirling movement is contrasted with ‗inner‘ vacuity and so they are mere convulsions.

Das herself suffered from such an ‗emotional‘ vacuity and so her dance is also symbolic of her inner life. The dance of the eunuchs with their wide skirts going round and round, ―cymbals/ Richly clashing and anklets jingling, jingling……… is contrasted with their vacant ecstasy, suggesting a gulf between the external, simulated passion and the sexual drought and rottenness inside. The contrast is sustained all through the poem. The dance of the eunuchs is a dance of the sterile and, therefore, the unfulfilled and unquenchable love of the woman in the poet.

The poem has received considerable critical attention as it strikes the keynote of Das‘ poetry as a whole. The poem is powerful and bold, indeed and displayed an admirable sense of proportion in the use of images and symbols, The poet is greatly successful in creating the impression of summer heat, as successful as Keats was in creating the impression of winter cold in ―The Eve of St Agnes‖:

It was hot, so hot, before the eunuchs came
To dance, wide skirts going round and round, cymbals
Richly clashing and anklets jingling, jingling
. . . . . . . . .
The danced, Oh! They danced till they bled . . .‖
The details of the weather, dancers and set up contribute to build up the atmosphere for the poem. The hot weather is emphasized by the repetition of the word ‗hot‘ and in the second repetition an addition of a prefix ‗so‘ heightens the sense of weather. Indeed, the poem is an organic whole where each detail contributes to the total design.

In another fine lyric, ―An Introduction‖, the poet nicely captures her own metamorphosis: ―I was child, and later they/told me I grew for I became tall . . . Alienation hastens the poet‘s premature transformation from a child into a woman.

As A.N. Dwivedi puts it, ―It (―An Introduction) is highly revealing of the poetess of her political knowledge, of her linguistic acquirements, of her physical growth and marriage, of her sad experience in married life, of her belongingness, of her love to another man, and of her eventual frustration and loneliness‖(Dwivedi 2009:112).The poem begins colloquially with the poet introducing herself as an innocent Indian girl.

I don‘t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
……. ….. …….
….I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in 
Two, dream in one.
But soon there are tensions and conflicts. Though the lyric is concerned basically with the question of human identity, it effectively uses the confessional and rhetorical modes in order to focus in questions relating to a woman‘s and Indian poet‘s identity in English. ―Fit in‖ they said, ―Belong, cried the categorizers‖. But she responds to this by transforming her alienation from ―critics, friends, visiting cousins‖ who says ― Don‘t write in English‖ into a larger and more universal alienation that seems to characterize some of the best literature of our age and is perhaps at the heart of every attempt at self exploration and selfintegration.

First, there is the freedom to choose her own language, and confidence in her creative talent: ―The language I speak/becomes mine‖ and ―It is as human as I am human.‖ Then comes the puzzling adolescence and the pain of growing up. This is followed by a desire to be even with the made world on its own terms, despite the family and social pressures to conform to the traditional feminine role:

―Dress in sarees, be girl/Be wife, they said‖. And finally comes the realization that her experiences are experiences of ever woman:‖ I met a man, loved him. Call/Him not by any name, he is every man...........just as I am every/Woman who seeks love........In sum, there is in this poem both passivity and rebellion against a patriarchal society.

In is right that kamala Das is not always true in outpouring her personal experiences .But she gives in her poetry the emotional equivalents of her own mental states. Emotional and sexual humiliation is the central experience in her autobiography My Story and this humiliation finds poetic expression in ―The
Sunshine Cat‖, published in her anthology Summer in Calcutta. The lyric narrates the life of a forlorn woman who was subjected to much humiliation by her own husband as well as by other men .Her husband was mean and cowardly. He used her sexually but failed to respond to her love. He was beastly and brutal, and the woman in her suffered and felt humiliated. The humiliating experiences keep coming to her mind and they cause her much spiritual suffering.

So painful have been the experiences, the memory so lacerating that at times she feels that she would go mad. Her life has become a bed of tears. She wishes to cut herself off from all contacts with the world of men. But her husband is there and she makes her a prisoner in a room, her only companion being a streak
of sunlight which appeared to her heated imagination to be ‗Yellow Cat‘. Very much like the yellow cat, the woman reconciles herself to the prison of domesticity that her husband has built for her. There is no escape from it and she plays the conventional role of wife. But, though apparently reconciled to her lot,she gradually pines away in grief, becomes lean and thin, a mere shadow of her former self. Such is the lot of a woman in this male-dominated world. She must play the roles she is expected to play as wives and mothers. Nobody cares for their own personality and for their frustrations and disillusionments.

The poet has voiced in this poem her own inner frustrations by using the woman persona as an objective correlative. It is certainly a psychic striptease and the poet has articulated without inhibitions, the hurts she received in a largely man-made world. Dwivedi traces the genesis of this poem to chapter 41 of My
Story. In it Das first complains of the unsympathetic attitude of non-writers towards writers and then of her own aching loneliness:

―I withdrew into the cave I had made for myself
where I wrote stories and poems and become safe
and anonymous. There were books all round
me, but no friend to give me well-meaning advice, ...........‖
Thus she goes on narrating her helpless and hapless situation in her
Bombay home. ―It stresses her utter loneliness and frustration, with no one to
counsel or guide her‖.(Dwivedi 2009:101)

The foregoing discussion amply shows that search for love and alienation are central to the poetry of Kamala Das. No doubt, there are different types of poems in Summer in Calcutta. But majority of the poems have a tone of betrayal and they present the poet as a prisoner of her own loneliness and complex moods. Having failed to find true love in human beings, she turns to the Radha-Krishna myth which receives a highly innovative treatment at her hands in her later poems.