Kamala Das' 'An Introduction': A feminist reading

Kamala Das' An Introduction: A feminist reading

By Dr Kalikinkar Pattanayak
Kamala Das, the celebrated Indo-English poetess is a feminist to the core; An Introduction is her masterpiece in the sense, here she celebrates the needs of woman: biological and psychological in a style that is disarmingly frank and candid. ONV Kurup, a Malayalam poet of renown, holds that it is ‘an autobiography epitomised in a few words’. Here he perceives the naked beauty of truth. The poetess is a feminist in the sense Rosaline Delmar views:

At the least a feminist is someone who holds that women suffer discrimination of their sex, that they have specific needs which remain negated and unsatisfied, and that the satisfaction of these needs would require a radical change in the social, economic and political order.

An Introduction voices the longing and complaint of a woman who represents all women and she complains against Man who represents every man. She says:

 .... I met a man, loved him. Call
 Him not by any name, he is every man
 Who wants a woman, just as I am every
 Woman who seeks love. (Lines 43-46)

Thus here is a poem which explores relationship between Man and Woman on the vital issue like love. Such a poem provides intellectual food to a feminist.
Rick Wilford in his article Feminism says:

Some feminists insist upopn the primacy of biological sex, that is the distinction between female and male, as the explanation for the oppression of women - that the fundamentally different experiences of women and men in reproducing the species has been used as the motive for perpetuating inequalities between the sexes; on this view, unless these experiences are transformed, women will continue to be subordinate to men... Other feminists focus not upon biological sex but rather upon the ways in which societies construct gendered, i.e. feminine and masculine, roles to explain differences in the life-changes of women and men. Here the focus is on the cultural meanings attached tothe rules learned by children of either sex and which society considers appropriate for women and men. This distinction between the political significance of sex and gender informs much of the debate among feminists. (Political Ideology : An Introduction, P. 254)

The feminists focus on the subordination of women on two fronts: biological and cultural. Sex is the biological construct but gender is the cultural one; two cannot be separated. In the poem An Introduction the poetess reflects the biological and psychological need of women which need to be studied in the cultural framework of the society. The poem begins as follows:

 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 (Lines 1-4)

The poetess is ignorant of politics but she knows the names of those in power instinctively and is capable of repeating them easily. It shows the poetess gets alarmed of politics especially the politics of power in which Nehru strikes her mind, not her daughter. One point is clear that the male dominates in the arena of politics. In the following lines she focuses on the motherland and mother tongue:

 I am Indian, very brown, born in
 Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
 Two dream in one (Lines 4-6)

The poetess claims that India is her motherland; her colour is brown, very brown not fair. She is born in Malabar and speaks three languages, her own mother tongue, Malayalam; national language, Hindi and global language, English. She asserts her choice to write in English despite social restrictions:

 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 in
 Any language I like? The language I speak
 Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
 All mine, mine alone. It is half English half
 Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
 It is as human as I am human, don’t
 You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
 Hope and it is useful to me as cawings
 Is to crows or roaring to the lions, (Lines 6-17)

The poetess prefers to write in English despite the objections of her friends, cousins and critics. She categorically writes that languages should be honest and human, as natural as the sounds of the animals like crow or lion. She has acquired literary competence to express her longings in English; hence she chooses even if it looks funny to her or her readers. Das speaks on the nature of human speech:

 .... it
 Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
 Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
 Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
 Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
 In coherent mutterings of the blazing
 Funeral pyre. (Lines 17-23)

The poetess distinguishes human speech from the other modes of communication of natural phenomena or sad human event like funeral. The primary function of human speech is to create awareness; it is neither blind nor deaf. She echoes the views of the linguists that language conditions consciousness. Perhaps this function of language impels the poetess to rebel against male domination and subordination of woman in a patriarchal society. She writes:

 I was child, and later they
 Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
 Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair, when
 I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
 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.
 I sharnk / Pitifully. (Lines 23-31)

The poetess sheds light upon the temporal sequence of growth and maturity of hers who represents every woman. She candidly writes about the process of maturity and manifestation of changes in woman’s body. When a girl gets maturity she longs for love. In a traditional society like India she gets married to a man who is inexperienced in the art of love making and is in dark about the psyche of woman. Hence in Das’s first sexual encounter with he husband she gets irritated and feels that in matters of sex male dominates. This sense of subordination makes her a rebel. She writes:

 .... I wore shirt and my
 Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
 My womanliness. (Lines 31-33)
 The author goes for masculinization of her famine body. She puts on her brother’s trousers, cuts her hair short and ignores womanliness. She gets instructions from the kith and kin:
 Dress in sarees, be girl
 Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
 Be quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, Belong, cried the categorisers. Don’t sit
 On walls or peep through our lace-draped windows.
 Be Amy, or be Kamala. (Line 33-38)

In Indian traditional society women are instructed to put on sarees; as wives they are to play different roles; the roles of an embroiderer, a cook, a quarreller with servants and so on. The basic principle is that they should adjust themselves to the surroundings. Even their gestures, postrures and movements are controlled and directed by male members. The picture of the conservative society in which women are passive and submissive is brought out in the above passage. There are many don’ts that Indian married women are to follow. The poetess writes:

Don’t play pretending games.
 Don’t play at schizopherenia or be a
 Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
 Jilted in love.... (Lines 40-43)

In the conservative Indian society women have little freedom in the matters of sexuality and expression of feminine frivolity and pretension. It is said that when a woman says no she means perhaps; when she says perhaps she means yes; when she says yes she is not a woman at all. But in traditional Indian society women are not allowed for such kind of expressions; they cannot express their sexuality freely and frankly.

The author who is educated and progressive in her mentality narrates her own experience:

 I met a man, love him. Call
 Him not by any name, he is every man
 Who wants a woman, just as I am every
 Woman who seeks love. In him.... the hungry haste
 Of rivers, in me.... the oceans’ tireless
 Waiting. (Lines 43-48)

The natural desire of man and woman is to fall in love with each other but the way woman feels loved is different from the way man feels loved; the distinction in tendency is due to different psyche. The poetess uses metaphors just to show the way man or woman chooses to be loved. The ‘hungry haste of rivers’ points to impulsive love of male and patient love of females. In matters of love Mrs. Das feels that woman is superior to man; that is why she uses ocean in the context of woman and river in context of man. Das demolishes male’s supremacy in the matters of relationship.

Who are you, I ask each and every one,
 The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
 Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I, in this world, he is tightly packed like the
 Sword in its sheath. (Lines 48-52)

 ‘Sword in its sheath’ refers to the passivity of male in matters of sex and love. Woman is no longer weaker sex because it is the stronger sex which has weakness for it. Das is against sexual inhibition and reservation. She writes:

 It is I who drink lonely
 Drink at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
 It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
 And then feel shame, it is I who lie dying
 With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
 I am saint. I am the beloved and the
 Betrayed. (Lines 52-58)

In the above passage Das throws light upon the role of woman in a permissive society. In a permissive society woman has unbridled freedom. She drinks, makes love, laughs and also does not feel hesitant to feel repentant on some occasions. She can visit the strange towns and can make love to the strangers; what matters is her sexual appeal. She often feels loved, sometimes betrayed. Thus the poetess demolishes male chauvinism. In the concluding lines of the poem the speaker focuses on empathy - the caring and sharing that characterise the lives of the lovers:

I have no joys which are not yours, no
 Aches which are not yours.
 I too call myself I. (Lines 58-59)

The above passage reflects on a kind of love in which the lovers lose as well as retain their identity. Here the poetess advocates a kind of relation between lover and beloved which John Donne would say ‘two legs of a compass’.

Thus a feminist reading of An Introduction would bring to light three kinds of women in three types of society; the dependent women in a conservative society where ‘woman body’ feels ‘beaten’; the independent women in a permissive society where women are ‘beloved and betrayed’ and the interdependent woman in the progressive society where ‘joys and aches’ are equally shared by men and women.

1. Das, Kamala. Summer in Calcutta. New Delhi: Everest Press, 1965.
2. Delmar, ‘Rosalind. ‘What is Feminism?’ in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, eds. What is  Feminism, Oxford, Blackwell, 1986, 8
3. Eccleshall, Robert; Geoghegan, Vincent; Jay, Richard, Kenny, Michael eds. Political  Ideologies: An Introduction, 2nd edition, London: Routledge, 1994.

(Source: Rock Pebbles)