The Body and Beyond – Quest for Love
Kamala Das’s poetic vision is essentially moored in a strong fund of love. Her feminist stances as well as her melioristic vision is rooted in her love for humanity. In fact, love is the dominant theme in the oeuvre of Das’s poetry. In an interview to the present writer, the poet acknowledged the importance of love in relation to her life and her poetry.
"I craved for love, not lust. Love gives a kind of protection. Love is the capital of poetry."
In all her five anthologies — Summer in Calcutta [SC], The Descendants [DS], The Old Playhouse and Other Poems [OPP], Collected Poems [CP] and Only the Soul knows how to Sing [OSS] — Kamala Das used her personality as the raw material for her poetry. In her autobiography ‘My Story’, which in parts is like an expanded poetry, she points out:
"A poet’s raw material is not stone or clay, it is her personality."1(italics mine).
This statement implies that she does not accept Eliot’s distinction between the man who suffers and the mind that creates. Her poetic creations are rooted in her personality that becomes its "raw material". It must, however, be realized that the personality of the poet is a "raw material" and in no way a finished piece of poetry. The "raw materials" undergo aesthetic transmutations before they are presented as poetic wholes. Facts and fantasy, experience and imagination are inseparably mingled in her works, thereby creating a sort of Magic Realism. But, unfortunately, often her poetry has been interpreted as a true reflection of her personality and this has resulted in unleashing a battery of trenchant criticism against her self and her writings.
The central position of love in her life meant that it was also the sine qua non of her poetry. Love, in Kamala Das’s poetry, is distinctly severed from lust. Love is seated in the soul and is an ennobling experience, while lust is associated with the body and is an abominable and obnoxious experience. However, thanks to her rich fund of honesty, Kamala Das never lends herself to the obscure regions of metaphysics. In her search for love, she does not deny the role of the body. She yearns for a love that at once satisfies the body and caters to the need of the soul. Her obsession with the body is functional in lending a feminine flavour to her style, consistent with the objectives of feminist poetics; her sustained endeavour is to transcend the body. Her poetry presents an oriental dialectics of the body and the soul. She aims at sexual-spiritual fulfillment in terms of love. Her quest for such a love is fostered by a sense of alienation that lies deep in her consciousness.
During her childhood days she seldom received parental love. Her father was the dominating male and her mother was an introvert, always busy with her poetic creations. The obvious result was that the child found herself hopelessly moored in the mire of a loveless family. She recollects the pain of living with her parents:
"Whenever I stayed with my parents in my Calcutta home I suffered from mysterious headaches that kept me awake at night."2
At school she was singled out by the teacher for her brown skin. Her own introvert character worsened matters. This pain of alienation is superbly brought out in the poem ‘Punishment in Kindergarten.’
"Today the world is a little more my own.
No need to remember the pain
A blue-frocked woman caused, throwing
Words at me like pots and pains, to drain
That honey-coloured day of peace.
Why don’t you join others, what
A peculiar child you are!" [SC]
The auditory image in "throwing / Words at me like pots and pans" reveals the mental pain that the poet received that day. In more discursive terms, Kamala Das describes the painful event in ‘My Story’. It was a picnic day at school and
"Oh I was so lonely that day. No one seemed to want my company, not even my brother who was playing a kind of football with his classmates. ……… I wondered why I was born to Indian parents instead of to a white couple…………. Then suddenly like the clatter of pots and pans, harsh words attacked my privacy. "What on earth are you doing here, Kamala?" shouted the teacher. "Why don’t you join the others? What a peculiar child you are?""3
Marriage brought lust but no love. Kamala Das was married at the tender age of 16 to an insensitive homosexual who was 14 years older to her. She entered the domain of marriage with high hopes of obtaining love, warmth and comfort. The poet candidly states her expectations from her husband:
"I had expected him to be all that I wanted my father to be, and my mother. I wanted conversation, companionship and warmth. Sex was far from thoughts."4
Reality, however, falsified her expectations. The homosexual advances of her husband rubbed salt on the soar. Her body was humiliated while her soul remained neglected. With life creeping on all fours and the last hope of receiving love proving to be illusive, it is very natural for a sensitive soul to look for love outside the orbit of marriage. But Das did not go out in search of love. Instead, she turned inwards.
"I withdrew into the cave I had made for myself where I wrote stories and poems and became safe and anonymous."5
Couched in this "cave", she went on creating the various personae who move over her poetic canvas, shocking some and titillating many. In the act of creation, as the poet says in ‘Loud Posters’,
"……….. I’ve put
My private voice away, adopted the
Typewriter’s click as my only speech".[SC]
So, any attempt to reconstruct her personal life from her loveless love poems is unwarranted. In fact, it would have been impossible for her to go outside her marriage for her husband and her children formed the axis around which her life revolved. After the death of her husband, in the poem ‘A Widow’s Lament’, she mourns:
"I walk the highway alone.
He was a sunshade, he was my home,
Now I walk naked as a babe." [OSS]
The "highway" is the path of life where the husband provided her protection (not love!). The image in "walk naked" refers to the poet’s sense of vulnerability that she feels without her husband.
Kamala Das’s love poems, like a seismograph, reflect the poet’s yearning for love and the consequent heart-break as she realizes that her cravings have only yielded lustful advances. As K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, commenting on Kamala Das’s treatment of love in her poetry, points out:
"Love is crucified in sex, and sex defiles itself again and again."6
In poem after poem, Das expressed her horror and disgust of lust. Lust is painful and its aim is to hurt as revealed in the poem ‘Glass’.
"He drew me to him
With a lover’s haste, an armful
Of splinters, designed to hurt, and
Pregnant with pain." [CP]
Lust is soul-killing and poisonous, as the persona is told in the poem ‘Gino’:
"You will perish from his kiss, he said, as one must
Surely die, when bitten by a Krait who fills
The bloodstream with its accursed essences". [CP]
It is this "accursed essences" that filled every "nook and cranny" of her existence and wrecked her mentally. In ‘The Old Playhouse’, the persona reveals her derelict mental condition.
"…………………………….. There is
No more singing, no more a dance, my mind is an old
Playhouse with all its lights put out." [OPP]
It is a life-in-death state for the persona. Such a painful state is also revealed in the following lines from the poem ‘The Sunshine Cat’:
"Winter came and one day while locking her in, he
Noticed that the cat of sunshine was only a
Line, a hair-thin line, and in the evening when
He returned to take her out, she was a cold and
Half-dead woman, now of no use at all to men." [SC]
The expression "Half-dead" signifies a condition in which the body is biologically alive but the mind is dead, giving rise to a terrible life-in-death state. Sometimes she tries to resurrect herself from such a pitiable existence by a willful attempt to obliterate the memory of her lover, as in ‘Summer in Calcutta’.
Brief the term of my
Devotion, how brief
Your reign when I with
Glass in hand, drink, drink,
And drink again this
Juice of April suns." [SC]
The sun takes the shape of an orange but retains its characteristic quality of heat. The orange juice partakes the heat of the sun and as she drinks the juice her sadness is burnt away by its heat. The memory of her lover and the painful lust that he brought in his trail is forgotten.
However, such benign oblivion is only temporary. The lover comes back and fills her heart "With coiling snakes of silence" (‘The Freaks’). Dissatisfied at heart, she strikes a posture in ‘The Freaks’:
"I am a freak. It’s only
To save my face, I flaunt, at
Times, a grand flamboyant lust." [SC]
Among the eighteen words used in the quoted passage, sixteen words are monosyllabic which the poet use to express the genuine feelings of the persona. When the persona strikes the poseur of a "freak", her artificial stance is revealed by the polysyllabic "flamboyant". Leaving in an abnormal world she has to behave abnormally in order to show that she is normal. Commenting on the poem T.N. Dhar rightly remarks:
"The fact that she is able to make this fine discrimination between love and lust in a culture which is male-dominated, reducing woman to the position of a passive being, and has the courage to give it an honest poetic utterance, and to break through the hypocritical veneer of man-woman relationship, makes her realize that "I am a freak.""7
This self-dramatization, however, does not give her solace. She is tired of vain sexual congress as the persona states in the poem ‘The Invitation’:
"All through that summer’s afternoons we lay
On beds, our limbs inert, cells expanding
Into throbbing suns." [DS]
The heat of the sun, like the body of the lover, saps the vitality of the persona. Anisur Rahaman aptly remarks:
"The male body and the burning sun are analogous in the poetic world of Kamala Das; both are imbued with the force of destruction. They annihilate the poet’s self and the necessary human sapling and freshness in her woman’s body."8
With lust becoming omnipotent and love vanishing out of sight, the persona tries another means to get a haven of peace. In the poem ‘Substitute’, she shows an attitude of passive detachment.
"After that love became a swivel-door,
When one went out, another came in.
Then I lost count, for always in my arms
Was a substitute for a substitute.
Oh, what is the use, explaining —
It was a nameless, faceless crowd." [DS]
The identities of the lovers are deliberately blurred as she shows an insouciance to the relationships. But, in the face of ubiquitous operation of lust such stances are hardly tenable for long. The male’s preoccupation with the female body and the act of compromise forced upon her by patriarchy finds poetic expression in the poem ‘The Descendants’:
"We have lain in every weather, nailed, no, not
To crosses, but to soft beds and against
Softer forms, while the heaving, lurching,
Tender hours passed in a half-dusk, half- dawn and
Half-dream, half-real trance. We were the yielders,
Yielding ourselves to everything." [DS]
This is the pain of a loveless relationship. The pain is not physical for, the persona is on "soft beds" but mental as the compound epithets — "half-dusk", "half-dawn", "half-dream, "half-real" — reveal. Her mind is in such a derelict state that she cannot differentiate between dusk and dawn, dream and reality. Frustration is bound to burst out, as it does in the poem ‘The Bangles’:
"……….. At night,
In sleep, the woman lashes
At pillows with bangled arms; in
Vain, she begs bad dreams to fade.
The man switches on the light and
Looks into her face with his
Grey, pitiless eyes…" [SC]
The expression "bangled arms" is a metonymic representation of a married woman. Her action of striking the pillows is a gesture of immense frustration. The man’s reaction is one of cruel indifference. Subhas C. Saha brilliantly explains the action of the woman:
"Bangles symbolize the marriage of happiness and life; they indicate the acceptance of the charms of life. But when the beloved regards love as the purest source of highest happiness and finds herself deprived of that source, she strengthens her frustration by breaking into pieces the symbol of acceptance, the jingling colourful bangles. Life is no longer pillowed upon happiness; for it has lost the support on which it could sustain itself."9
However, this is an act of self-destruction. Indeed, in the poems of Kamala Das, frustration in love results in death-wish. But, to trace the death-wish to neurotic expressions of a personal psyche is to ignore, as Annette Kolodny points out,
"the possibility that the worlds they [victims of patriarchy] inhabit may in fact be real, or true, and for them the only worlds available, and further, to deny the possibility that their apparently ‘odd’ or unusual responses, may in fact be justifiable or even necessary."10
In the poem ‘The Suicide’, the persona expresses a willingness to die, if she cannot enjoy love.
"O Sea, I am fed up
I want to be simple
I want to loved
If love is not to be had,
I want to be dead…" [DS]
The word "simple" expresses the persona’s hatred of role-playing and the last four lines starkly set up a relationship between love and life. In the canon of Das’s poetry, lust is often equated with death. Concupiscence and sensuality brings death to the soul, while love rejuvenates it.
So the female persona in the poem ‘In Love’ feels the proximity of death, as she goes through the painful rounds of lust.
Is room excuse or even
Need for love, for, isn’t each
Embrace a complete thing, a
Finished jigsaw, when mouth on
Mouth, I lie, ignoring my poor
Moody mind, while pleasure
With deliberate gaiety
Trumpets harshly into the
Silence of the room… At noon
I watch sleek crows flying
Like poison on wings — and at
Night, from behind the Burdwan
Road, the corpse-bearers cry ‘Bol
The "finished jigsaw" represents the mechanical act of bodily union in which the mind does not participate. The coarseness of sensual pleasure, in the auditory image "Trumpets harshly", prohibits the mind, with all its finer faculties, to take part in the act of lust. This mindless indulgence in sensuality that only gratifies the body is equivalent to death, as is reaffirmed in the cry of the "corpse-bearers". The fusion of lust with decay and death is fleshed out in the poem ‘The Wild Bougainvillea’:
"…… I walked through streets beside
The sea, where the barges float, their undersides rotting
and the garbage
Rot, and the dead fish rot,
And I smelt the smell of dying things and the
Heavy smell of rotting
Dead, I walked on streets where the night-girls with sham
Obtrusive breasts sauntered
And under yellow lamps, up-and-down wandered
Beaming their sickly smiles
At men." [SC]
The prostitutes, repeatedly going through the pains of bodily union, have lost the finer sensibilities of the mind as is revealed in their "sickly smiles". The image in "up-and-down wandered" signifies the mechanical action of these unfortunate and unprivileged women who, perhaps out of material need, have laid their body vulnerable to male lust, and have lost their souls in the bargain. The olfactory imagery in the first four lines — the word "rot" and "rotting" have been used four times — links sensuality with decay and death.
The persona attempts an escape from the trappings of lust. In the poem ‘The Prisoner’ she plans an escape:
"As the convict studies
His prisons geography
I study the trappings
Of your body, dear love,
For I must some day find
An escape from its snare." [OSS]
But, the rich endowment of veracity that lies at the root of Das’s poetic vision does not allow her to proclaim the validity of such an "escape".
Utterly disgusted with the mundane lust, she turns to the transcendental love of Radha and Krishna. The poet does not present Krishna as a God, he is rather her friend/lover/husband. She unequivocally clarifies her attitude to Krishna.
"But illogical that I am from birth onwards, I have always thought of Krishna as my mate. … And illogically again, I believe that in death I might come face to face with him. Then the shehnai can begin, the birds can sing, the river can start its lullaby, for another of his brides would have come home…"12
It cannot be doubtlessly asserted whether it is the "private voice" of the poet or one of her multiple public voices, but it can be safely asserted that, in the tradition of Jana Bai and Akka Mahadevi, Kamala Das also demystifies and demythicizes the Lord. Akka Mahadevi, the great Kannada poet, humanized Siva (Chennamallikarjuna) and Janabai, the varkari saint-poet of the low caste Sudra community of Maharashtra , in defence of her lower-caste status lowered the position of God to that of a fellow sweeper who aids her when she is tired and doesn’t mind shoveling dirt for her:
"Jani sweeps the floor,
The Lord collects the dirt,
Carries it upon his head,
Won over by devotion".13
Kamala Das imbues both Radha and Krishna with the qualities of common human beings, as in the poem ‘The Cobwebs’.
"Do not look into Radha’s eyes O friends
For her soul lies dead inside
As cobwebs block the doorways, unused,
Grief now mars her lonely eyes
He has been gone for years, that Krishna who
Once was hers alone. Perhaps
Another holds him now, a lovelier and
More fortunate one. And yet
Poor Radha must live on, for life is long." [OSS]
Radha is any woman, lovelorn and aggrieved, and yet she must go through the ordeal of a long life. Krishna is any man, charmed by another beautiful belle and in the intoxication of passion, cruelly forgetting his former fiancée. The mythical lovers are humanized and their relationship is often described in erotic terms. This brings into her poetic context the Abhisarika and Sahaja tradition of Sanskrit poetry.
The gloss of divinity that enfolds the Radha-Krishna myth is shed in Das’s poetry. As Fritz Blackwell puts it:
"…… her (Kamala Das) concern is literary and existential, not religious; she is using a religious concept for a literary motif and metaphor."14
In fact, the bliss of the mythical relation is contrasted to the frustration of a mundane loveless relation and the eternal lover is contrasted to the earthly lover. In the poem ‘A Man is a Season’, the poet puts forward a contrast between the two lovers:
"A man is a season,
You are eternity,
To teach me this you let me toss my youth like coins
Into various hands, you let me mate with shadows,
You let me sing in empty shrines, you let your wife
Seek ecstasy in others’ arms." [CP]
The "You’ is the eternal, archetypal lover to whom the persona is married. But before she can dissolve into the eternal lover, she must shed her ego. So, it is the eternal lover who makes her "mate" with the earthly lovers. Once she is humbled, once the ego is squeezed out of the self, as it were, through a sieve, she can find eternal bliss in the arms of the archetypal lover. The fact that the several relationships of the poetic persona with earthly lovers are mere stepping-stones to the eternal union is made clear by Das in ‘My Story’.
"Physical integrity must carry with it a certain pride that is a burden to the soul. Perhaps it was necessary for my body to defile itself in many ways, so that the soul turned humble for a change."15
Humbling of the soul, which denotes a transcendence of the self, is a prerequisite for the congress with eternity. The ultra-physical nature of the Radha-Krishna relationship is brought out in the poem ‘Radha Krishna’.
"This becomes from this hour
our river and this old kadamba
tree, ours alone, for our homeless
souls to return someday,
to hang like bats
from its pure physicality." [OSS]
The poet’s soul is "homeless" because it has not yet reached the eternal abode. The soul is compared to the nocturnal "bats" because it can only hope to view the infinite after the darkness of death envelops her conscious vision. The reference to the "river" and the "Kadamba" tree help to localize, and hence, concretize the experience.
The body is the source of all sins, and once the "physicality" is shed the soul is ready to merge with the infinite. The poem ‘Radha’ poignantly describes the union of the finite and the infinite:
"The long waiting
Had made their bond so chaste, and all the doubting
And the reasoning
So that in his first true embrace, she was girl
And virgin crying
Everything in me
Is melting, even the hardness at the core
Krishna, I am melting, melting, melting
Nothing remains but
The triple repetition of the word "melting" is no sentimental verbosity as Eunice de Souza opines; it rather suggests the gradual dissolving of the finite into the infinite, the Atma uniting with the Brahman. As a result of this merger, the finite "me" loses her individual existence and becomes a part of the infinite "You".
The union of the finite with the infinite is the gamut of the Bhakti cult. One of the songs of Mira Bai expresses such an union.
"Mine is Gopal, the Mountain-Holder; there is no one else.
On his head he wears the peacock-crown: He alone is my husband.
Father, mother, brother, relative: I have none to call my own. I've forsaken both God, and the family's honour: what should I do?
I've sat near the holy ones, and I've lost shame before the people.
I've torn my scarf into shreds; I'm all wrapped up in a blanket.
I took off my finery of pearls and coral, and
strung a garland of wildwood flowers.
With my tears, I watered the creeper of love that I planted;
Now the creeper has grown spread all over, and borne the fruit of bliss. The churner of the milk churned with great love.
When I took out the butter, no need to drink any buttermilk.
I came for the sake of love-devotion; seeing the world, I wept.
Mira is the maidservant of the Mountain-Holder: now with love
He take me across to the further shore."16
The passage shows that renunciation of everything earthly, what Kamala Das terms "physicality", leads to union with the divine, archetypal lover. The "nudity" is symbolic of the pre-Lapsarian state of innocence that does not feel shame in shedding clothes. The "Mountain-Holder" is, of course, Krishna. A legend has it that once Krishna held up mount Govardhan to save the people of Braja from deluge. Thus, it would not be irrelevant to locate Das’s poetry in the tradition of the Bhakti cult.
Once the union with the eternal lover is effected there is no need to look beyond. Being a prisoner to the infinite is blissful and there is no need of escape. In the poem ‘Krishna’, the poetic persona describes the pleasure of such an imprisonment:
"Your body is my prison, Krishna,
I cannot see beyond it.
Your darkness blinds me,
Your love words shut out the wise world’s din." [OSS]
The adjective "wise" is packed with irony. With the soul-quenching "world’s din" shut out, the persona enjoys a blissful coexistence with the infinite. The joy of such a union cannot be hindered by the advances of the earthly lover who only touches the body, the soul of the persona being safely couched with the eternal lover. In the poem ‘The Maggots’, Radha feels:
"At sunset, on the river bank, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left….
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, what is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, what is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?" [OSS]
The soul is united with Krishna and so the body is merely a corpse. The husband is only as insignificant as a maggot biting the soulless, dead body. His "kisses" do not arise any emotion, either of elation or of disgust, because the body, being dead, is insensitive and the soul is safely couched with the infinite.
Kamala Das glorifies a love that transcends the dimensions of the body and looks beyond the "chilling flesh". But the barriers of the body cannot be disregarded, it needs to be conquered with great pains. Once the obstacle of the flesh is conquered, one becomes sure of her destination and needs waver no more in life’s course. In ‘Lines Addressed to a Devdasi’, the poet drives home this notion:
"Ultimately there comes a time
When all faces look alike
All voices sound similar
And trees and lakes and mountains
Appear to bear a common signature.
It is then that you walk past your friends
And not recognize
And hear their questions but pick
No meaning out of words
It is then your desires cease
And a home sickness begins
And you sit down on the temple steps
A silent Devdasi, lovelorn
And aware of her destination…" [CP]
This is the state of utter resignation that dawns before the final union with the infinite. All nature — human beings are also part of nature — lose their external, individual identities and betray their common essences to the Devdasi’s vision. "Words" are finite and she does not understand them because with the widening of her "mental horizons" she only comprehends the infinite.
This is the ennobling quality of love. Das’s search for such a transcendental love has often been misread and misinterpreted. The glory of her quest lies in the fact that it is unfinished, and hence, eternal. In her search for a love that ushers a sexual-spiritual fulfillment, she breaks new grounds. She presents the Radha-Krishna myth in an innovative manner. But, her quest is by no means untraditional. It is rooted in the different traditions of Indian poetry. Her poetic expression of a pursuit for love is a rich blend of "tradition and the individual talent".17
1. Kamala Das, My Story (Kottayam, 2004), p. 124.
2. Kamala Das, ‘A Writer’s Predicament: A Personal Statement’, dated, March
12, 1981. Presented to the writer as a manuscript, p. 2.
3. Kamala Das, My Story (Kottayam, 2004), p. 15.
4. Ibid., p. 69.
5. Ibid., p. 140.
6. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian Writing in English (New Delhi, 2004), p. 677.
7. T.N. Dhar, ‘Eros Denied: Love in the Poetry of Kamala Das’, Atma Ram
(ed.), Contemporary Indian-English Poetry (Calcutta, 1988), p. 23.
8. Anisur Rahaman, Expressive Form in the Poetry of Kamala Das (New
Delhi, 1981), p. 49.
9. Subhas C. Saha, Modern Indo-Anglian Love Poetry (Calcutta, 1971), p. 20.
10. Quoted in Elaine Showalter, ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’ in Philip Rice &
Patricia Waugh (eds.), Modern Literary Theory ( New York, 2001), p. 152.
11. V.K. Gokak, The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry (Delhi, 2004), p.
12. Kamala Das, ‘Sex: Mindless Surrender or Humming Fiesta?’, Femina,
dated. June 6, 1975, p. 19.
13. Susie Tharu & K. Lalita (eds.), Women Writing in India (Vol. I), (New Delhi,
1991), p. 83.
14. Fritz Blackwell, ‘ Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala
Das’, Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1— 4, 1978.
15. Kamala Das, My Story (Kottayam, 2004), p. 146.
16. From the internet, http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~
17. T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, D.J. Enright and Ernst De
Chickera (ed.) English Critical Texts (New Delhi, 1997), p. 293.
(Source: www.museindia.com; Muse India; Issue 30)