Kamala Das was introduced to me as a part of my syllabus. But when I read my first poem written by her, Introduction, she became an important part of my identity. The poem, wrapped in undeterred honesty and defiance, described the struggle of a woman growing up in India. It was literally the mouthpiece for my pent-up emotions and frustrations of my own upbringing as a woman.
I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers
Starting from the assertion of the agency to speak or think whatever a woman wants, child marriage, enforced gender roles and affirmation of self-identity, the poem painted for me a role model of a woman writer who was strong, outspoken and proud of her womanhood. It opened my eyes to similar patriarchal oppressions that I ignored as unquestioned ‘norms’. Perhaps because I had no voice or language to question them. And it is this voice l, language and realization of my own identity that I learnt from Kamala Das’s poetries. Things that I never heard or spoke about but certainly felt and wondered about their silence.
Kamala Das’ common nationality, gender, passion to write and patriarchal restrictions she bravely defied drew me closer to her. I am yet another Indian woman, brought up in a small town, bounded by patriarchy and aspiring to be a writer. But using my words to question constricting norms is a lesson imbibed from Das’ poetries. What struck me as the greatest inspiration was her resilience to follow her passion despite all the restrictions. She identified her love for writing and began practising it at a very early age. She did not receive formal education and was married off at 15. Hurdles like marriage and motherhood could never deter her from her passion to write. She wrote at nights, if the duties of a wife and a mother kept her engaged in the daytime. And today, she is the pioneer of modern English confessional poems in Indian literature. She made her own space and time in the patriarchal society where no one could match the radiance of her defiant feminine agency. Isn’t the same courage that all women in India require to break the repressive boundaries of patriarchy?
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Kamala Das was bold enough to never shy away from embracing and expressing her flaws, desires and needs openly in her writings. This grit and honesty in a woman are not common in India, neither in Kamala’a contemporary society nor today which explains why her poems still speak to women like me. Most of her poems and short stories are explicit descriptions of a woman’s sexual and emotional needs and desires, exploration of sexuality, menstruation, human body (both male and female) and the urge to breakdown all the restrictions that the patriarchy imposes on the sexual, emotional and physical freedom of a woman. My other most favourite of her poems is The Looking Glass.
“Give him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female desire.”
The poem is rich with sexual imageries that express both male and female body and sexual desire. The simple language and words, explicit imageries and the easy flow with which the poem speaks to the reader are peculiar in all her poems. She even talked about her own lesbian encounter and extra-marital affair in her autobiography, My Story. Her poems played a significant role in helping me normalise the conversation around the body and sexuality of a woman. Her portrayal of a woman as a normal human with flaws, dignity and desires shattered many gender stereotypes that I was gaslighted with.
Not many Indian woman writers explore female sexuality in such details without any fear of being called out. Moreover, the time when Kamala was writing, feminism was in its initial phase in India and women’s freedom was still not normal let alone her sexual desires. But Kamala Das was one of those women who never cared about the questioning eyes and did whatever she wanted unapologetically. And hence she taught me another lesson to live and write as a free bird without fear, shyness or guilt.
Her poems did not only give a voice to my womanhood but they also helped me overcome my childhood fears and complexities. In the poem Punishment In Kindergarten, Kamala Das’ shy, thoughtful and isolated childhood is exactly the way I was as a child. I was reprimanded for not being playful like other children and not involving in group activities. But after reading the poem, that begins with “Today the world is a little more my own”, I embraced my childhood as openly as my womanhood without any urge to ‘fit in’.
When I read her poems, I feel connected with them so much that it seems like I am narrating my own struggles and desires to society. I can literally see a part of myself being carved out in the words of Kamala Das that always ends in self-assertion. And that inculcates in me a sense of freedom to reclaim my identity.
The views expressed are the author’s own.