PaperPlanes#16 – Quest To Discover Self With Kamala Das Surayya

Search for identity has been the muse for many wordsmiths. The desperate need to define oneself and establish a sense of link somewhere, to someone had been informing the pages of literary compositions since ages. From Romanticism to Post- Colonialism, the time has been a witness to this struggle. This is especially pronounced in post-colonial literature, where the trauma of colonization gushed into creative narratives. In these, it is women, who were in double jeopardy on account of their gender along with post-colonial confusion, whose voices echo the loudest. Of these women, it is Kamala Das or ‘Madhavi Kutty’ as she is remembered fondly by some, who has carved a special place in Indian literature that can never belong to anyone else.

The first ever poem that I wrote was in my mother tongue Malayalam, titled ‘Pathimugam’. It was the consequence of assignment doled out by an ambitious teacher hoping to spur poets in our average, non-assuming 5th grade. Inventing words has always been a part of me since a time I am unable to trace back. Armed with the dictionary from my father’s half-eaten library, I set forth with my literary journey. That was my first tryst with poetry. The reason for this nostalgic journey is to pronounce the fact that I started out in my mother tongue, and gradually lost words in it when I began to consume more of English narratives. Being a brown-skinned Indian who now creates in English and not just translates, there were innumerable times I was shamed for my language preference. Language has been always been a medium to express feelings that pushed and prodded. Do I need a censorship there too?

I knew her as Kamala Das first. First through her anthology of poems ‘Summer In Calcutta’. Then through her autobiographical novel ‘My Story’, she was embraced as Madhavi Kutty. A fond voice that resonated with me. In the conservative, educated society of Kerala where I grew up, patriarchy is not so obvious as in other Indian states. It is masked and conveyed through culture or even excused under the grandiose of education. In that society, Kamala Das was a rebel. The modern day Robin Hood, who dared to take up arms and shatter the false-mirror of liberalism that Kerala wanted to project. She refused to let her voice be claimed too. She composed in English, raged in Malayalam and explored the one aspect of identity loss that she was experiencing: Language shaming. Why couldn’t she express in English when her words easily rhymed in it?

I read Kamala Das’s poem ‘Introduction’ much later, in the class of another genius Mrs Dennison. By then I had made acquaintance with Kamla Das and considered her mine. In the poem ‘Introduction’ Kamala Das voiced out and raged against the sense of identity that she had and the one people pushed onto her. This theme would go on to define much of this poetess’s life. A Malayali by birth, as E.M. Forster might describe her, she was English by tongue and Indian by the look. Her poem revealed her sense of struggle to conform. In the time when she found her voice, she was tormented by the constant reminder that English is an alien language which the post-colonial India should abandon. Even today Kerala, a home to intellectuals who continue to astound the whole Indian subcontinent with their English versification from Tharoor to Arundhati Roy, for the most part, remains hesitant to embrace the alienness of English that whole Indian subcontinent had invited to their very bedroom.

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.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
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
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, 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
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. 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 shrank Pitifully.
Then … 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. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love … 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. In him . . . the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me . . . the oceans’ tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
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. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks 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. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

Discovering this poem is a feat that is one’s own. I can promise each of her lines like a dagger is sure to pierce your consciousness. And I will leave you to that journey. In conclusion, I would like to draw your notice to the feminist overtones in her poem. Ironically, Kamala Das has always refrained from defining herself as a feminist. Was it because she wanted her poetry to be much more than a crusade? We can only wonder!

About the Author : A wanderer at heart, Vibhuthi is the author of Rainbow, an anthology of poems that was published in 2009 by Nishaganti Publication.

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