Reading Kamala Das’ Summer in Calcutta in the 21st Century: Anushree Joshi
Anushree Joshi takes us through interrogation and confrontation of Gender Roles in Kamala Das’ works in this literary essay
This paper attempts to analyze the feminist tones in the poetry of Indian-English writer and poet, Kamala Das, particularly focusing on the expression and problematization of gender roles in her 1965 poetry collection, Summer in Calcutta. It argues that her gendered identity manifests itself in her poetic style and aesthetic, wherein she questions the patriarchal expectations of gender – of women rooted in immanence and domesticity and of men rooted in transcendence and the public sphere. The custom of arranged marriage, domestic emotional abuse, confinement to the private sphere of domesticity, and daunting standards of feminine beauty, are some of the gendered expectations in the Indian woman’s experience that Das’ poetry interrogates. The confessional movement of poetry in the West, iconized in the poetry of women writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, also appears to influence Das’ mode of expression, since she emphasizes on the ‘I’ in her poems, while voicing the experience of not only her own self, but also of women as a community who have been disenfranchised socially, linguistically, politically, or culturally due to the gendered roles and expectations imposed upon them.
Keywords: gender roles, confessional poetry, domesticity, Kamala Das, feminist
Published in the year 1965, Summer in Calcutta is the first collection, comprising 50 poems, of one of the pioneers of modern Indian-English poetry, Kamala Das. The poetry featured in the collection has been critically acclaimed and popularly remembered for its insight into the poet-speaker’s intimate self, focusing on the themes of relationships, love, betrayal, nostalgia, and womanhood. Her style and aesthetic are deeply influenced by the confessional mode of poetry, credited to the writing of post-modernist American poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. Bruce King, in his seminal introduction to Modern Indian Poetry in English, has explained the rise and thematic focus of the aforementioned mode, then affirming its influence upon Das:
The open, associational poetry, with its surprising attitudes, prominence of such topics as guilt, sexuality, ambition, memories of past rebellions, conflicts, shames, childhood and love affairs, and the assertion of an articulate but fractured self, was part of the confessional mode that started in America during the early ‘50s and which was practiced internationally during the ‘60s. . . .Kamala Das’ highly emotive, self-revelatory, moody poems were much more confessional; she wrote openly about varied, often conflicting emotions, values and hopes…”(King 7)
This essay analyses the collection and asserts that Das’ poetry is resplendent with an interrogation and textual confrontation of gendered notions pertaining to the aforementioned themes. Since her poetry juxtaposes the speaker’s conscience with that of herself as its creator, her experiences as an Indian woman in 20th century India are instrumental to her work.
Domesticity, Immanence, and Transcendence
In one of the most renowned works in feminist theory, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir introduced the concepts of immanence and transcendence [“Woman is destined to maintain the species and care for the home, which is to say, to immanence. 5 In truth, all human existence is transcendence and immanence at the same time; to go beyond itself, it must maintain itself; to thrust itself toward the future, it must integrate the past into itself; and while relating to others, it must confirm itself in itself.” (Beauvoir 506)] wherein the latter is culturally considered as the domain of men as they step into the public sphere and literally transcend beyond the domestic, private space. The former, as Beauvoir argued, is defined in this binary opposition as the lack of such transcending quality. The female domain and role in society is rooted in such immanence, against the culturally defined ‘normative’ associated with the masculine: “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man, and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” (Beauvoir 505).
Das’ poetry reflects the exemplifications of this theory in the poet-speaker’s lived experience, as may be instantiated in the premise for “An Introduction”. In this poem, in the act of introducing herself through her words and perspectives, Das is creating her own markers of identity. Unlike the cultural conditioning, where woman has been recognized only in her association to the men around her, Das’ poetic persona appears to derive an agency to create a self beyond the one socio-culturally designed for her. In the opening lines, the poet-speaker seems to be giving in to the cultural stereotype that women remain unbeknownst to the public sphere of politics, but she swiftly subverts the bias by nearly naturalizing her knowledge in referring to it as remembering the days of the week: “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” (Das 62).
In subsequent lines, this categorization of women, as supposed to be committed in their role of immanence, is directly confronted:
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. (62)
The utilization of words like ‘saree’, ‘girl’, ‘wife’, ‘embroiderer’, ‘cook’, ‘quareller with servants’ presents a dense portrait packed with looks, duties, and acts expected of her based on her gendered place in society. The duties expected to be performed by her are all literally located within the homely, private space of domesticity and any actions that situate her on the threshold of this division between immanent domesticity and transcendence are denied. The wall is symbolic of this spatial division of labor and duties, and the usage of the term ‘peep’ instead of ‘looking’ emphasizes the hesitant, regulated desire that can instantly be chastised.
In saying “I am every Woman who seeks love” (63) Das juxtaposes her personal, confessional expression with the experience of women as a community and in saying, “I am sinner and the saint” (63) she contradicts the binary categorization referred to in the earlier parts of the poem, emphasizing the complexity of her individual experience as a woman and, by extension, as every-woman. The final lines of the poem convey a tone of assertion interlaced with anger at being denied her complexity of individualized self: “I have no joys that are not yours, no / Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I” (63). The definition and measure of a woman’s aches and joys being subsumed in the association of herself with the masculine presence(s) in her life is ultimately rejected, as the poet-speaker seems to concretize her identity through her own parameters and markers. She textually defies being categorized in the dichotomous identity markers imposed by the socio-cultural conditioning, owing to her gender.
Arranged Marriage and the Violence of Sexual Subservience
Das was married to Kalipurayath Madhava Das in February 1949 at age 15, as per the prevalent custom of child marriage in early 20th century India. Arranged marriage, an institution that thrives on caste endogamy in India, did not provide a young Kamala with much agency and will. As per Beauvoir’s dichotomy between immanence and transcendence, marriage is the institution that foregrounds such distinctions between gendered duties and roles. In several poems that grapple with issues of sexual awakening, feminine desire, struggles of romantic relationships and betrayals, aligning with the confessional mode of poetry, Kamala Das confronted and sometimes worked to subvert the female subservience and repression of female sexuality implicit in the domesticity expected from arranged marriage for women.
“The Sunshine Cat” is an important example of the juxtaposition between her confessional expression of the confines of domestic existence and the ‘every-woman’ experience of different degrees of exploitation in arranged marriage. There is dehumanization and deterioration of the woman’s self, as may be seen in the title. Marriage as an institution creates a space for the regulation of woman’s agency by the husband, and her own will is neglected:
Her husband shut her
In, every morning; locked her in a room of books
With a streak of sunshine lying near the door, like
A yellow cat, to keep her company, but soon,
Winter came and one day while locking her in, he
Noticed that the cat of sunshine was only a
Line, a hair- thin line (51)
The transformation of the streak of sunshine, symbolic of a sense of optimism, into winter, representing the harshness of her circumstances, embodies pathetic fallacy that summarizes the womanly experience in the literal confines of the door and the metaphorical caging within the arranged marriage.
With lines like “They did this to her, the men” and “...the husband who neither loved nor Used her, but was a ruthless watcher,” (51) the poet-speaker exposes the degradation of her identity as a woman that accompanies the sense of othering from men. Men are seen as agents of patriarchal violence on the married woman’s mind and body, and husbands are complicit in furthering the same. The speaker’s husband may not be causing direct physical harm, but his position of power posits him as an accomplice in her exploitation within the marital dynamic.
The poem vividly describes the consequences of such structural degradation of self, and the final lines – “He returned to take her out, she was a cold and / Half-dead woman, now of no use at all to men.” (51) – portray the literal confinement of the wife in the domesticated private sphere and her lack of agency, ultimately leading to the utter evisceration of identity. The tragedy is intensified in the concluding lines, since the trauma of the half-dead poet-speaker woman is made to share space with her use (or lack thereof) as a commodity to men. This commodification of the womanly body and subsequent dehumanization of the self represents Marxist reification (It is a complex phenomenon, which comes from the German word ‘verdinglichung’, literally translated as ‘making into a thing’ and represents the capitalistic tendency to transform immaterial things in material terms.) in a gendered form.
A more subtle expression of this deterioration of self in arranged marriage is found in poems like “With Its Quiet Tongue” and “Afterwards”, wherein lines such as “For sleep – a sleep which has like an Indian Bride, proud loveless eyes / And a quiet tongue” (32) and “A man who let me take his name To make me feel I belonged” (58) exemplify the subservient role allotted to womankind in the gendered power relations of marriage. The quietness of the Indian bride is a customary price for the sense of belonging in society that is sought in marriage. Her own individual self-worth is unimportant, as depicted through these lines, when compared to the fulfilment of gendered duties in marriage. Absence of economic and social independence solidifies this subservient role and transaction, as Beauvoir argues in “The Married Woman” (510-513).
In “An Introduction” the prospect of bodily sexual violence that accompanies the aforementioned subservience in arranged marriage is foregrounded using a brutal tone.
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. (62)
These lines begin by emphasizing the dearth of emotional maturity within the poet-speaker, and then move into the space of the bedroom, almost thrusting the readers into the unsuitable reality of a young child being in a sexualised setting. The bedroom space represents a place of domesticity and the woman-child is used as an agency-less commodity in that sphere, indicating the insensitive and humiliating way in which the woman is often treated during sexual intercourse. The violence is on the psychological level, inflicted during the sexual dynamic in the marital setup, wherein the woman’s body is treated as a passive object, without consideration for her agency and individual desire.
Reclamation of the Narrative of Desire
In Selected Poems: Kamala Das, Devindra Kohli remarks with reference to her writing:
“She claimed her space by refusing to conform to socially defined roles, even while fulfilling them, and in the process reinvented herself, and at times deliberately blurred the line between life and poetry, only to offer another paradox: ‘It’s my poems that are my life, and not my prose’” .(10)
Since Das herself saw her poetry as a close reflection of life and her experiences, her ideology of subverting and questioning the socio-culturally defined norms of gender is clearly a part of her milieu of work. As elaborated earlier, the immanence and confines of domesticity in her role as an Indian woman, and as a wife in the arranged marriage setup, had a significant role to play in how Das writes about the poet-speaker’s self in her work.
It is, however, through poetry that Das brings female desire to the fore and uniquely represents in her own voice, instead of surrendering to the regulation of female sexuality and identity in a patriarchal society. Her poem “In Love” is imbued with the carnal expression of female desire:
Of sun, burning in today’s
Sky remind me oh, yes, his
Mouth . . . and his limbs like pale and
Carnivorous plants reaching
Out for me, and the sad lie
Of my unending lust. (12)
The poet-speaker’s sensuous expression is not working on a purely euphemistic level here, but she refers to the male counterpart in a rather functional manner with words like “his limbs”, “burning mouth”, and the comparison with “carnivorous plants”, emphasizing a sense of inverted objectification. Her lust and desire are privileged in the aesthetic of these lines, while the male presence is progressively sexualised in animalistic terms.
Lines like “…yes, It was my desire that made him male / And beautiful,” (“A Relationship” 17; my italics) work to assert female agency, where Das’ poet-speaker emphasizes the prominence of her desire in making the male acquire aspects of beauty. This is a strong manner of subverting the quintessential narrative, according to which women are supposed to beautify themselves for the male gaze and serve as commodities for objectification in the institution of patriarchy.
I shall some day leave, leave the cocoon
You built around me with morning tea,
Love-words flung from doorways and of course
Your tired lust. (“I Shall Some Day” 54)
This stanza posits the female agency and ability for independence at the fore and rejects masculine desire by terming it as “tired lust”. The metaphor of the cocoon and the subtlety of domestic confinement represent the journey from immanence towards transcendence, and a sense of progression for the speaker’s identity, in stark contrast to the evisceration of self that occurs in “The Sunshine Cat”.
“Loud Posters” is an integral part of Das’ oeuvre that exposes the violence of gendered roles in performing desire. The title, in and of itself, resists the categories women are expected to partake in. The loudness is in direct contrast with the demureness of the Indian bride, mentioned elsewhere, and ‘posters’ are used to showcase something in the public space, as opposed to the realm of domesticity women are confined within.
I’ve stretched my two-dimensional
Nudity on sheets of weeklies, monthlies,
Quarterlies, a sad sacrifice. I’ve put
My private voice away, adopted the
Typewriter’s click as my only speech (22)
The above lines explicitly depict the cultural commodification of women as objects of desire and their hyper-sexualization that has been consumed by the public through magazines and other media. “Two-dimensional” emphasizes the reduction of the poet-speaker’s complex identity as a woman to a product of consumption. However, there is an expression of subtle assertion of her own narrative in this stanza, when the poet-speaker focuses on the typewriter and her own speech. Women, in Das’ experience and social setting, appear to be deduced into mere sexualised entities, expected to be silently submissive to masculine desire, but the act of writing poetry enunciating this experience gives her a sense of reclamation of the gendered narrative. With the lines preceding this stanza, “Spent long years trying to locate my mind / Beneath skin, beneath flesh and underneath / The bone” (22) there is a positing the woman’s mind as more important than the sexual commodity she is often reduced to, for the satiation of patriarchal masculine desire.
It is in “Forest Fire” that the reclamation of the aforementioned narrative is fervently portrayed. The titular forest fire seems to embody the spirit of the poet-speaker herself, which is a direct subversion of the fecundity traditionally associated with women’s sexuality and role as nurturers. Fire, apart from being a destructive and all-consuming force of nature, symbolizes creation in epics such as the Mahabharata in which Draupadi was created out of the fire. The resonance of simultaneous creation-fecundity-destruction is rooted in its cultural myth-making and propagation. The narrative of fecund nurturing is thus overturned, when Das writes:
Of late I have begun to feel a hunger
To take in with greed, like a forest fire that
Consumes, and, with each killing gains a wilder,
Brighter charm, all that comes my way. (53)
This posits the female in an active, consuming realm, as opposed to the passivity attributed to and expected of womanhood. The feminist confessional tone echoes of Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, wherein the poet-speaker claims how she has had to kill her father and the spirit of destruction is explicit. The lyric progresses without Das’ commonplace use of the ellipsis in her poetry of nostalgia and regret, such as “My Grandmother’s House” and “A Hot Noon in Malabar”, seemingly portraying an interlacing of form and content that speaks of consuming everything that obstructs its path.
Contrary to the slightly dejected tone of “An Introduction” when the poet-speaker says, “Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a / Nympho” while referring to the socio-cultural stereotype (Books like The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton) and the rise of psychoanalysis with Freud were instrumental in establishing and perpetrating the belief that women had the biological and psychological tendencies, respectively, to engage in exaggerated and lustful behaviours which were combined in terms like ‘hysteria’ and ‘melancholia’. In Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, Stuart and Tudor England, it is common to find the examples of this socio-cultural notion. Witchcraft, similarly, has been used to vilify and condemn transgressive tendencies in women. In 1542, the English Parliament passed a law that made witchcraft a crime punishable by death, and the scholarship on the popular three witches in Macbeth has been reading this need for regulation of women’s sexuality in defining women as ‘witches’.) associating women with hysteria and witchcraft in expressing their liberty or agency, the following stanza from “Forest Fire” seems to portray the poet-speaker embracing the stereotype, thus delegitimizing its potency to vilify women:
Bald child in
Open pram, you think I only look, and you
Too, slim lovers behind the tree and you, old
Man with paper in your hand and sunlight in
Your hair . . . (53)
The final lines of the poem climax with a juxtaposition between the aforementioned creation and destruction, giving rise to a conscience that is indulged in preservation. This is a dilution of the binary categorization – nurturers or witches – attributed to women, based on their conformity to socio-cultural norms of gender and gendered behavior:
In me shall sleep the baby
That sat in prams, and, sleep and wake and smile its
Toothless smile. In me shall walk the lovers, hand
In hand, and in me, where else, the old shall sit
And feel the touch of sun. (53)
Scholarship on Kamala Das has often been of the opinion that Das’ private life becomes the subject matter in her poetry, in accordance with the confessional mode, but it is also unique in the sense that the private experience is elevated on an aesthetic level to amplify the long-standing, marginalized, and repressed narrative of ordinary Indian women as a community. In comparing Kamala Das with Sylvia Plath, a critic writes:
[In Plath] It is ultimately the poetry that matters, with all its direct and metaphorical implications. In Kamala, on the other hand, it is the confession that matters, and sometimes it seems that poetry is incidental. . .The overwhelming majority of her Indian readers respond largely to her personality.(Dabar qtd. in Kumar Das)
The confession in her poetry, as instantiated earlier, is strongly interrogative and the spirit is often subversive of the standards and norms defined for her as a woman. Beauvoir’s notions of immanence and transcendence are constantly confronted through the poet-speaker’s consciousness in numerous poems in Summer in Calcutta. However, there persists in this 20th-century collection an oscillation between the set binaries for male and female, leading us as 21st-century readers to be wary of the expression of gender politics. For instance, in “An Introduction”, the poet-speaker is discontented with the imposition of superficial ideals of clothing and appearance based on her femininity, so she turns to performative transcendence: “Then… I wore a shirt and my / Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored / My womanliness” (62). It is noteworthy that adapting a culturally masculine garb through her brother’s shirt is the only way the oppressed woman seems to understand resisting against patriarchal norms. It is evident in her method of resistance that the gendered conditioning is deep-seated, since she herself succumbs to the binary set by socio-cultural standards when it comes to an expression of gender.
It would, nevertheless, be reductive of the feminist politics of resisting gendered expectations that Das’ vast and colorful oeuvre has sustained and furthered since Summer in Calcutta. A poem like “The Dance of the Eunuchs”, in referring to the transgender body with dignity and holding the society accountable for disenfranchising the community, is progressive of the LGBTQIA+ cause as an anti-current to the context it was created within. In writing of the eunuchs’ dance as an external façade of joy to earn their place in society and livelihood, while struggling with internal alienation and socio-cultural dejection, and relating it to the experience of womanhood as another marginalized community, Das inculcates striking solidarity of the oppressed, which is contrary to the patriarchal conditioning.
Thus, it is imperative to look at Summer in Calcutta for the poetic, confessional, private yet community-oriented resistance it furthers. It would be pertinent to ask why Das expresses incessant longing and nostalgia for cities and places in poems like “Farewell to Bombay”, “My Grandmother’s House”, “A Hot Noon in Malabar”, and the titular “Summer in Calcutta”. One reason could be the denial of freedom and individual agency to actively choose where and how she wanted to lead her life, having been married at the tender age of 15. Then, the act of expressing herself in her own idiom is not only cathartic by the standards of confessional poetry, but it is also a performance in empowerment, as she reclaims her place and confronts the gendered narrative that has deprived her of agency in a patriarchal society.
- Beauvoir, Simone de. “The Married Woman.” The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Shiela Malovany-Chevallier, Jonathan Cape, 2009. Print.
- Das, Bijay Kumar. “Paradigm Shift in the Reading of Kamala Das’s Poetry.” Indian Literature, vol. 54, no. 1 (255), 2010, pp. 240–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23344205. Accessed 7 August 2020. Web.
- Das, Kamala. Selected Poems, edited by Devindra Kohli, Penguin Random House, New Delhi, 2014. Print.
- Das, Kamala. Summer in Calcutta, DC Books, 1965/2004. Print.
- King, Bruce. “Introduction.” Modern Indian Poetry in English, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 1-10. Print.
Anushree Joshi is a student of English literature at Lady Shri Ram College and the former Print Editor of DU Beat (India’s largest independent student-run newspaper). She has been a creative writer for over 4 years now, with her projects in collaboration with Audible, Cadbury, Cornetto, etc., for Terribly Tiny Tales.