Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kamala Das : Her Feminist Ambivalence

Commentators of Kamala Das's poetry often link her poetry to specific incidents in her personal life . They explain her poetry with reference to My Story . This biographical approach to literary criticism is an untenable practice in as much as poets are beings endowed with imagination and they set forth in their poems what they perceive as imaginative truths . Whem Emily Dickinson was asked whether the "I" in her poems represented her real self she replied that it represented an " imagined I". The greatness of a poet lies in how far he or she is true to his or her imagined self and the honesty with which he or she delineates experiences . Kamala Das's poetic self is made up of millions of Indian women . Her voice is the voice of Indian women silenced through ages of suppression . Hence, the ""I" in Kamala Das's poetry is a deceptive one It is the will-o'-the- wisp of the critic . Her real poetic self can be extracted from her various poems .collected in three anthologies : Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967) and Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973)

Kamala Das writes about the plight of womanhood in Indian society with. amazing candour . It is difficult for a woman to preserve her sanity , let alone her identity ! She writes :

"I must pose,
I must pretend,
I must act the role
Of happy woman
Happy wife
I must keep right distance
Between me and the low
And I must keep right distance
Between me and the high " (The Suicide )

Life is no bed of roses for an Indian woman . Her path is strewn with thorns in the form of innumerable do's and don'ts ! Womanhood is a curse under the Indian skies . This is most tersely and poignantly expressed in the line " the weight of my breasts and womb crushed me " ( An Introduction) .

Her poem Old Playhouse is a vehement indictment of patriarchy . A girl comes to the house of her husband with great expectations of love and happiness .Alas! Her new home soon proves to be the graveyard of her dreams . Kamala Das gives expression to a woman's indignation when her husband systematically reduces her to the position of a sex- slave . :

"You planned to tame a swallow , to hold her
In the long summer of your lust so that shewould forget
Not the raw seasons alone and the home left behind her
Also her nature , the urge to fly "

These lines describe the fate of every girl who gets trapped into marriage . Her desire to grow , to have self-knowledge and , self- realization is crushed . She is reduced to the position of a helpless hanger-on on her husband . She is nothing more than a sex-object :

You dribbled spittle into my mouth , you poured
Yourself into every nook and cranny .You embalmed
My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices
You called me wife "

In the suffocating atmosphere of her new home the woman" loses her will and reason" .The room is filled with the oppressive smell of " male breath" . Even the cut flowers in the vase smell of human sweat . She feels herself to be a" dwarf cowering beneath the monstrous ego " of her husband .

Kamaqla Das's feminism boils down to one simple and single demand -love! She is not opposed to male domination It is here that her feminism differs from that of Western feminists like Kate Millet , Elaine Showalter and Virginia Woolf . It is not a subversive philosophy with a political agenda .for Kamala Das . Love is what a woman needs most .Without it she will wither away like a flower plucked from its stalk . She says :

" I want to be loved
if love is not to be had
I want to be dead "

Kamala Das's feminism matured over the years into an existentialist view of things . One can notice a certain ambivalence in her feminism . In her later poems she does not regard her breasts and womb as symbols of subjugation .On the contrary, she exults in them . they are the symbols of her power and glory . Her poem Jaisurya is a celebration of motherhood . A woman needs a man to attain this moment of ecstasy which she gets when she hears the cry of her new-born baby . A woman's life would be lustreless without a man whose touch alone can make her"gleam like burnished brass " (The Looking Glass )

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Toru Dutt ; Our Casuarina Tree

Toru Dutt (1856-1877),who died at the age of 21 ,left behind her an imperishable legacy .She lived and wrote at a time when cultural studies were at an incipient stage of development , and the idea that mythologies hold the key to understanding a people , was not properly realized. With her amazing insight into things , Toru Dutt realized the importance of Indian myths and legends She did not need an Edmund Gosse to tell her that her poetry should be a "revelation of the heart of India", but she instinctively realized that Indian poetry ,to be truly great, must be inspired by Indian myths . Her collection of poems 'Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan " reveals how even shadowy figures of legends can come alive when romantically treated .

"Flowers look loveliest in their native soil
And their kindred branches : plucked , they fade
And lose the colours Nature on them laid "

These lines from her poem "Ä mon Père"reveal her conviction that poetry like flowers looks loveliest in its native languages . and poetry written in a foreign language cannot capture the rhythm of feelings . Her lavish use of imagery from Indian culture compensates for the lack of spontaneity due to the use of English for expressing her Indian sensibility .

I think "Our Casuarina Tree " is her most representative poem . This poem reveals the influence of Keats on her . The first two stanzas are an imaginative and sensuous description of the Casuarina Tree, replete with imagery taken from nature . These two stanzas conform to Milton"s conception of what poetry should be --" simple , sensuous and impassioned " ,But the tone changes to melancholic reflexions in the third stanza . Toru Dutt explains why the casuarina tree is so dear to her .---"not because of its magnificence " , but because she , her brother and sister ( both of them are now dead ) used to play together beneath the tree when they were little children . The image of the tree rises in her memory till her eyes become dim with tears .The Casuarina Tree becomes an objective correlative from fourth stanza onwards . It is the symbol of her brother and sister"s memory .She can hear the wailing of the casuarina tree wherever she goes . It follows her to distant lands She can hear its plaintive music even in the distant shores of France and Italy , when the waves gently kiss the shores beneath the moon .

The tone of the last anf fifth stanza of the poem is definitely one of triumph --triumph of immortality over death, loss and oblivion . The Casuarina Tree will remain immortal and it will keep alive the memory of her dead brother and sister , though her own poetry is too weak to confer immortality on them ! Love will defend her dear ones from the curse of oblivion .

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sarojini Naidu : "Village Song"

When the young Sarojini Naidu showed her early poetic efforts to Edmund Gosse for his comments, perhaps, she did not know that she was in for a shock . His words of admonition have since become part of history . He told her, " What we wished to receive was not a rechauffé of Anglo-Saxon sentiments in an Anglo-Saxon setting , but some revelation of the heart of India'.' "Sarojini Naidu's poetry was never to be the same again . Her mentor's advice sank deep into her mind . It proved to be a turning-point in her poetic career . She was none the worse for it because the glory that is ancient India and the grandeur that is modern India afforded her full scope for the play of romantic imagination with which she was abundantly blessed !

I consider "Village Song" as an authentic revelation of the heart of India as Edmund Gosse would have liked her poetry to be . In this dramatic lyric Sarojini Naidu reveals the heart of an Indian girl . The girl , carrying pitchers of Jumna water on her head, has to trek along a solitary stretch of land amidst thickening darkness . She blames herself for tarrying to hear the boatmen's song .After all, it was not her fault . Their song was so enthralling ! But now she is tormented by fears of all kinds . The cries of white cranes and owls fill her with superstitious fears . For a moment she thinks about her brother and mother who may be wondering about the cause of her delay . Her mind is again filled with fear of snakes and evil spirits . This wild area is prone to thunde-storms at this time of the year . She chants the name of Lord Rama to protect her from all harms .

This short poem reveals Sarojini Naidu's deep insight into the heart of I9ndian women . It points at Indian women's unflinching faith in their mythical heroes After reading the poem every reader might wonder whether the girl would have made it home if she hadn't had that strong enough faith in Lord Rama as her protector . The poem definitely has a symbolic level of meaning, too . The white cranes and owls symbolize the ills that the flesh is enduring in its journey through the world's wilderness . Indian women are sustained and supported in their moments of trials by their firm faith in their gods and goddesses .

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The purpose of this blog is to acquaint the world with the rich legacy of Indian poetry in English . . There was a time when Indian poetry in English was called Indo-Anglian poetry . But this term is no longer favored . It is because Indian poetry in English is as good and as authentically Indian as poetry written in Indian languages. Indian poetry in English expresses a sensibility which is distinctly Indian. It is inspired by Indian mythology , folklore and India's hoary cultural traditions .

In the following posts I wish to comment on certain immortal jewels of Indian poetry in English .
Please wait for my next post .

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