Kamala Suraiyya, sometimes named as Kamala Madhavikutty (31 March 1934 – 31 May 2009) was a majorIndian English poet and littérateur and at the same time a leading Malayalam author from Kerala, India. Her popularity in Kerala is based chiefly on her short stories and autobiography, while her oeuvre in English, written under the name Kamala Das, is noted for the fiery poems and explicit autobiography.
Her open and honest treatment of female sexuality, free from any sense of guilt, infused her writing with power, but also marked her as an iconoclast in her generation. On 31 May 2009, aged 75, she died at a hospital in Pune, but has earned considerable respect in recent years.
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 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.
Kamala Das’s poem ‘An Introduction’ is included in her first collection of poems, ‘Summer in Calcutta’. In the poem, she speaks in the voice of a girl, rebelling against the norms and dictates of a patriarchal society which ask her to ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’ against her own wishes. ‘Malabar’; a south Indian location, covering a large part of Kerala which also extends to parts of Karnataka.
Her rebellion against patriarchy is to secure an identity for herself in a male-dominated world. The poem begins with the assertion, ‘I don’t know politics, but I know the names of those in power’ which shows her distaste for politics in a country where politics is considered a domain for men. Next comes her defiant assertion of her right to write in any language she likes, in response to suggestions that she should not ‘write in English’. Her reply to her critics is a reiteration of the (language of) appropriation of a colonial language to serve native needs. ‘Categorizers’; an allusion to those who see and group other people in different structures or brackets: the term suggests the tendency to stereo-type people.
From the issue of the politics of language, the poem moves on the subject of sexual politics. The poet is in utter bewilderment during her pubescent years, her sudden marriage and her first sexual encounter all leave her traumatized. On an impulse, she defies the gender code and dresses up as a man by wearing a shirt and a trouser and ‘sits on the wall’. The guardians of morality force a respectable woman’s attire on with instructions that she should fit into the socially accepted role of a woman as a ‘wife’ and a ‘mother’. “Madhavikutti’; the pseudonym Kamala Das used while writing in Malayalam.
‘Schizophrenia’; a disorder that results in the misinterpretation of reality: the perception change is now seen as being a health condition as well as the case of social insufficiency: following thinkers like Michel Foucault, now schizophrenia is understood to be a reflection of a society’s inflexibility as much as it is associated with an individual’s mental state. Identifying herself with other suffering women of the world, Kamala Das universalizes suffering and seeks freedom and love. The poem becomes a statement on gender differences and a move to transcend the restrictions imposed on a woman by seeking individual freedom, love that allows the body to come to terms with its own needs and a self that is allowed to celebrate love’s true glory.
“An Introduction" is Kamala Das's most famous poem in the confessional mode. Writing to her, always served as a sort of spiritual therapy:" If I had been a loved person, I wouldn't have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being."
Kamala Das begins by self-assertion: I am what I am. The poetess claims that she is not interested in politics, but claims to know the names of all in power beginning from Nehru. She seems to state that these are involuntarily ingrained in her. By challenging us that she can repeat these as easily as days of the week, or the names of months she echoes that
these politicians were caught in a repetitive cycle of time, irrespective of any individuality. They did not define time; rather time defined them.
Subsequently, she comes down to her roots. She declares that by default she is an Indian. Other considerations follow this factor. She says that she is 'born in' Malabar; she does not say that she belongs to Malabar. She is far from regional prejudices. She first defines herself in terms of her nationality, and second by her colour.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
And she is very proud to exclaim that she is 'very brown'. She goes on to articulate that she speaks in three languages, writes in two and dreams in one; as though dreams require a medium. Kamala Das echoes that the medium is not as significant as is the comfort level that one requires. The essence of one's thinking is the prerequisite to writing. Hence she implores with all-"critics, friends, visiting cousins" to leave her alone. Kamal aDas reflects the main theme of Girish Karnad's "Broken Images"-the conflict between writing in one's regional language and utilizing a foreign language. The language that she speaks is essentially hers; the primary ideas are not a reflection but an individual impression. It is the distortions and queerness that makes it individual. And it is these imperfections that render it human. It is the language of her expression and emotion as it voices her joys, sorrows and hopes. It comes to her as cawing comes to the crows and roaring to the lions, and is therefore impulsive and instinctive. It is not the deaf, blind speech: though it has its own defects, it cannot be seen as her handicap. It is not unpredictable like the trees on storm or the clouds of rain. Neither does it echo the "incoherent mutterings of the blazing fire." It possesses a coherence of its own: an emotional coherence.
She was child-like or innocent; and she knew she grew up only because according to others her size had grown. The emotional frame of mind was essentially the same. Married at the early age of sixteen, her husband confined her to a single room. She was ashamed of her feminity that came before time, and brought her to this predicament. This explains her claim that she was crushed by the weight of her breast and womb. She tries to overcome it by seeming tomboyish. So she cuts her hair short and adorns boyish clothes. People criticize her and tell her to 'conform' to the various womanly roles. They accuse her of being schizophrenic; and 'a nympho'. They confuse her want of love and attention for insatiable sexual craving.
She explains her encounter with a man. She attributes him with not a proper noun, but a common noun-"every man" to reflect his universality. He defined himself by the "I", the supreme male ego. He is tightly compartmentalized as "the sword in its sheath'. It portrays the power politics of the patriarchal society that we thrive in that is all about control.It is this "I" that stays long away without any restrictions, is free to laugh at his own will, succumbs to a woman only out of lust and later feels ashamed of his own weakness that lets himself lose to a woman. Towards the end of the poem, a role-reversal occurs as this "I" gradually transitions to the poetess herself. She pronounces how this "I" is also sinner and saint", beloved and betrayed. As the role-reversal occurs, the woman too becomes the "I" reaching the pinnacle of self-assertion.