Kamala Das was first introduced to me in an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry that I had sought out because I didn’t know who contemporary Indian poets were. The poem was titled, aptly enough, ‘An Introduction.’ I read and promptly forgot all about it until I was in college and forced to take a paper called ‘Literatures of India 1.’There was awe in the lecturer’s voice when she spoke of Das, an awe which, at first, I naïvely and ungenerously attributed to her being Malayali. But as we kept on with the text, I discovered that the poem held a power over everyone in that room. I wished I was everyone.
For those unaware of this poem, let me explain: ‘An Introduction’ appeared in Kamala Das’s first collection of poems, Summer in Calcutta, and is one of her most well known works. It is often cited as a powerful argument for Indian writing in English (‘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.’) and also an example of Indian feminist writing.
I studied at a women’s college, so Kamala Das became doubly important. Here was a woman who was married young in a rigid Nair community, yet managed to be both promiscuous (I say that with positive connotations) and write about it. Always a controversial figure, Das defied expectations of her when she converted to Islam in the late nineties, taking on the name Kamala Suraiyya. She was to be admired.
So back we are in this large room full of nineteen- and twenty-year-old women reading Kamala Das, saying ‘My god, what an inspiration!’ and all I could do was wait intently for someone to address the elephant in the room, that this woman wasn’t a poet. Not a good one in any case.
Of course no one said a thing and I was too busy being self-righteous and personally offended to volunteer anything. The truth is Kamala Das was a powerful presence all through her life. She broke with tradition almost violently, talking about love and sex. Sex with men and women. Her biography My Story shocked Kerala. She opened doors, and that’s nothing to crap on. So it is no surprise that she was received with admiration by most of my classmates.
But how did ‘incredible woman’ get confused with ‘great poet’? The question does not pertain just to my class. Das was one of the most well known figures in the literary scenes — both in English and in Malayalam. When she died in 2009, even national newspapers carried the news, something we don’t expect for most poets. Amazing stuff, but that elephant is still pretty big.
Here’s what I think of the poem: not much. It is at times petulant, at others downright whiny (‘Why not leave/ Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,/ Every one of you?’). The poem jumps from one idea to the next for no apparent reason (like when it goes from the funeral pyre to her description of childhood). It has a couple of nice images, but for the most part, reads like prose with line breaks. Even worse — and one usually does not want to say such things outside of a workshop — the linebreaks are absolutely juvenile. The poem is too explicit, and is full of an unpleasant, unchanneled angst. It makes me stop reading.
What’s interesting now is that today, from a theoretical point of view, anything can be ‘read’. Even a poem as wildly uncontrolled as this is given structure and form. When we studied in class, we were told that the poem has three parts. The first part of the poem contains the language arguments; the second part depicts the young woman growing up and rebelling; and the final part offers her argument that female (or is it more broadly human?) experiences are essentially collective; in cruder terms, ‘the same.’ This could’ve have been an interesting point of contention, except this was one of those lecturer’s that doesn’t allow discussion in her class. It was also interesting how the narrator’s promiscuity was so quickly glossed over.
The other interesting aspect — and I imagine this is true for most people who read poetry — is the inevitable technique versus emotion debate that crops up when you very naïvely suggest to your non-poetry reading friends that a poem is poorly written. ‘Confessional poetry doesn’t mean you show everyone what’s in your diary’ doesn’t get you very far. My explanation usually consists of sharing other confessional poetry and saying, ‘Look, they’re talking about personal stuff too, but it’s not all whiny!’
I’ll admit the most crafted poems aren’t always the best, but more significantly, a poorly crafted well can never be any good. There are moments in Kamala Das’s poem that don’t ring true for me, simply because of how the poem is written. It’s as if the poem doesn’t know where it is going.
I always think of this bit I read in Guardian poetry workshop: to paraphrase George Szirtes, ‘feeling proceeds through language.’ You feel because the right word has been found, and it is connected to other words, and sentences, and pauses, in just the right way. For a poem that begins with language, it is shockingly contemptuous of language. The poem is powerful (for many) because we know the experiences behind those words, not because those words reveal those experiences and emotions to us.
My favourite part of the poem, if there is one, would be:
[my language] is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions,
Language as something organic and irrefutably your own. It’s the only bit of rhetoric in the poem that I think works. Even here it’s a bit rough: shouldn’t it to be ‘it is useful to me as cawing/ is to crows or roaring to lions’? That little article changes so much.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to discredit Kamala Suraiya (I’ve called her Kamala Das all this while because, if I’m not mistaken, that is who she was when she wrote the poem) the person. She’s a fascinating woman and I’d like to get my hands on her autobiography.
I’m also not familiar with all her entire body of work (but that, in no way, means I cannot criticise the poems I have read; just saying). I also don’t have access to her work in Malayalam, which may be very good. What I know is this: ‘An Introduction’ is a lazy poem. And to the five or six people who have told me to read Kamala Das to help me write better, I’m sorry, but no.