Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Kamala: Stranger to Herself

Kamala: Stranger to Herself



Abstract:
The article attempts to view kamala Das as an identity that is stranger to herself in her poems. Critics have termed her as one of the best voices in Indian poetry where feminine sensibility finds its best expression. This article looks at Kamala from psycho-linguistic point of view and tries to exemplify that her identity is lost in the strangeness of language. Another’s language, man’s language has failed her is her attempt to reveal her true feminine identity. She is nothing more than stranger to herself. Taking help of Julia Kristeva and Lacan’s theory of Otherness of Language, the writer has aimed to prove his point with the help of several poems written by Kamala Das.
How to cite this article:
MLA Citation:
Barad, Dilip. “Kamala Das: Stranger to Herself.” Charisma of Kamala Das. Ed. T. Sai Chandra Mouli. New Delhi: Gnosis, 2010. Print

K R S Iyengar (677) puts Kamala Das under the title of ‘New’ poets in his comprehensive and masterly survey of the whole body of writing in the English language by Indian writers. The fifth edition of the book entitled Indian Writing in English was published in 1985. For last two and half decade, Kamala Das still remains ‘New’ and strikingly fresh poet to the Twenty First century reader. Her poetry spoke with fierce and unsparing honesty about the difficulties of being a woman and a wife in a time and for a culture which had trained women to a long tradition of silence. (Mehrotra 251). With all her honesty and ‘Newness’, Kamala remained stranger to her own identity. In her real life, Kamala ‘Nair’ by birth, became ‘Das’ after marriage, ‘Madhavikutty’ as a bilingual write and later on ‘Suraiya’ after converting to Muslim religion. Her search for true self-identity never ended. In her poems also the same striving for self-identity is reflected. The problem with Kamala Das the poet is the problem of any or all female writers. Any female writer, be it poet or novelist, face same dilemma when it comes to express their genuine self with sincerity. The dilemma leads towards anguish and anxiety. The dilemma is because of the language they use to express their sensibility. The language is such a tool, which on one hand helps to given vent to our emotions and feelings; on the other, it is the weapon which kills genuine expression of feminine sensibility. The language which is male oriented and patriarchal in its nature does not allow freedom of expression to feminine sensibility. Kamala Das is almost frantic to own this language:
The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone…..
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes,… (From An Introduction)
But her unconscious, as reflected in her choice of words, voices another story all together.

It is well said by Roland Barthes (Qtd in Belsey 19): “Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing.” Kamala Das, the person – is not to be found in her writings. What we get is true feminine sensibility, feminine spirit; and the desperation of feminine sensibility for its expression in the language which is not hers.
When Kamala Das wrote about ‘musk of sweat between the breast’, ‘menstrual blood’, ‘male/female body’, ‘female hungers’, ‘beat sorry breasts’, or ‘stand nude before the glass’, it was considered as ‘a far cry … a fiercely feminine sensibility that dares without inhibitions to articulate the hurts it has received in an insensitive largely man-made world’. (Iyengar 680). But these words studied from psycho-linguistic view point and with the help of the theories of Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Carl Jung, Northrop Frye, would give contrasting impression of Kamala Das as a poet. She emerges as a poet struggling to express her genuine sensibility in man-made language. The words as signifier do not signify the signified. What they signify is not acceptable to her, yet she has to as there is no way out. Julia Kristeva (Belsey 16) calls this signifying capability which is not derived from the meanings of the words ‘the semiotic’. It evokes, she maintains, the sound produced by the rhythmic babbling of small children who cannot yet speak. The semiotic exists prior to the acquisition of meaning, and psychoanalysis links it with the drive towards either pleasure or death. These sound effects, as they reappear in poetry, are musical, patterned; they disrupt the purely ‘thetic’ (thesis-making) logic of rational argument by drawing on a sense or sensation that Kristeva locates beyond surface meaning. Thus the surface meaning in Kamala Das misguides us to believe what Iyengar believed. But in true sense, she has failed to give vent to her feminine sensibility. She is failed by the very language she tries to express herself. The language is the prison within the limits of which she has to function. Her address to Krishna, in Krishna is symbolical address to the language she uses:
Your body is my prison, Krishna,
I cannot see beyond it.
Your darkness blinds me,
Your love words shut out the wise world's din. (Krishna)
Krishna becomes the symbol of man-made language. She is imprisoned within the limits of the language. She cannot see beyond the language and it blinds her. Its words shut out the feminine spirit which she wants to express. Thus she remains ‘stranger to herself’ in her poems. The female voice in her poems pines for Krishna’s love, the unconscious female self of the poet pines for her own language.
But in absence of her language, she makes use of man’s language in an attempt to express her true sensibility. In The Looking Glass, she writes:
… the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.
The reference to breast is her inner heart – which throbs for true love – menstrual blood is life giving and life enhancing – which flows out in absence of life in womb to nurture… There is hunger in this reference to nurture life. It is cry for true love. Absence of love from gay oriented husband and hidden love affaire represses her desires to be what she is. She finds outlet of her repressed desires and emotions through poems.
In her first novel, Alphabet of Lust (Das 9) she writes, “But then she would not have been a poetess, for her poetry had burst out of the mire of her utter hopelessness like a red lotus”.
But she needs to be read and understood with much deeper significance and interpretation. The Otherness of language (Lacan, Kristeva as qtd in Belsey) becomes hurdles in her expression and reader’s interpretation. What Julia Kristeva writes in Strangers to Ourselves (189, 191) is quite true for Kamala Das: “You improve your skills in the new language but it is never quite yours, and you lack the authority that goes with unthinking fluency. You are easy to ignore and thus easily humiliated. … You become a kind of cultural orphan, never at ONE with anyone anywhere”. She is not comfortable with man-made language and thus never at one with herself.
In The Maggots, she writes:
At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?
(From The Descendants)
In this small poem, she expresses women’s desire to be with her love. When married to other man, she languishes. For her the husband is maggot… Krishna is symbolic of the language which female writers from Mary Wollstonecraft to Elain Showalter and Julia Kristeva have desired to have as theirs own. But as Krishna is of none and is illusive avatar, the language, which is patriarchal and male dominated, is also not acquired by these female writers. And in absence of that language, they have to be satisfied with kisses of maggot like husband. As maggot’s nip has no effect of corpse, the language they use have no effect on what they really want to express.
In ‘An Introduction’, Kamala Das’s attempt to own Otherness (Lacan web) of language is reflected:
‘The language I speak
Becomes mine

Here again, linguistic study of the words reflect repressed desire to own something which is not hers and in that attempt something is lost. (From An Introduction)
…. Its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone.

Why is it that she makes use of words that are denotative of negation? Words like ‘distortion’, ‘queerness’, they denote negation. Perhaps, consciously she want to say that language is hers own, but the hidden unconscious, the feminine consciousness, expresses the hidden angst against the language. She is true to her feminine sensibility when she make use of negative adjectives like ‘distortions’ or ‘queerness’. Her feminine sensibility and consciousness know it very well that the language which she uses can never be hers.
Later see writes in the same poem:
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…

These lines from ‘An Introduction’ clearly signify what Lacan has said about Otherness of language. Lacan uses a capital ‘O’ to distinguish the Otherness of language and culture from the otherness of other people, though of course it is from other people that we learn and internalize the Otherness of the signifier. (Belsey 58)
Catherine Belsey (58) simplifies what Lacan has said in ‘Of Strucure as the Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever’ and in Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan (2007) by Lorenzo Chiesa. The big Other is there before we are, exists outside us, and does not belong to us. In the course of asking for what we want, for instance, we necessarily borrow our terms from the Other, since we have no alternative if we want to communicate. In this way, the little human organism, which begins with no sense of a distinction between itself and the world, gets separated off from its surroundings and is obliged to formulate its demands in terms of the differences already available in language, however alienating these might be. Then there is desperate attempt, anxiety and agony to express and to belong to. In this attempt to achieve fit full expression for desires and emotions, one finds oneself in very awkward situation. The Otherness of language, which we have acquired to ask and say what we want instead of crying helplessly, does not permit us to express what we want to. Because the language is irretrievably Other. For female the distance is ever greater. It is not only Other’s language; it is also man’s language. It has developed and acquired its uniqueness in patriarchal society.
Something is lost here – experienced, perhaps, as a residue of the continuity with our organic existence, or as wishes that don’t quite fit the signifiers that are supposed to define them. Belsey (59) writes, “Lacan calls what is lost is real. The real is not reality, which is what culture tells us about. On the contrary, the real is that organic being outside signification, which we can’t know, because it has no signifiers in the world of names the subject inhibits. The real, repressed because it has no way of making itself recognized in our consciousness, returns to disturb and disrupt our engagement with a reality that we imagine we know.”
In the above lines quoted form ‘An Introduction’, we find this lost of real and desperation to own it. She says that the language is hers and it expresses her longings and hopes. She is longing to express herself but her hopes are thwarted. She fails to express her ‘real’ self. The imagery that follows these lines signifies how she is lost in search of her real self. This strange self is reflected in the imagery she uses. Why is the language and its ownership like ‘cawing of craw’ and not like‘music in the Koel’or the sweet songs of Nightingale? Why are predator birds and animals like crow and lion used to signify it? These predators are archetypes of tragic world. Such recurrent archetypes are held t be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evoke a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she shares the psychic archetypes.( Abrams 13) In Archetypes of Literature, Northrope Frye (Fry 1951) denotes tragic sense to the animal world belonging to the class of predatory. The use of imagery of animals belonging to archetypal tragic world, exemplifies that poet’s ‘real’ is dissatisfied. She is unable to find better images to show the general effect of loss. The loss of something that was never her own. A gap now exists between the organism and the signifying subject, and in that gap desire is born. Desire, Lacan (Belsey 60) says, is for nothing nameable, since it is unconscious, not part of the consciousness language gives us. But it is structural. The consequence of the gap that marks the loss of the real, and thus a perpetual condition. Although desire is unconscious, most of us find a succession of love-objects, and fasten our desire onto them, as if they could make us whole again, heal the rift between the subject and the lost real.
Thus we find following lines in ‘A Widow’s Lament’:
My man, my sons, forming the axis
While, I, wife and mother….

She wants to be identified as individual and as someone attached to husband and son. She desired to be one with her ‘real’. She longs to be ‘wife’ and ‘mother’… But as Lacan puts it, the rift between the subject and the lost real is reflected in the line following these:
Insignificant as a fly
Climbed the glass panes of their eyes…

In her search of her real identify ultimately she finds her nothing more than ‘insignificant fly’. She is stranger to herself. The rift between the self and real lost is clearly manifested in several of her poems.
It is human as I am human, don’t
You see? … (An Introduction)

She longs to be human. The capital ‘Y’ in ‘You’ signifies all the male gaze which considers women’s body as ‘thing’ and nothing more but a toy. She can be scornful of male desire, as for ‘The Latest Toy’, which asks that the woman not speak with
A voice, softened as though with tears. He said then, his
Dark brow wrinkling, oh please don’t become emotional,
Emotion is the only true enemy of joy.

Her obsession for sex and body is also expression of the repression born out of the desire. To heal the rift between the subject and the lost real, she seems to be obsessed with body and sex but in the end, it is difficult to heal the rift. It is possible to have a good time in the process of finding the lost real self but it is not possible to find better form of expression. And more she tries to get near to her true self, more she is dragged in the realm of strangeness.
She tries to be honest and sincere with her feminine sensibility when she writes about her obsession for body and sex:
And, I loved his body without shame, (Winter)
In The looking Glass, she writes about total submission to man, may be to get her identity:
Getting a man to love you is easy
Only be honest about your wants as
Woman.
She goes to an extent of saying:
Stand nude before the glass with him
So that he sees himself the stronger one
And believes it so, and you so much more
Softer, younger, lovelier.
She is ready to succumb her entire self to man to gain her real identity:
Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.
Man, like Krishna, here becomes symbol of the language, his language. The female poet in an attempt to achieve true sensibility and its expression is ready to give all she has. She also gets objective correlative or negative capability in form of Krishna’s image. Krishna is the symbol of that language which she wants to master in order to express herself. The otherness of language blindfolds her and she ‘cannot see beyond it. It darkens her vision and imagination. Her power of expression as poet is ‘shut out’.
The craving to voice her sensibility is thwarted. She beats her ‘sorry breast’ and writes:
Some beat their drums; others beat their sorry breasts
And wailed, and writhed in vacant ecstasy. (Dance of Eunuch)
Thus, the language betrays her. She somehow fails to speak of the various depredations the human is susceptible to with a poignancy which is more stark for being clear-eyed. (Mehrotra 252). Thus, she finds herself beaten, crushed and in pitiful situation.
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully. (An Introduction)
It seems that in The Stone Age, she is very happy and enjoys her love.  The poem end with following lines:
Ask me why life is short and love is
Shorter still, ask me what is bliss and what its price….
She seems to be happy and so wishes for longer hours of loving with ‘another’ man.
If we read a few lines above it we may find that in reality she is not happy. It again is his craving to give vent to her feminine sensibility but all in vain. The strangeness of language does not help her to do so.
As soon as his husband leaves the house in the morning, she goes to meet his lover:
I drive my blue battered car
Along the bluer sea. I run up the forty
Noisy steps to knock at another’s door.
Though peep-holes, the neighbours watch,
they watch me come
And go like rain. Ask me, everybody, ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis. Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts,
And sleeps.

The images used in the sensuous expression are again archetypes of tragic world. Say for instance, ‘Lion’, ‘hooded snake’, and ‘felled tree’ are all archetypes of tragic vision. Northrop Frye (1951) writes that the archetypes of tragic vision denote tragic sense. Archetypes, according to C.G. Jung (1922) are the reflection of collective unconsciousness. These archetypes are expressive of the fact that she is not at ease while expressing her genuine feelings and emotions. It does not mean that she is not sincere towards her sensibility. Yes, she is genuinely true towards feminine sensibility. But like all humans, she does not have control over her unconscious. When she is true with her emotions and feelings, she is true with her unconsciousness also. Here though the poet seems to express her joy in having sex with ‘another’, actually she is not happy with the act of sex. Going in ‘battered car’ does not speak about a happy journey. The entire process recalls the mechanical sexual process depicted in the episode between the typist and an unknown guest in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
These lines also express the attempts of a female poet to own man’s language. The poet drives in her blue imagination but they are battered as she fails to get better form to externalize it. The ‘knocking at another’s door’ is knocking at man’s language. But she can only peep through it. She cannot have fuller expression of her feminine sensibility through this language. That language like hooded snake ‘clasps her pubis’, symbolically gets hold of her emotions and feelings, but the result is not worth celebrating. The poem created is like ‘a great felled tree’. The creation ‘slumps’ against her breast. It cannot go deeper than skin. The language fails to touch the heart and soul of female poet. The poet has not found an expression of her true sensibility but the true meaning escapes from her grasp. The language has failed her. She merely remains a poet of body and sex. The genuine feminine sensibility that she wants to express is lost somewhere in the lacuna created because of Otherness of language.  She remains stranger to herself.
Works cited:
·        Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Delhi: Thomson Wadsworth. Rpt 2007.
·        Belsey, Catherine. A Very Short Introduction: Post structuralism. New York: OUP. 2002.
·        Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan. MIT press. 2007.
·        Das, Kamala. Alphabet of Lust. New Delhi: Orient. 1976.
·        Frye, Northrop. The Archetypes of Literature. The Kenyon Review: Vol. 8. 1951.
·        Iyengar, KRS. Indian Writing in English. New Delhi: Sterling Pub. Rpt 2001. 1985.
·        "Introduction" Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 191. Gale Cengage 2004 eNotes.com 1 Jan, 2010 <http://www.enotes.com/topics/kamala-das#critical-essays-das-kamala-introduction>
·        Jung, C.G. On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetic Art. 1922.
·        Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Columbia University Press. 1991.
·        Lacan, Jacques. Of Structure as the Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever. 18 July 2009http://www.lacan.com/hotel.htm
·        Mehrotra, A.K. An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. Delhi: Permanent Black. 2003.

·        Wikipedia contributors. "Kamala Surayya." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Dec. 2009. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.






                         An Introduction


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 amIndian, very brown, born inMalabar, 
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, halfIndian, 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. 
WhenI 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.

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