An Introduction Essay By Kamala Das

Kamala Suraiyya

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.

THE POEM

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 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. 

SUMMARY 

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.

EXPLANATION

“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.

Read this article to know about the summary and analysis of the poem An Introduction written by Kamala Das.

Introduction to An Introduction by Kamala Das

The poem An Introduction is an autobiographical verse of Kamala Das that throws light on the life of a woman in the patriarchal society. I have divided the poem into five parts for better understanding. I have tried to first give a brief explanation of the lines and then provide a comprehensive analysis. Hope you may go through the poem and understand its central idea.

Men as the Rulers of Country

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.

The poet starts explaining by saying that she doesn’t know the politics yet she is well aware of the politicians of her country from Nehru to the ones of her own times. And as the politics of India has always remained in fewer hands (of males) she has memorized the names of all the politicians like the days of the week or the names of the month.

The lines depict how the males have been ruling the country without giving this right to the women. Moreover, the rulers are fewer in numbers because democracy exists only in words. In reality, the rule of the country remains in the hands of some people only who have assumed themselves to be the permanent rulers.

Women are Individuals As Well

I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.

Now the poet comes towards her own life experience. She says that she is an Indian and brown in color (as compared to the British). She is born in Malabar. She can speak three languages, write in two and dreams in one of the dreams have a universal language. In these lines, she explains her Indianness.

Like most of the citizens of India, she is also capable of speaking three languages and writing in two probably the English and her native language. She says that she dreams in one because the world of dreams is common to all. In this world, every individual, male or female, uses the same universal language.

In my opinion, these lines can be interpreted in another way as well. The poet perhaps tries to show her ability in the educational sphere which is no access to most of the women. She says that she speaks three languages and is also capable of writing in two. In addition, is also dreams of any man of the world. She probably compares herself to the man of the world trying to show that she is no lesser than him.

She possesses all those qualities and abilities that make him superior. Hence, though she is a woman, she is no lesser than him in terms of ability, passion, and creativeness. Moreover, in the world of dreams, she is equally an individual as the man is and so she wants this status in the real world as well.

Poet’s Struggle for Freedom

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?

Being well familiar with the English she uses this language in her writings. However, this habit of her is not liked by her friends, relatives, and critics. They all condemn her for writing in English as according to them, English is the language of the colonists. She asks them why they criticise her. Why she is not given liberty to write in whatever language she desires.

In these lines, she exposes the jealous nature of her nears and dears who cannot endure her skills. This makes them criticise her. Having no logical reason to put restrictions on her writing in English, they try to tell her that the language she writes in, is the language of Colonists and thus she should avoid using it. However, she asks them how a language can be owned by a particular community. It belongs to every person who uses it and thus she should not be stopped from using it.

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?

The language in which she writes is her own along with all its imperfections and strangeness. The language is, though not fully English yet she considers it to be honest because like her as her language is also imperfect like her which a quite normal thing is.

In these lines, she shows her ownership of the English and also the freedom of using it. She is imperfect but this makes her a human. Thus she should not be scolded for her mistakes or shortcoming. But she wonders why the society ignores the mistakes or even blunders of men and questions the mistakes of women although the fact is that every person in the world is imperfect.

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.

The language expresses her joys, grief, and hopes. For he, it is like cawing is to crows and roaring is to lions i.e. it is an integral part of her expression. She further says that her speech (in English) is the speech of humans that minds can understand and not strange and queer like the sound of trees in the storms or of monsoon clouds or of rain or of dead as these voices cannot be understood.


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Her Miserable Married Life

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

She moves towards her married life. She was a child although the size of her body grew up i.e. she entered the stage of puberty yet her soul was immature. As she was still a child (after marriage) she asked for love. However, her husband quenched his own lust on the bed. The poet here not only describes her married life but tries to narrate the story of every woman in her country. Her grieves and sorrows are the grieves and sorrows of every woman of her country.

The young girls of her country are forced to marry old men without having their consent. They are so young at the time of their marriage that they cannot accept that they have grown up. However as their body parts including the genitals grow up, they have to accept that they are mature now and thus have bind into the nuptial alliance. They girl after being married desire that her husband should show compassion to her and love her. But instead, she is drawn to the bed and made to endure the pains of sex that she is not willing to do.

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.

She says that she was not beaten by him yet her womanly body felt to be beaten and wounded and thus she got tired of it (her body). He genitals seemed to her as some burden that has crushed her. She started hating her female body because it is her body that has given her so much pain.

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 …

To avoid its load, she tried to become a tomboy by adopting the attire of males. But it was not led by her in-laws. They started taunting her. She was commanded to dress in sarees, be a girl, wife, embroiderer, cook, quarreller with servants etc. She was asked not to hide her real self. Her in-laws even commanded to remain silent and endure her unachieved love.

The lines expose the condition of a woman in the house of her in-laws. She is forced to give up her frankness and attain the nature of a daughter-in-law. She is forced to do everything that her in-laws desire her to do. She has to accomplish all the tasks though she is not willing to do so. Still, she is taunted, scolded as well as abused. She is even advised not express her grief if she is troubled y her married life.

Her Struggle for the Status of ‘I’

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.

She meets a man (whose name she does not mention). The man is, according to her, the everyman who desires a woman (to quench his lust) as a woman desires love from a man. When she asks him about his identity, his answer is ‘I’.

This ‘I’ or the ‘male-ego’ gives him liberty to do whatever he likes. He can drink at midnight, laugh, and satisfy his lust. However, he feels ashamed after losing a woman due to his own shortcomings and also this ego of ‘I’ dies when the person dies and thus his end is no different than the end of the woman.

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.

Hence like him, she can also attribute the title of ‘I’ to herself. Like men, she is also sinner and saint, beloved and betrayed. Her joys and pains are no different than those of men. Hence she emancipates herself to the level of ‘I’.

Filed Under: English LiteratureTagged With: Poems Summary

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