10 Poems by Kamala Das, Confessional Poet of India

kamala das

Kamala Das (1934 – 2009), the renowned Indian writer, wrote poetry and prose both in her mother tongue, Malayalam, and in English. Here, we’ll explore a sampling of poems by Kamala Das, who became known as a confessional poet.

Born Kamala Surayya, she was also known by her pen name, Madhavikutty, though her widest recognition was achieved as Kamala Das, her married name. She was known in her home state of Kerala for her short stories and autobiography, and in the rest of India, for her English poetry.

Her controversial autobiography, My Story, originally written in Malayalam, gained her much fame and notoriety. Later, it was translated into English. PoemHunter.org observes of her work: “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.”

Professor Santanu Saha of Saltora Netaji Centenary College, West Bengal, summarizes the poetic work of Kamala Das as follows:

“Kamala Das has neither written innumerable numbers of poems nor are these poems varied in themes … She has not applied any complex poetic technique and the mode of expression is very colloquial in manner. Her English is the ultimate form of ‘Indianization of English Language.’

And consciously she is never worried for experimentation in the poems. In spite of these limitations she is very much popular in the Indian subcontinent as well as in abroad. And this is due to her ‘honest’ declaration of self which establishes her as a ‘confessional’ poet. Among her contemporaries she is much debated, disputed and criticized poet. But undoubtedly Kamala Das is accepted as a universal poet whose lived experiences are beautifully portrayed in her poems.”

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Kamala Das

More about Kamala Das
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The poems here are from her first published collection of poems, Summer in Calcutta (1965) and others collections published later. A link to an analysis follows each poem.
Poems included here are:

  • Summer in Calcutta
  • An Introduction
  • A Hot Noon in Malabar
  • My Grandmother’s House
  • My Mother at Sixty-Six
  • Forest Fire
  • The Freaks
  • The Sunshine Cat
  • A Losing Battle
  • Words
 

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Summer In Calcutta

What is this drink but
The April sun, squeezed
Like an orange in
My glass? I sip the
Fire, I drink and drink
Again, I am drunk
Yes, but on the gold
of suns, What noble
venom now flows through
my veins and fills my
mind with unhurried
laughter? My worries
doze. Wee bubbles ring
my glass, like a bride’s
nervous smile, and meet
my lips. Dear, forgive
this moment’s lull in
wanting you, the blur
in memory. How
brief the term of my
devotion, how brief
your reign when i with
glass in hand, drink, drink,
and drink again this
Juice of April suns.

Analysis of Summer in Calcutta

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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 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.
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.

Analysis of An Introduction

 

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A Hot Noon in Malabar

This is a noon for beggars with whining
Voices, a noon for men who come from hills
With parrots in a cage and fortune-cards,
All stained with time, for brown Kurava girls
With old eyes, who read palm in light singsong
Voices, for bangle-sellers who spread
On the cool black floor those red and green and blue
Bangles, all covered with the dust of roads,
Miles, grow cracks on the heels, so that when they
Clambered up our porch, the noise was grating,
Strange … This is a noon for strangers who part
The window-drapes and peer in, their hot eyes
Brimming with the sun, not seeing a thing in
Shadowy rooms and turn away and look
So yearningly at the brick-ledged well.  This
Is a noon for strangers with mistrust in
Their eyes, dark, silent ones who rarely speak
At all, so that when they speak, their voices
Run wild, like jungle-voices. Yes, this is
A noon for wild men, wild thoughts, wild love. To
Be here, far away, is torture.  Wild feet
Stirring up the dust, this hot noon, at my
Home in Malabar, and I so far away …

Analysis of A Hot Noon in Malabar

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My Grandmother’s House

There is a house now far away where once
I received love … That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence, snakes moved
Among books, I was then too young
To read, and my blood turned cold like the moon
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of windows or
Just listen to the frozen air,
Or in wild despair, pick an armful of
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom door like a brooding
Dog…you cannot believe, darling,
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved…. I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?

Analysis of My Grandmother’s House

 

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My Mother at Sixty-Six

Driving from my parent’s
home to Cochin last Friday
morning, I saw my mother,
beside me,
doze, open mouthed, her face
ashen like that
of a corpse and realised with pain
that she was as old as she
looked but soon
put that thought away, and
looked out at Young
Trees sprinting, the merry children spilling
out of their homes, but after the airport’s
security check, standing a few yards
away, I looked again at her, wan, pale
as a late winter’s moon and felt that old
familiar ache, my childhood’s fear,
but all I said was, see you soon, Amma,
all I did was smile and smile and
smile …

Analysis of My Mother at Sixty-Six

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Forest Fire

Of late I have begun to feel a hunger
To take in with greed, like a forest fire that
Consumes and with each killing gains a wilder,
Brighter charm, all that comes my way. Bald child in
Open pram, you think I only look, and you
Too, slim lovers behind the tree and you, old
Man with paper in your hand and sunlight in
Your hair … My eyes lick at you like flames, my nerves
Consume; and, when I finish with you, in the
Pram, near the tree and, on the park bench, I spit
Out small heaps of ash, nothing else. But in me
The sights and smells and sounds shall thrive and go on
And on and on. In me shall sleep the baby
That sat in prams and sleep and wake and smile its
Toothless smile. In me shall walk the lovers hand
In hand and in me, where else, the old shall sit
And feel the touch of sun. In me, the street-lamps
Shall glimmer, the cabaret girls cavort, the
Wedding drums resound, the eunuchs swirl coloured
Skirts and sing sad songs of love, the wounded moan,
And in me the dying mother with hopeful
Eyes shall gaze around, seeking her child, now grown
And gone away to other towns, other arms.

Analysis of Forest Fire

 

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The Freaks

He talks, turning a sun-stained
Cheek to me, his mouth, a dark
Cavern, where stalactites of
Uneven teeth gleam, his right
Hand on my knee, while our minds
Are willed to race towards love;
But, they only wander, tripping
Idly over puddles of
Desire … Can this man with
Nimble finger-tips unleash
Nothing more alive than the
Skin’s lazy hungers? Who can
Help us who have lived so long
And have failed in love? The heart,
An empty cistern, waiting
Through long hours, fills itself
With coiling snakes of silence …
I am a freak. It’s only
To save my face, I flaunt, at
Times, a grand, flamboyant lust.

Analysis of The Freaks

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The Sunshine Cat

They did this to her, the men who know her, the man
She loved, who loved her not enough, being selfish
And a coward, the husband who neither loved nor
Used her, but was a ruthless watcher, and the band
Of cynics she turned to, clinging to their chests where
New hair sprouted like great-winged moths, burrowing her
Face into their smells and their young lusts to forget
To forget, oh, to forget, and, they said, each of
Them, I do not love, I cannot love, it is not
In my nature to love, but I can be kind to you.
They let her slide from pegs of sanity into
A bed made soft with tears, and she lay there weeping,
For sleep had lost its use. I shall build walls with tears,
She said, walls to shut me in. Her husband shut her
In, every morning, locked her in a room of books
With a streak of sunshine lying near the door like
A yellow cat to keep her company, but soon
Winter came, and one day while locking her in, he
Noticed that the cat of sunshine was only a
Line, a half-thin line, and in the evening when
He returned to take her out, she was a cold and
Half dead woman, now of no use at all to men.

Analysis of The Sunshine Cat

 

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A Losing Battle

How can my love hold him when the other
Flaunts a gaudy lust and is lioness
To his beast?
Men are worthless, to trap them
Use the cheapest bait of all, but never
Love, which in a woman must mean tears
And a silence in the blood.

Analysis of A Losing Battle (extremely detailed!)

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Words

All round me are words, and words and words,
They grow on me like leaves, they never
Seem to stop their slow growing
From within… But I tell my self, words
Are a nuisance, beware of them, they
Can be so many things, a
Chasm where running feet must pause, to
Look, a sea with paralyzing waves,
A blast of burning air or,
A knife most willing to cut your best
Friend’s throat… Words are a nuisance, but.
They grow on me like leaves ona tree,
They never seem to stop their coming,
From a silence, somewhere deep within …

Analysis of Words

 

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Kamala Das-selected poems

Kamala Das: Collected Poems on Amazon*
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Poetry Collections by Kamala Das in English Translation

  • The Sirens (1964)
  • Summer in Calcutta (1965)
  • The Descendants (1967)
  • The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973)
  • The Stranger Time (1977)
  • Collected Poems (1984)
  • The Anamalai Poems (1985)
  • Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1997)
  • My Mother at Sixty-Six (1999)
  • Yaa Allah (2001)
 

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