Frustration and Identity Crisis: in the selected poems of Kamala Das

Dr. Ahmad Reza Taheri

06 June 2011

I would like to take this opportunity and greet the respected audience. Thanks to all those who organized this seminar. The title of my paper is "Frustration & Identity Crisis: in the selected poems of Kamala Das". In fact, I have selected nine poems and tried to summarize them into a 10 minute presentation.


Women are more prone to identity crisis and frustration than men. Literary writings on women, for women and of women, many times incite a rebellion against the patriarchal norms of society. They draw distinct lines among the main elements that go into the composition of a feminist psyche and identity. Often women rise from the embers of tragedy to make a name and place for themselves.


In literature of different lands and from different cultures, we still find women searching for answers and finding their true identities and the reason for their suffering and frustration. There is crisis in understanding of these identities. Kamala Das is known for honesty and exploration of hidden emotions of a female mind at an international level through her confessional writings. Though her poems, no doubt, are about love and sex and so very interesting, they also bear a note of frustration and identity crisis.


Kamala Das speaks out her heart based on her own premises. She struggles to cope with her problems and dilemmas. She makes a discovery of human existence and narrates her experience vividly and passionately. She feels exploited and cheated by the civilization of which she is a part. It seems that Kamala Das finds no way out of her tormented inner world and knows that there can be no easy solutions.


The poem Composition is about love and is pessimistic in tone. Her personal frustrations and sense of loneliness add a note of intensity to the poem. The poetess remembers how she could hear the sound of the sea when she lived in the house of her grandmother. But, soon her grandmother passes away. She looks into the minds of women and expresses their worlds and tells us that growth is the real tragedy of life not death.


She asks her husband questions such as “am I a lesbian?" etc. Such and such questions show that she lacks knowledge of her own self and there is crisis in her search for true identity. The poetess says that all women are physically alike; they only differ in the souls. She makes it clear that women are used as toys by men.


This makes her feel a deep pain. The poem An Introduction voices the poet’s quest for identity and fulfillment. She speaks clearly in the guise of a sixteen year old girl who rebels against the norms of patriarchal society to defend and secure her identity in the world. In this poem another kind of frustration makes its appearance. Here, the poetess is striving hard to keep an identity of her own. Her defense against patriarchal diktat of "don't write in English" presents a passionate defense not only for writing in English but also for writing in Indian English.


There is rising voice of depression, frustration and anger against any control or restriction imposed upon her. This is a kind of intellectual frustration, which Kamala Das faces. She remained an alien in the society due to her strange behavior and strange mode of dressing. She tries to establish and force her individuality upon those who are not ready to approve and appreciate her. She criticizes the institution of marriage which gives to man a legal right to commit marital rape on his teenage bride.


This individually alienation only increases her frustration. In her effort to discover her real identity, Kamala Das unknowingly or knowingly shakes the norms of a male dominated society, which has existed for hundreds of years, with very little changes --- she crosses all the limits of her society. As one can see in the poem Descendants she just pretends that she is happy. She dare not show herself as what actually she feels as a happy wife and woman and therefore loses her true identity.


Her poem The Sunshine Cat presents an attractive, sensitive, and creative woman caught in a loveless marriage, who suffers a nervous breakdown and becomes a cold half dead woman. Her deep frustration is observed very well in this poem, when she talks about the role of her husband at home. Luminol another poem by Kamala Das talks of physical love and shows her neurotic. She finds herself profoundly alone and longs for some peace from her inner conflicts. The sexual union makes her most miserable because it is crude.


She tries to escape from her sexual frustration, but in vain. In short, this poem too reveals her misery and frustration in a male dominated society, where true love is at a premium. The poem The Old Playhouse is about Kamala Das’ failure and frustrating conjugal life with her husband. Though her husband had promised to make her happy, he did not make her happy. In the poem she compares her life before marriage and after marriage.


She was happy, free, singing, and dancing before marriage. But, she finds no more singing and dancing after marriage, and seems to be in prison. Her husband is a hard task-master and in course of time, she loses her own identity as a human being and becomes his slave. She realizes in dismay that her personality, instead of developing, reducing to nothingness.


She even loses her will and faculty of thought. In the next poem The Looking Glass frustration and hope go side by side. At the outset, she outlines to women how they should behave with the men… The poem brings out the fate of women in a male dominated society. They must accept their role as a sex toy passively. This makes their life frustrating… She is confused and does not know what her actual role is and faces loss of identity.


In the poem My grandmother’s House Kamala Das recalls her childhood in her grandmother’s house and the memory of her grandmother and her house makes her sad and almost heartbroken. As the poem progresses, it shows that the poetess is not happy in her husband’s house.


She does not want to identify herself as a wife but rather wants to be the little girl, who was happy and whom everybody loved. In the poem I Shall Some Day the poetess speaks about death and decay. Again she tells of her unhappiness and marital life in her husband’s house.


She is so miserable and frustrated that she thinks of death. This poem shows that with her sorrowful situation, the poetess is already dead and so the real death will not affect any change in her. In order to sum up, love and sexuality are strong components in her search for female identity. This identity is made up of polarities. The world of Kamala Das is exclusively concerned with the personal experience of love expressed in her poetry.


Presented by Ahmad Reza Taheri, National Seminar on Indian Writing in English & in English Translation, Department of English, University of Pune, 25 - 27 FEB 2009.

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