An Introduction by Kamala Das

Introduction: This poem first appeared in Kamala Das’s very first volume of poem which was entitled Summer in Calcutta and which was published in 1965. This poem is wholly autobiographical and may also be labelled as a confessional poem. It is confessional in the sense that Kamala Das here takes the reader into her confidence with confessional poems, this one shows Kamala Das’s candour in dealing with sex, with bodily functions, and the like. At the same time, it shows Kamala Das’s capacity for self-assertion. Furthermore, we have here a poem of revolt against conventionalism and the restraints which society has been imposing upon women. Kamala Das’s feminism or her advocacy of the rights of women clearly appears here. Thus this poem reveals to us several aspects of Kamala Das as a poet.

The poem is written in free verse in a colloquial style which appropriately allows the free flow of writer’s thoughts and feelings. The poem is revealing of the poet of her political knowledge, of her linguistic acquirements, of her physical growth, of the sad experience of her marriage and of her quest for fulfilling love. What M.K. Naik says of her poetry in general also applies for this poem: “Kamala Das’s persona is no nymphomaniac; she is simply every woman who seeks love and she is the beloved and betrayed; expressing her female hunger”

Word Meanings

Incoherent: unitelligible, not clear and hard to understand

Mutterings: complaints expressed privately

Jilted in love: had a sudden and unkind end of romantic relationship

Know the three languages: Means the poet know three languages viz. Malayalam, Kannada and English.

Write in two: Means can write in Malayalam and English

Dream in one: Malayalam. It is the mother-tongue in which one usually dreams.

Why not leave me alone: a glimpse of the poet’s spirit instinctively rebelling against all forms of restraints.

It is as human as I am human: just as a human is liable to make mistakes, so Kamala’s language is not without errors.

The speech of the mind: language through which feelings such as Joys, desires, aspirations etc. of man’s mind is expressed.

Here and not there: to the point and not irrelevant.

Incoherent Mutterings: speech in a low voice not meant to be heard by others.

Blazing: burning strongly.

Asked for love: expresses the bewilderment of the innocent young girl who sought love but experienced raw lust which left her feeling assaulted and defiled.

A quarreler with servants: People advised Kamala to be a quarreler with servants as otherwise, the latter will get the upper hand.

Belong: to feel comfortable and happy with the situation one is placed in.

Categorisers: the people with traditional thinking who consider men and women as a distinct category having specific dress and roles.

Schizophrenia: a mental illness in which a person becomes unable to link thought, emotion and behaviour leading to withdrawal from reality and relationship.

Nympho: a woman who has sex and wants to have sex very often.

The hungry haste of rivers: an image through which the lover’s strong sexual passion is reflected. As river rushes towards oceans for union with the latter, so the lover moves towards the beloved for the fulfilment of his sexual desires.

The Ocean’s tireless waiting: an image through which the beloved’s infinite patience for a proper sexual union with her lover is expressed. The ocean here is an objective correlative for beloved’s psychic state.

I am sinner…. I too … the poet sums up her introduction by identifying herself with countless others around, all of whom represent a bundle of contrary features.

Summary of “An Introduction”

Kamala Das begins this poem by telling us that although she does not know much about politics, she knows the names of those persons, beginning with Nehru, who have wielded political power in this country. She then describes herself as an Indian, of a very brown complexion, born in Malabar, having the ability to speak three languages, writing actually in two languages, and dreaming in the third. Next, she speaks sarcastically about the many relatives and friends who used to advise her not to write in English because English was not her mother tongue. In fact, she takes such advisers to task for having given her this advice because she claims the right to speak and write in any language she likes.

Kamala Das goes on to tell us that, as she grew up form a child to an adult, her limbs swelled, and hair sprouted in one or two parts of her body. Then she asked for love, and what she got was a husband who performed the sexual act with her in the crudest possible manner. The husband’s way of performing this act made her feel miserable.

Everybody wanted to give some of the other advice to her. Her advisers urged her to do some embroidery of cooking and also to keep quarrelling with the servants. They told her to call herself Amy or Kamala or better still Mahdavikutty. They urged her not to pretend to be a split personality suffering from a psychological disorder, and not to become a nymphomaniac or a sex-crazy woman.

What she also means to say is that she is no different from other human beings, that like every other human being she is sometimes sinful and sometimes pious, that she is sometimes loved and sometimes betrayed in love, that she has the same joys in life which others have, and that she suffers the same disappointment which others suffer. In this short poem, Kamala Das has given us a self-portrait and the anatomy of her mind, recounting the major incidents of her life and the experience which had affected her most till the time of her writing this poem. The poem is remarkable for its compression and for the compactness of its structure even though it contains a diversity of facts and circumstances. The rules of punctuation have her been fully observed; all the lines are almost of the same length. The words used and the phraseology show Kamala Das’s talent for choosing the right words and putting them in highly satisfactory combinations. Indeed, the poem contains many felicities of word and phrase. Her brief picture of her husband’ rough treatment of her is an outstanding example:

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………

These lines also show Kamala Das’s uninhibited manner of speaking about sex and about her physical organs. The poem is written in vers libre or free verse.

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“An Introduction” by Kamala Das is perhaps one of the most famous poems from her first anthology of poems Summer in Calcutta (1965) written in a self-reflective and confessional tone. The poem is a potent critique on patriarchal society prevalent today and brings to light the pain, slavery, agony that the fairer sex suffered in the days.

Critical Appreciation

An Introduction is obviously an autobiographical poem written by Kamala Das Which first appeared in her Summer in Calcutta (1965). The poem is a brilliant example of her confessionalism wherein she unfolds her entire self with extreme frankness and candour. In this poem,the poet expresses her experiences which were strictly private and personal.

The poem is a revolt against conventionalism and restraints put against Indian women. In this poem, the question of whether or not Indians should write in English is put to rest. The poem is also remarkable for its daring innovativeness.

The poet says she is not interested in politics but claims that since the time of Nehru, she can name all the people who have been in office. She implicitly states the fact that politics in the world is a game of the few selected elite who ironically govern a democracy by claiming that she can repeat them as fluently as days of the week or names of the month. The fact that she remembers them so clearly indicates that the same people have been in power over and over again.

Next, she identifies herself as an Indian, born in Malabar and very brown in colour. She speaks in three languages, writes in two and dreams in one, sharing the notion that dreams have a common language of their own. Kamala Das reiterates that the medium of writing is not as important as the amount of comfort one needs. Since it is not her mother tongue, people have asked her not to write in English. In comparison, any time she had a meeting with a critic, colleagues, or visiting cousins, the fact that English was a colonial language predominant as a means of communication during British times attracted still more scrutiny. She stresses that all the imperfections and queerness is her own, the vocabulary she speaks becomes her own.

It’s half-English, half-Hindi, which sounds pretty funny, but the point is that it’s fair. All that makes it more human is its imperfections, making it similar to what we term normal. As it voices its joys, sorrows and dreams, it is the tongue of her expression and sentiment. Cawing is as critical to her as it is to the crows and the lions roaring. It is not, though incomplete, a deaf, blind expression like that of storm trees or rain clouds. Nor does it echo the “funeral pyre’s incoherent mutterings.” Rather, it has its own intrinsic natural coherence.

She continues to share her own storey. She was a child and she was later told by strangers that she had grown up and her body had begun to exhibit signs of puberty. She didn’t seem to understand this interpretation, though she was still a child at her heart. When she asked her soulmate for love, not knowing what else to ask, the sixteen-year-old took her to his apartment. The word is a potent critique of child marriage that drives children into such a predicament when they are still very childish at heart. She felt beaten even though he didn’t beat her, and her body seemed crushed by her own weight. This is a rather emphatic expression of how a sixteen-year-old ‘s body is unprepared for the attack under which it is exposed. Ashamed of her femininity, she shrank pitifully.

By being tomboyish, she attempts to overcome such embarrassment. And then, as she chooses to cover her femininity in male clothes, the guardians impose traditional feminine attire, with reminders to conform into a woman’s socially defined features, to become a woman and a mother, and to be limited to the domestic routine. In order not to make herself a psychic or a maniac, she is threatened to live inside the four walls of her women’s room. They also ask her to catch her tears when rejected in love. As they seem to categorise any person based on merely whimsical points, she calls them categorizers.

Towards the end of the poem, the poet mentions his experiences with a man. She doesn’t take names, but the symbolism of her relationship is what she’s trying to express. He’s every other man who wants a woman, like the embodiment of the hungry rush of the river, while she’s every other woman, the embodiment of patience like the tireless waiting of the ocean. When he asks a man who he is, he responds saying he is I. The poet, herein through symbolism, introduces to the readers the inherent male ego of a patriarchal society. He is rigid in his mind as a “sword in his sheath,” and his opinions are not open to debate. It is this “I,” i.e. the male ego, that justifies lying drunk at midnight in the night in a hotel in a foreign area, that justifies complacent laughter, that makes a woman’s love and then feels embarrassed that she is so easily carried away, and yet dies with a rattling in her throat, as anyone else. Death reveals the futility of the male ego, revealing that “he” is not greater.

The poet then ends by saying that this “I” should not be different from “her,” and so I am both the sinner and the saint, both the betrayer and the betrayed, as well as the man and the woman. There are no pleasures of “I” that she doesn’t get to feel, not any pains that she hasn’t been through with through. Thus “She” is “I” too.

Analysis Of An Introduction

An Introduction is a self-portrait and the anatomy of Kamala Das’s mind. The poem recounts the major incidents of her life which have affected her experience. The poem is remarkable for its structure even though it encompasses a diversity of facts and circumstances. The rules of punctuation have been fully observed. The lines are almost of the same length. The words used and the use of phraseology show Das’s talent of choosing the right words and putting them in the most effective order. The poem contains many felicities of word and phrase. Written in free verse the poem has neither any rhyming scheme nor any metrical arrangement. The natural speech rhythm, pauses and punctuation make the poem conversational in style.

When you read the poem the first thing that may strike your mind is the title An Introduction. Whose introduction does it talk about? A little thought reveals the poem is an introduction of the poet herself. But a deeper thought reveals that it is an introduction of ‘every woman’ The opening line of the poem ‘I don’t know politics but I know the names of those in power beginning with Nehru’ makes it obvious that she does not want to assume any political identity. She rather prefers a national identity. Mark the following line: “I am Indian, very brown in colour, born in Malabar, here the poet uses the words which are identity markers – ‘Indian’, ‘brown in colour’ and ‘born in Malabar’. The narrator boasts of her linguistic proficiency “I speak three languages, write in two, dream in one”, to prove that she is a capable writer and fully aware of her role and responsibilities as a writer. Her Indian identity and linguistic ability is emphasized to reinforce her claim of writing in English. The following illustrations advance her claim further:

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The language I speak

Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness, 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 narrator asserts that the language with all its distortions of grammar, structure or pronunciation belongs to the users, no matter what nationality they may belong to. The narrator explains that the language is ‘as human (liable to error) as the narrator is human. She makes her case to use English very strongly by claiming that ‘it is useful to her as cawing/Is to crows or roaring to the lions’. English comes so naturally to her that in it she can voice her ‘joys’, her longings’ and her ‘Hopes’.

The narrator is so much vexed with the suggestions that she further illustrates her point with a series of images to clarify what the writing English is not like. She says that English “is not deaf, blind speech”/ “Of trees in storms or of monsoon clouds or rain or the/ Incoherent mutterings of the blazing funeral pyre”. The last line here may refer to the decadent legacy of the British Culture.

The poem shifts to another story which talks of the narrator’s early marriage and her consequent psychological hurt:

“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 breast and womb crushed me/ I shank pitifully”.

The above lines are remarkable for showing the poet’s talent in choosing and putting the best words in the most effective combinations. The whole picture of the misuse of sex becomes vivid. The last two lines create a true picture of its consequence. As a mark of protest the poet takes resort to western dress:

Then… I wore a shirt and my

Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored My womanliness”.

This open revolt created strong resentment amongst her relatives and wellwishers. Their sharpness of reactions is reflected very effectively by the poet through the appropriate selection and arrangement of words and the speaker’s tone:

“Fit in, oh

Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit/On walls or peep through our lace-draped window. Be Amy or Kamla, or better Still be Madhavikutti. It is time to Choose a name, a role”.

Can you see that the phrase ‘Fit in’ and the word ‘belong’ are simple words but their arrangement in the poetic scheme makes their meanings very expressive, deep and varied? Similarly, the words like ‘cry’ and ‘categorisers’ too are equally simple but very suggestive in meanings. For example, the word ‘cry’ carries with it a sense of anxiety and force and categorizer refers to people with traditional thinking who understand things in terms of category and class only. The later suggestion that the narrator must never pretend to be split-personality suffering from a psychological disorder or tend to act as a nympho shows further griping clout on her. This was not all; the narrator is further instructed:

Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when/jilted in love”.

The poem now moves to another story in which Kamala Das’s ideal of Man-woman relationship is indicated:

“….He is everyman/’Who wants a woman, Just as I am every/ Woman who seeks love. In/ him… the hungry haste/Of rivers in me…the ocean’s tireless/waiting”.

Here the words ‘want’ and ‘seek’ is notable. ‘Want’ refers here to every man who needs a woman for his service as a subordinate. ‘Seek’ means every woman who badly misses love, so they keep on looking for what they want their whole life. The last two lines through the use of beautiful images which serve as objective correlative very successfully explain the sexual behaviours of men and women. ‘The hungry haste /of rivers and the ocean’s tireless/waiting’ represent the psychological states of men and women respectively. You may note here that the word ‘I’ is repeated at several times to emphasize the women’s quest of identity. Explaining the nature and position of women the narrator says ‘I am sinner, /I am saint. I am the beloved and the Betrayed’. The point she is trying to make is that be it, man or woman, none is wholly a sinner or wholly a saint. We all are a balance of both. In that case, there is no point in viewing the women as the other. Finally, Kamala Das’s idea of fulfilled love is neatly presented in “I have no joys which are not yours, no aches which are not yours”.

Line Wise Explanation of The Poem

Lines 1-13

In the first section of An Introduction, the speaker begins by comparing her knowledge of politicians to the days of the week and months of the year. Although she does not have a firm grasp on politics itself, those in power have remained in her mind. This shows their power to be much greater than their role should allow. The first of these she is able to recall is “Nehru,” who served as India’s first prime minister after the withdrawal of the British.

After these opening lines that set the scene, the speaker moves on to describe her own being. She is “Indian” and she is “very brown.” Lastly, she is from Malabar in southwest India. These are the basics of her life, but of course not everything. She adds that she is able to,

[…]speak three languages, write in Two, dream in one.

She continues to describe language and the role it plays in her life by saying that she is judged for writing in English. It is not her “mother-tongue.” Whenever she is criticized for how she speaks and writes she feels as if she is alone. There is no one, not her friends or cousins, who back her up. They are critics “Everyone.”She directs the next line at this group, asking them why they care what she speaks. She feels a deep connection to the words she uses and how, through “distortions,” her language can only be defined as her own.

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Lines 13-25

In the next thirteen lines, the speaker goes on to describe herself as “half English, half Indian.” She sees the humour in this combination and acknowledges that fact as it is “honest.” This seems to be one of the most important parts of her, a desire for authenticity and honesty. Her identity, as seen through her voice, is “human” just as she is human. It should be held under that single defining category and no other.

Das describes the control she has over her voice, whether through speech or text. It can display all of her emotions and her,

[…] mind that sees and hears and Is aware.

Human speech is to humans as roaring is to lions. It is intelligible, unlike the roaring of a storm or the “mutterings of the blazing fire.” The speaker defines her freedom through the use of her voice. In the next lines, she explains to the reader that other circumstances in her life infringe on that freedom. They are out of her control. She introduces this section by stating that she only felt older as she grew because she was told of her own physical changes.

Lines 26-38

Her unhappiness is defined in the next section of lines and is directly related to a need for freedom. When she was young she “asked for love,” because she didn’t know what else to want. This ended with her marriage at sixteen and the closing of a bedroom door. Although her husband did not beat her, her,

[…] sad woman-body felt so beaten.

This line of An Introduction is interesting as she is placing her own body in one of the categories she rebelled against in the first stanza. It is due to this simplification of a woman as nothing more than a body that led her to marriage at sixteen. She also places blame on her own body for leading her to this place. Her distinctly female parts, “breasts and womb” are a crushing weight on her life. The pressure placed on her by her husband and by her family led to an emotional and mental shrinking. It was a

“Pitiful” process. But it ended.

She goes on to state that a change came over her. She decided to put on her “Brother’s trousers” and cut off her hair. The speaker is ridding herself of the female image that has harmed her. Now that she is remaking her identity she is able to say no to the traditions of womanhood. These include fitting in and dressing in “saris.” The “categorizers” might tell her not to,

[…] peep in through our lace-draped windows

But she is not going to listen. She chose to move her life beyond the traditional and therefore expand her presence in the world.

Lines 39-50

In the first two lines of the next section of An Introduction, it becomes clear that the speaker is truly meant to be the poet herself. She wonders at her own identity and marvels over the fact that she can now be,

Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better Still, be Madhavikutty.

It is by this final name that the poet, Kamala Das, came to be known and is still called. Das added another few reminders on behalf of the “categorizers.” She shouldn’t “play pretending games” or “cry embarrassingly loud.” Her role as a woman is supposed to be meek, quiet, and contained.

She goes on to describe a time in which she met and loved a man. This person is referred to as “man,” he is not named. This strips him of some of the agency he is so in control of in the next lines. Additionally, the name is of little importance as he is meant to represent every man in the world who uses women as he pleases. At one point, at the height of her emotions, she asks the “man” who he is. He replies “it is I.” The “I” represents the agency he has in the world. Men make their own decisions and can use the pronoun in order to get what they want.

Lines 51-60

An Introduction begins its conclusion with the speaker acknowledging the constant presence of “I” around her. In the world, she’s a part of there are “I” men everywhere she looks. A person of this nature is able to go and “Drink… at twelve” and stay in “hotels of strange towns.” As the lines continue the division between the speaker and the “I” is blurred. Eventually, a reader comes to understand that she is trying to come to terms with her own independence and identity as both “saint” and “sinner.”

She is trapped between her own need for a free life and the world which tries to keep her contained. The final statement is one of protest and resistance. Das states that she has “Aches” which belong to no one but herself. She too can be “I.”

Model Question Answers

1. What could be implied meaning of the opening lines of the poem: “I don’t know politics but I know the names of those in power, …beginning with Nehru.”
Answer: The opening line of the poem ‘I don’t know politics but I know the names of those in power beginning with Nehru’ makes it obvious that she does not want to assume any political identity. She rather prefers a national identity. Mark the following line: “I am Indian, very brown in colour, born in Malabar, here the poet uses the words which are identity markers – ‘Indian’, ‘brown in colour’ and ‘born in Malabar’.

2. Talking about the English language the narrator says, “It is as useful to me as cawing is to crows or roaring to the lions…” What is the literary device used in this line?
Answer: The literary device used in this line is a simile.

3. What do the images of ‘rivers’ and ‘oceans’ imply?
Answer: These two images act as objective correlatives for the psychological states of men and women respectively. In sexual desires, men are in haste like rivers while women are patient like the ocean.

4. “In Kamala Das’ poems the poet is the poetry”. Comment maximum in 50 words.
Answer: Most of Kamala Das’s poems are autobiographical in tone. Since she shares much of her private experiences with readers by way of her poetry, she is also called a confessional poet. She drew the subjects of her poetry mostly from her our life, it is justified to say that in Kamala Das, the poet is the poetry.

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