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Looking Glass as a Metaphor for Self­Realization in Kamala Das' Poetry

  • Calorx Teachers' University, Ahmedabad, Gujarat (India)
Looking Glass as a Metaphor for Self-Realization in
Kamala Das’ Poetry
Javed Khan
Professor of English, and Honorary Director, Centre for Training and Research in
language and Communication
Very few of Kamala Das’ readers might contest the view that the woman in her poems is a rebel,
a staunch feminist, rising in revolt against a phallocentric world order. Fewer still would make
bold to challenge the charge of obscenity preferred against her. Even so, a majority of her
readers would agree that the charge of nymphomania seems to hold but only on a ‘facile reading
of her poetry. The reason for this is that the female protagonist in her poems expresses her sheer
contempt at the boorishness of vain glorious men. A close reading of her poems, however, would
lead an alert reader to understand these as an attempt made to examine man-woman relationship
quite systematically, even if a bit ruthlessly. Her’s is a metaphoric quest for self-realization,
which often betrays a sense of desperation with the existing scheme of things around her. (End
page 256)
Metaphor, as a figure of speech, is an informal or implied simile. Myers and Simms (1989)
explain that it is “a rhetorical figurative expression of similarity and dissimilarity in which a
direct, non-literal substitution or identity is made between one thing or another”. A looking glass
reflects the image of a person stealing a look into it, or that of an object lying in front of or close
to it. The nature of the reflection is dependent upon the make-up of the looking glass as well as a
person admiring himself/herself in it, or an object it mirrors. A peep into the looking glass is
likely to take one on an ego trip, presenting him/her with all those attributes he/she might have
always craved for in life, or give him/her a rude jolt in exposing a persona minus the masks that
he/she may be prone to wearing. Symbolically speaking, the looking glass has often been
compared to man or mind in the Indian context in our various literatures including songs. The
image mirrored in the looking glass is the real estimation of what we are if we were to accept the
truths of life.
Myers and Simms (ibid) argue that one may apply (i) the genus/species classification of the
variety of metaphors offered by Aristotle as analogical or proportional metaphors; or (ii) the
Quintilian descriptive system, especially the first of the four classes: animate to inanimate as in
case of person or object to its reflection; or (iii) the fourth of the classes: inanimate to inanimate
as in case of the reflection to the self-realization it affords us. It is in a context of this kind that
Kamala Das’ poem “The Looking Glass” presents the readers with the image of Indian
womanhood and the feminist sensibility.
The woman in Kamala Das’ poems lays the blame for the collapse of the last link in man-woman
relationship, i.e., mutual desire for each other without any feeling of shame or remorse, squarely
at the doorstep of man. Her verbal tirades against man puzzle me though the woman in her
poems may feel justified in saying what she does as a representative of the womanhood,
particularly so in the light of the fact that man-woman relationship which was clearly based on
gender equality from the primeval times seems to her to have become unequal all of a sudden.
Despite the fact that there are (End page 257) references to this in many poems by Kamala Das,
I have tried to take a close look at “The Looking Glass”. This is one poem, published for the first
time in 1967 in one of her earlier collections The Descendants, seems to me to be a signature
poem with Kamala Das because her fondness for it has made her choose it, close to 29 years
thereafter, for inclusion in a collection of poetry titled Only the Soul Knows How to Sing
published in 1996.
An old-fashioned word, the looking glass is used to refer to a mirror, or a piece of special flat
glass that a person can look into and see himself/herself to decide what he/she looks/is like. In
this context, the use of the phrase” a mirror of” something means whatever it may be that
enables one to get a clear idea of what someone/something else looks like or is and, in the
process, affording us the knowledge of what we look like or are. The intentions become clear
from the title “The Looking Glass” with which the female protagonist signals to the readers her
intention of enlightening them with the real nature of man in a man-woman relationship.
A superficial reading of the poem reveals the pain experienced by the woman in the poem. She
begins by saying that it is easy for a woman to get a man to love her (make love), on condition
that she be honest about his wants of a woman. The woman in the poem offers an extensive list
of some free advice. She says that this is possible if and only if the following conditions are met:
Standing nude before the glass with him to satisfy his ego with the knowledge that he is the
stronger one of the two, much as she is softer, younger, lovelier than him, and begins to
believe so.
Admission that she adores him.
Taking note of the perfection of his limbs, his eyes reddening under the shower, the shy walk
across the bathroom floor, his stylish way of dropping towels to reveal his manhood, and the
jerky way in which he urinatedevery small, fond detail that makes him male and her only
man in this universe.
Gifting him everything that makes her a woman, including the scent of her long tresses, the
musk of sweat (End page 258) between the breasts, the warm shock of menstrual blood, and
all her endless female hungers.
There is a punch made explicit here with the expression “Oh yes.” She seems to tell us that it is
easy for a woman to get a man to love her. However, she needs to be prepared for the prospect of
living without him afterwards. She calls it a living without life apparently as she moves around,
meeting strangers, even as her forlorn eyes that had ceased searching for him, her ears that could
only hear his last voice calling out her name, and her body which had gleamed at one like
burnished brass under his touch, now drab and destitute, a pale shadow of the same.
One would not fail to notice that the rider is in the sense of “if and only if”, which makes it a
conditional sentence. Want is an extremely strong word, when used in English as a noun to mean
a lack or something that one needs, but does not have. The context seems to suggest that the
female protagonist in the poem is talking of needs when she uses the word wants. This seems to
raise serious questions like: Why should a woman alone be honest about her wants? Is it that
men do not have the same wants? Hasn’t man made similar things dissimilar?
The female protagonist’s outrage becomes clearer in the next few lines highlighting the
humiliation that a woman must put up with in order to satisfy the male ego. It is here that the
second meaning of the word ‘mirror(i.e., a mirror of something) comes into full play. One
would not miss noting the irony there, and this apparently explains the use of that typically
English expression, “Oh yes...” which contains within itself a strong emotion used to emphasize
what one may be thinking, and polite disagreement with all or some of what has been said
earlier. Thus, the protagonist seems to disagree emphatically with all that she had said earlier.
Hence the following statement: “... getting/A man to love is easy, but living/Without him
afterwards may have to be/Faced” (lines 16-19). Thus, a poem like “The Looking Glass”
apparently serves to warn women that they have to face the distinct possibility of having to live
without their men, who were their shadows as long as they had not given in to their overtures.
(End page 259)
The female protagonists’ first love for a woman is her only real love. Her eyes search for the
face of her first lover and her ears only hear his last purring voice calling out her name. She
becomes oblivious to the rest of the world. All faces remind her of the face she adores and all
voices sound a familiar ring in her ears. In short, forsaken by her lover, she is the dying image of
what was once hunger and admiration. Quite evidently, she is spiteful of the fact that this is the
painful reality of her existence, which man, proud and vainglorious that he is, cannot really
appreciate. She also gives us the impression that it is indeed unfortunate on the part of man to
treat his relationship with woman as one being merely limited to the duration of coitus,
forgetting in the process that it represents an emotional unity for a woman. Implied in her
complaints is the inequity of this relationship, which firmly repudiates the idea of unity and
equality inherent in the Indian motif of Radha-Krishna.
Love and love-making, as represented in this motif, is an act of continual surrender and fusion
into a single entity to form a wholesome unity. Thus, symbolic of unity and devotion, it is seen
as a part of līlā. One does not have to stretch one’s imagination to understand that Kamala Das
takes it as something forming the basis of what she chooses to call thapasya, a phonetic
corruption of tapasya in Hindi. Tapasya is a feminine form of the word tap, which is possibly
derived from tapas meaning austerity, self-mortification, or self-restraint. Tap means penance or
self-mortification undertaken with a view to attaining spiritual knowledge (jnāna) or salvation
(moksha). It would be useful to bear in mind that sex in the sense of love-making is not a taboo
in the Indian context, especially in view of the vital role it plays in creation. The worship of
shivling, like the worship of the phallic symbol as a part of the Dionysian ritual at the time of
harvesting season in the ancient Greek city-states, much celebrated in the Greek classics,
provides one with sufficient evidence of how sex is not a taboo in the Indian tradition. Shivling
is worshipped not only as a symbol of cosmogenic but also of progenitorial creation. Hence, the
charge of obscenity preferred against Kamala Das appears to me to be a part of the standard
male reaction, and let me (End page 260) make bold to draw attention to Das’ reference to a
standard male practice, where the shy walk across the bathroom floor, is used to buttress this
point further.
The flamboyant, carefree, and even the-devil-take-you manner, if you please, in which Kamala
Das gives expression to woman’s response to male chauvinism in her poems through a candid
discussion of the sense of frustration even in matters related to love-making is a healthy and
welcome development in modem literature in Indian languages. It is true that the poems have
been written in a typically confessional mode, but what can anyone have against that?
Interestingly, the word ‘confession’ not only means an acknowledgement of a fact, sin, guilt etc.,
but also a statement of one’s principles. Perhaps, that is what encourages Adil Jussawala (1973)
to opine that Kamala Das’ writing of love, sex and loneliness in the tone of an insistent
confession “may be meant to touch some of the deepest points in the reader’s subconscious” or
be a “part of an elaborate private therapy” used to make the poet feel better. If this indeed be so,
then, Kamala Das can be seen making an acknowledgement of fact and affirming her principles
in life. One feels the need to examine the role such confessions play in touching the deepest
points in the reader’s subconscious, and how these may be a part of a private therapy.
The woman in the poems discards all masks and presents before the readers a picture of the
suffering womanhood that has had enough and refuses to bear it any longer. She has been
deprived of love that she had yearned for all along, and demands implicitly that her craving for
equality in everything including love be accepted. Basically an Indian in terms of her
sensibilities, she is a modem-day Radha seeking to resurrect her Krishna by whatever means it
may be possible to do so. Her lament about the lack of devotion on the part of her man and the
rough and callous treatment meted out to her as the object of his lustful longings must be
understood in this context. What can she do other than rebel? She does so and quite effectively
It may be safe to assume that Kamala Das is a rebel much in the same way as the woman in her
poems who is out to (End page 281) expose the parasitic nature of man in his relationship with
his woman. The message she seeks to deliver through “The Looking Glass” is meant to shock
womanhood rudely enough to awaken it to face up with the harsh realities of life vis-à-vis its
relationship with men. There is another message too and that is one of warning to men to mend
their ways and learn to behave sensibly toward their women, or face the prospect of their
spumed women turning perforce to others for love.
The woman in Das’ poems believes, perhaps, on the strength of her experience that it is not in
man’s nature to love. She berates the fact that whereas love for a woman is an act of giving, or
surrender to the man in her life, her man takes it is his act of kindness towards her. Such an
attitude seems to be born out of a false sense of superiority that man harbours. For a woman,
love is a tapasya, and she seeks nothing except love and care. Thus, the woman in “A Losing
Battle” concludes that “Men are worthless, to trap them/Use the cheapest bait of all, but
never/Love” (lines 3-5; emphasis added). The readers get to learn subsequently that this cheapest
bait is after all the “the wrappings of hairless skins,” indeed a vulgar description of the female
sexual anatomy. The contempt rings clearly in these words uttered by a woman who was
slighted, or one who has lost all hope of her man ever being capable of love for her. Kindness,
she seems to tell us, is his wont in matters of love and lovemaking because, being a man, he
imagines himself to be superior to her. In other words, he refuses to accept the concept of gender
equality. She recoils from the thought in disgust and, hence, the use of the word worthless,
which makes it a classic case of pure lust.
A life without love, and love-making devoid of sincerity, sharing, caring, excitement, and
attachment, which is an integral part of the process, is reduced to a mechanical ritual that robs it
of all the feeling of satisfaction and the subsequent emotional equilibrium that it must invariably
restore. The restlessness and pain arising out of such an unrequited love is simply shattering.
While there is truth in the fact that men and women differ in terms of their physical make-up,
there is also another truth that their needs are the same. Biological (End page 262) difference
notwithstanding, the similarity of needs does not necessarily make one superior to the other, and
this is what she seems to aver.
The Christian philosophy explains that Eve, the first woman caused to be created, was so created
out of a rib from the left side of his body. This is also where the Indian philosophy related to the
Radha-Krishna legend shares similarities because the divine Krishna caused Radha to be created
by splitting his own body into two and Radha took shape out of the left side, giving rise to the
concept of ardhanārishwar.
The left portion of a human body contains the heart and thus a woman is ruled by her heart,
which is why she is so loving and caring in nature. The painful implication of all this, I feel, is
that man is left with all the cunning, scheming, selfishness etc., which is indeed an affront to
those among the male species who cherish love and care.
Kamala Das seems to hint at this trait in man as the cause of his failure to accept the equality of
the sexes. She states quite categorically in “An Introduction” that “he is every man/Who wants a
woman, just as I am every/Woman who seeks love” (lines 44-46). In wanting a woman, a man
only desires her body and not her love. Even so, the picture is different on the other side. In
seeking love, a woman desires her man toto – body and soul – something needed to requite love.
Want and seek are words that beg a closer evaluation. Whereas want is a strong verb involving
authority, power and a strong desire or need bordering on almost being an exclusive right, the
verb seek is a meeker option meaning a search or an effort to find or obtain, something in all
humility and submission.
Kamala Das uses the word thapasya for tapasya, which is but a corruption of the latter and
means self-mortification or self-restraint. This is the other name for love in her philosophy of
life. Self-mortification is seen as an act of hurting one’s own feelings, thereby causing shame,
anger, and loss of self-respect in some sort of a therapeutic effort to conquer one’s natural
desires or those of the body through self-punishment or refusal of all comforts of life, causing
their decay. Self-mortification is (End page 263) thus an attempt at the self-abnegation, and is
useful for those who seek moksha or salvation, i.e., freedom from the never-ending cycle of
births and deaths. An example of this is found in “The Conflagration” wherein the woman in the
poem questions the idea of happiness and fulfilment of a woman in sex act. The poet seems to
treat love as the source of salvation made possible through the comprehension of the ultimate
truth of our existence. Actions of men and women are a cheat if caring and sharing involving
both the partners as reflected in the concept of ardhanāreshwar is not restored.
A seeker is referred to in the Indian philosophy as a sadhaka and means someone who pursues
spiritual discipline to attain the highest degree of realisation. Love can only be sought and not
demanded. Philosophers and seers have used several epithets for love: caring for others, sharing
with others, sacrifice, and the feeling of oneness and equality that knows no subjugation. Far
from it. It is the sheer joy of the moment when all fuses into one into a cosmic unity
something that Osho Rajneesh calls sadhana in his book Sambhog se Sadhana Tak (which I
would roughly translate as From Coitus to Meditation). It becomes a source of pain when it is
substituted by lust. Love-making, without the feeling of oneness and equality or of love, is an
example of lust in action. Satiation of lust merely yields some sort of physical release but does
not lead to the restoration of emotional equilibrium, which the fulfilment of love does. Kamala
Das may not have stated so very explicitly, but she has implied it in several poems in lines like
the one in “Jaisurya” in which she says, “Love is not important, that makes the blood/Carouse,
nor the man who brands you with his/Lust” (lines 21-23). The woman in these poems
experiences the same sort of fear as does an animal trapped by carnivores. The resultant effect is
staggering and frightful. She reacts to the so-called sympathy and the mention of the physical
aspect of love much in the same way as a bull does to a red rag. A situation of this kind reeks of
slavery, thraldom: “It is a physical thing, he suddenly/End it, I cried, end it and let us be free”
(lines 35-36 of “Substitute”). She finds it difficult to accept the fact that her man should give her
a false feeling of being much (End page 264) loved in return for her love in coitus, and should
shatter her pleasurable illusion by turning away after that. This is to a complete rejection of the
divine union. The passion, it turns out to be, was merely amorous and, therefore, the withdrawal
is repulsive. One wonders if this has to do with the problem of ego in man who cannot accept
the truth of even his momentary surrender to his woman. However, the woman in the poems
takes this as man’s brutal indifference to her need for love. Turning to rebellion, she experiments
with promiscuity by surrendering in a fit of rage to young boys just stepping into adulthood.
She probably thought that she would get love from them but she meets with failure even with
this crowd that she chooses to dub sarcastically as a band of cynics. This was only to be
expected because, as she herself confesses, theirs was only a lustful longing for experience! The
onset of adolescence leads to a certain hypersexual activity among the youth, whether male or
female, for the sheer novelty of sexuality and experience, or an opportunity to prove their
manliness/womanliness to the rest of their gang. Therefore, it should not surprise us that once
their lusts were satiated, each one of the adolescent males parroted similar lines to what were
obviously her cry for love: “I do not love, I cannot love, it is not/In my nature to love, but I can
be kind to you” (“The Sunshine Cat”, lines 9-10). The use of the negation not with the
affirmative forms of auxiliaries, especially in do not and is not proves to be quite a revelation.
Taking, for example, the first utterance, ‘I do not love’, we find on a close examination that it
could imply (i) I do not love you, or (ii) I do not love you but I only being friendly (assuming
that do not has been used for emphasis), or (iii) I am simply doing what I am expected to do, or
(iv) Love means nothing to me. The last one of the meanings firs well with the following
utterance: It is not in my nature to love. The revelation becomes more pronounced in the use of
the contrasting subordinate clause, ‘but I can be kind to you.’
For the cynics, lovemaking was only an act of kindness – the idiomatic red rag! Juxtaposing this
with the contempt of mere physicality of the act, or what the woman in the poems (End page
265) contemptuously calls ‘that kind of love’ in “An Introduction”: “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”
(lines 25-20), we arrive at the meaning. What followed was supposed to be love as if “That was
the only kind of love,/This hacking at each other’s parts/Like convicts hacking” (“Convicts”,
lines 8-10). To hack at is a terrible phrase, which refers to the use of an axe for a rough cutting
movement or blow, making the action here quite heartless. People may hack at wood but those
who hack at the living things can only be called assassins, murderers. When proved guilty, they
are convicted as murderers under the laws of the land. The implication is that violent
lovemaking, devoid of love, leads to the death of that feeling because it is in no way a source of
The result, as we get to see it in “Convicts”, is that after hacking at each other, “We lay/On bed,
glassy-eyed, fatigued, just/The toys dead children leave behind” (lines 3-5). The spark of
recognition, of fulfilment, of joy, when absent from the eyes of the so-called love birds after the
event, makes them look like the lifeless toys left behind by dead children. The imagery in the
phrase dead children is intriguing. Children, who are alive and kicking, are not likely to let go of
their toys. Subsequently, the only natural reaction in “The Proud One” is that in spite of “loving
him,/I found no courage then even to be kind” (lines 9-10). This is understandable. Such are the
images one finds emerging from the looking glass, leading on to self-realization. One truth
remains though: Love is not a tapasya any more as expected to be, thus violating the very
concept of ardhanāreshwar!
The concept of ardhāndreshwar bears testimony to the fact that man and woman are the chips of
the same block, a fact recognized in the Indian philosophy. Just like Lord Krishna, on his own
admission, needs Radha for creation every Radha needs her Krishna. “The Looking Glass”
presents the greatest irony of life wherein a man does not accept this reality, and it does so in a
telling manner that characterises the poetry of Kamala Das. The woman in the poem accepts the
inevitability (End page 266) of getting a man to love her but bewails the prospect of having to
live her life without him afterwards a frightening prospect indeed! She laments the lack of
understanding on the part of her man.
Kamala Das’ poems deal with issues that are of common concern although the finer sensibility
they bring with them may not be a part of our regular experience. The charge of exhibitionism
hurled against her seems appealing but we need not allow ourselves to be carried away by it, for
one would readily grant that her poems open newer vistas of awareness for her reader. We need
to remind ourselves of the fact that all art conceals as much as it reveals and it is this inherent
dichotomy that perhaps leads us to appreciate it. The artist has to fight a running battle with
himself or herself to give adequate expression to ‘self’ in his or her artistic creation. It is a battle
between the two selves within the artist: (a) that of the artist who desires to say it all, and (b) that
of the private person in him or her who shies away from any revelation.
Overtly, Kamala Das stands exposed to the charge of being obscene but a foray into the inner
recesses of the artist’s mind through her poems is a revealing experience. Therein lies the saga of
anguish and agony of the entire womanhood, which may not necessarily be of their own making.
The facade easily shatters and the tautness of a carefree attitude gives way to a despair that “few
of her poems have, in fact, escaped,” notes Parthasarathy cautiously. The frank liberal-
mindedness undoubtedly looks unusual in the Indian context, and more so, because the private
person, the other self of the creative artist, seems to hold most of the traditions of the Indian
society close to her heart.
The resultant resentment makes the woman generalize about men. She implies that they are
beasts, lustful, licentious and heartless brutes! Love can never be replaced by lust because they
are two contradictory things. Lust is a word that means a strong sexual desire, especially when
uncontrolled or considered wrong. Love, on the other hand, is a strong feeling of fondness for
another person, especially between members of a family or between people belonging to
opposite sexes. To (End page 267) have a feeling of fondness is to be loving in a kind, gentle, or
tender way. Love loses its sheen when the moment of intimacy lacks kind, gentle, or even tender
handling of the loved one. Only strong and uncontrolled sexual desire is then left and this, in
turn, becomes the motive of action. Certainly, this is an abomination for those who consider love
as the greatest gift of God to humankind!
We neither know nor do we need to what impelled Kamala Das to write poetry of this kind. The
subject matter of her poetry may not necessarily be the outcome of her personal experiences.
After all, she is a highly respected citizen of this free country who has everything a woman
would want to have. Our concern should not be the personal life of the artist, as T. S. Eliot
rightly points out, while theorizing on ‘depersonalisation’ in art, but the focus of our inquiry
should be the product. We must rest content to concentrate on the product of the artistic
endeavour and the aesthetic value inherent in it. Never mind the sheer cynicism of the woman in
the poems who turns the world of human relations and experiences into a kindergarten out of a
deep sense of frustration. The irony is quite marked here. The girl child in the poem can be seen
deriding the conservatives who do not understand that the world has changed. Incidentally,
“Punishment in Kindergarten” shares a lot of similarities in terms of the experiential universe
with Stephen Spender’s poem “My Parents kept Me from Children Who were Rough”, although
the source of the trauma suffered by the protagonists in their childhood is different.
The subject of attack in that symbolism apparently seems to be on the lack of understanding and
inexperience that informs the behaviour of the kids in the age group of two to five years. Kamala
Das appears to suggest that the irresponsible and indifferent behaviour of adults is akin to the’
world of the kindergarten with all its disorderliness. The world we live in is full of categorizers,
the tradition-bound conservatives, who want and expect everyone to fall into the slots meant for
him or her. For example, they would like a girl to “Be wife .... Be embroiderer, be cook,/Be a
quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,/Belong” (“An Introduction”, lines 34-36). Their demand
(End page 268) that a girl needs to ‘fit in’, ‘belong’, and thus be a part of the system evolved by
the categorizers is not acceptable to the woman in the poem. The word ‘belong’ means to be
suitable or advantageous or to be in the right place. The right place for a female, according to the
conservatives, is the hearth and home because they feel that woman was created to be so. She is
required to keep her man happy, and to do that successfully, she must satisfy his two hungers:
one for food and the other for cohabitation. Clearly, this is abhorrent to the feminists of the
radical kind and their sympathisers who believe in the equality of the sexes.
Categorizers are the main cause of inequity of the system they perpetuate. The flirting teacher in
“Punishment in Kindergarten” wanted the girl-child to ‘join the other’ and, because she failed to
do that, says angrily, “Why don’t you join the others, what/A peculiar child you are!” (lines 6-7),
She seemed oblivious of the fact that the little girl wall trying to seek shelter in the arms of the
cruel teacher. The teacher was so busy romancing with her boy-friend, whom she hid brought
along with her on picnic, that she had no time for her. The phrase, ‘Join the others’ - i.e., doing
what is thought to be normal, usual – is the battle cry of the conservatives. One who fails to fall
in line, fit in, and join the others is dubbed as queer, not in the derogatory sense, but in the sense
of strange. However, one does not really know what they really mean after all. The use of
the word peculiar as an adjective relates the child to what is strange or unusual, especially in a
troubling or displeasing way. It would indeed be very unpleasant if people were to seek to
perform the roles not assigned to them and insist on taking on other roles. Hence, the aversion of
an average male to women taking on a militancy that is unusual in them and his reaction to their
demands for the restoration of equality. I believe this to be the reason for the gender conflict and
I am convinced that, like all revolutions, this struggle will herald the dawn of a new world order.
Needless to say, the process has already begun.
Indian philosophy holds that the soul or the atman mingles with the jīva to make the jivātman,
which binds the five (End page 269) elements called the panchmahabhoot: ether, fire, air, earth
and water. The body disintegrates, when the corpse is cremated, and the elements so released
merge into their respective sources. A fact of this kind also supports the idea of equality. Identity
of some kind is necessary for a being (jīva) and seems to be important in this world of mithya
and maya. When a person learns to identify himself or herself, he is either heterosexual or
homosexual/lesbian, and potent or impotent in his or her sexual orientation. A male who lacks
sexual drive is usually considered to be impotent because the natural instinct is dead in him for
whatever reasons. The woman in Kamala Das’ poem, “Composition”, asks herself whether she
was indeed a normal human being, i.e., a heterosexual. If she were not to be so, then she can
only be a lesbian (supposedly deviant in sexual behaviour) or else just plain frigid.
Kamala Das’ poems can easily be taken to be the product of an exercise of both ‘self-expression’
and ‘self-realization’. The spontaneity of expression may make them appear obscene
because she does not mince her words. The simultaneity of the attempts to ding to the tradition
and the yearning to help affect a change gives the poems a sharper edge. The ambivalence
reflected in them, although at the superficial level, makes them all the more attractive. The ‘I’ in
“An Introduction” represents all of us and the acceptance of this fact enables us to appreciate
better our desire for change despite the fear of deviation. The Indian psyche accepts sex as an
integral part of a categorical relationship that has social sanction. Any free public debate about it
is a taboo even now as we watch the early years of the 21st century unfold a new dawn. Of
course, we understand that this is sheer hypocrisy because sex is not only the means of creation
but also a source of spiritual fulfilment bordering divinity. The erotic art in the Ajanta and Ellora
caves provides evidence of how love was an art for our ancestors. The looking glass, which is a
symbol of introspection, allows us the opportunity of making an honest reassessment of what we
are because art mirrors life.
We expect intellectual honesty from an artist. True, the artist must work within the bounds of
decency to define and (End page 270) redefine reality as well as human sensibilities. Honest
expressions of truth are seldom obscene if they were to be seen entirely as fair. Or else, the cave
paintings, the sculpture on the pillars and domes in our heritage sites, caves etc., which are but
the symbols of our national legacy and pride, would also fall in the category of the obscene.
Open expressions of love, of what love stands for, and of how love is different from lust are
issues that make Kamala Das’ poems what they are.
Love, says the reflection in the looking glass, is tapasya and not a cheap example of the lustful
longings of the lovers in “The Freaks” whose minds “are willed to race towards love” but the
race degenerates into an idle “tripping... over puddles of desire” (lines 6-9). It is not surprising
that only “skin’s lazy hungers” are unleashed as a result of the so-called race. Another ugly truth
brought home by the reflection in the looking glass is the never-ending trauma of a woman
doing everything possible to keep her hold on her man. The animal in him threatens to stray
away the moment the eternal “other woman” flaunts “a gaudy lust” and is a “lioness to his
beast” (lines 2-3 from “A Losing Battle”). Juxtaposing this with the complaints of the
protagonist in “The Freaks” who has no other alternative but to master the art of flaunting “a
grand flamboyant lust” as a “face-saving” device, perhaps, to keep her man from straying (lines
19-20), we discover how the age-old institution called marriage tames a woman to “fit in” and
“belong” as per the dictates of the categorizers and their world, i.e., the metaphoric kindergarten!
It is this that creates the crises of identity of all kinds, even the sexual identity.
The poem “The Looking Glass” has been used both as a poem to buttress home the point that the
looking glass is Kamala Das’ metaphor for self-realization.
Kamala Das must be credited with the fact that she accepts sex to be as ordinary a need for a
woman as are food, shelter, security etc. The looking glass helps blow up several myths. Firstly,
the myth that a woman is only a passive recipient as the society takes her to be. She gives
expression to her disgust with the very thought that a woman needs to master the art of retaining
her man using all her coyish styles. Secondly, the myth that (End page 271) woman is the silent
sufferer of all humiliations because a man is also made to undergo these trials. She seems
justified in demanding fairplay and equality in status on the ground that the soul knows no
difference of sex, which is but only a biological fact. Lastly, the myth that the male is superior of
the two is exploded in the light of the fact that nature did not make man superior though he was
the first to be created because this could have been accidental. Woman is the creative principle
as she sustains the foetus, and all religions recognize this truth.
She observes that love is life-giving and invigorating, for it is thought to act as a restorative. The
looking glass confirms this to be so. The woman in Kamala Das’ poems remarks that sex is not
only the union of bodies but also of souls, and the looking glass helps us understand this truth in
“The Doubt” wherein the protagonist, recovering from a long illness, realises that it was her soul
which yearned for her man and not her emaciated body. This fact debunks the myth of deviant
sexual behaviour, for sex does not always become the focal point of human relations. Kamala
Das nods in agreement. She confronts us with the question of morality. The looking glass
reflects the frowning face of the protagonist who seems to chide us by affirming how, like
everything else in life, including truth, morality is also relative in nature, for each epoch in the
life of a nation must seek to redefine it in keeping with the changing needs of the changing
Kamala Das observes that relationships need to be put on an even keel in tune with the rights of
the individual in the drama of life. The looking glass presents us with the picture of ruined
relationships, the series of events contributing to this sorry state of affairs, and helps restore a
semblance of sanity by jolting us out of our slumber. Kamala Das confirms the view that the
institution of marriage had been created for subjugation of the fairer sex. The image in the
looking glass confirms this stand, positing it with the experiences taken from “The Sunshine
Cat” and “Composition.” Hence, the statement that the assignment of roles in marriage was
“arranged in (the) most humorous heaven,” though sarcastic, is indeed plausible. (End page 272)
Kamala Das confesses of women’s failure in bringing about a change in the male psyche. Here
the looking glass reflects a blurred image. Wait and watch is the name of the game after one
comes to terms with the facts of life as does Kamala Das. The looking glass seems to assure the
woman that changes are bound to come with the passage of time. She has by now attained self-
realization and prepares for the promise of change to be fulfilled.
Myers, Jack and Michael Simms (eds.), The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms (New York
and London: Longman, 1989).
Rao, B. Sridhar, Sex Problems and Their Management (Bombay: Jaico Publishers, 1977).
Walsh, William (ed.), Readings in Commonwealth Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1973). (End page 273)
[In Re-dening Feminisms, edited by Ranjana Harish and Bharathi Harishankar
(Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2008), pp.256-273. (ISBN: 81-316-0123-4)]
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