Kamala Das: Creating a Voice by Seizing and Reinterpreting Religious Tradition

Shoshana M. Landow '91 (Anthropology 302, Princeton University, 1989)

Like Sara Suleri's autobiographical work, that of Kamala Das exemplifies recent texts in which South Asian women authors make the self-interested qualities so condemned in earlier fiction become liberating, positive, and creative forces. As they show themselves exploring their sense of identity -- for writing autobiographically becomes in part public performance -- they powerfully redefine their own lives. In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri interweaves the story of her life with that of her family and Pakistan's political history. Suleri's intellectual feminist attempts to define things and experience contrast to her mysterious mother's refusal to name food and her grandmother's supreme confidence in her own values and superstitions.

In My Story, Kamala Das, a poet famous for her honesty, tells of intensely personal experiences including her growth into womanhood, her unsuccessful quest for love in and outside marriage, and her living in matriarchal rural South India after inheriting her ancestral home. While at home, the rich families try to kill her with magic because they fear that her writing will reveal their immorality in. [In what sense does Das create a paradigm for the way repressive societies fear women's speaking, writing, and other self-defining forms of personal expression?] Like European women authors, Das seizes control of the society's own cultural codes, particularly those formed by dominant religious ideologies. She uses, for example, the terrifying religious image of Kali, the goddess of war and desctruction, in her defiant reaction:

I hung a picture of Kali on the wall of my balcony and adorned it daily with long strings of red flowers, resembling the intestines of a disembowelled human being. Anyone walking along the edge of my paddyfield a furlong away, could see th Goddess and the macabre splash or red. This gave the villagers a fright. [Kamala Das, My Story (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1988), 201]

Das often thus uses traditional religious imagery to sustain and dignify herself. She claims to search for an incarnation of the god Krishna in her love affairs and worships the god when the real men turn out to have flaws. Once, calmly facing death before a potentially fatal heart operation, she pictures herself as the goddess Durga and she titles one of her chapters "I Was Carlo's Sita," in which she tells about one of her affairs. Das reaches into her own religious tradition to find support for her defiant individuality.

[This contribution derives from work written for Professor Ranjini Obeysekere's Anthropology 302, South Asian Women Writers: Another Approach to Feminism, Princeton University, 1989]

[Postcolonial] India OV [Gender OV]