A Radical Feminist Reading of Kamala Das’ Poetry


Gowhar Ahmad Dar

Research Scholar, Department of English, APSU, Rewa (M.P)

*Corresponding Author E-mail: gowher345@gmail.com



“I am different; I am an entity” —uttered Kamala Das, one of the India’s renowned poetess who was known for her iconoclast views regarding the female issues and their sexuality. She openly waged a war on the hypocrisy of society and fought against it to establish a society where women are not deprived of their rights and discriminated on the basis of their sex and gender. She was fearless when it comes to women issues and vehemently opposed the dictum ‘angel in house’ or ‘men for the field and women for the hearth’ which were used to confine the women to four walls of the house. Her poems celebrate the female sexuality and uniqueness of female body. She doesn’t shy away from putting it into public through her writing which has fetched her, the title of being the ‘radical feminist’. The paper will show how audacious was Kamala Das in her protest against patriarchy and embracing of matrilineal culture with a romantic fervour, the exploration of female sexuality and sexual desires of women — and, in the words of K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, “aggressively individualistic,” is Kamala Das aka Madhavi Kutty, the icon of Indian feminism.


KEYWORDS: Iconoclast, Female Issues, Sexuality, Sex, Gender, Angel in House, Radical Feminist.




Kamala Das, the celebrated Indo-English poetess is a feminist to the core. She was born to literature and progressive thinking. She chafed against the rigid chores imposed upon her as a housewife - and began to write serious poetry to reconcile her life. She authored a number of poetry collections. It is understood from the reading of her poetry that she led an unhappy and dissatisfied life even from her childhood being a victim of patriarchal prejudices and discrimination. Her prominent collection of poetry are like Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), Collected Poems I (1984), The Best of Kamala Das (1991) and Only the Soul Knows How to Sing (1996). Das' life was ahead of her times.



She began writing about love, freedom, sexuality, people on the sidelines and the parallel lives of women at a time when society was rigid and resisted voices of change. She expressed her lust for love in words in her controversial autobiography, My Story: "He talks turning a sun-stained cheek to me/his mouth a lark/...Hand on my knee, while our minds are willed to race towards love...."."Her poetry was controversial and honest in the contemporary times...she was the first woman in a male-dominated society to write courageously. [HE] I knew her for 40 years," said Kohli, who had co-authored a book of poems with Das, "Closure", a few months before the death of the poetess in 2009.


Dr Kalikinkar Pattanayak says in his article “Kamala Das' An Introduction: A Feminist Reading, An Introduction is her masterpiece in the sense; here she celebrates the needs of woman: biological and psychological in a style that is disarmingly frank and candid” (1). ONV Kurup, a Malayalam poet of renown, holds that it is ‘an autobiography epitomised in a few words’ (1). Here he perceives the naked beauty of truth. The poetess is a feminist in the sense Rosaline Delmar views, “At the least a feminist is someone who holds that women suffer discrimination of their sex, that they have specific needs which remain negated and unsatisfied, and that the satisfaction of these needs would require a radical change in the social, economic and political order (8). Kamala Das could be called a radical feminist as she meets the criteria; and her poetry without any doubt possesses the qualities of radical feminist. The third wave feminism emerged around the 1990’s in the western world, seeing itself as building on and expanding previous waves of feminism in contemporary times. As Aapola et al says “unlike power feminism [the third wave feminism] is committed to a view of the personal ( sexuality, body image, relationships, the impact of cultural representation) as political...it seeks to represent young women as angry, in charge and taking action”(qtd in J. Zheng 23).


An Introduction displays universal alienation which is based on the sexual, social and artistic aspects. It depicts what, in the article titled ‘Feminist Ethos in Kamala Das’ Poetry’ by Dr. G. Charyulu says “She [Kamala Das]  was bitterly wounded by her patriarchal prejudice ever from her childhood days which lead to unhappy and dissatisfied life (2). It voices the longing and complaint of a woman who represents all women and she complains against Man who represents every man. She says:

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. (Lines 43-46)


The poetess speaks about the growth of her body from an immaturity to the maturity. She frankly writes about the process of maturity and manifestation of changes in woman’s body. The poetess tries to convey the mundane atrocities which the Indian women undergo. As per the poetess when a girl reaches its maturity she longs for love. Instead of receiving the love she is considered to be a burden and married to a man who is inexperienced in the art of love making and is in dark about the psyche of woman. Hence in Das’ first sexual encounter with her husband she gets irritated and feels that in matters of sex male dominates. This sense of subordination makes her a rebel. Like a typical radical feminist she vehemently launches a scathing at the institution of marriage which according to the radical feminist is nothing but a legalised rape. The sense of frustration towards the marriage is depicted as. She writes:

I was child, and later they

Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs

Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair, 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. 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. (Lines 23-31)


Unlike the liberal feminists who cared a lot about the social ethos and certain culture of their society. Kamala Das breaks the established dogmas and like a typical radical feminist shuns the ways which have been established by the society. The author goes for masculinisation of her famine body. She puts on her brother’s trousers, cuts her hair short and ignores womanliness. “Feminist literature highlights and condemns the inequalities and injustices in the treatment of women–the disadvantages women have to bear on account of their gender” (Kumar 9) poet echoes the same injustice and writes:


I wore shirt and my

Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored

My womanliness. (Lines 31-33)

The above passage reflects that ‘individuality’ that is one of the trade mark of third wave or radical feminists as Aapola et al writes. “this wave [third wave] is more individualistic, complex and “imperfect” than previous waves. It is not as strictly defined or all encompassing...especially about personal choices” (qtd in J.Zheng 23). She in a sense tries to give a message to male folk that she is not inferior to them. She forcefully rejects the male notion that women are inferior and weak. She gets instructions from the kith and kin:


Dress in Sarees, be girl

Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,

Be quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, Belong, cried the categorisers. Don’t sit

On walls or peep through our lace-draped windows.

Be Amy, or be Kamala. (Line 33-38)


She faces a lot of criticism for her anti established views. She is asked by people around her to dress as a woman, act as a woman and cook for the family members as she doesn’t deserve to be what she wants to be. She exhibits in a clear manner about Indian traditional society where women are instructed to put on sarees; as wives they are to play different roles; the roles of an embroiderer, a cook, a quarreller with servants and so on. She is forced to adjust to the surroundings. Even their gestures, postures and movements are controlled and directed by male members. The picture of the conservative society in which women are passive and submissive is brought out in the above lines. There are many don’t that Indian married women are to follow. The poetess writes:

Don’t play pretending games.

Don’t play at schizopherenia or be a

Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when

Jilted in love.... (Lines 40 - 43)


In the conservative societies like India where women have little choice in the matters of sexuality and expression of feminine are forced to remain quiet. To be quiet in Indian society earns a woman a title of being a virtuous and pious. She is hailed as a “Devi” if she chooses to be a silent sufferer but if she speaks against the injustice she is quickly labelled an ill-mannered, indisciplined. Women cannot express their sexuality freely and frankly. The author who is educated and progressive in her mentality narrates her own experience:

I met a man, love 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. (Lines 43 - 48)


She is married at an early age. She does not get love. Rather she has to face sexual humiliation. She is forced to accept her traditional feminine role. She feels that it is not with her only but with every woman. She speaks about love a woman wishes to receive from man.

Who are you; I ask each and every one,

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. (Lines 48 - 52)

‘Sword in its sheath’ refers to the passivity of male in matters of sex and love. Woman is no longer weaker sex because it is the stronger sex which has weakness for it. Das is against sexual inhibition and reservation. She writes:

It is I who drink lonely

Drink 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. (Lines 52-58)


Her poetry preached woman that they should openly speak and believe in.  Unlike traditional female writes who didn’t go public about their private life. Kamala Das thinks speaking about the private life liberates one’s body. The fear of being “other” comes out the mind. She drinks, makes love, laughs and also does not feel hesitant to feel repentant on some occasions. She can visit the strange towns and can make love to the strangers; what matters is her sexual appeal. She often feels loved, sometimes betrayed. Thus the poetess demolishes male chauvinism. In the concluding lines of the poem the speaker focuses on empathy - the caring and sharing that characterise the lives of the lovers:

I have no joys which are not yours, no

Aches which are not yours.

I too call myself I. (Lines 58-59)

In My Book she describes, her “father was an autocrat” (91) and her mother “vague and indifferent” (20). Her parents considered her “a burden and responsibility and she was given in marriage to a relative when she was only a school girl (82). Thus she was compelled to become a premature wife and mother. She complains about it in her poem “Of Calcutta”:

I was sent away, to protect a family’s

Honour, to save a few cowards, to defend


Abstraction, sent to another city to be

A relative’s wife. (Collected Poems I 56-60)


 Her husband’s willingness to let her have her sexual experiences with others was a further blow to her ego. It is this pressure of family background that created a tension in her poetry. The earlier woman poets of India had adjusted themselves to the situation having no feeling of revolt. But Kamala Das raised strongly her rebellious voice against the unjust patriarchal domination. In the same poem she presents the image of a doll to portray a woman’s miserable condition: “Yet another nodding/Doll for his parlour, a walkie-talkie one to/Warm his bed at night” (Collected Poems I 56-60).


“The Old Play House” also voices her protest against the male domination and the resultant humiliation. She attempts to liberate the genera fate of women while librating herself. She celebrates a free womanhood. The Playhouse is old. “It symbolises the lost happiness and declining dignity of a woman”


Cowering Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and

Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your

Questions I mumbled incoherent replies.

(The Old Playhouse 1)

The plight of a married woman, chained to her husband’s house is depicted in the opening lines of the poem “The Old Play House”:

You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her

In the long summer of your love so that she

would forget

Not the raw seasons alone, and the homes left

behind, but

Also her nature, the urge to fly, and the endless

Pathways of the Sky. (The Old Playhouse 1).



Thus Kamala Das is exclusively concerned with the personal experience of love. For her ideal love is the fulfilment of the levels of body and mind. It is the experience beyond sex through sex. The tragic failure to get love in terms of sexual-spiritual fulfilment from the husband leads her to search for it elsewhere. Each relationship only intensifies her disappointment faced with the sense of absolute frustration and loneliness. Kamala Das longed for protection of her identity which was crushed under the shackles of tradition and culture. As result, she conceives of the male as beast wallowing in lust with a monstrous ego under which the women loses her identity. Her poetry reflects this ideas very strongly including freedom to rebel. She enumerates the male felonies in her poems and builds up a structure of protest and rebellion in her poetry. Many of her poems convey the tedium and monotony of sex within and outside marriage. Their love is a disgusted lust, a poor substitute for real love. Her life is considered experiments with love and the repeated failures of her experiments force her ego to be resentful and defiant. She looks upon each encounter as a substitute for the real experience of true love. Her poems are replete with woman’s spirit of rebellion against male domination and ego.



1-     Das, Kamala. Summer in Calcutta, Everest Press, 1965. My Story, Sterling Publishers, 1988

2-     —. The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, Orient Longman Private Limited, 1973

3-     Delmar, ‘Rosalind. ‘What is Feminism?’ in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, eds. What is Feminism, Blackwell, 1986.

4-     J, Zheng. New Feminism in China: young Middle-Class Chinese Women in Shanghai, Springer, 2016

5-     Kumar, N. Prasantha. Writing the Female: A Study of Kamala Das. Kochi: Bharatiya Sahitya Pratishthan, 1998.





Received on 16.03.2023         Modified on 23.03.2023

Accepted on 06.04.2023      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2023;14(2):73-76.

DOI: 10.52711/2321-5828.2023.00015