An Outcry against gender discrepancy in the selected poems of Kamala Das and Taslima Nasrin

- Animesh Das

Gender Discrepancy voices the biased outlook that women and men can never be treated in equal terms. This unequal treatment due to their gender has its genesis in socially constructed different gender roles. Poetry, as a salient genre of literature, faithfully depicts various social, economical and psychological aspects of contemporary society and its culture. Kamala Das is an Indo-Anglican poetess known for her candid and bold assertion against pre-set patriarchal norms. Her poetry is a portrait of the pain, despair and disgust that every women encounter in her life when she has to play the role of an ideal daughter, an ideal wife and an ideal mother. Taslima Nasrin is a well-known controversial writer from Bangladesh. Her profession as a gynecologist gave her an opportunity to come into contact with young girls who had been brutally raped and the callous attitude of the parents towards their newborn girl child. It creates a curiosity in her to peep into the dark realms of the human psyche constructed through ages by patriarchal ideas. Thus her poetry is a counter-attack to the hegemonic patriarchal set up where women have no identity of their own. Through a comparative study of their poems, this paper attempts to give a thumbnail view of the pathetic condition of women in both the countries.

Keywords: Woman writing, Identity crisis, Literature, Gender roles, Patriarchal hegemony.

Kamala Das, the famous Malabari Malayalam poetess from Kerala, is known for her voice of protest against the patriarchal setup. Her poetry is marked by the honest exploration of self and female sexuality. Her best known poetical works are “Summer in Calcutta” (1965), “The Descendant” (1967), “The Old Playhouse and other poems” (1973), “Collected Poems Vol.1”, (1984), “Only the Soul knows How to Sing: Selection from Kamala Das” (1996), and “Encountering Kamala” (2007). Her poetry articulates the very feelings of women who find themselves trapped inside the four walls of their house, who wants to get out from their age-old status of ‘Angel of the House’. Those women who always feel the pressure of being inferior to men. Her poetry is a fine portrait of the pain, despair and disgust that every woman experience under their predefined traditional roles. K.Satchidanandan says about her poetry, ‘Here was a voice that was feminine to the core, often confessional in vein, that spoke uninhibitedly about woman's desire and her unending search for true love. She had little respect for tradition and yet many traditions went into the making of her poetry: the rebellious spirituality of the women Bhakti poets, the sonorous sensuousness of the Tamil Sangam poets, the empathy with the down-trodden and the hatred of violence central to the great poetry of her mother, Balamani Amma, the melancholy tempered by a larger vision of life characteristic of the poetry of her uncle Nalappatt Narayana Menon (who was also the translator, of Victor Hugo; of Havelock Ellis)’(Satchidanandan 53).It is because of her poetic genius that she has been nominated and shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984.
As Kamala Das is known for her candid and bold assertion against the traditional role of woman in the Indian society, Taslima Nasrin is a controversial poetess who is known for her writings which are extremely critical of Islamic ideas and voices the emancipation of woman in the Bangladeshi Islamic Patriarchal society. Although many critics dismiss her writings as anti-Islamic propaganda, her works has been hugely acclaimed in the west where she has received various awards for her protest for the rights of women through her works. This includes Human Rights Award from the Government of France (1994), Edict of Nantes Prize from France (1994), Kurt Tucholsky Prize, Swedish PEN, Sweden (1994) and Feminist of the Year from Feminist Majority foundation, U.S.A (1994) to name a few.

The chief characteristic of Nasrin’s poetry is that she is radically different in her views from other Islamic feminists. For instance, one of the most celebrated Islamic feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, who tried to keep a balanced approached between religion and woman education and re-examined Islamic teachings in the light of locally prevalent gender discrimination, Nasrin believes that it is the religion itself and its interpreters who are responsible for the gender discrepancy prevail in the society. This very mentality stems from her own harsh experiences in her childhood when her own relatives had harassed her sexually. Later, as a gynecologist at a family planning clinic in Mymensingh, she came into contact with young girls who had been raped and witnessed the callous attitude of people towards new born girl children. She observed very closely how women were treated as subordinate and how they were struggling for their right of freedom, education and equality. Thus her poetry is a counter-attack to the hegemonic patriarchal set up where women have no identity of their own. In her collection of English poems “All about Women” (2005), she vividly portrays the condition of women in a male-dominated society. About the subject matter of her poetry C. Deshmukh observes: “The condition of women in society governed by a fundamentalist attitude forms the subject matter of her poems in the collection All About Women” (D 40). She criticizes the typical mentality of the society in her poem Character:

You are a girl, and you’d better not forget
That when you cross the threshold of your house
Men will look askance at you.
When you keep on walking down the lane
Men will follow you and whistle.
When you cross the lane and step onto the main road
Men will revile you, call you a loose woman.
If you’ve no character
You’ll turn back,
And if you have
You’ll keep on going
As you are going now. (11)

The same voice of protest can be heard in “An Introduction” by Kamala Das. In this poem, Kamala asks for her distinct identity as an individual. Her voice of protest against the traditional restrictions on women can be heard in this poem where she asserts;
Be embroiderer, be cook
Be a quarreler with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. (The Best of Kamala Das 12-13)              

Both of them project the male desire of victimizing the women in their poetry. They preach that women are not merely an object of exploitation, but as human as men with their own emotions and aspirations. In her poem ‘The Female’, Nasrin writes:
Men look for fresh virgins
So they can maul and tear them
Some on the plea of love
Some of marriage. (9)
Actually, poetry for them is the absolute medium of the purgation of their own emotions and aspirations. The frustration they suffer due to their unhappy marriage life find expression through their poetry. They experienced that love in their life, is a mechanical way of bodily union. In her autobiography Meyebela, My Bengali Girlhood (1998) Nasrin describes how she had been sexually harassed by her own relative who tried to enjoy her body in the name of the games. Later, her dissatisfaction in her nuptial life with Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah (1982-86), Nayeemul Islam Khan (1990-91), and Minar Mahmood (1991-92) results in her callous attitude towards the social institutions like marriage and family. In her poem Acquaintance, she utters;
 He whom I so long thought
 I knew-
 He whom I know is nothing like that,
 In fact, he’s the one I most don’t know.
… As much as I thought him to be a man,             
That much he is not:
Half beast he is,
Half a man. (3)

Kamala Das was also a victim of male domination. The Nalpat House witnessed the oppression of women by the male members of the house for years together. Her father V.M Nair, whom she describes as ‘An Autocrat’ used to torture her mother and verbally abuse Kamala as ‘a burden and responsibility’. Her misery takes another form when her parents forced her to marry on of their relative a bank employee K.Madhav Das, when she was only 16 and he was 35. He was introduced to Kamala as a gentleman, lover of literature and a poet, but soon the mirage breaks when she realized for her husband she is nothing but an object of sexual gratification. In addition, he was a homosexual person. The marriage lasted for 43 years until Madav Das’s death. She expressed her agony of a premature wife and mother in her poem Of Calcutta:

I was sent away to protect a family’s
Honor, to save a few cowards, to defend some
Abstraction, send to another city to be
A relative’s wife. (Collected Poems I 56-60)

Throughout her life she seeks for love, a shoulder to scream, a sensible person to press out the deep-rooted agony of her heart but unfortunately she found nobody who really understands her. Her confessional poems are written in search of the true essence of a woman. This is why she could boldly proclaim:

As the convict studies
His prison’s geography
I study the trappings
Of your body, dear love
For I must someday find
An escape from its snare. (29)

According to Dr. Tasneem Anjum: “The word ‘trappings’ is doubly significant. On the one hand, it suggests the trappings of lust from which she must free herself to know true love. On the other hand, it suggest the soul’s cry against its mortal dress” (124). The scenario is not at all different in Bangladesh. In Bangladeshi Muslim society the condition of women is even worse. One reason behind this is obviously the conservative ideas in Islam. In Taslima Nasrin’s poem Another life, we witness her protest against the traditional roles of woman in the patriarchal society;

Woman spends the afternoon squatting on the porch
Picking lice from each other’s hair.
They spend the evenings feeding the little ones,
Lulling them to sleep in the glow of the bottle lamp.
The rest of the night
They offer their backs to be slapped and kicked by the man of the house
Or sprawl half-naked on the hard wooden cot. (19)

Her analogy between the status of a wife and the status of an animal is symbolic, and it narrates explicitly the discrimination against women and their subordination in the family structure as well as in the society. The same outcry can be heard in Kamala Das’ Old Playhouse:

You called me wife
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and
To offer at the right movement the vitamins. Cowering
Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and
Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reasons, to all your
Questions I mumbled incoherent replies. (1)

The exploitation of women is not limited among a particular group rather it prevailed among all the classes of the society. Whether it is a woman of the lower class of the society or the upper class of the society, everywhere they are being tortured by their male counterpart. She utters:

The fellow goes home and beats his wife
Over a handkerchief
Or a shirt collar…
The employee is no better,
Returning home he beats his wife
Over a bar of soap or the baby’s pneumonia.  (At the Back of Progress 40)
In Kamala Das’ autobiography, My Story, she says: “I settled down to housekeeping and sewed the button on and darned our old garments, all through the hot afternoons. In the evening, I bought for my husband his tea and plate of snags. I kept myself busy with dreary housework while my spirit protested and cried get out of this trap, escape…” (81). The first publication of her autobiography was in Malayalam under the title ‘Ente Katha’ in 1973. As she was from a famous, respectable family, her work became a sensation overnight and created a lot of controversy. Later she translated it in English under the title ‘My Story’ with epigraphs. One may, on  a superficial level, call ‘Das’ a feminist, but a deeper understanding of her poems will reveal the fact that unlike other feminist poems she was not at all associated with a particular area of feminism. Her feminism is a feminism of common Indian women whose only fault is that they desires for a respectful life. As K. Satchidanandan says, “Kamala Das denounced the extreme forms of feminism as she could not imagine a world without men or think that replacing male hegemony with female hegemony would create an egalitarian world; she never wanted to master anyone including herself. She is deeply aware of her difference as woman but would see it as natural rather than glorify it” (54).
Millions of voices can be heard through that one voice of Kamala Das, who represents them and their universal desire of tear down the mask of sophistry. Das utters: “Then I wore a shirt and my/Brother's trousers, Cut my hair short and ignored/ My womanliness” (The Best of Kamala Das 12-13). K. Satchidanandan says regarding this; “The woman cannot change her body; so the poet changes her dress and tries to imitate men. But the voices of the tradition would force her back into sarees, the saree becoming here a sign of convention. She is pushed back into her expected gender roles: wife, cook, and embroiderer, quarreler with servants: the gender role also becomes a class role” (12).

                        While discussing about Nasrin’s idea of religion, C Deshmukh observes: “In her view Islam oppresses women. What probably alienated her within society more than anything else was the link she made between the wretched conditions women were forced to endure and religion. She has vented astonishment that ‘seventh-century law’ should rule any Muslim societies today” (39). She believes that the malpractices in religion are the root causes of gender biasness.This very notion is articulated by her in We Women, where she says:

Nature says women are human beings
Men have made religion to deny it.
Nature says women are human beings
Society has cooked a snook at it.
Nature says women are human beings
Men cry out No. (39)

Thus we find a vein of rebellion in some poems of Nasrin. In her poem Masturbation, she writes;

A woman can’t live without a man?
Ha, what logic, the logic of a ghost! Bah bah!
Throw the ball,
Don’t let orchids embrace you at all
Don’t go to poisonous ant bushes.
Push yourself into sensuousness.
You have the bow, you have the arrow,
Do it girl, masturbate. (21)

Thus, Nasrin encourages her fellow women to break the chains of custom and religion and be free from all the dogmatism of the society. K.Satchidanandan writes about Das: “The direct kinship with her reader that she establishes here, the identification of female physicality with female textuality, similes drawn from nature, the opposition to feudal norms and man-made hierarchies, the quest for intimacy and an almost clinical exploration of the landscape of the self and the interrogation of the family as an oppressive institution became the hallmarks of her writing in the years to come” (54). Though a few critics consider her writings as ‘anti-Islam’, but if we judge her writings only from this point of view, it would be an incomplete and biased interpretation of her literary works. In her poem Mosque, Temple, she utters her wish of a glorious future and lays bare her intentions:

For the welfare of humanity, now let prayer halls,
Be turned into hospitals, orphanages, universities,
Now let prayer halls become academies of art, fine art centers,
Scientific research institutes.
Now let prayer halls be turned to golden rice fields
In the radiant dawn,
Open fields, rivers, restless seas.
From now on, let religion’s other name be humanity. (22)

                        Her desire for the liberation and emancipation of women is not limited to a particular religion or country rather it has attained universality as every woman in the world can relate herself with the poetess and feel her anguish and pain. The same touch of universality can be found in the poems of Kamala Das when she utters in An Introduction:

Call him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants. A woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. ( The Best of Kamala Das 12-13)

Finally to conclude, it can be sais that despite many negative criticisms, Kamala Das and Taslima Nasrin have done justice to their roles as an artist and portray the real picture of their respective societies without the employment of any false glorification. They faithfully depict the gender discrepancy prevailed in both the societies of India and Bangladesh through their confessional works. Unlike earlier women poets like Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu in India and Begam Rokeya in Bangladesh, Kamala Das and Taslima Nasrin broke free from the romantic traditions of poetry and created a more realistic poetry that represents the feelings and desires of every woman in the world who had been subject to political and social injustice.

Works Cited

Anjum, Tasneem. “Kamala Das’ Existential Predicament.” Indian Poetry in English: Roots and Blossoms, Vol-1. Eds. Amar nath Prasad and S.K. Paul. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2007. 119-138. Print.

Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Literature. Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 2009. Print.

Das, Kamala. My Story. Noida, UP: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

---. The Best of Kamala Das. Ed. P.P Raveendran. Calicut: Bodhi Publishing House, 1991. Print.

---. Collected Poems, Vol. 1. Trivandrum: Navakerala Printers, 1984.Print.

---. The Old Playhouse and Other Poems. Mumbai: Orient Longman Private Limited, 2004. Print.

Deshmukh, Nanda C. “Taslima Nasrin’s poetry- Images of Enslavement and Liberation.” International Journal of English & Literature 5.2 (2015) :37-44. Print.

Nasrin, Taslima. Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood. U.S.A: Steerforth, 1998. Print.

---. All About Women. New Delhi, Rupa & Co. 2005. Print.

Satchidanandan, K. “Transcending the Body.” Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. By Kamala Das. Kottayam: DC Books, 1996. Print.

---. “Redefining the Genre: Kamala Das (1934-2009).” Indian Literature, 53 (May/June 2009): 49-55. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Taslima Nasrin.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 May. 2017. Web. 25 May. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. “Kamala Surayya.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 May. 2017. Web. 25 May. 2017.

Animesh Das is currently doing his master’s in English Literature from Guru Ghasidas Central University, Chhattisgarh. Some of his poems have already been published in many international journals such as The Galaxy Journal. His area of interest is gender studies.

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