By Isha Raman
Kamala Das’ “An Introduction” tackles a lot of coming-of-age themes such as intimacy, sex and femininity. This article tries to find a connection between these themes and explores how they link together in the context of the poem and generally. Here there are 3 viewpoints that are being used to explore this link; the what, the why and the how.
Kamala Das – a notable author who has been the subject of heavy criticism for her fixation on promiscuity and sex in her works – explores her navigation through oppositions in her life from the familial sphere to the patriarchy in her poem An Introduction. Given the time when her work was published, the criticism came from a very biassed and judgemental perspective containing little evidence. However, Das, through her work, reveals that though sexual intimacy and sex have always been thought to be synonymous, they are, in fact, however, they are in fact mutually exclusive. One can have sex without sexual intimacy and vice versa. Kamala Das draws on the themes of sex, intimacy and femininity, well or lack thereof, in her poem, and on that front, this article will attempt to analyse the poem, exploring its many nuanced themes.
Although for many women emotional intimacy and physical intimacy do not often concur, even in casual sexual trysts, there is still a value placed on the emotional component causing dissociation from feminine identity. Emotional intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to mean love but “the capacity to commit oneself to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises” . This term can be loosely translated in this context to describe non-casual sex.
There are two different scenarios where the concept of dissociation from femininity is evident in the poem. Both share a similar correlation between uncommitted sex and alienation from femininity.
The first situation is the aftermath of Das’ marital bed, which she described thus, “I wore a shirt and my Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short, and ignored My womanliness.” This has been prefaced by evidence of her “asking for love” as she puts it, but was then “jilted” as her partner could not meet her emotional necessities. One sees that the response of society to her seeking love was by getting her married at sixteen and as a consequence, she seemed to shirk away from anything feminine.
The second time this correlation was expressed in the poem was in the last couple of lines when she talks about her casual sexual experiences. She explores how men have this resounding confidence and a strong sense of self through the lines “Who are you…. it is I”. She later compares the “I” of the man to the “I” of the woman in terms of the effect of casual sex and, finally, in the line “I too call myself I” she concludes with her interest to be the “I” that signifies male ego which one could perceive to be indicative of detachment from the feminine self. While this establishes that there is a correlation between emotional intimacy in sex and femininity, one needs to explore what links these elements together.
Shame is often a feeling that accompanies Das in her casual sexual experiences. It is observed to be the factor linking intimacy and alienation from the feminine self. Das encounters this sense of shame in two interpretations: her loveless marriage and her affairs. The latter is a product of societal judgement while the former seems to be because of her ideas and expectations of emotional intimacy as a woman.
In terms of shame through the lens of her affair, she recounts her experiences “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”. Just like how the essay Sex in Hotels equates hotels with sex and death, Das seems to have a similar idea of a hotel being a place of taboo one can see a tone of self-disgust as she describes herself in these “strange hotels” succumbing to seeing herself as what society calls a woman of ill-repute who engages in sexual activities often and casually.
However, it is not just Das who spends time at these “strange hotels”, her partners do as well. Yet the “sexual double standard” makes it such that “she laughs, she loves” just as they probably laugh and love but she feels an intense sense of shame while the men walk away freely. To Das, the only difference between them and I is that they are the version which she also aims to become; to push away the shame associated with being an independent woman in society.
In terms of the marriage perspective, Das describes herself as a woman who seeks love”. She is unable to find that emotional connection in her marriage which she describes as “pitiful”—a sense similar to that of shame. She laments the fact that she had “asked for love” but instead gotten sex. She struggles to come to terms with the fact that she has lost her virginity and feels ‘beaten’ even when she was not physically injured. Das seems to be using her femininity as a defence mechanism to disassociate from the feelings that plagued her and the lack of emotional intimacy in her sex life leads to a sense of shame and disgust, making her dissociate from what she believed to have been the reason, i.e., her femininity.
There have been several studies that a large percentage of men do claim to feel guilty afterwards. However, in Das’s perspective, incorrect as it may be, men were viewed to be very phallocentric. The essence of the male ego lies in not being vulnerable but in the picture of a strong stoic man. It is very likely Das would have idealized men to the image propagated by toxic masculinity especially since she sought it out following her alienation from femininity. She seemed to think becoming “I” would solve her grievances with herself, opting for ridding herself of femininity over accepting it as being a part of her.
True intimacy seems to lie in the concept of self, by putting it in the riskiest position, in front of another. Partners in a marriage would be expected to have some kind of intimate bonding on an emotional level. However, therein comes the concept of “Folie à deux”, mutual isolation in the guise of intimacy.
Though it is something Das does not want, especially since she calls herself “a woman who wants love”, one needs to explore the concept of intimacy— something that tends to be related to the physical. But true intimacy isn’t through mere desire but through vulnerability, where it no longer becomes about the partner but is about the self.
From a psychological perspective, intimacy is described as where both partners are self-awareness and self-disclosure. This furthers the argument that intimacy starts with the self. In associating femininity with the “self” one can note that femininity does not exist, it is but a mere social construct to pull a Judith Butler.
However, Das’s poem focuses on conservative Indian society where gender roles are one of the fundamental forces driving it. Das, especially as a teenager, was probably confined to these values strictly, making femininity a real concept through her eyes. This may also be supported by how Das seemed to write from the perspective of someone who was forced into the idea of conservative femininity, so much so that she rebelled against it vigorously. This is indicated through the line “ignoring my womanliness” where there seems to be an emphasis on the “my”, making it sound possessive. The term “ignoring” also shows disregard rather than feelings of animosity between Das and her femininity, which conveys disassociation and not a transformation birthed by a strong aversion.
In conclusion one can see Das in her autobiographical poem, “An Introduction” displaying a continuous pattern with the three key concepts this article explores; emotional intimacy, femininity and shame in sex, through her life and choices. We further use Das’s experiences to further ideas of intimacy and self to arrive at the conclusion that Das in her inability to find emotional intimacy slowly lets go of her “self” the part of it that she imagines causes her so much shame, her femininity.
About the Author
Isha Raman is a third year law student pursuing the BA LLB (Hons.) Program at Jindal Global Law School. Her interests include an unexplained fascination with Russian Literature and writing terrible poetry.
Image Source: https://theprint.in/theprint-profile/remembering-kamala-das-feminist-indian-writer-who-chose-a-stern-husband-in-islam/214761/