‘An Introduction’ by Kamala Das was published in her first collection, Summary in Calcutta in 1965. The collection focuses on love and the pain that follows betrayal. This particular piece is one of her most well-known. It is confessional in nature in that Das is professing her own deep emotions in regards to the patriarchy controlling her life and the lives of countless suffering women. She played a critical role in the establishment of the Indian feminist movement
The poem does not contain a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines also vary greatly in length and syllable number. There are moments in which Das uses techniques such as enjambment, repetition and anaphora. Repetition and anaphora are seen at the beginning of a number of lines, such as four and five. In this instance the speaker is giving two conviction filled statements about who she is. Later on repetition is used to define her language as both “English” and “human”. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of An Introduction
‘An Introduction’ by Kamala Das describes the poet’s own mental and emotional state as she aged and pushed back against patriarchal society.
The poem begins with the speaker, Das, stating that she knows all the male leaders of India. Their names are a part of her, a tribute to their overwhelming power. This contrasts significantly with the lack of power she felt growing up and getting married at sixteen. She struggles with her identity and is finally able to step away from the traditional role of wife.
Das describes the way that men are able to move through the world with a solid identity. They are allowed their choices and emotions. In the last lines she pushes back against this way of life by stating that she feels things that do not belong to the man she loves. She too can be “I.”
Analysis of An Introduction
In the first section of this piece the speaker begins by comparing her knowledge of politicians to the days of the week and months of the year. Although she does not have a firm grasp on politics itself, those in power have remained in her mind. This shows their power to be much greater than their role should allow. The first of these she is able to recall is “Nehru,” who served as India’s first prime minister after the withdrawal of the British.
After these opening lines that set the scene, the speaker moves on to describe her own being. She is “Indian” and she is “very brown.” Lastly, she is from Malabar in southwest India. These are the basics of her life, but of course not everything. She adds that she is able to,
[…]speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
She continues to describe language and the role it plays in her life by saying that she is judged for writing in English. It is not her “mother-tongue.” Whenever she is criticized for how she speaks and writes she feels as if she is alone. There is no one, not her friends or cousins, who back her up. They are critics “Every one.”
She directs the next line at this group, asking them why they care what she speaks. She feels a deep connection to the words she uses and how, through “distortions,” her language can only be defined as her own.
In the next thirteen lines the speaker goes on to describe herself as “half English, half Indian.” She sees a humour in this combination and acknowledges that fact as it is “honest.” This seems to be one of the most important parts of her, a desire for authenticity and honesty. Her identity, as seen through her voice, is “human” just as she is human. It should be held under that single defining category and no other.
Das describes the control she has over her voice, whether through speech or text. It can display all of her emotions and her,
[…] mind that sees and hears and
Human speech is to humans as roaring is to lions. It is intelligible, unlike the roaring of a storm or the “mutterings of the blazing fire.” The speaker defines her freedom through the use of her voice. In the next lines she explains to the reader that there are other circumstances in her life that infringe on that freedom. They are out of her control.
She introduces this section by stating that she only felt older as she grew because she was told of her own physical changes.
Her unhappiness is defined in the next section of lines and is directly related to a need for freedom. When she was young she “asked for love,” because she didn’t know what else to want. This ended with her marriage at sixteen and the closing of a bedroom door. Although her husband did not beat her, her,
[…] sad woman-body felt so beaten.
This line is interesting as she is placing her own body in one of the categories she rebelled against in the first stanza. It is due to this simplification of a woman as nothing more than a body that led her to marriage at sixteen. She also places blame on her own body for leading her to this place. Her distinctly female parts, “breasts and womb” are a crushing weight on her life. The pressure placed on her by her husband and by her family led to an emotional and mental shrinking. It was a “Pitiful”process. But it ended.
She goes on to state that a change came over her. She decided to put on her “Brother’s trousers” and cut off her hair. The speaker is ridding herself of the female image that has harmed her. Now that she is remaking her identity she is able to say no to the traditions of womanhood. These include fitting in and dressing in “saris.” The “categorizers” might tell her not to,
[…] peep in through our lace-draped windows
But she is not going to listen. She chose to move her life beyond the traditional and therefore expand her presence in the world.
In the first two lines of the next section it becomes clear that the speaker is truly meant to be the poet herself. She wonders at her own identity and marvels over the fact that she can now be,
Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty.
It is by this final name that the poet, Kamala Das, came to be known and is still called. Das added another few reminders on behalf of the “categorizers.” She shouldn’t “play pretending games” or “cry embarrassingly loud.” Her role as woman is supposed to be meek, quiet, and contained.
She goes on to describe a time in which she met and loved a man. This person is referred to as “man,” he is not named. This strips him of some of the agency he is so in control of in the next lines. Additionally, the name is of little importance as he is meant to represent every man in the world who uses women as he pleases.
At one point, at the height of her emotions, she asks the “man” who he is. He replies “it is I.” The “I” represents the agency he has in the world. Men make their own decisions and have the ability to use the pronoun in order to get what they want.
The poem begins its conclusion with the speaker acknowledging the constant presence of “I” around her. In the world she’s a part of there are “I” men everywhere she looks. A person of this nature is able to go and “Drink… at twelve” and stay in “hotels of strange towns.” As the lines continue the division between the speaker and the “I” is blurred. Eventually a reader comes to understand that she is trying to come to terms with her own independence and identity as both “saint” and “sinner.”
She is trapped between her own need for a free life and the world which tries to keep her contained. The final statement is one of protest and resistance. Das states that she has “Aches” which belong to no one but herself. She too can be “I.”