Kamala Das

The Descendants by Kamala Das

The poem, ‘The Descendants’, by Kamala Das is coloured with nihilism and shows that decadence is irrevocable and there is no possibility of any redemption. It ends on a note of pessimism: “We are not going to be ever redeemed, or made new”. Kamala Das had spent her youth in gentle sinning which was quite harmless.

No attempt was made to hurt or harm any partner in the sexual act. Being purely sensual, it has no emotional, side-effects. It is the degeneration of true love which gives due place to emotional and spiritual satisfaction. For the poet, lust is ‘insubstantial’ but love is ‘substantial’. A loveless relationship can never spoil the lovers’ cold loveliness which is devoid of any emotional intensity.

The Descendants by Kamala Das


Title of the Poem, ‘The Descendant

The title of the poem is very apt and suggestive. It shows the gradual degeneration of life in the absence of true love. It points to the futility of life and man’s inability to redeem it in any way. It shows that there is no scope for any ‘ascendance’ or redemption in it. It can never end in true union. It is the female persona’s helplessness and frustration that lead to its decadence. The tone of the poem is highly pessimistic which shows that there is no alternative to true love but death.


Detailed Analysis

We have spent our youth in gentle sinning


Even slightly mar our cold loveliness.

In this opening stanza of ‘The Descendants’, we find Kamala Das (who is the speaker in the poem) admitting to the emotional defeat, frustration, and sense of nothingness in the love-relationship in her life. She says that she has finally realized that her search for true love is not going to be materialized in life.

Here, the poet brings to our knowledge that the speaker and her partner in love have spent their youth in harmless sinning (that is; no fear from the outer world, and no disturbance from any side), by indulging in useless acts of love, or so to say sexual activities. They often thought they were hurt, but they never suffered from any permanent pain. No bruise could even slightly spoil or leave behind any scar on their passionless love.

The speaker has belatedly realized the futility of a lustful relationship in life. It is a hollow relationship, devoid of emotional or spiritual excitement or thrills. It can never end in the realization of true or genuine love. By ‘insubstantial’ love, the poet means the thin love or the love in name only. So the speaker believes that they spent the glorious moments of their lives in futile and useless love.

We have lain in every weather, nailed, no, not


Half-dream, half-real trance.

The poet, through this abstract, says that the speaker and her lover have lain in every weather (that is; they enjoyed every weather of the year); they though not nailed to crosses, but to soft beds and against softer forms (that is; their pleasure of love was not made beside the crosses, but on the soft bed and softer forms. By ‘lurching’ the poet means leaving, and by ‘trance’ she means mood of contemplation.

We were the yielders,


Question death, but as child to mother’s arms

Here the speaker says during our (the speaker and her lover) youth we were the yielders and used to yield ourselves to everything. The poet says like a ‘child’ to ‘mother’s arms’ but death is not preferable to life. It is ‘draught’, ‘hot’, sauna, and ‘the last sob of the relative while life is ‘moisture, water, semen, and blood.’ By the use of the word, ‘remove’ the poet means to remove, that is to scrape (remove) the walls of wombs for memories.

We shall give ourselves to the fire or to



In the above extract of ‘The Descendants’, the poet wants to say that the sense of disappointment and deprivation marks the central theme of ‘Freaks’, which is the barren, and the unredeemable, life of the eunuchs, The poem brings out the poet’s despair at her helpless unredeemable situation:

None will step off his cross


Ever redeemed, or made new.

In this concluding section of the poem, the speaker’s pessimism reaches its climax and she impatiently waits for death. She comes to the realization that lust is all ‘insubstantial’ but true love will always evade her. The speaker has lost the very hope of the realization of true love. She and her partner in love will either be consumed by fire or buried under the hungry earth. None can defy the call of death.

Even God cannot help them in any way. No lost love can claim them and they are not going to be redeemed or made new. The speaker reaches the dead end of her life. She has realized the futility of her existence and has abandoned even the slightest chance of survival. She cannot live in the absence of true love which is very vital for the spiritual transformation of life. When the poet says ‘redeemed’ she means to recover, that is; neither has she had any hope of recovering her relationship with her lover, nor she expects to be made new.

The poem, ‘The Descendants’, shows that loveless life finally leads to decadence, destruction and death. An exclusive life of lust is the devaluation of true love and has no space for emotional satisfaction. For Kamala Das, lust is ‘insubstantial, as discussed above, but love is ‘substantial’ and eternal. The tone of the poem is highly pessimistic which shows that there is no alternative to true love but death.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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