Signification of Intimacy in Kamala Das’ Writings

Abstract: This article attempts to examine signification of intimacy in Kamala Das’ (Madhavikkutty alias Kamala Surayya) writings and analyses how relations incorporate themselves in her works. Patterns of intimacy in its various manifestations become the mechanics of Das’ output penetrating her message deep into the minds of the readers. Her voice has been like lighting a bulb with electric power. It acquires various colours and shapes like affection, love, Bhakthi, Rati and affinity. She has not been successful in finding real love in man woman relationship and says that it is evident only in spirituality. Love sometimes takes the form of Bhakthi and it can manifest as prayer but cannot be compared with love of god. There are no characters in her works who do not speak about love. Thus love becomes the grammar of emotion and intimacy the letters and words. It sets the tone of the language.

Keywords: freedom, spirituality, physical intimacy, aggressive unfriendliness, pattern of intimacy, Kamala Das, grammar of emotions, lived experience, object relations theory

This article attempts to examine signification of intimacy in Kamala Das’(Madhavikkutty alias Kamala Surayya) writings and analyses how relations incorporate themselves in her works. Patterns of intimacy in its various manifestations become the mechanics of Das’ output penetrating her message deep into the minds of the readers. Her works are vehicles of the values she intends to transfer to the world. Her voice has been like lighting a bulb with electric power. It acquires various colours and shapes like affection, love, Bhakthi, Rati and affinity. She has not been successful

in finding real love in man-woman relationship and says that it is evident only in spirituality. Love sometimes takes the form of Bhakthi and it can manifest as prayer but cannot be compared with love of god.

Patterns of Intimacy are ‘signifiers’ and love is ‘signified’ in the works of Kamala Das. Love is encoded in intimacy and intimacy decodes love. The textual analysis of meanings is articulated through various patterns of relations in her works. At the level of lived experiences the central problems become the examination of how individual characters connect their lives. Hirsch observes, “According to Freud’s Instinct Theory men want only sex and Melanie Klein’s Object Relations Theory stipulates women want only love”(Hirsh 9) In the first, the relationship with the other person is a means to get sex and in the second, sex for woman is a means to get love. Hirsch endorses:

In fact, if one splits sex and love like this, it could be argued that what one gets is neither sex nor love. Sex without recognition of, and concern for, the other person cannot be an intimacy between two People. Likewise, the love in the caricature above of Object Relations Theory seems more like a wish for security or flattery than a desire to be with the other Person. (9)

Kamala Das presents Rati not through the description of physical acts but through dialogues. There are no characters in her works who do not speak about love. Thus love becomes the grammar of emotion and intimacy the letters and words. It sets the tone of the language. To some of her characters intimacy is to ponder over and to wonder at. Her ponderings problematises intimacy beyond an ordinary level through dialogues and conversations. Kamala Das examines the point at which intimacy turns to love. She analyses the stage at which intimacy transforms into physical action. She also verifies how love and intimacy shrinks to detachment and hatred. At certain stages Kamala Das lifts intimacy to a subtle height and renders it an enigmatic character. For Kamala Das intimacy is a via media through which she can negotiate love with everyone. Kamala Das’ works embrace agonies of women emerging from that state of subjugation and bondage, and seeks to establish their identity and the self. She begins new medium and newer modes of address, constituting a total rejection of the conventional modes of poetic expression of the dominant culture. This sends shock waves among the conventional circle. Intimacy in her stories surfaces without any prejudice to person, age, place and time. Intimacy takes place between two men and one woman, between one man, two women, old man and young woman, young man and old woman, mother and daughter on one end a single man on the other etc. Sometimes for these characters intimacy is madness, oblivion and disease.

The most intimate relationship, which human beings think of, is the relationship between man and woman. Kamala Das could realise it better than anyone else. The mutual give and take relationship is what she longs for. But she sadly realises that women are looked upon as an instrument of joy. Women are expected to be a pleasure-generating machine. Looking passively at this situation they become frigid. Frigidity becomes counterproductive in the relationship between man and woman. It ends up in indifference and loss of warmth. Kamala Das yearned for warmth and intimacy, which she found, was absent in her life. She realised that her body was a stranger to her ‘self’. This situation parallels Lacan’s ‘symbolic’ stage, which resembles the world of patriarchal order and logic (54). Kamala Das is presenting a counter script by her heroines with a new set of social morality. Kamala Das depicts the world of women only in the world of men.

Kamala Das turns violent at her knowledge that her lover turns a deaf ear towards her call for intimacy. She wishes to peel off his mask that prevents him from joining her:

How can I love him without causing his mask to crack, a mask more cherished than his naked face. (“The Mask” Kavya Bharathi 4)

His response was so shocking and for the poet it was more than she could bear and the Nokia cell phone he gifted kept silent:

But how shall I survive the aftermath of love and the sudden awakening in him of reasons, the silence banked as snow in the Nokia he gifted a month or two ago returning from a gulf land to my impatient arms? (4)

In her short stories also intimacy between man and woman surfaces. Her stories are predominant with men as life would be complete only with mutual intimacy, understanding, freedom and recognition. In Tharishunilam” (Madhavikkuttuiyude Kadhakal 145) the heroine is longing for the presence and love of her former friend. She still cherishes the warmth of their love intensely even after a lapse of years.

Am I late to come?

No. I have just arrived. She said. She did not like to tell him that she has been waiting for him for about half an hour. (146)

‘She’ is more intense in her love and is of a sacrificing sort. Intimacy and love, she feels is the offshoot of sacrifice:

Would he hate me to know that I still love him even after these long years! (146)

Intimacy in certain instances transcends to reach the level of hatred. Das perhaps is the only one of the few writers who has given love a separate entity, which induces hatred in the heart of the loved. The lovers referred above have been parted for the last eight years. Their re- union invites enigmatic tendencies. This story reveals how love and intimacy is a serious thing to woman and how it is silly to man. He can come out of it by writing a letter as the man in this story does, but it is not kid’s play for her. For him love is something to keep aloof with and this should be taken up as fasting. One should be aware of its trappings. It is intimacy that hastens up love. So it is better not to involve in intimacy and put a safe veil in between. ‘She’ is the initiator of love in this story. The man who has married another woman is careful not to commit anything.

Don’t you have anything to say? Yes.

Have you started hating me for loving you? He burst out into a laugh.

You are crazy. You don’t know the meaning of what you say. (146)

She was longing to hear his abuses. The intimacy of her lover longing for love and willing to hear abusive words is a subtle experience to the reader. The narrator comments:

He might not have become angry with her as he presently considers her a stranger. She would have become happy if he had barked at her and defied her. She would have tried to recall those days. (147)

The protagonist doesn’t mind an unfriendly atmosphere if it could recall one of those old days. Intimacy is not the only means by which she can enter the realm of love. It can be achieved in the form of detachment also.

Kamala Das presents woman in the victim position in her stories. The male tends to treat woman as a desirable commodity and the institution of marriage gives man the license to keep his wife at home and mistress outside. Kamala Das attacks this double standard and also blames woman for being a target of man’s sexual object and for keeping servility. The intimacy is not to be one sided. Both man and woman have equal responsibilities to keep marital bond intact. Her characters say that man is basically insincere. He has been intimate with many women and has discarded them earlier and asks the woman to be truthful. The man is not happy at the news of his becoming a father when he learns about the child that is coming. He wants only to play with women and does not wish to own any responsibility. Kamala Das’ rebellious nature does not allow her to advice women to give love and intimacy to those who are not faithful with them. She protests women becoming a toy in the hands of men. She never asks women to love one who gives only sorrow. “Why do you love this man who gives you only sorrow?”(Chathurangam” 170) The revolt against the tyranny of man is unleashed without any inhibition. Intimacy and love descend upon her as the falling of first rain. It has filled her mind with unparalleled calm and peace. She is confronting it without much preparation. “I am facing love for the first time in my life. It is not as I thought. I don’t have the strength to resist it. I feel as if I am on a marshland into which my legs are going down” (170).

In “Mahimile Veedu” (104) the heroine says that marriage is neither a printing invitation card nor rotating round the lighted lamp. It is a relation of intimacy and love between the souls. The intimacy attains new vistas of experiences when Kamala Das writes about the failure of married life and the quest for love outside marriage. Sumathi in “Rathriyil”

(124) feels nausea when her husband turns romantic with her during night whereas he is rigid and brute during day. Yet she is not able to break the fetters of social barriers by divorce or by rejecting the husband. She does not dare to question the social order. This dilemma forces struggle in her mind. Kamala Das prays that intimacy should be there in the world like a torch. It must be transferred from generations to generations. Again she compares life to a running race in which the runners are holding the torch of love. This is to be transferred to the next runner at the next point:

Let summers die on the track. But the torch must be kept burning. She feels she participates a running race. Love is the flaming torch. She is tired. She should transfer the torch to someone before the weariness and pain kills her. (124)

Kamala Das’ heroines believe that loveless married life is similar to a brothel and those who kiss without love are harlots. The heroine feels that she becomes a harlot at the embrace of her husband. Hence she runs out of marriage bond looking for pure love. The heroine says, “I slipped to celibacy with a shock as if I eat excretion” (The Sandal Trees 63). “If a woman should become a woman she should have a lover and he only can discover her softness, aroma and the contours of her body” (MK, “Swathanthra Jeevikal” 179).

The intimacy of mother is illustrated in the story “Keeripparinha Chakalas(78). Mothers always wait for their sons and they always wish for the well being of their sons, though the sons often neglect them. The son arrives from Kolkotha after a long time only to collect his share of property where as the mother who is ill expects a new blanket from him to protect her from cold. He is permanently settled in the city. His sister asks why he did not come to see his mother so far. He answers that since the mother has lost her memory she will not be able to remember him. She asks him in return whether he remembers his mother. Here intimacy is absent between mother and son. Kamala Das also presents the lovelessness of children and loneliness of old age in this story. Intimacy of a mother is revealed in many of her stories. The mother in jail suffers agony for not being able to breastfeed the child. The poor mother enduring contempt and insult from the rich people’s houses tolerates it for the sake of her child.

The intimacy between brother and sister is vibrant in “Naricheerukal Parakkumbol” (249). The story describes a brother who is a politician and a man of principles. Unfortunately he wanders and squanders.

He is a drunkard, a rogue and not trustworthy. She heard those words often. Still she tried not to believe it. She could not hate her unlucky brother even when she started believing what her husband had reported. (251)

Her husband who has a good job and name in the society was anxious about his brother-in-law. She deliberately sets aside her brother from her mind for a prosperous married life. Still he did not cry or complain. “You are a dirty boy. Don’t touch me”. He cried that day. The sister increasingly loved him when he started crying. She forced his face on her lap. Intimacy reaches a new dimension. It transcends hatred and love. Words lose their meaning and intimacy takes a different turn here. Ryan reiterates:

Some theorists focus on the affective dimension of boundaries, the capacity for intimacy, for example-while others emphasise the cognitive quality of mental representations whether they are simple and oppositional or complex and differentiated. The ability to make representations is one way to posit objects that are separate from the subject, and language is an essential tool. (32)

In spite of all that she had written about her husband she remembers him with love and intimacy. She writes, “The house where we lived together is still where I live. But it does not seem like a home any longer” (“Changing times” The Path of the Columnist 31). She is disillusioned with the newly attained freedom and finds it meaningless in his absence. She mourns, “I have found for myself the freedom of the mongrel, the stray that eats off a garbage bin and wanders around, and the stray without even a name” (65). Freud says, “Eros holds all living things together. It forms living substance into ever-greater unities, so that life may be prolonged and brought to higher development and it aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, at preserving it”(“Beyond Pleasure Principle” 6). Freud proved that cells come together and then separate again. He also found out that this process rejuvenates cells. Freud saw this conjugation of cells as the forerunner of sexual reproduction in higher creatures involving, the recombination of genetic material. Freud’s view is of a live process in which ‘bringing together’ has a rejuvenating effect on the elements or parties involved. So when applying to psychoanalytical mode the venturing of relationships outside marriage of her characters is only a natural instinct found in all living beings.

Kamala Das has often been accused of being lustful, but her own words give clarification to such accusation and show that in love she craves for emotional satisfaction and is disgusted with mere physical union. Her intimacy for physical union was her means to reach the soul’s yearning: love. The critics have not succeeded in proving that her physical experiences are transmuted as her poetic experiences. Devendra Kohli asserts, “It is difficult to say whether Kamala Das succeeds in resolving her tension between physical and spiritual aspect of love” (87). Kamala Das considers sex as a mindless surrender or a heartless participation and without emotional involvement sex is barren and sterile.

Once or twice standing near him with his hands around my shoulder I whispered, I am yours, do with me as you will, make love to me… but he said no, in my eyes you are a goddess, I should not dishonour your body… (My Story 93)

Here her invitation is declined. This rejection is not the same as the rejection in bed by her husband. This is the kind of intimacy and pure love she longs for. Evaluating her life for the unending search for love she maintains, “I am neither a virgin, nor a prostitute. I exist between the two without apologies or justifications. I exist to love and with a longing to help” (Ottayadippada 27).

Kamala Das articulates intimacy in two ways; either by love or by aggressive unfriendliness. Kamala Das’ articulation of intimacy with her lovers is the most common as seen in her works. Aggressive unfriendliness is seen mostly in her relationship with her husband. This negative approach is also an effective tool to gain love. Her quarrels with her husband were her means to extract love forcefully from him. To deduce lessons from the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt, Das had distanced her familiar husband and she had not been able to become intimate with him but in the case of her lovers she articulated intimacy, as they were all new. Though the means are different, her end is the same; that is to possess love, the life giving nectar.

Intimacy acquires energy when love doesn’t consummate. It haunts the inner minds of the lovers and flares up in loneliness. This flaring up provokes creative writing. Most of the creative writings were born from the debris of unconsummated love. Kamala Das creates her works from the bleeding hearts of disappointed love. Her heroines experience frustrations, which emerge from the experiences they suffer from their husbands and their lovers. They question the institution of marriage, which is artificially created by the society where intimacy and love are forceful and longs for genuine love, which is created by nature. For Kamala Das intimacy is freedom. She wishes to fly to the outer world of love. Intimacy is a kind of intoxication to her. It is the slogan of her existence. Intimacy, affection, compassion and spirituality are intertwined in her works. She presents many characters who wish to escape from the loveless confinement of aged husband lovers. Though a paradox these characters are the expression of their own selves whose longings are not for physical union but for intimacy. She realises her inner desires by attributing intimacy in such characters. Her poems depicting intimacy are irksome to the traditional readers for her treatment of physical intimacy is candid and unconventional. Kamala Das, like ‘a wanton boy’ who uses a bat to trap butterflies, articulates intimacy to attract the spectrum of love. Intimacy is the tool she applies to amass love. Most of the writers articulate intimacy only in their writing, not in their lived experiences. They flux their muscles and throw an air of strangeness around them. Kamala Das has been successful in articulating intimacy both in her works as well as in her lived experiences.

Kamala Das has established her position by introducing a new awareness for Indian women writers. For her poetry is not a ‘continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’. She writes in My Story that a writer’s raw material is not clay or stone; it is her personality. This honest and bold assertion has inaugurated an era of experiment and freedom to the new generation who wishes to enter the realm of writing. Her frank and candid style of writing foregrounds the importance of honesty and intimacy to the writers, critics and the readers in general.


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  • – – . Madhavikkuttiyude Kadhakal. Kottayam: Current Books, 1982.
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Abel Hirsch, Nicola. Ideas in Psychoanalysis. Ed. Ivan Ward. New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2005.

Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the pleasure Principle”. Complete psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 18, London: Hogarth Press, 1953-73, 1920.

Kohli, Devindra. “Virgin Whiteness: An Interpretation of the Poetry of Kamala Das”. The Literary Criterion.7.4 [1967] L 67-69.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious”. Modern Criticism and Theory. New York: Reprinted in David Lodge, Longman, 1988.

Nair, R. P. Kavya Bharati. No.12, Madurai: SCILET, American College, 2001.

Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Massachusetts, USA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.,1999.


M.K. ABDUL KHADER. Is Head of PG Department of English, Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad.

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Is Head of PG Department of English, Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad.

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