“I traversed the vastness of the Void alone, leaving behind reason and sense
Then came upon the secret of the Self – and in the mud the lotus bloomed, for me.”
Kamala Das and Lal Ded have their poetry plastered onto two very distant ends of time and space. While Das wrote powerfully raw feminist poetry in post-colonial India, Lal Ded spun extensive spiritual poetry known as vaakhs to rebel against her mother-in-law’s terrible treatment of her in 14th century Kashmir.
However, what knits their poetic expression so closely together is their fearless assertion of self-identity and female sensibility and their quest to purge societal dogma and subsequent emancipation from it.
Born into a Kashmiri Brahmin family, Lal Ded was married off at the tender age of 12, into an extremely abusive household. It is said that her mother-in-law would starve her for days on end, putting a stone in the middle of her plate and covering it with half a spoon of rice to deceive others into thinking Lal Ded had had enough to eat.
Legend goes that in order to mark her protest against society, she discarded clothing and walked around naked in the streets of Pampur with blissful abandon. Naturally, people would not accept such a bold female assertion of self so easily. Priests would malign and shame her. She was branded an outcaste. However, her resolution was unshakeable. She refused to bow down to anyone but her god. In one of her most well-known verses, she openly challenges society’s authority and mocks it for its conceited behaviour.
“Their abuse and spit I wore like a crown
Slander dogged my every step
But I am Lal, I stay unmoved
Full I am, where’s room for more?”
The sense of self here and in every such verse is sharp and uncompromising. She dares to not seek permission while navigating through a predominantly upper caste male terrain, that is, attaining salvation and relishing the entirety of one’s personhood. A woman’s complete submission to god, and not her husband, was venturesome and socially devious.
This deviousness is what kept her and her identity alive.
Kamala Das’ story, surprisingly, is one very similar to this rebel-saint who happened to live several centuries before her. Born into a royal Malayali family in 1934, she is widely known to Indian readers as the mother of modern Indian English poetry. Also married off young, at the age of barely 15, she found herself and her passions drowning in a treacherous pool of performing her duties as a family caretaker and simultaneously trying to not let her love for writing fade.
Towering constructions of patriarchy are not easy to tear down. However, Das not only broke them down, she also paved the way for other young feminist poets to come out in the open and own their experiences, sexuality and sense of self unapologetically.
Another surprising similarity between the two poets is their respective husbands’ apathy to their plight. It is said that Lal Ded’s husband was persistently oblivious to the ill treatment meted out to her by his mother, which is one of the main reasons as to why she left home at just 24 to retire to the hills. Das, in her poems, extensively talks about her husband’s passivity towards the pain she was going through, calling him a “ruthless watcher” and a “coward” in one instance.
‘I am different, I am an entity’
In spite of being in very frustrating and abusive marriages, the two re-conceptualised and redefined selfhood and pushed it beyond the sole reach of only those who benefitted from an upper caste, male-dominated society. Despite being told otherwise, not once did either of them lose their sense of self.
They, in fact, revelled in it. They defied the norm and wielded full autonomy over their person, body, sexuality, desires, poetry and language. In The Introduction, Das questions those encroaching upon her free will and right to exercise choice thus –
“Why not leave me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, every one of you? Why not let me speak any language I like?
The language I speak becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses all mine, mine alone.”
Lal Ded, too deploys a similar trajectory toward individual and intellectual autonomy and says –
“On nothing else I built my hopes, In nothing else I lay my trust
My Vaakh brought me the wine I drank,
My Vaakh gave me the strength to seize the darkness that within me lurked.”
What one can see here is an undiluted and unalloyed assertion of selfhood, and of reclaiming poetry and language as a tool of expression for genders apart from the dominant male one. The two poets use ‘I’ and ‘myself’ with an unadulterated sense self-sufficiency.
They weren’t afraid to endorse radically rebellious streams of self-expression, either. In the poem, Das talks about how she resuscitates her personhood through a stark defiance of gender roles and refuses to perform femininity for society.
“Then…I wore my brother’s shirt and my brother’s trousers
Cut my hair short and ignored my womanliness.”
Lal Ded embraces her true self with an equally fierce conviction, discarding any and every societal expostulation thrown her way. She rejects stereotyped roles and gender coded behaviour, choosing to grow only under her guru, Siddhamol’s tutelage instead –
“My teacher gave me a word of wisdom
From outside bade me turn within
That word for me is the final word
Lal dances now with naked abandon.”
This overarching claim over self is also seen in the last line of one of Das’s poems, which goes, “I too call myself I”.
Lal Ded’s words is an equally bold affirmation over her conscience and personhood:
“Like gold, when burnished, loses all impurities,
I glowed bright in the fire of self-consciousness.
Melting in love,
I found a fog of delusion lift,
as the sun rose beside me!
Pure consciousness was such
All veils of illusion and thought
Spontaneously I realised
my whole Self –
And Lal Ded bloomed like a lotus in the mud.”
The politics of gender identity is twisted, and almost inevitably oppressive. However, reclaiming one’s gender identity can also be extremely empowering. In a world where a woman’s self-worth is measured by patriarchal parameters of right and wrong, palatable and unpalatable, Lal Ded’s and Kamala Das’ poetry hit us like a forceful gust of wind on a tepid, stagnant mid-summer day.
Samridhi Shukla is a first year student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.
Featured images’ credit: Wikimedia Commons. Illustration: LiveWire