My Mother at 66 by Kamala Das

The Poet

Kamala Das was born into a illustrious family of writers and thinkers on 31st March , 1934. Her mother, Nalappat Balamani Amma was a noted poet of Malayalam Literature . She wrote under the name Madhavikutty initially and later as Kamala Surayya . A strong and powerful voice of Indian Literature , Kamala Das comes across as a sensitive and keen student of human frivolities and manners.

Here’s a beautiful poem by her in which her defiance to comply to the norms of societal expectations , to bury her identity and be one among others, to fit in ,clearly comes through.

An Introduction
I don’t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.
When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully.
Then … I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love … I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him . . . the hungry haste
Of rivers, in me . . . the oceans’ tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I
In this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, 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
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.
Kamala Das

Now , let’s come to My Mother at 66, which is rather simple and straightforward , an expression of a daughter’s pangs of guilt as she leaves her aged mother to get back to her busy life. She traumatized by the fear of losing her mother to death , which is hovering around but has commitments , duties or responsibilities which compel her to go back to her city, her place , her home leaving her. The daughter prefers to look out at the brighter side of life as they , she and her mother , tired, aged drive to the airport. While parting , all that the daughter does is to smile a forced , artificial smile , in an effort to hide her true fears and insecurities and perhaps put a brave face in front of her mother. The poem is one long winding sentence perhaps referring to the long trail of thought striking the poet.

My Mother at 66 by Kamala Das
Driving from my parent’s home to Cochin last Friday morning,
I saw my mother, beside me, doze, open mouthed,
her face ashen like that of a corpse
and realized with pain
that she was as old as she looked
but soon put that thought away,
and looked out at Young Trees sprinting,
the merry children spilling out of their homes,
but after the airport’s security check,
standing a few yards away,
I looked again at her, wan,
pale as a late winter’s moon and felt that old familiar ache,
my childhood’s fear,
but all I said was,
see you soon, Amma,
all I did was smile and smile and smile……

Questions & answers

1. What is the kind of pain and ache that the poet feels?
The poet feels the pain of leaving her old mother alone in Cochin while she hurries back to her city to resume her busy life . She fears that she may not be able to see her mother alive when she comes again. It’s interesting that neither the poet nor her mother state the obvious . The poem is a reflection upon the loneliness in the lives of the elderly in today’s world.

2. Why are the young trees described as ‘sprinting’?
The sprinting young trees could refer to the sight of trees sprinting backwards as the vehicle moves ahead. It could also refer to the fact that youngsters leave their homes for good leaving behind the aged parents to fend for themselves.

3. Why has the poet brought in the image of the merry children ‘spilling out of their homes’?
While driving to the airport, the poet diverts her attention from her fear of losing her mother to death and looks out of the window. The children spilling out of their homes is a beautiful sight to behold , though in a more realistic sense it refers to the universal truth that youngsters will leave their nests to establish their homes, their lives once they grow up.

4. Why has the mother been compared to the ‘late winter’s moon’?
The poet’s mother is in the sunset of her life . She is compared to late winter’s moon because she is fast approaching her death .

5. What do the parting words of the poet and her smile signify?
The parting words do not speak the whole truth. The poet is terrified at having to face the reality of her mother’s death .She says is ‘see you soon, amma’ , though she is not sure whether she will be able to see her mom alive again. The smile that the poet puts on is a vain attempt to hide her fears . She did not alarm her mother so, simply puts on a brave face and sports a smile.

Note : The phrase ‘she was as old as she looked’, is a significant one. The poet means that there’s no hiding the truth, which is evident to both the mother and the daughter. However, both choose to ignore it and paint a happy picture.

Use of figures of speech :

her face ashen like that of a corpse – the mother’s face is compared to that of a corpse , pale and weak in appearance

I looked again at her, wan,
pale as a late winter’s moon- the poet’s mother is compared to late winter’s moon symbolizing that she is at the threshold of death, end of her life.

Note: The poem is a reflection of the loneliness of the elderly in today’s fast paced life. The compulsions of the hectic modern life leave the elderly to fend for themselves. The mushrooming of old age homes across the country are a testimony to this fact. The crumbling social values, rising aspirations, pressures of work, social life, the advent of technology have all played their roles in creating this ever widening gap between the generations.


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