Identity, Assertion and Beyond: A Talk with Mamta Kalia
University School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi
Indian English women poetry chronicles the variegated experiences of women through time and space and across various discursive spectrums. While some women poets are forthright about being a feminist, others do not betray an overt commitment to the movement. Though affiliations may vary yet an unequivocal protest against patriarchal structures directly or indirectly constitutes the thematic ambit of every woman poet. Indian women poets criticize the binaries of shame-seduction, home-world, and personal-political that constrict a woman’s freedom. Contemporary Indian women poetry has undergone a paradigmatic shift from the time of independence. It is born out of a woman’s journey through various socio-historical junctures and political upsurges. There are a number of accomplished poets who have poignantly responded to gender discrimination and tedium of domestic life but Mamta Kalia stands out from the group. She records her indignation against conformist womanhood in a language which is simple yet effective. Though she has written only two anthologies of poems in English (Tribute to Papa and Other Poems and Poems’ 78) yet has left a permanent impression on the minds of the readers.
Born in Vrindavan in 1940, Mamta Kalia is an eminent bilingual poet who started writing at the age of eighteen. She is a multifaceted writer who has a number of novels, poems and more than two hundred short stories in Hindi to her credit. After completing her post-graduation in English from Delhi University, she worked as a lecturer of English literature in Delhi and Mumbai. She later served as the principal of Mahila Seva Sadan Degree College in Allahabad. She has been conferred with several accolades and awards like the Yashpal Samman (1985), the Mahadevi Verma Memorial Award (1998), the Sahitya Bhushan Samman (2004), Janvani Samman (2009) and Sita Smriti Award (2012). In the time when women were expected to be submissive and coy, Kalia in a poem “Tit for Tat” writes, “I’ll hit you/I’ll tear you up!/ I’ll stamp on you” (16). One of the salient features of Kalia’s poetry is that it captures the issue of gender inequality, the monotony of domestic life and social taboos with utmost precision but with a touch of comedy. It is her non-reliance on the stringent literary models that make her poetry both candid and popular. She is one of those few writers who write about the problems of a common man in the language of a common man i.e. a language stripped of intellectual jargons.
I was introduced to her generosity when she readily agreed to meet me on a very impromptu notice. The conversation enriched my understanding of the traits of Indian women poetry in English and the changing contours of feminism in India. She also touched upon other issues like women security in today’s times, the transition of society from humanist to consumerist, increasing fundamentalism and the need to reconfigure the writing style in order to connect with today’s readers. A brief excerpt of the same is presented here:
Q. I am very thankful to you for agreeing to this interaction ma’am. What inspired you to write poetry in English?
A. I was already writing poems in Hindi. Being an English teacher, I got sensations in English too and decided to put them on paper. I have some direct influence of Kamla Das on me. I feel the way she expresses herself in her poems is her part of the truth. I simply wanted to convey my side of truth to the readers. It was the time in my life when nothing was going right and nearly all the circumstances were against me. The situation was so unfavorable that I wanted to bite everybody and you can see that sting in my poems. I wanted to target the egotism of people and I think I succeeded because there was a lot of intemperate outbursts after the poems got published (laughs). In Poems’ 78, I have raised questions that a common man grapples with but neither society nor politics has any answers to them. However, being stationed in Allahabad which is a big Hindi hub I was criticized by my seniors and friends for writing in English. Unlike today, there were not many Indians writing in English at that time. I accepted the challenge and that’s when I wrote Beghar.
Q. How do you respond to the appellation, ‘women poetry’?
A. I don’t like this bracketing of poetry as women’s poetry or men’s poetry. I have no objection if it is done for the purpose of categorization but to segregate it as something belonging to the other world is unfair. I feel an excellent poem shines against all odds. The gender of the poet has nothing to do with it.
Q. Poetry composed by women is often accused of being too personal, in other words, an articulation of patriarchal oppression. Is it so?
A. Well, I totally disagree with that. There has been a sharp increase in the cases of molestation, dowry and domestic violence. It all stems from the patriarchal attitude of the society. It is not possible for a poet or for that matter any sensitive human being to remain indifferent to the desperation around him or her. If the thematic concerns in the poetry of women revolve around patriarchy, it is not a matter of chance but a conscious decision on the part of the poet which should be respected. When one puts all the negatives together it comes out as a positive. Only when you show the inappropriateness of things in society, it stimulates the thirst for appropriateness. Like, when I talk about an inconsiderate and overpowering husband, it is actually my longing for a kinder and more sensitive partner. The utility comes because the futility has been shown.
Q. How do you define feminism?
A. Feminism, according to me is an appeal to the people to be more empathetic towards women and the issues pertaining to them. Feminism tries to account for women’s subordination but I do not endorse misandry. The backbone of feminism is to retaliate against the oppression of women and not draw daggers against men. It is ironic that in Hindi literature, I am considered a very mild feminist while in English they call me a militant one (laughs).
Q. Do you think being bilingual makes your poetic corpus more inclusive than other poets writing only in English or Hindi?
A. To be equally exposed to two languages is certainly an advantage. I think being bilingual means you are attached to the wider world of another language also. Any language is not simply a medium of communication. It carries socio-political implications and literary baggage of that culture. I personally feel that the socio-historic domain of Hindi is much bigger than English. Being bilingual not only helps a poet to reach a broader audience but also address issues that are common to both the cultures. In English, I have majorly dealt with the issue of patriarchy while my poems and short stories in Hindi traverse a much broader horizon both thematically and stylistically.
Q. What are the major factors that impact your thematic concerns and narrative techniques?
A. It is the chaos of the times, the non-fulfillment of promises made to the younger world by the older world. The contradiction between promises and reality is one of the oft-repeated themes in my poems. Opportunities were available only to a handful of people who could use the independence card to move forward while our destinies were full of questions. So, it is the paradox, the frustration and the unanswered questions that become a part of my poetry. They are the boiling point for an expression. I have also written about romantic passion when love is in a nascent stage only to be disillusioned later (laughs). I talk about how the indoctrination of being an obedient daughter, a dutiful wife and a self-negating mother limit a woman’s world. As far the narrative strategy is concerned, I prefer stating the truth as it is. There is an ample use of irony and idiomatic language in all my poems.
Q. How does your poetry create an interface between tradition and modernity?
A. An Indian woman always faces the dilemma of whether to assert her independence or adhere to the traditional values. Like other poets, I am also confronted with the choice between tradition and modernity. Every culture has always restricted the freedom of women by promoting home-making and maternity as the essential roles of her life. However, in the twenty-first century, the position of women is rapidly changing. They can exercise all the fundamental human rights and live a more meaningful life. My poems were a response to the environment around me when I was young. I would say my poems in English do not have much of tradition though they lay their claims on modernity. I wanted to do everything my way and move away from tradition. I am more of an ‘Individual Talent’i person. I am also not very much in the favour of tradition because it is stale and has been despotic to women, particularly.
Q. Is your real life and poetic persona the same?
A. They are absolutely the same. I don’t have any separating valve between the two. I have never felt apologetic about being a feminist. Since my husband was a writer too, he understood me perfectly well. I have always rebelled against all sorts of conformism and gender partiality. It’s actually strange to see some people endorse a worldview that they might not secretly believe in. In my case, I have always written what I have felt.
Q. The poem “Tribute to Papa” has echoes of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. Are you influenced by the Confessional school of poets?
A. I am aware of Plath’s poem but I don’t think there is any such similarity because “Tribute to Papa” is more about the stereotyped middle-class father who is always afraid of taking chances to step forward in life. The bitter resentment in the poem is against the father who represents patriarchy and gives a very limited worldview to his children. The poem is not at all autobiographical as many people assume it to be because my father never imposed anything on me. He was a liberated man who was much ahead of his times. It is rather about all the fathers who are full of abstentions and precast a mold for their children to fit in. The words of the daughter in the poem, “These days I am seriously thinking of/ Disowning you, Papa/ You and your sacredness” (7) shows her frustration. She derides her father’s anachronism but at the same time, she respects him too much to do anything which would embarrass him. This is the kind of quandary that most middle-class people are caught in.
Q. Your poetic credo revolves around the middle class. Is there any particular reason behind it?
A. Most of us belong to the middle class. I feel it is the middle class which suffers the most because they are in between the elites and the downtrodden. They have to face problems in getting basic facilities and quality education. However, I see a tremendous change in the middle class of the nineteenth century and what it is today. Back then, the middle class was deeply attached to the value system, fixed ideas, and relationships but today consumerist culture has taken the center stage. Literature, music, films are not relished but consumed these days. My novel Daud deals with this issue. At the same time, it is equally true that the middle class has a lot of potentials to emerge as winners. The problems of the middle class stimulate my thoughts the most, so I write about it.
Q. There is a sharp increase in cases of eve-teasing and honor killing in India. Can we say the inability to sensitize the males is actually a failure of feminism?
A. Well, that’s a very pertinent question. I agree that these incidents keep happening every day. The morning newspaper is full of horrific details about such crimes. We have been able to solve the issues of child marriage and widow remarriage but the huge stigma against rape is still intact in the society. The most important thing in these cases is the attitude of the society towards the victim. The family of the victim must not be ostracized. I also feel that there should be stricter punishment for the defaulters and they must be totally debarred from getting any position in the society. Sensitizing the people is not the sole responsibility of the writers. Families, teachers, and society must come together to educate everyone about the problem of gender imbalance and importance of mutual respect.
Q. What according to you is the reason behind the popularity of fiction over poetry?
A. Every literary genre has its own aesthetics. One cannot make a comparison between a poem and a novel or a novel and a short story. They are all different. Earlier, poetry and novel used to have the same appeal but today due to the paucity of time and increasing popularity of social media, only a few people engage in reading. This is also the reason why today’s readers prefer reading short stories in place of novels. There are very limited avenues for publication of poetry for the young and aspiring poets. I think it is more a matter of personal choice and we should not create bifurcations like more popular and less popular.
Q. According to you what is the future of Indian women poetry in English?
A. Well for a long period of time poetry was seen as a kind of fanciful or imaginative writing and people had their own apprehensions towards it but today the dynamics of poetry has changed. This is not the time when literature should essentially be universal. Poetry has become a medium to assert various discriminations faced by the people in society. I would say women’s poetry has bright prospects provided poets address a wider range of issues and not just focus on gender. There are so many questions that affect us equally, for example, men and women react in the same manner when prices of petrol go high, when there is no sugar in the open market or when the insecurities of the present-day life haunt us. Women share the same cultural and professional spaces as men now. So, I think we need to move towards broader issues like corporate culture, riots, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, global warming etc. Also, feminist poets must understand that being anti-male is again very unnatural. A balance should always be struck in the writings. A complaint that women do not write about the so-called significant issues should be taken seriously by the contemporary writers. Therefore, it is necessary to become more politically aware and become people of the world and not just treat ourselves as women all the time.
i “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) is an essay written by T.S Eliot in which he professes the incorporation of a historical sense in the works of the poets. He avows that a poet cannot have a meaning in isolation hence it is imperative to recognize the continuity of literature. He does not recommend a slavish imitation of the classics but an integration of the past with the individual talent of the poet.
Kalia, Mamta. “Tribute to Papa.” Tribute to Papa and Other Poems. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1970. Print.