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The Discipline Of Comparative Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4800 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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Comparative Literature as a discipline implies transcending the frontiers of single languages and national literatures. For a comparatist, any literature is basically a literature which has to be studied with reference to other literatures, generally on a bilingual/ multilingual basis. The multilingual consciousness, which has often been distinguished from a polyglot situation, is characterized by the paradoxical desire to be one and yet remain many.

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Here we shall here make an attempt to bring together, and thereby compare and contrast, a few fundamental aspects of theme with regard to Kamala Das and Balamani Amma. Towards the conclusion of the above process, we shall try to bring forth and analyze some elements of intertextuality, prefiguration etc. which act as subliminal links between the two poets par excellence.

As S.S. Prawer says, comparative thematology enables us to examine and contrast the spirit of different societies and epochs as well as those of individual talents: for the same reason, literary studies cannot be divorced from study of literary style (102). ‘Influence’ studies have acquired a quite justifiable disreputation in the present times since they have been generally pursued in a mechanical, unimaginative way. Though influence cannot be totally separated from questions of analogy, affinity and tradition, it implies ‘impulsion’ rather than ‘imitation’, and it is precisely the lack of mutual influence which makes the comparison interesting and meaningful (Prawer “Influence, Analogy and Tradition” 52). We have to remember the fact that influence is not confined to individual details, images, borrowings or even sources ‑ it has to be considered as something organically involved in the production of artistic works, and that there are comparable manifestations in form or in content, in different authors, at different times with no apparent direct relationship to each other. As J. T. Shaw says, juxtaposition of comparable works may have great value in the criticism of each of them (90). We must also be aware that the study of influence can lead us to questions of intertextuality, though the manifestation of intertextuality does not by itself presuppose influence. What will be attempted here, consequently, will not be direct analogies or affinities between Kamala Das and Balamani Amma, but instances of impulsion, intertextuality, and prefiguration.

The thematic and structural complexity of Kamala Das’s poetry is a quite natural outcome of the more complex nature of the modern world, when compared to that of her predecessors. However, it can be seen that her basic themes boil down to a few distinctive types as demonstrated below.

Though the criticism that Kamala Das is subjective and does not bother for the world around her is levelled against her, we can easily refute it by citing a few poems she has written against communal violence. For example, the poem “The Inheritance” is about Hindu‑Muslim‑Christian hatred for each other and our false belief about the superiority of our own religion. We had the inheritance of peaceful co‑existence, but now everything is upset. She says “when at sundown, the muezzin’s high wail sounded from/The mosque, the chapel bells announced the angelus, and/From the temple rose the brahmins’ assonant chant”, But now lunacy speaks: “slay them who do not/Believe, or better still, disembowel their young ones/And scatter on the streets their meagre innards”.

In “A Certain Defect in the Blood ?” she states the bitter memories of having to suffer discrimination because of her non‑Aryan blood. They were in the grip of fear and were trying to crouch like spiders into tight balls, trying to escape by sleep. She refers to July 1983, probably ethnic violence of a racial base :

It was a defect

In our blood that made us the land’s inferiors,

A certain muddiness in the usual red

Revealing our non Aryan descent …

Death has always been Kamala Das’s pet topic, and it was almost like an obsession. She was for many a time in deathbed due to cardiac problems and had seen death face to face. She grew up in a strained family atmosphere where her mother belonged to royal heritage and her father peasant folk. She often says that she nourished a fascination for Death the Leveller who could level the shame of her swarthy skin, plain features and Dravidian blood.

“The Cart‑Horse” is about the sorrow of young and old carthorses. Lucky is the decrepit horse which falls on the way and dies spurting pink foam from its mouth. But the old people who see the young horses being shot purse their mouth and tremble when they think of the inevitability of death . In “Cerebral Thrombosis”, a man of eighty is in his sick bed and the relatives are sleeping (“weary, three nights in a row and not even a pillow for their heads). The last line reads: “Only the oxcart stumbling on and on…”. The images of the deathbed, delirium, death etc are brought forth to make us aware of the inevitability of death.

She has time and again brought in the issue of frustration due to various reasons. The poem “The Testing of the Sirens” is about her experiences with a man other than her husband. He makes love to her and takes her outside for sightseeing. But in the end, she realises that there is no more night, no more love or peace, but only the white sun burning. Finally she asks, “Why does love come to me, like pain again and again and again”? Towards the last part of the poem “Daughter of the Century” she writes about how she promises to control her lust, although she was enamoured by the white man who had whiter limbs. She is fully aware of the futility and meaninglessness of life. Disillusionment is powerfully expressed in lines like

No God seems too keen to preserve us.

We mated like Gods but begot only our killers

Each mother suckles her own enemy

And hate is first nurtured at her gentle breast…

She had many a fear about ageing, children leaving her when they grow up, friends disowning her, words failing her etc. In the poem “Tomorrow” she is fearful of the onset of tomorrow. She refers to her love and devotion for her child who called her ‘Amma’, and to her dreams unfulfilled before being persecuted by the cruel world. In “Women’s Shuttles” she appears to be very sad about ageing. She can no longer enjoy the privileges that she had enjoyed during her younger days :

At my age there are no longer

Any homecomings. Nothing can

Bring back a twinkle in those eyes

That took root in memory

During those innumerable

Trips behind a dear one’s hearse.

She did not hesitate to raise her voice against false culture and snobbery: The first part of the poem “The Snobs” is about her house in Calcutta. The second part registers her strong protest against snobbery and false pretensions, against the cruelty of children who disowned their mothers because their hands were work‑worn. She realises that we too, someday, by our children may be disowned.

The poem “Nani” is mainly about a pregnant maid who hanged herself in the privy one day. They mistook the dead body for an expression of comic dance. When once she asked her grandmother about Nani she asked ‘Who is she?’ It is also an expression of her philosophic thoughts about life, death and truth. She just cannot tolerate the indifference of the rich towards the poor.

The poem “Vrindavan” hints at soothing extra‑marital relationship. She generalises it by saying that “Vrindavan lives on in every woman’s mind and the flute is luring her; regarding the long scratch on her brown areola and flushed cheeks she lies to her husband that she tripped over the brambles in the woods. In “Love” she expresses her admiration for the man who has satisfied her desires:

Until I found you

I wrote verse, drew pictures

and went out with friends

for walks.

Now that I love you,

curled like an old mongrel

my life lies, content

in you…

In poems like “Summer in Calcutta” she speaks of the transience of human relationships. She drinks in the April sun like orange squeezed into her glass. She is intoxicated and wants him only for a moment. She realises how brief is the duration of her devotion and how brief is his reign inside her mind when she drinks the juice of April sun:

…Dear, forgive

this moment’s lull in

wanting you, the blur

in memory. How

brief the term of my

devotion how brief

your reign …

Though Kamala Das is labelled as a feminist poet by some, it seems that she broke herself away from the common kind of feminisms. Her feminine sensibility does not merely argue for gender equality, but for tender care and consideration from the male counterpart. An example is the poem “The Old Playhouse”, in which she says:

…I came to you but to learn

What I was and by learning, to learn to grow, but

every lesson you gave was about yourself. You were

pleased with my body’s response, its weather, its usual

shallow convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth,

you poured yourself into every nook and cranny,

you embalmed my poor lust with your bitter‑sweet juices,

you called me wife, …

Adumbrations of motherly love do not often figure in discussions on the poetry of Kamala Das. In the poem “Jaisurya” she tells us how proud she felt at the birth of her child and how dedicated she was to her new born baby. She wants to disregard the man who branded her with his lust ‑ what matters is only the “soft stir in womb, the foetus growing…” :

They raised him to me then,

proud Jaisurya,

my son, separated from a darkness

that was mine …

Poems depicting motherly love constitute the major chunk of Balamani Amma’s poetry. It is often remarked that Balamani Amma is the poetess of motherhood. In the anthology titled “soopaanam” twenty three poems directly represent motherly love and there are many more poems which represent motherly love indirectly also. A typical example is “maatru chumbanam” (Kiss of the Mother). She is proud of being the mother of a human being. She kisses her child on the mouth, forehead, locks, head etc. The child is compared to a bud. The spring has come to add to the beauty of the bud fondled by the father and mother. She blesses her child to be able to face the harsh realities of life. “ammayum makanum” (Mother and Son) is the story of the beginning of a spiritual transformation. She is overjoyed when she first touches her baby boy. Thereafter, there is no place for selfishness in her mind. She pledges to live for her son. Tears of joy rush down her cheeks. She decides to refine her ways. According to her, no philosopher except the mother could ever interpret the babble of the child.

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In the poem “veenugoopaalan” (Lord Krishna), the child is compared to Lord Krishna himself. At the height of devotion, even the objects of worship turn out to be God. For gods who do not have ageing or death, the transient childhood might appear attractive. That might have been the reason why they were that much interested in the music of young Lord Krishna. Any mother who vows to serve the son can see God himself in her son. Only foolish people search for God in sacred texts. Only the mother is privileged to envision God in her son.

However, when we take up “kavipreeyasi”, (Wife of a Poet) we are told how the wife of a poet controls her feelings before him who spends his time involving himself in noble things. Half way through cooking and not even combing the hair she climbs the steps to see her husband. There he was sitting, writing poetry, addressing the universe. Her earthly desires are about to rouse him from the state of concentration. She is remorseful about wasting her youthful years. But her husband’s words that their youthful days are not meant for enjoyment and merrymaking stop her from going near him. But she sees her husband kissing the ring she gave him and hears him praising her. Then she understands the depth of the love he has for her. She is very much moved by this, which is why she is ready to go back silently.

In “mangalyaraatri” (Marriage Night) a bride forgets her past and clings to her husband, it is because all her thoughts are centred on him. The soul which has achieved God‑realization is afraid if it would lose this faculty if it gives importance to worldly things. She is attracted to the beauty of the earth. The poet says that one can ultimately reach God only by learning to appreciate the beauty of the earth. Her husband becomes her whole universe.

In “kavanapeetattil” (On the Stage of Poetry) a poet, bent on creating a worthwhile poem, looks at the roof thoughtfully, when his wife comes and stands at the door. She appears very beautiful and his concentration is lost when he sees her. Her voice makes the house a heaven and according to him, he has got a world of pleasure for himself through marriage. But she pretends as if she does not know what is in his mind. The artist knows that whatever be there, a heart eager for his presence is essential for his perfection in the field. And finally he understands that the beating of a tender heart is sufficient to melt any heart of stone.

The ideology of non‑violence is proclaimed in “prabhaatam” (Dawn).This is the poet’s asking her soul to wake up in the morning to worship God and to bow her head in mutual love. The life based on rites and rituals make it difficult for one to reach the shore safely. Unless there is the strong oar of friendship, the boat is likely to be shattered against the walls of hatred. Life was wasted in search of vain things and is now suffering from misfortunes. If we want to make our life enjoyable, we must believe in the principle of non‑violence. Those who desire to hear the voice of God must not like the sound of mutual fights. When we leave all ill feelings and aspire for Godliness, fraternity and equality, me reach God realization. Similarly, she protests against social inequality and cruelty in “ksheetraviidhiyil (On the Threshold of the Temple). This poem was written to celebrate the Guruwayur Temple Entry Proclamation. The poet seems to be fully conversant with the social and political issues of her time. Till 1107, backward communities were not allowed to enter the temple to worship God. But several freedom fighters and social activists fought for years together to eke out this privilege. The poet praises all those who made that feat possible. She ends her poem by declaring that the revolution which can wipe the tears of the down‑ trodden is the only true kind of revolution.

The comparative / contrastive study of themes has been termed differently by different theoreticians ‑ ‘thematics’, ‘thematology’, ‘stoffgeschichte’ … Prawer identifies five prototypal subjects of investigation in this field, viz. (i) natural phenomena and man’s reaction to them (ii) recurring motifs (iii) recurrent situations (iv) the literary representation of types and (v) the literary representation of named personages ( Prawer “Themes and Prefigurations”

99-100). Prawer’s remarks about the benefits of comparative thematology are of special significance with regard to the present study (102-3). First of all, the comparative study of themes and motifs enables us to see what type of writer chooses what type of material, and how the material is dealt with at various times. For example, Balamani Amma has a genius for combining themes and motifs from the most varied sources and integrating them into unified works of art, but Kamala Das weighs, filters and distils her themes.

Secondly, thematic studies enable us, to examine and contrast the spirit of different societies and epochs as well as those of individual talents. Balamani Amma’s tentative adumbration of physical love transforms, as we have seen, into Kamala Das’s clinical prognosis of foreplay and coitus.

Discussing the problematised and elusive concept of ‘influence’, Rene Wellek (qtd in Prawer, “Influence, Analogy and Tradition” 51) says that the whole conception of a ’cause’ in literary study is uncritical; nobody has ever been able to show that a work of art was ’caused’ by another work of art, even though parallels and similarities can be accumulated. A later work of art may not have been possible without a preceding one, but it cannot have been caused by it.

Now, this casual admission of fact by Wellek can be taken as an excellent launching point, though his statement may be somewhat too broad in reference. Putting things in this broad frame of reference one can well argue that all texts have been ‘influenced’ in some way or another, and that all works of literature are intertextual in nature. Speaking about literary indebtedness, J. T. Shaw (85-6) says that an author’s literary debts do not in effect diminish his originality, since originality is not best understood in terms of innovation. Many great authors have openly admitted the influence of others on them, and some, like Salman Rushdie, have even paraded their indebtedness to others. They seem to have felt that originality consists, not exclusively or even primarily in innovation in materials or of style and manner, but in the genuineness and effectiveness of the artistic moving power of the creative work. The innovation which does not move aesthetically is of interest only to the formalist. What genuinely moves the reader aesthetically and produces an independent artistic effect has artistic originality, whatever its debts. The ‘original’ author is not necessarily the innovator or the most inventive, but rather the one who succeeds in making all his own, in subordinating what he takes from others to the new aesthetics of his artistic work (Shaw 85-6). What emerges from the aforesaid is that the juxtaposition of comparable authors as well as their works has rewards richer than we might imagine. The kind of quasi‑diachronic comparison we are attempting here will be seen to expose hitherto ignored or unperceived aspects of awareness concerning both the mother and the daughter.

From the foregoing, it would almost be tautological to say that we have here two poetic minds operating on entirely different milieu. Creative power is, as commonly observed, fed and controlled by the time‑spirit. Since Balamani Amma had written most of her poems during the Indian struggle for independence, we have a natural preponderance of themes like patriotism, reverence for God, concern for the poor and the afflicted etc in her poems, combined with a dominant lucidity of style. But on the other hand we have Kamala Das, a product of modern life‑situations. She is the spokesperson of the subtle but powerful eruptions of the complex modern psyche. Identity crises, phobias, inhibitions, unfulfilled and uncertain relationships ‑ all form the natural make‑up of the raw material before the modern poet; and hence we have the ensuing complexity and innovativeness of both theme and style. Intertextuality is a potential mine for significant discovery of links which exist, directly and subliminally, between the mother and the daughter. What follows is an attempt to concretize some facets of intertextuality which exist between them.


For Balamani Amma, man‑God relationship is not enigmatic at all. She was convinced that the way to God lies in self sacrifice, and almost all of her poems in this category centre on this keynote. “paniniirppuuv “, “mannambalam”, “vandanam” etc are good examples. In her poem “paniniirppuuv ” we see that though man has access to high ideals and spiritual thoughts which are said to be capable of leading him towards ultimate Bliss, God‑realization occurs only when he is willing to place everything at the feet of the Almighty. The poem “vandanam” is another triumphant acclamation of the man‑God relationship. The poet says that the troubles of this world ‑ disease, discomfort, loneliness or anything ‑ cannot destroy her faith in the Almighty. One of her other similar poems, “Benediction”, (“aasirvaadam” translated by the author) deserves special mention, where she felicitously combines the mundane with the spiritual:

The first cry of the child was a ‘Mantra’ Sanctifying their love…

No wonder. The child has come with the key of

Heaven held tight in his curling fingers,

Fingers that have to scribble the first lessons

of self‑sacrifice on her mother’s bosom …

(Balamani Amma, Thirty Poems)

Kamala Das on the other hand has considerably problematised the concept of God, especially in some of her Anamalai poems. In poem No. 10 she says: There is a love greater than all you know/ that awaits you where the red road finally ends its patience proverbial… In poem No. 4, God or eternity is presented from another angle:

… If only the

human eye could look beyond the chilling flesh… where would

death be then, that meaningless word,

when life is all that there is, that

raging continuity that

often the wise ones recognize as God?

For her, the concept of God or ‘heaven’ is totally free from religious insinuations, and the way to God does not need to involve self‑sacrifice in any form. For her, the wise one is he who is able to escape the stranglehold of the immediate, one who has enough perspective to view life as starting from the infinite and proceeding towards the infinite, with the occasional intrusion of death which cannot spell finality.


The overtly feminist stance of Kamala Das has been exegetically discussed during the recent years. Almost aggressively individualistic, she systematically disposes of patriarchal codes in the various facets of human relationship, arguing for a just balance:

Fond husband,

ancient settler in the mind Old fat spider,

weaving webs of bewilderment, be kind.

You turn me into a bird of stone,

a granite dove,

You build round me a shabby drawing room

and stroke my face absent mindedly…

(From “The Stone Age”)

Kamala Das’s poetry has a special force and appeal for us primarily because of the honesty and candour with which she asserts her right to exist as an individual with a distinctive identity and to be her authentic self even if this involves breaking the moulds of traditional ethics and propriety. Her poetry voices a vehement protest against the senseless restrictions which compel a sensitive and intelligent woman to lead a vapid kind of existence. She refused to fit into any scheme devised by the “categorizers”. The frank, confessional quality of her poetry is her main strength, though in the absence of a mature self‑restraint we can also notice in it a dash of callow exhibitionism particularly when she has to flaunt her “flamboyant lust” in order to retrieve her undermined dignity.

The bitter irony and anguish of a woman who find herself tied down to a meaningless routine of household activities can be noticed in many of her poems. We see them in “The Siesta” where we find the poet asking herself ironically if she could have “the courage” and “the sense” :

to pick herself an average

identity, to age

through years of earthly din

gently, like a cut flower until

it’s time to be removed . . .

Through her defiant self-assertion, Kamala Das increases our awareness of how the dead weight of outworn values can block the emotional and individual growth of an individual. How painful, frenzied and self-consuming the life of an ill adjusted, sensitive individual can be in the rotting and decaying society is well brought out in many of her poems.

However, it is more interesting to see the same streak of rebellion in the poetry of Balamani Amma, although in different form. The telling effect of zeit‑geist upon her poetry diverted the force of her attack, so much so that she has had to project her feelings via an artificial context, many times resorting to using a third person, which would be of help in coming round the delicate problem of involving one’s own husband. For example in her poem “kalyaanaveedimeel” (Upon the Wedding Stage) she evocatively highlights the picture of a potential groom afraid of his own natural impulses. Apparently, his whole life is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and he cannot understand what ‘knowledge’ the prospective bride would be able to impart. Though in his heart of hearts he looks forward to the pleasures of marriage, his conscious self considers it a weakness to have decided to marry.

In another poem a girl, a sage’s daughter, shuns all lures of conjugal life. In spite of her father’s efforts to persuade her to marry one of his disciples, she remains adamant and shuns all worldly pleasures thinking that she has attained supreme enlightenment, and that she must not condescend to be a mere consort to a man. Later her father dies, and after many years when the charm of her youth has ebbed away, she meets a young sanyasi. The young man likes her and wants to be near her always. But she does not want to enchain his youthfulness to old age and decides to “dissolve every particle of her existence in the foam of the ocean waves”. This strange story inexorably justifies the reality and validity of all human passions. ‘Kama’ or carnal pleasure has its validity in life, and repression of basic urges will only lend to psychological abnormalities. Balamani Amma’s philosophy is one which embraces life on this earth with all its defects and deficiencies, and gives due recognition to the psychological truth that asceticism has its martyrs.

In the poem, “kavanapiitattil” (In the Poet’s Study) we have the silhouette of an artist working late into the night. His young wife, having been fighting it out with loneliness for quite some time expectantly makes a tentative appearance at the door, with age old human desire adumbrating her face. As the poet describes it, the artist, then at a supreme moment of creation disposes of this potential casualty by amicably reminding her of the importance of what he is doing, and the possible hazard which can be caused even by a minute’s relapse. His obedient and understanding wife then beats a silent retreat.

Poems like these express, albeit subtly, what the poet wants to say. Balamani Amma had to go by the canons of contemporary zeit‑geist which advocated restraint, circumvention moderation rather than explicitness. But it can be seen that the same fierce individualism and plea for gender justice which marks off Kamala Das pre‑figures forcefully in the poetry of her mother, though in a form not substantial enough to attract common notice. However, the mother could later find vicarious realization of suppressed rebellion through the poetry of her daughter, although after many years. In her poem “To my Daughter” written in 1965 she says:

Your mind may grow restless with sad thoughts

Your body may be weary of household tasks

But about you I hold no fear.

Your power of turning worms into butterflies

Comforts me.


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