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Sumana Roy
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Kamala Das & the many meanings of summer

Kamala Das

very summer, at around this time, university students in many parts of India, studying for a degree in English Literature, answer examinations that ask them questions about Kamala Das's poem Summer in Calcutta. It is not easy to write about drinking the orange sun in any poetical or analytical manner when temperatures at examination writing hours are over 40 degrees Celsius.

What is this drink but
The April sun, squeezed
Like an orange in
My glass? I sip the
Fire, I drink and drink
Again, I am drunk
Yes, but on the gold
of suns ....
brief the term of my
devotion, how brief
your reign when I with
glass in hand, drink, drink,
and drink again this
Juice of April suns.

As if in some kind of teacher's atonement, though not entirely by design, I find myself reading Kamala Das this summer. All this while my Facebook news feed reads like a meteorologist's chart: 47 degrees in Hyderabad, 43 in Delhi, 42 in Calcutta, to which there is often an envy-inducing anticlimax of "Only 19 in Shimla". Summer hardens the distinction between life outside Facebook and inside it: watching the sweat of students trickle on to their answer scripts and, later, passengers at a bus stop, I find myself curious about writer's rooms. What kind of a room was Kamala Das writing her summer poems from?

Summer, it has to be admitted, is the least egalitarian of all seasons. During this time, the difference between the haves and have nots is the difference between those who have air-conditioned rooms and those who don't. As he switches on the AC in the car, my driver, always wiser than me when inside the car, tries to remind me of a time without electricity. When our collective imagination fails us and we recede into silence, which is cooler than the noise at the traffic signal, he offers a Bengali's definitive answer, "Rabindranath Tagore has said that it wasn't so hot a hundred years ago".

Heat, as all lovers know, is coded in difference. Kamala Das's poem about the "burning mouth/ of sun, burning in today's/ sky", is after all titled In Love. The expression "in heat" is only an expression of the relation between love, "the sad lie/Of my unending lust" and — well, how does one put it? — the body in summer. The gift of love is often a denominator of heat. In The Looking Glass, one of her most famous poems, for instance, the speaker asks for the lover to be gifted with "the musk of sweat between the breasts" —

Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood.

When Das writes about the coldness of relationships, as in The Old Playhouse, her metaphors posit summer as representative of the higher season of love. "The summer/Begins to pall .... Your room is/Always lit by artificial lights, your windows always/Shut. Even the air-conditioner helps so little ..." In Das, there seems to be an intuitive relation between the summer sun and feminism. In The Stone Age, "strong men cast their shadows, they sink/Like white suns in the swell of my Dravidian blood". The relationship between summer and her womanhood is easy to spot: "I did all my growing there/In the bright summer months" (The Suicide).

In her poems, there's neither the curiosity of Summer School nor the greed of a Summer Holiday. It is only and always only summer, the summer noon, to be specific. In the searing A Hot Noon in Malabar, the "noon" is a condensation of a lifetime's heat:

This is a noon for beggars with whining
Voices, a noon for men who come from hills
With parrots in a cage and fortune-cards,
All stained with time, for brown Kurava girls
With old eyes ....
This is a noon for strangers who part
The window-drapes and peer in, their hot eyes
Brimming with the sun, not seeing a thing in
Shadowy rooms and turn away and look
So yearningly at the brick-ledged well. This
Is a noon for strangers with mistrust in
Their eyes, dark, silent ones who rarely speak
At all, so that when they speak, their voices
Run wild, like jungle-voices. Yes, this is
A noon for wild men, wild thoughts, wild love. To
Be here, far away, is torture. Wild fee
Stirring up the dust, this hot noon, at my
Home in Malabar, and I so far away.

Reading Das, I was suddenly reminded of the time when my classmates and I first discovered the difference between birds and humans. Man has always aspired to be a bird — not only because it can fly, but because birds are poikilothermal. It is their cold-bloodedness, their ability to adjust their body temperatures in respect to their surroundings that makes them the object of our envy. "On the old/cannon-stand crows bickered over a piece/of lizard meat and the white sun was there/ and everywhere ..." (The Testing of the Sirens). And yet, in Das, the summer heat is poison on a bird's wings:

At noon
I watch the sleek crows flying
Like poison on wings.

Reading that line is a somaesthetic experience, of words turning into bodily feelings, of the sun scalding skin. And then there is the wait, like the self-forgetting lull after reading a poem — of the sweat to dry, of the poem to turn into summer's salt inside us.

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