Fear, Fluidity and Gender: A Lacanian Reading of Kamala Das

P.K. Sreekumar
Priya Jose K

Works of the late Indian English writer Kamala Das are consistently and persistently decoded against a semantic background located within an epistemic matrix provided by the supposedly close and inalienable symbiotic connection between the author and the text.  Contrary to this we read four works of Das (two short stories and two poems) using the conceptual categories borrowed from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and other writers sympathetic to psychoanalysis. Without denying the validity and logical inferences of previous readings or claiming that the present interpretation is more authentic than the rest, we would like to point out possible reading trajectories which have generally remained unexplored and which we feel deserve more concerted critical/scholarly engagement. In the process we argue that the works of Das under consideration, and by implication her entire literary corpus, are a verbal configuration of a worldview which considers gendered divisions and associative functions as the manifestation of the innate human desire for hierarchical compartmentalisation. When read by positioning ourselves safely away from the narrow perception that the works of Das are those produced from an exclusive female perspective inspired and conditioned by highly personalized experiences, they put forth a universal sensibility which transcends regional boundaries and more importantly the divide between male and female. Universal feminine sensibility changes itself into a universal fe/male sensibility. Her characters who see the human condition as/in the crucible of the sexual and the linguistic rather than money and related aspects, for this very reason, can remain in our minds for a long time to come.

Keywords: Kamala Das, Jacques Lacan, subjectivity, language, sexuality, repression, imaginary, symbolic. 

Few writers in India have been as simultaneously glorified and maligned as Kamala Das (1934-2009).  During her turbulent life she would frequently be hailed on the one hand as the poet who “embodies the most significant stage of Indian feminine poetic sensibility not yet reached by her younger contemporaries” (Chavan 60); on the other she was vilified and libelled as a snob flaunting her physical charm and aura to keep herself afloat in the limelight through outrageous words and deeds.  Whether it be My Story or her controversial comments as an apostate1, each act would inflict crippling blows to the prevalent ideas of morality and social position of women apart from scandalising the reading public.  Being heirs apparent to an entrenched reading convention that firmly aligns itself with the word as an exclusive, sanctified and honest exhibition of the soul2, many researchers (and common readers) have painstakingly tried to identify linear correspondence between the Das who appears on print and the Das they have met.  Thus the Dasian oeuvre is consistently decoded against a semantic background and within an epistemic matrix provided by the supposedly inalienable symbiotic connection between the author and the text.   

While there is nothing wrong in considering extra-textual elements in critical studies, the approach may prevent us from seeing the works of a given writer as bodying forth larger ideational structures. As we systematically identify the narratives of Das as the verbalization of traumatic experiences felt by a woman and link them to the general predicament of women, we are accentuating the historical embeddedness of literature; but at the same time we are confining ourselves to an interpretative mode that refuses to see things in a broader perspective. It is in this context that we propose to read four works of Das (two short stories and two poems) using the conceptual categories borrowed from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). The present reading neither denies the validity of other readings nor claims to be more authentic. The intention is to point out unexplored reading trajectories which deserve more concerted critical/scholarly engagement. We argue that the works of Das under consideration, and by implication her entire literary corpus, are a verbal configuration of a worldview which considers gendered divisions and associative functions as the manifestation of the innate human desire for hierarchical compartmentalisation, almost in the way Louis Dumont conceptualizes the ascriptive institution of caste in India in his impactful work Homo Hierarchicus.  

Lies and Otherness 

Generally femininity has been historically used to signify an otherness which in turn has effectively been essentialised as the temporary disruption of the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘normal’ which are considered permanent and transcendental. This otherness has itself been variously conceived of and described as the hysterical body, the semiotic, the pre-Oedipal, the ecstatic, the fluid and the maternal body. Women, tellingly, lack privileged access to the sphere of this otherness, while male avant-garde writers are entitled to speak of and for it. Amelia Jones in this context opines that from a particular perspective, art history could be understood as part of a patriarchal project of reinforcing as ‘natural’ man’s control over his own creative ‘seed’; in this viewpoint, patriarchy’s investment in systems that ensure proof of authorial possession results from the imperative of overcoming male anxiety over the ultimate uncertainty of biological paternity (14). 

Cautiously and conditionally speaking, psychoanalysis offers a theory of the psychic construction of gender identity on the basis of repression of sexuality. In doing so, it comes up with specific explanations to the question of what constitutes subjectivity, how we acquire gendered subjective grids and crucially describes the processes through which we internalize/legitimize normative regimes which appear to be normal, natural and inevitable. In addition, it offers a conceptual framework within which femininity and masculinity can be reconceptualised, and a theory of consciousness, language and meaning. The feminist consciousness is the consciousness of victimization and as a philosophy of life, it seeks to identify and alter the more subtle and deep-seated causes of women’s oppression; by implication it is an intellectual apparatus capable of sensitising entire cultures, depending on other factors such as cultural orientation, cognitive positioning and zeitgeist. 

If language is primarily a male-dominated system of signification, those who find themselves outside it are bound to face the partial or complete absence of tools to effectively signify with.  Das’s story “Lies”, notable for its linguistically rich and semantically dense texture, shows the possible ways in which gendered permutations decide one’s relative self. It shows how gender gets relegated into a secondary causative role in determining one’s subject positions and in casting identity. A close-reading of the story by highlighting the preponderance of certain linguistic items and features reveals how the mechanisms and modalities of the said operation function in a given society.

In the story the focalization is that of a boy—Appu—who is trying to ‘fix’ words and ‘stabilize’ meanings. That is, he narratively stabilizes meanings and seeks to conclusively prove an incident (the illicit sexual relation that his father had with a woman named Stella while his mother was away) that has confused and traumatized him. The incident is all the more rattling because he is angry with his father who is practically functioning as an agency of separation between his mother and himself, paving the way for his forced entry into the symbolic order of language. As Nancy J. Chodorow argues, persons take their place in the world as subjects through entry into the symbolic, into language and culture and this acquisition of subjectivity takes place through the intervention of the figure of the father into the imaginary mother-child dyad, which is conceived to be conceptually and emotionally outside of language and culture; he is symbolized by his phallus (which in turn symbolizes the prohibition of desire for the mother and the threat of castration) that institutes and constitutes this intervention (187-88).

Despite his attempts, Appu does not get hold of the right word to express himself, as a result of which spells of silence and uncertainty characterise his desperate attempts to define himself in terms of syntax and semantics.  We, as readers, oscillate between fixities and fluidities, between the stereotypes of gendered language and the more heterogeneous implications that prevent the closure of signification. The shift can be approached in terms of the narrator’s responses to the determinate and indeterminate experiences of his life, thus deriving a philosophy of conflicting contentions. 

The first thing that predisposes readers to question the veracity of Appu’s narrative is the different scales of time referred to in the story. His calm mother convincingly states that she has left him just for a couple of days, a period that becomes “so many days” for the boy. At another juncture, Appu’s father implies that the measures of time are different for the young and the old:

His father got up and said, closing the windows near his feet.
‘Stella will leave as soon as night falls’
‘Is not it night already?’
‘For kids, yes. But for adults it is going to be evening’. (Das, Kathakal, 26) 

In both instances we have neither proof nor obligation to believe that Appu is wrong and his parents are right or vice versa. The net result of this semantic impasse is that he fails in making sense within the given language. If at all he is generating sense, the operation is taking place within an indifferent, if not inimical, linguistic/cultural matrix that is not only pre-existing but decides his existence and actions. This ontological imbroglio shatters his grip of things because as Lacan opines:

what eludes the subject is the fact that his syntax is in relation with the unconscious reserve. When the subject tells his story, something acts, in a latent way, that governs this syntax and makes it more and more condensed. . .  We must distinguish between the resistance of the subject and that first resistance of discourse, when the discourse proceeds towards the condensation around the nucleus. For the expression resistance of the subject too much implies the existence of a supposed ego and it is not certain whether—at the approach of this nucleus—it is something that we can justifiably call an ego. (Four Fundamental 68) 

In the story the relation between Appu’s parents is neither problematic nor mysterious from the little boy’s perspective though the same simplicity and linearity are missing in the relation between the father and the son.  For him the father is the epitome of repression and desire: “Let mom understand how cruel dad is” (Das, Kathakal 26).  The father makes the mother sit on his lap and this action irritates Appu. For him the presence of the father, which interdicts the child from enjoying complete possession of the mother, is the introduction of a third element into the heretofore placid child-mother duality. It is the third element that constitutes his entry into language which is undecipherable to him: “Stella and dad talked in a language unknown to him for long...” (Das, Kathakal 28).  

This obscure language is the necessity of representing (as in a drama) one’s desires. It is important to realize that desires (like other epistemological exercises) can only be actuated in and represented through language, in the metonymic flow of the signifying chain, and that it will remain impossible to articulate the object of one’s desire, which is by definition inaccessible and insatiable. What Appu has found himself in is the same predicament—an alien world structured by disparate sensibilities, unfamiliar articulatory modes and above all overshadowed by the figure of the father who takes advantage of his privileged position.  Like an omnipotent and omniscient phantom, the father, the phallic symbol of paternal authority and the master signifier, retains his pre-eminence by hiding within the structures he governs. Even Appu’s mother is blinded by the screen that this master signifier has created. The only feasible option left to Appu is to compromisingly accommodate himself within the system (which he does not like) and to assimilate its structures so that at a later point of time he may be able to grasp and master it. Appu, in the vocabulary of Lacan:

. . . is not simply mastering his privation by assuming it, but that here he is raising his desire to be a second power. For his action destroys the object that it causes to appear and disappear in the anticipating provocation of its absence and its presence. His action thus negatives the field of forces of desire in order to become its own object to itself. (Ecrits 103) 

Given that the appropriate partner for jouissance is lack, the anguishing alienation that Appu experiences and the substitution he makes becomes a prerequisite in his transformation to a successful unit of the signifying system. As the first step he ceases to be a subject without a symptom.  The mode of the privileged jouissance of the subject is fixed by the new symptoms which are concomitant with the new order; paradoxically it is the symptom that makes the singularity of the subject, otherwise passively subjected to the great law of want-to-be. The symptom is a logical function of exception relative to the infinite work, the infinite ciphering of the unconscious. 

The master signifier that Appu begins to quest for by surrendering himself to its authority and by erasing his existence is a mirage as it is always elsewhere and is perpetually deluding: he has access to the higher order and the ultimate goal only through the Other, by succumbing to its transcendental might, a condition that can best be described as negatively proxy, as the culmination of the Oedipal moment which arises with the introduction of the father.  The Lacanian cutting of the mother-daughter dyad offers one level of understanding on which the literal cutting of the body reverberates. If the daughter is to evolve into a subject, she must reject her mother, cut herself free and enter the symbolic. She uses imagination, language and narration to emancipate herself from the mother in the pre-symbolic realm. As a boy Appu identifies with a girl and experiences the travails of the aforesaid separation. It is through narration that he attempts to establish himself. However his narrative, unfortunately, is far from adequate and invariably fails him. 

Appu’s attempts at word-fixing and to systematically narrate what happened in the absence of the mother along with the ways in which the father short-changes him form the leitmotif of the story “Lies”.  He is torn between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ events, definite views and blurred visions, and finally between the limits of his linguistic freedom that is predicated on sexual freedom.  It is the complacent certainties of a patriarchal culture that bring him to a communicative cul-de-sac. His ratiocinations lead him to an aporia as a result of which the narrative line becomes zigzag, and gets characterised by unanswered questions and negatives which evoke a sense of doubt and despair: “Who is lying? Father or myself? Were my actions of mounting the horse and Stella’s arrival dreams?” (Das, Kathakal 28).  

The process and performance of narration are transcultural and thus are of universal importance, especially in the context of the feminine as the sole mode of expression. This holds true in the case of characters like Appu who are consigned to the inferior groves ascribed to the female by patriarchy.  As Judith Roof observes, narrative constantly reproduces the phantom of articulated system, where even the concept of a system is a product of narrative, where the idea that there are such things as parts and wholes is already an effect of a narrative organizing (213). We can identify the unstable contours in the discursive geography and abrupt dislocations of Appu as ‘female’ by a privileging of this fluidity. In this context we have to remember that women writers often establish a subversively different focalization by undermining definiteness of judgement and fixity of focus like the cultural construct which sees female sexuality as heterogeneous and open. The radical disruption of modernity’s ostensibly static significatory patterns have often been associated and connected with the feminine (Jones 26).  In other words, what decides the familiar gender attributes is not the biological sex but the spatial and linguistic configurations in which one finds himself or herself. Gender ceases to be absolute but is overdetermined by the unconscious and the signifier as the relation of the subject to the signifier is the reference point because “it is as primary and constitutive in the establishment of analytic experience as it is primary and constitutive in the radical function of the unconscious” (Lacan, Four Fundamental 138). 

The Smell of the Bird

The disorienting question of signification closely associated with the epistemological puzzle of the blurred and often imperceptible line of demarcation between the real and the non-real informs Das’ celebrated story “The Smell of the Bird”.  A taut narrative abounding in surrealistic images, the story strives to get out of the discursive maze of the unsaid and the ineffable; it is a bid to come into grips with the fluidity of signification.  Lacan’s observation that we must return to the works of the Dutch surrealist painter Hieronymus Bosch for an atlas of all the aggressive images that torment mankind and for the prevalence that psychoanalysis has discovered among them (Ecrits 11) holds equally good for the story under consideration. 

It is through the focalization of a smug woman that the story unfolds itself. She is literally living in an imaginary order, ensconcing herself on a perfect image offered by the mirror, or in a world of narcissistic illusion, as postulated by Lacan about the intricate mechanisms of the mirror stage and the imaginary order:

She opened her bag, took out her pocket mirror and examined her face. She decided she was ‘good looking’. What if she demanded eight hundred rupees? They would be lucky to get an employee like her—with education, status, and the experience gained through travelling in foreign countries... (Das, The Sandal Trees 53-54) 

It is amidst worries that she finds this emotional oasis in an imaginary world generated by the mirror. For instance she fails in finding another person of her sex; cruel and dominating male gaze irritates her so much so that she feels she is the sole object of their gaze (“All eyes were on her, she felt. I shouldn’t have come”, 53). As Lacan would have it, gaze is not simply an empowering panoptic tool wielded by an unequivocally masculine, unified, viewing subject to objectify the viewed figure of woman, but a reciprocal function constituting a non-fixed subjectivity in relation to a fantasized other; the gaze, in Lacan’s terminology ‘photographs’ the subject:

What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside. It is through gaze that I enter light and it is from the gaze that I receive its effects. Hence it comes about that the gaze is the instrument through which light is embodied and through which—if you will allow me to use a word, as I often do, in a fragmented form—I am photographed... Only the human subject—the human subject, the subject of the desire that is the essence of man—is not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. (Four Fundamental 10-17) 

The gaze in the story heavily impacts on her. She feels hemmed in and begins to regret coming there, and the bitter realization that a return is impossible sets in: “Why did I get into the middle of these men drowned in sweat? . . . But she couldn’t go back” (53). In her case, the gaze is dialectical as her desire to be recognized is clear though she is unprivileged to return the gaze, and as a logical fallout lets herself to be reduced into a mere object to be looked at. As Laura Mulvey observes, in a world ordered by sexual imbalance the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly; in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness  (179-81). 

Despite sincere attempts, she fails in finding her destination in the labyrinthine building:  “She walked and walked, moving past a number of doors, but she couldn’t find the board she was looking for” (Das, The Sandal Trees 53); and finally she is subjected to a pivotal misreading:  “And there was a board on which was written: ‘Dying’. She found the spelling error amusing. She asked herself: Instead of dyeing textiles, is it death that takes place here?” (53). Such crises, imperfections and indeterminate significations push her into a symbolic realm from which she tries to find emotional refuge in an imaginary world. This is an extended realm of misrecognitions inaugurated at the mirror stage and shares a most subtle and volatile relation with the symbolic. As Malcom Bowie holds:

The Imaginary grows from the infant’s experience of his ‘specular ego’ but extends far into the adult individual’s experience of others and of the external world: wherever a false identification is to be found—within the subject, or between one subject and another, or between subject and thing—there the Imaginary holds sway. Although the two orders are distinct and opposed, the Symbolic encroaches upon the Imaginary, organizes it, and gives it direction: the false fixities of the Imaginary are exposed, and coerced into movement, by the signifying chain. (114-15)

The signifying chain that exposes the false fixities of the imaginary and propels the subject into movement lands her in a phantasmagorical world saturated with paradox and dialectical relations. Paradigmatic variations of the binary attraction/revulsion are to be found throughout the story. She feels the pangs and passions of being caught between the different world orders of death/life and purity/sin. For her, who is already familiar with the smells of death, the relation with the young man who symbolizes death is fluxional:

He lay back in his chair, winked at her and smiled. She felt that white smile suddenly spreading in her eyes. Her knees trembled. She ran towards the door. But her sweaty hands couldn’t open it. Her eyes had turned moist. . . .  He rose from the chair and came towards her. He was very tall. She said: “Please let me go. I never wanted to come here.”  

“It is a lie. How many times have you tried to come here! And how many times have you yearned for a comfortable end! Aren’t you like the river which craves to fall into the sea that’s full of tender waves and heaves a great sigh, to merge into it lazily, indolently? Tell me, my love, don’t you love to feel that endless caress?” (Das, The Sandal Trees 54-56)

The story is rich in olfactory, visual and auditory metaphors  like the odour of putrid wounds, the fragrance of fruit groves, the smell of incense; her action of watching yellow flowers and oleanders; and the roaring, clamouring darkness that heralds death. These images enhance the surrealistic and fluid nature of the story and reduce the reader into an equally fluid situation. 

Invitation to Suicide 

Among other works of Das that problematize the delicate relation between life and death—and word and meaning—are the poems “The Invitation” and “Suicide”.  In the first it is the “garrulous” sea that the narrative voice has as the addressee which in turn becomes her own ex-centric alter ego—one characterized by incoherent spatial and temporal coordinates.  She is aware of the absurdity in waiting for the lover who has left her forever. However, gains and losses are intertwined and often become the psychic manifestations of the same emotion: “Your losses are my gains” (Das, “Invitation” 26). But ultimately the narrator, despite her conscious attempts to desist from the lure of death, is tempted by the primordial wish to embrace death, a state which is blissfully free from language, culture and symbols. Desire is beyond conscious articulation since it is barred from articulation. Since its production through repression is a constitutive mark of the unconscious upon which it bestows its signifying effects, desire undermines conscious activity and speaks through demand; desire requires meditation, is intrinsically inter-subjective and desires the desire of an Other, and thus is a movement which is transpersonal and directed to others (Grosz 64-65). Thus the articulated desire in the poem becomes  an unconscious quest for death and to transcend the prevailing order of signification and being. The functioning of the unconscious has an embedded element of surprise too. Lacan says that the unconscious is always manifested as that which vacillates in a split in the subject from which emerges a desire that can be situated in the denuded metonymy of the discourse in question where the subject surprises himself in some unexpected way (Four Fundamental 28). It is such an unexpected decision that we come across at this juncture:

The tides beat against the walls, they
Beat in childish rage.
Darling, forgive, how long can one resist? ( Das, “Invitation” 26).

In the poem “Suicide” too the image of the sea is the interlocutor-cum-other. It is generally interpreted as a revolt against the masculine character of civilization but at the same it shows the poet’s restlessness with woman’s passive acceptance of servility  (Kaur 106). The poem begins by depicting the paradox of being torn between the soul without body and body without soul. It then sees life and death as phases of the same chain (Das, Only the Soul 86). What follows is an impassioned description of the pangs of the symbolic which is the product and precondition of culture. The mockery aimed at the system is clear from the repeated use of the imperative ‘must’. Visibly, even if a woman is unhappy as a woman or as a wife, she must pretend that she is happy to remain within the web of power. But there is no option for the woman. She must “pose”, “pretend” and “act” her satisfaction with her position as the “inessential”, the “accidental”, the “Object”, the “Other” (Kaur 106).  What the narrator needs is a new system, the entry into which coincides with the conception of sexual difference organized around the presence or absence of the phallus. As Julia Kristeva suggests, the symbolic is a social effect of the relation to the other and is established through the objective constraints of biological differences and concrete historical family structures (96-97). What the narrative voice looks for is an order capable of transcending the current constructs of the symbolic and the cultural. 


The stories and poems of Das are mostly read as a frontal attack against the patriarchal values that have ruled our society for long. As members of a reading community that still prefers traditional strategies of placing premium on the symbiotic correspondence relation between the writer and the written, we have decoded works including the autobiography of Das as the textual manifestation of the disturbed female psyche. Such methods are logical as far as they go. However we feel that it is high time we took the reading strategies further afield. It can doubtlessly be stated that when read by positioning ourselves safely away from the narrow perception the works of Das put forth a universal sensibility which transcends regional boundaries and more importantly the divide between male and female.


1. Kamala Das embraced Islam in 1999 and rechristened herself Kamala Surayya. 
2. Generally speaking most of the Western thinkers have tended to view writing as a contaminated version of speech. In Plato we read the story of King Thamus who refused the art of writing offered by Thoth on the grounds that writing is a dangerous gift which substitutes inscriptions for the authentic living presence of the spoken language. For Ferdinand de Saussure, spoken word alone constitutes the object of study in linguistics. According to Roman Jacobson letters never or only partially reproduce the distinctive features on which the phonemic pattern is based. In the case of Aristotle spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Thus, as Derrida suggests, writing was seen as the dissemination of the natural, primary and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos. For a detailed discussion see Sreekumar 44-47. 

Works cited 

Bowie, Malcom. Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction. Cambridge UP, 1990.
Chavan, Sunanda P. The Fair Voice: A Study of Indian Women Poets in English. Sterling Publishers, 1984.
Chodorow, Nancy J. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. Polity P, 1989.
Das, Kamala. “The Invitation.” Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets. Edited by R. Parthasarathy. Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 25-26.   
---. Madhavikkuttiyute Kathakal. Current Books, 1998.
---. Only the Soul Knows How to Sing. DC Books, 1996.
---. The Sandal Trees. Translated by V.C.Harris and C.K.Mohammed Ummar, Disha, 1995.
Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus. Oxford UP, 1988. 
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. Routledge, 1990.
Jones, Amelia. Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge UP, 1994.
Kaur, Iqbal. “Sexual Politics and Kamala Das” Indian Women Novelists Set II; Vol 1. Edited by R.K. Dhavan, Prestige Publishers, 1993, pp. 102- 40. 
Kristeva, Julia.  “Revolution in Poetic Language” The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. Edited by Anthony Elliot, Blackwell Publishers, 1999, pp. 90-135.  
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Tavistock, 1977.
---.  The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Penguin , 1994. 
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Narrative Reader. Edited by Martin  Mac Quillan, Routledge, 2000. pp. 177- 81. 
Roof, Judith. “Come as You Are: Sexuality and Narrative.” Narrative Reader. Edited by Martin Mac Quillan, Routledge, 2000. pp. 212- 19. 
Sreekumar, P.K. Stopping by Words on a Snowy Evening. PEN, 1999. 
P. K. Sreekumar
Associate Professor
Dept. of English
Maharaja’s College (Govt. Autonomous)
Ernakulam, Pin: 682011
Ph: +91 9526071957
email: sreekumarpk@maharajas.ac.in
ORCID ID 0000-0003-1966-8564


Priya Jose K
Associate Professor
Dept. of English
Maharaja’s College (Govt. Autonomous)
Ernakulam, Pin: 682011
Ph: +91 9847460517
email: priyajosek@maharajas.ac.in
ORCID ID 0000-0002-0197-0477

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