“My Grandmother’s House” by Kamala Das: Critical Analysis (1965)


“My Grandmother’s House” by Kamala Das

Kamala Das
        Kamala Das

Published firstly in “Summer Time in Calcutta” in 1965, the autobiographical confessional poem “My Grandmother’s house” by Kamala Das is an emotional poetic reflection of her unfulfilled desire to revisit her grandmother’s ancestral house at Malabar in Kerala where she had spent her memorable childhood. Like her earlier poem “The Looking Glass”, this poem also reveals the poet’s constant pursuit and yearning for true love in life, or more closely her continuous failure to discover sentimental intimacy through love. Despondent in this process of searching for love while recollecting her childhood memories of her grandmother’s ancestral house, Das simultaneously evoked pessimistic elements like “wild despair, an armful of darkness” to contrast her present phase to the past and to suggest the deficiency of happiness and bliss in her present unstable life. The poem also captures suggestive visual imagery of blind eyes of windows and frozen air to convey the idea of death and desperation. Throughout, the dominant tone of the poem is melancholic and despondent. Here is the poem ” My Grandmother’s House by Kamala Das:

My Grandmother's House
My Grandmother’s House

There is a house now far away from where once
I received love……. That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence, snakes moved
Among books, I was then too young
To read, and my blood turned cold like the moon
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of windows or,

Just listen to the frozen air,
Or in wild despair, pick an armful of
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom door like a brooding
Dog…you cannot believe, darling,
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved…. I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?

The poem starts with Kamala Das nostalgically reminiscing about her grandmother’s house where she had spent her innocent childhood days and where she received immeasurable love from her grandmother but slowly and steadily, the house withdrew into ignominious silence and gloomy darkness after her grandmother’s excruciating demise. Here, ellipses  (few dots) in the second line describe the intensity of the poet’s extreme pain and sorrow at her grandmother’s death that she can not even express through words. Under her stillness subsisted a profound connotation of emotional attachment, affection, and love for her grandmother.

She recalls how the house was reigned by horrible silence and repulsive snakes aftermath the grandmother was sent for heavenly abode. Out of pain, her blood turned cold like the moon. She reveals her utter desire to revisit her ancestral house which unconditionally bestowed upon her pleasures and indulgences. It was once the territory of security and protection for the poet which is sadly absent in her new house. Now the house is existing in her imagination and possibly miles away from her present house.

Trying to overcome the feeling of frustration and anguish, she wanted to peep through the windows and resurrect her past but the air seemed frozen or still after her grandmother’s death. The poet pleads with us to listen to frozen air but it is just a case of impossibility. Neither the air is perceptible nor it can displace because it is frozen. She yearns to pick up an armful of darkness, to bring it here to lie behind my bedroom like- brooding dog. Apart from all the negativity that is associated with darkness, it is here employed as a positive connotation. It implies the protective shadow of comfort in the room.

An armful of darkness reflects the essence of her nostalgia. Therefore in wild desperation, she longs to bring some darkness from her ancestral house to her present ones that can constantly connect her with the golden memories of the old world. Against acute isolation and feeling of alienation, she finds even darkness- a precious thing to be preserved since it acts as a source of sustenance, hope, and life. With the vestiges of darkness, she can lie for hours like a brooding dog busy in contemplation and introspection. The brooding dog is the simile that the poet used to convey her inability to revisit that grandmother’s old house.

In the last lines of the poem, the poet had woven an ironic element to contrast the experience with the present. In their grandmother’s house, the poet received extreme unconditional love, care, and happiness but she is deprived of all this in her present life. It signifies how the poet has become wayward in their quest for love. Discontented with her loveless marriage, she hankers door to door like beggars seeking love at least in form of a small tip but all in vain. She talks of the scarcity of love in the same breathe and tone. In the pursuit of love, she is strongly gripped by the higher intensity of grief. Previously, she was ‘proud and didn’t need to compromise with her self-respect but now she is viciously clutched in the maze of male-monopolistic chauvinism. The entire texture of the poem reflects the grandmother as an embodiment of continuous love.

The speaker’s perception has undergone a radical change- ‘the house’ in beginning has a sense of cordial reception while ‘the door’ at the end represents the barrier to gain entry into the house connecting with love. Interestingly, in this sense, the present had made the poet conscious of the value of love that she received earlier. The poem springs from her disillusionment with her expectation of unconditional love from the one she loves. In the poem, the image of the ancestral home stands for the strong support and unconditional love she received from her grandmother. The imagery is personal and beautifully articulates her plight in a loveless marriage. Thus, the old house was for her a place of symbolic retreat to a world of innocence, purity, and simplicity, an Edenic world where love and happiness are still possible. Appreciating the descriptive beauty of the poem, the universality of themes, E.V.Ramakrishnan rightly says, “In her poetry, Kamala has always dealt with private humiliations and sufferings which are the stock themes of confessional poetry.”


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