Reading Time: 5 minutes

The poem Nani by Kamala Das critiques societal inequality and the exploitation of marginalised individuals. Nani, the housemaid, symbolises poor, marginalised and victimised women in the feudal world.

In the poem, Nani is a maid working in the poet’s house when the latter is young. Being pregnant, she committed suicide. The poet says that being young, she thought Nani might be amusing them while she was hanging dead. Some years later, when the poet grew up, she asked her grandmother about Nani, but the latter behaved like she never existed.

The poet points out that the family members, especially her grandmother, ignored the question about Nani either because they wanted to forget even the thought of Nani or to protect the family’s image.

Summary

The poet begins by saying that Nani, the pregnant maid, hanged herself one day. She was hanging there for three long hours and seemed careless to the young poet. She would move only when the wind blew and stroked the rope. For the children, including the poet, it seemed that Nani was doing a comic dance to delight them.

The first part of the poem throws light on the incident of the maid’s suicide, who was pregnant. The poet explains the events that followed from the perspective of a child. Her hanging from the top by the rope made the young children think she was trying to delight them. This stanza reveals two things – first, Nani was depressed and sad, probably because she was poor and hence was fearing the future of the child in her womb, and second, the children liked Nani as she would often try to amuse them. This is the reason why the poet and other children are not surprised by her hanging.

The poet then says that shrubs grew fast, the summer ended, and the once green flowers turned yellow were scattered all along the walls. The lines symbolise that time passed rapidly after that incident, and that place where Nani committed suicide was abandoned by the family. As Nani was friendly to the children, the poet says that place was just like a shrine of Nani, a dead Goddess.

After one or two years, she asked her grandmother about Nani, who was dark and plump and used to bathe her near the well. The grandmother, wearing the reading glasses on her nose, stared at her and, instead of answering, asked the poet, “Nani, who is she?” Her cross-question can either mean that she was deliberately trying to forget Nani and that incident or that she did not want to upset Kamala by narrating the sad story of that poor woman.

The poet says that with that cross-question of her grandmother, the thought and story of Nani vanished away. According to her, each truth ends with a query like that. However, it does not mean that her thoughts will cease to live in the minds of the people who pretend to have forgotten. The designated deafness her grandmother showed turns morality into immorality, the definite into the soft indefinite, i.e., forgettable thing into unforgettable.

The poet is probably trying to suggest that discussing such horrible incidents is far better than hiding them. The poet considers those luckier and happier who ask questions but move on before getting the answers. Instead, they prefer to avoid going deep into the truth. The poet says they are wise because they remain silent like the blue sky. Their minds never fall into doubt as they have a kind of peace in their life as they believe that the chicks in the eggs of Koel will one day come out and sing, the lust is always in the blood of humans, and finally, the sap is in the tree though nobody can see all these things. Those who would try to go into these things will be doubtful, in chaos. They can never be in peace. 

Analysis

In Nani, Kamala Das portrays the character of Nani, the housemaid, as a symbol of society’s marginalised and victimised individuals. Through vivid imagery and poignant language, Das depicts Nani’s struggles and sacrifices as she navigates the harsh realities of her existence.

The poem highlights the stark contrast between the lives of the wealthy and the impoverished, with Nani serving as a reminder of the injustices faced by the poor and marginalised. Her portrayal as a housemaid symbolises the exploitation and mistreatment of women in low socioeconomic positions, particularly within feudal societies where power dynamics often exacerbate inequalities.

While Nani illuminates the wealthy’s cruelty and indifference toward the poor, it may not necessarily be framed as a direct protest against feudal oppression. Instead, it serves as a commentary on the human condition and society’s power, privilege, and exploitation complexities.

Social Critique

Through the character of Nani, Kamala Das protests the harsh reality of class and economic disparities. Her poem serves as a social critique of the feudal attitudes that persist within modern societies, where the rich maintain power over the poor through exploitative labour practices.

Symbolic Representation

Nani is more than just a character; she symbolises the collective suffering of marginalised and victimised women. She exemplifies the plight of people experiencing poverty, especially women who are doubly marginalised by their gender and socioeconomic status.

Voice for the Voiceless

By telling Nani’s story, Kamala Das gives voice to those who are often voiceless. Das’s focus on Nani’s experience draws attention to the silent struggles of countless women who suffer in obscurity, bringing their stories into the public eye.

Empathy and Emotional Resonance

Das’s portrayal of Nani is likely filled with empathy. She weaves a narrative meant to resonate with the reader emotionally. The poem challenges the reader to confront the uncomfortable realities of social injustice and the pain it inflicts on individuals.

Nani powerfully and evocatively portrays the struggles faced by marginalised individuals, particularly women, within hierarchical and oppressive social structures. It invites readers to reflect on issues of inequality and injustice while celebrating the resilience and strength of those who defy societal constraints to assert their humanity and dignity.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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