The poem Nani by Kamala Das is a protest poem which reveals the cruelty of rich feudal towards the poor people. Nani, the housemaid symbolises poor marginalised and victimised woman in the feudal world.
In the poem, Nani was a maid working in the house of the poet when the latter was young. Being pregnant she committed suicide probably fearing that she might not be able to feed her child or she might have been raped by the landlord.
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 later behaved as if she never existed.
The poet points out that the family members (especially her grandmother) ignored the question about Nani either because they want to forget even the thought of Nani or to protect the image of the family.
I have divided the poem into three parts.
- Part 1 (Lines 1-8) describes the day when Nani committed suicide by hanging.
- Part 2 (Lines 8-18) describes the day (after 1 or 2 years when the poet happens to ask her grandmother about Nani but the latter attained “designed deafness”.
- Part 3 (Lines 19-29) describes the poet’s views that one cannot just forget something though they pretend to forget it. Those who succeed in doing so are the lucky ones.
Nani Poem Summary
The poet begins by telling that Nani, the pregnant maid hanged herself privately one day. She was hanging there for three long hours and seemed to be careless to the young poet.
She would make a movement only when the wind blew and stroke the rope. For the children including the poet, it seemed that Nani was doing a comic dance just to delight them.
The first part of the poet throws light on the incidence of 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 that she is trying to delight them.
This stanza reveals two things – first, Nani was depressed and sad probably because she was poor and hence was fearing about the future of the child in her womb and, second that Nani was liked by the children as she would often try to amuse the children. This is why the poet and other children are not surprised over her hanging. They rather think that she is trying to delight them.
The poet says that shrubs grew fast, the summer came to an end and the flowers (that were once green) turned yellow were scattered all along the walls. The lines symbolise that the time passed rapidly after that incidence.
And that place (private) where Nani committed suicide was abandoned by the family (they never visited that place after that incidence). As the Nani was quite nice (for the children), the poet says that that place was just like a shrine of Nani who was a dead Goddess.
After one or two years (the poet does not remember well the exact time as she was quite young), she asked her grandmother about Nani, the one who was like the dark plump and used to bath her near the well. Dark plump probably means that she had a dark round face.
The grandmother, who was wearing the reading glasses on her nose stared at her and instead of giving an answer, 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 her 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 (which one desires to now) ends with a query like that of her grandmother.
However, it does not mean that her thought will cease to live in the minds of the people who pretend to have forgotten. The designated deafness (i.e. pretending to know) which her grandmother showed is something that turns morality into immorality, the definite into the soft indefinite i.e. forgettable thing into unforgettable.
Probably she is trying to suggest that discussing such horrible incidents is far better than hiding them. It may also suggest that the atrocities on the woman is a vice because people refrain from discussing about it.
The poet considers those luckier and happier who ask questions but move on before getting the answers i.e. they rather prefer not to go deep into the truth. They, according to the poet, are wise because they remain silent like the blue sky.
Their minds never fall into doubts as they have a kind of peace in their life as they have 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 all these things cannot be seen by anybody.
Those who would try to go into these things will end up being doubtful, in chaos. They can never be in peace. Note that the idea of lust in the blood is a direct attack on the nature of man in society. They have lust embedded in their blood and I think the poet is trying to convey that Nani might be a victim of this lust though it has not been mentioned in the poem