Kamala Das – The House on Park Street (Summary)

Kamala Das

This short chapter is about Kamala Das’s early childhood when she lived in Calcutta. Even as a little girl, she could sense her parents’ incompatibility and felt rejected. Deprived of warmth and affection from the parents, the brother and sister spend time with the domestic staff. Her only happy memory from the time is that of Mr. Menon, who sat in the office below their flat. He was a kind man who made a large doll’s house for the author even before she asked for it.

The two things to appreciate in her writing are her complete honesty and power of observation. She doesn’t shy away from writing about the lovelessness she observes between her mother and father. Her memories of her childhood are vivid, indicating that even as a child she was a keen and sensitive observer.

Summary of ‘The House on Park Street’:

The Park Street Home’ is the second chapter of Kamala Das’s autobiography ‘My Story‘. Park Street was a famous, posh locality in Calcutta in pre-independence India. Her father was a senior executive at the Wolford Transport Company, selling luxury cars to princes and their relatives. The family lived above the repair yard of the transport company. In this chapter she describes her early life in Calcutta, where she and her brother went to a British school. Neglected by their parents, the sister and brother find ways to keep themselves occupied.

The chapter begins with a description of her parents’ wedding. Like many educated middle-class people, her father was deeply influenced by Gandhiji’s ideals of simplicity and nationalism. Kamala Das’ mother belonged to an upper-class family of landlords without much money, and when she got married her husband did not permit her to wear any gold jewellery or expensive clothes. She was asked to wear only khadi and that too only white or off-white. Read this passage carefully and note the honesty with which she comments on their relationship;

My mother did not fall in love with my father. They were dissimilar and horribly mismatched. (p. 4)

The author, even as a young child, sensed that her parents’ marriage was an ‘illusion of domestic harmony’ and that too because her mother remained timid. It requires immense courage to write so openly about the shortcomings of the people closest to you, especially your parents. In another part of her autobiography, Kamala Das writes about her own marriage; ‘As a marriage, in the conventional sense, mine was a flop.’ (p. 187) In the first chapter, Kamala Das talks about her mother who was ‘vague and indifferent’ towards her children, spending her time lying on her bed, writing poems, while her father was busy selling Rolls Royces and Bentleys.

Even as a young child, the author could sense the lack of appreciation in her parents’ eyes. Without any irony she writes;

We must have disappointed our parents a great deal. They did not tell us so, but in every gesture, and in every word it was evident. (p. 5)

She somehow thinks that the parents are indifferent towards them because both she and her brother were ordinary looking and had dark skin. Children in unhappy marriages often blame themselves for the problems between their parents. It must have been painful for her to look at herself this way. There’s no doubt her childhood was lonely; she describes their drawing room as one where visitors rarely came. At the same time this loneliness nurtured her ability to reflect and observe.

In an interview, Kamala Das once said,

“If I had been a loved person, I wouldn’t have become a writer . . .”

The six-year old Kamala has a special bond with her elder brother and the two children spend their time playing around the house, which was above the repair yard of the motor company for which their father worked. Pay attention to the description of their house;

We lived on the top-floor of the repair-yard of the motor car company. One had to climb thirty-six steps to reach our flat. Midway there was to the right an opening which led on to the servants’ quarters where night and day a faucet leaked noisily, sadly. There was a stench of urine which made one pause precisely on that step of the staircase wondering where it came from.

In the space of a few lines, the author describes sounds and smells; adds irrelevant and unimportant details like the number of steps, and uses a metaphor as well, ‘sadly’. All these together create a certain mood or atmosphere. Almost all good writers use this technique to create an authentic picture.

Discouraged by the parents’ emotional distance, Kamala and her brother try to stay away from them. They spend their time chatting with the gardener, the scavenger or the cook. Otherwise the children look for excitement in little things; like standing at the window and dangling rubber toys from a thread to surprise passers-by. However, they do find a friend in Mr. Menon, the store manager in the office downstairs, who is like a father figure. He is the only person who listens to them and talks to them. The author remembers his warmth and attention;

We had only one good friend, just one good friend who liked to touch our hands and talk to us about life in general. (p.6)

Kamala tells Mr. Menon about a doll’s house she saw at a friend’s place and he makes one for her; taking out the time to carve out little pieces of furniture and paint it. The children go and look at it frequently, thrilled with the smell of the red paint on the doll’s house.

The cook in their house is an ill-tempered fellow and shouts at the monkeys who steal food from their kitchen. He seems to be keen to go and settle in England, telling the scavenger that Mrs Ross, who is the wife of her father’s boss, will take him if he asks her to. Remember, the year is around 1941, with a strong British presence in Calcutta.

Kamala notices that the scavenger is served tea in a cup kept especially for him. It is an innocent child’s observation but points to the practice of untouchability in their household.

Glossary:

  • betrothal : engagement
  • khaddar : handwoven cotton fabric, symbol of India’s struggle for independence
  • widow’s weeds : black clothing worn by widows in Victorian England; ‘weeds’ is the old English word for garments/clothing
  • arid union : dry, barren, loveless relationship
  • swarthy skin : dark-coloured skin
  • monthly purgative of castor oil : it was common to give children castor oil to flush out toxins and remove parasites from the stomach.
  • scavenger : person employed to clean
  • puny, pale child : thin, unhealthy looking child
  • whittled : carved, as with wood
  • Vilayat : Urdu for foreign land, a name for England

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