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My Mother at Sixty-Six Summary, Poetic Devices, & Analysis

“My Mother at Sixty-Six” is a lyric poem written by Kamala Das. Kamala Das is one of the female poets of India who deliberately shed off the age-old customs and conventions of society through her poetry. She voiced her opinion in a clear and straightforward manner. If readers have gone through her poem “Introduction”, they can understand how powerful her voice is.

Her poems always have an appealing voice that lingers in the mind of the readers. What is at her heart, she says it directly without any exaggeration. Her directness of speech is also visible in her poem “My Mother at Sixty-Six”. The way she deals with such a soft topic is commendable. Her speaker’s “smile” at the last few lines of this piece says much more than words can convey.

Why did her speaker smile at the end? Why does Kamala Das use ellipsis there? To know the answers dive deeper into the analysis.

My Mother at Sixty-Six by Kamala Das


Summary

The poem “My Mother at Sixty-Six” begins in a story-like manner. Once the poetic persona or the poet herself was heading towards Cochin to catch the flight. Now the place is also known as Kochi which is situated in Kerala.

While she was on the way, driving the car, she suddenly looked at her mother’s face. The old lady was sleepy and she was dozing open-mouthed. Her face resembled that of any aged person. The speaker could see some signs of pain on her face. It is natural, her only daughter was leaving her behind.

Putting off the thoughts of her mother she looked outside the car. She saw the “young trees” rapidly going behind (for the speed of her car). Children were coming out of their homes happily to play.

Thereafter the poet quickly shifts to the scene of the airport’s security checking. She was standing a few yards away from her mother. She looked at her pale face again. A chilling sensation of fear concerning her mother’s imminent death made her numb. Nothing crossed her mind instead of the gloomy face of death. She could only utter a customary goodbye to her amma. Then she put on a mask of a smile and left.

Glossary

  • Cochin: Cochin or Kochi is a city in Kerala (Line 2: “home to Cochin last Friday”)
  • Doze: to sleep lightly, nap (Line 5: “doze, open-mouthed, her face”)
  • Ashen: very pale or colorless, resembling the color of ashes (Line 6: “ashen like that”)
  • Corpse: a dead body (Line 7: “of a corpse and realised with pain”)
  • Sprinting: running (Line 12: “Trees sprinting, the merry children spilling”)
  • Spilling out: overflowing (Line 12 & 13: “the merry children spilling/ out of their homes …”)
  • Wan: pale, ashen (Line 15: “away, I looked again at her, wan, pale”)
  • Ache: pain (Line 17: “familiar ache, my childhood’s fear”)


Meaning of the Title

The title of the poem introduces the main subject matter of the poem. It is about the poet’s sixty-six-year-old mother. At the time of writing this poem, she was of that age and her face reflected the signs of her imminent death. Kamala Das is not pointing merely at her mother’s age. She is writing about her physical condition at that critical juncture of her life. Through this poem, the poet reflects on the approaching death of her aging mother.

Instead of crying, she accepts reality and puts up a smile on her face. Though her heart is broken to think about the fact, her mind knows how to heal it. A smile is enough to pacify the aching soul. We cannot change reality. So it is important to learn the art of forgetting things. Our thoughts keep us bound to our sadness. When we release ourselves from the chains of worldliness, our soul becomes free. Whether it was the case with the speaker, is a matter of introspection.

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme

Form

Kamala Das’ “My Mother at Sixty-Six” consists of 24 lines having uneven line lengths. It is a lyric poem as the poem is written from the first-person point of view. The poet directly introduces herself in the poem by using the pronoun “I”. She talks briefly about an incident of her life in the poem. What she thought on that day while leaving her old mother behind, is described in this piece.

If readers closely analyze the lines of the poem, they can find the absence of full stops or end-stopped lines. It infers that it is written in the form of a single chain of thoughts.

When a person is thinking about something deeply, he or she visualizes the thoughts in a single flow. Das was also thinking about her mother’s face while she left her mother at the airport. She shares what thoughts appeared in her mind. That’s why she doesn’t use any full stop to break her thought process in the middle. It is called the stream-of-consciousness technique. This form concerns an unending stream of thoughts that flows ceaselessly in the mind.

Meter

The overall poem is mostly written in the trochaic meter. The use of falling rhyme depicts a sense of grief. In this poem, the sound scheme in each line rises and falls like the breathing of a sad person. Das’s persona displays her pain of losing her mother. Through the metrical composition, she suggests this feeling.

Let’s have a look at how the first few likes look after scansion.

Dri-ving/ from my/ pa-rent’s

home to/ Co-chin/ last Fri/-day

mor-ning,/ I saw/ my moth(e)r

be-/side me,

doze,/ o-pen/ mouth-ed,/ her face

ash-en/ like that

of a corpse/ and rea/-lised with pain

that she/ was as/ old as/ she

looked/ but soon

Lines 1 to 9 consist of a combination of trochaic and iambic meters. A trochaic foot contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (For example, “Dri-ving”, “home to,” etc.). Whereas an iambic foot has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (For example: “I saw/ my moth(e)r“).

The metrical composition presents an air of sadness blowing into the speaker’s head. In this poem, the falling rhythm, and the word choice help readers to understand her mental state.

Rhyme Scheme

“My Mother at Sixty-Six” is written in free verse. It means the text does not contain rhyming lines. Das uses internal rhyming and short lines to maintain the pace and flow of this piece. Besides, the use of repetition of similar sounds also helps the poet to create rhyming. For the absence of conventional rhyming, the rhythm of the text follows the scheme of a day-to-day speech.

Poetic Devices

In “My Mother at Sixty-Six,” there are several poetic devices. Those devices make the poet’s thoughts more appealing to readers. Let’s explore the poetic devices used in the poem.

Enjambment

The most important literary device used in this poem is enjambment. Das does not use any stop marks throughout the text. She enjambs the lines to create a chain of thoughts. Each line proceeds to the next line for completing a single idea. The whole idea becomes clear after going through a few lines. For example, the context becomes clear after reading the first four lines:

Driving from my parent’s

home to Cochin last Friday

morning, I saw my mother,

beside me,

Alliteration

It occurs in the phrase “my mother”. The “m” sound gets repeated at the beginning of these words. As the consonant sound is repeated, it is also an example of consonance. It can also be found in the following phrases:

  • Sixty-Six”
  • “put that thought”
  • smile and smile and / smile …” etc.

Simile

…her face

ashen like that

of a corpse…

Here the poet explicitly compares the color of her mother’s face to that of a corpse. The pale old face of her mother also makes the poet think about her future. She visualizes the image of funeral ashes while staring at her aging mother.

that she was as old as she

looked …

In these lines, the speaker compares the physical features of her mother to the signs of age by using the linker “as”.

… I looked again at her, wan, pale

as a late winter’s moon …

Here, the speaker compares her mother’s face to a “late winter’s moon”. She uses the image of the moon to depict the similarities between the color of her mother’s face and that of the moon.

Personification

… Young

Trees sprinting

The poet capitalizes the first letters of both of these words “Young” and “Trees”. She does so for personifying the trees. Here the poet invests the trees with the idea of sprinting. The phrase also contains a personal metaphor. Here, the poet uses a personal adjective to describe the trees.

Metaphor

There is an interesting metaphor in the line:

… the merry children spilling

out of their homes

Here the energy and spontaneity of the children are compared to a glass full of liquid. The glass or the container is their home. The children are the liquid that fills the home with laughter and joy. By looking at the kids, it seems they are spilling out their energy while playing.

late winter’s moon

This phrase contains a metaphor too. Through this phrase, the poet portrays the pale-white color of the moon during winter’s end. It is comparable to the face of an aged person.

Metonymy

  • The phrase “merry children” is a metonym for freshness and liveliness. The variety used here is “symbol for the thing symbolized”.
  • A similar use of metonymy can be found in the phrase “late winter’s moon”. It is a metonym for death and old age.

Tautology

away, I looked again at her, wan, pale

“Wan” and “pale” both have the same meanings. Repeating the words having a similar meaning is called tautology in figurative language.

Palilogy and Polysyndeton

all I did was smile and smile and

smile …

In the last line of the poem, readers can find two literary devices. Firstly, the conjunction “and” is used twice for the sake of emphasis. It is called polysyndeton.

Secondly, the same word “smile” is repeated thrice. It is called a palilogy. These two poetic devices belong to the figures based on construction.

Line-by-Line Critical Analysis

Lines 1-7

Driving from my parent’s

(…)

of a corpse…

In the first few lines of the poem “My Mother at Sixty-Six,” Kamala Das paints the picture of a speaker and her mother sitting in a car and heading towards the Cochin airport. While she was on the way, her eyes suddenly found her old mother sitting in the car and dozing. From the second line of the poem, it is clear that the speaker is recapitulating the scene after some days of leaving her mother. The scene is made up of her mental reflection. She reflects on the departure and most importantly on her aging mother.

Her mother was dozing while she was in the car. From the description, it can be inferred that she was not physically well. Drowsiness is a common symptom of old age. It is common in elderly people.

The poet uses a metaphor of death in the line, “her face/ ashen like that/ of a corpse”. The epithet “ashen” depicts her mother’s approaching death.

Old age is a critical juncture between life and death. At this stage, the body starts to deteriorate. The face reflects the age-worn pain borne by the heart. Seeing her mother’s face, there sparks a pain in her heart. Readers can easily sense this pain in the upcoming lines.

Lines 7–13

… and realised with pain

(…)

out of their homes,

The condition of her mother is disheartening. She is well aware of reality. Still, there is an unknown fear in her heart. The age of sixty-six is a critical moment in any person’s life. Exceptions are always there but the poet’s mother is dropping beneath her age’s burden.

In the first few lines of this section, the poet discloses that she was as old as she looked. These lines are a bit tricky. The poet might have meant that the lady mentally accepted her age. Here, she introduces the paradox of mental age and physical age through her words.

The image of the old mother is in stark contrast with the imagery of the “young trees” and “merry children”. Collectively, these images create a contrast between life and death. Inside the car, her aging mother gave her feelings of grief, and outside of the car nature was brimming with joy and vitality.

If readers look outside of the car along with the speaker, they can see green trees full of vitality and energetic children running out of their houses to play.

In the last few lines of this section, the cloud of despair disappears. However, the overall poem is written in a despairing and depressing tone. Those images act like a frail ray of the blushing sun in the cloudy monsoon days.

Lines 13-20

… but after the airport’s

(…)

smile …

Kamala Das quickly shifts to reality again. Her speaker recalls the moment when she was standing at the airport’s security check. Her mother was a few yards away. She looked back at her mother’s pale face. Her face seemed to her as the “late winter’s moon”. Winter comes last in the seasonal cycle. Hence it is a metaphor of death. In this phrase, the moon is used to symbolize the color of her mother’s face.

In the next section, the poetic persona hints at her childhood fear. She is referring to the fear of her mother’s approaching death in a roundabout manner. As a child, she might have thought that someday her mother was going to leave her alone. She cannot change that. Now the time has come closer.

At the moment of leaving, several thoughts were running in her mind. But, she could say nothing more. She was not sure about whether she could see her again or not. All she had was hope. With a smile on her face, she left.

The smile does not emerge from the happy memories she had with her mother. It is signaling her despair. She knows every mortal being is destined to die. This awareness made her numb and she could not utter anything, even a hearty goodbye.

How could she say anything, instead of putting a smile on her face?

Themes

Death

The theme of death is the most significant aspect of “My Mother at Sixty-Six”. Kamala Das depicts the theme by using the image of the aging mother and especially her face. In the first encounter, the speaker’s mother is dozing open-mouthed. The complexion of her face resembles that of a deceased. In the next image, the speaker is standing in the airport. This time she uses the words “wan” and “pale” to describe her mother’s face. These adjectives are closely associated with a dying person.

Old Age

The poet illustrates the immobility and stiffness of old age. She presents how it makes a person weak and fragile through the image of her mother. Her pale face is a representation of pessimism as well as death. Although it is not clear that she is suffering from any ailment or not, her choice of words reveals it. In this way, the poet makes use of the theme of old-age through the depiction of her mother.

Life and Living

Apart from the themes of death and old age, there is also the theme of life and hope. Kamala Das only uses two images regarding it. One is of the “Young Trees” and another is of the children spilling out of their homes. The trees symbolize life and the children symbolize life’s spontaneity. Whereas the emotive image of her mother’s face portrays the futility of life. In contrast, the children running out of their houses depict the bright side of life.

The poet takes us to her internal world. She shares her intimate thoughts and makes readers her compatriot of the pain she felt on that day. She is aware of the fact that she has to leave her aging mother behind at some point. It is true that the process is painful and takes a lot of effort to forget one’s loved ones. But it’s life. Moving on with the freshness of the morning, leaving the ashes of night, is the art of living.

Mother-Daughter Relationship

Kamala Das also presents the theme of the mother-daughter relationship. This poem contains a daughter’s feelings about her mother who is standing on the verge of death. The pale face of her old mother pains her deep. She feels marooned in this journey of life whenever the thought of her mother’s death appears in her mind. At the moment of departure when she looked at her mother, she was speechless to think that she was going to die one day. She could not say anything instead of smiling by hiding her tears.

Tone

The first few lines of Kamala Das’s “My Mother at Sixty-Six” are written using a depressing and sad tone. Das’s speaker describes her mother in a direct tone. Though she is sympathetic towards her mother, she realistically talks about her face. It looks like that of any aged person. There is an ashen look at her face. This word hints at her mother’s approaching death. While talking about these things, her tone is straightforward.

In the following lines, she describes how nature is filled with the vitality of life. Here, the tone becomes a bit uplifting and hopeful. However, it changes in the upcoming lines. It imitates the tone of the first section of the poem.

Towards the end of the poem, the speaker hints at her childhood fear of losing her mother. These lines reflect the tone of pain. It is the pain of losing a dear one.

Historical Context

The poem “My Mother at Sixty-Six” was published in 1999. In the same year, Kamala Das converted to Islam. She was 65 years old then. After reading the poem, it seems that Kamala Das is recalling the memory of her mother. Her mother Balamani Amma was also a writer. Kamala followed her mother’s path and excelled in the field.

In this poem, Das depicts the scene of leaving her mother at the airport. The event probably happened after her marriage. She was married at the early age of 15. While leaving her mother, several thoughts appeared in her mind. But, without saying anything to her mother, she left with a smile.

Ironically, she recalls the memory at the age of 65. She might have been thinking about what her mother would have thought on that day. It made her emotional and she penned down this lyric. While writing, a similar sense of mortality was vivid in her mind as she was also in her sixties.

FAQs

What is the irony in “My Mother at Sixty-Six”?

The irony of this piece is that the speaker did not actually smile while leaving her mother at the airport. Though she would have smiled apparently, she was sobbing inside her mind.

How does the poem bring out the irony of human relationships?

Kamala Das brings out the irony of human relationships by portraying how her speaker left her mother at the airport. She knew that her mother was going to die soon. Still, she had to left her alone.

What is the message of “My Mother at Sixty-Six”?

The message of this piece lies in the attitude of the speaker towards her mother. Her departure signifies that everyone has to leave their loved ones someday.

What poetic devices are used in “smile and smile and smile”?

The phrase contains tautology and polysyndeton.

What childhood fear did Kamala Das refer to in the poem? How did she hide it?

Kamala Das’s childhood fear dealt with the imminent death of her mother. She hid her fear behind the facade of smiling.

How does Kamala Das try to put away the thoughts of her aging mother?

To put away the thoughts of her aging mother, she looked outside the car and tried to rejuvenate her thoughts with the vitality of nature.

Why are the children said to be spilling out of their homes?

The children are depicted as a symbol of life and energy. It seemed to the poet that the children were spilling out their energy while playing.

How does Kamala Das capture the complex subtleties of human relationships in the poem?

Kamala Das captures the complex subtleties of human relationships through the attitude of the speaker towards her mother. Knowing the fact of her mother’s imminent death, she had to leave her behind. It depicts how one has to leave their loved ones at some point of life.

Why does the poet smile and what does she say while bidding goodbye to her mother?

The poet smiled to hide her pain. She did not want to show her true feelings to her mother as it would make her mother weak. She could only say, “see you soon, Amma.”

Why was her mother’s face like that of a corpse?

Her mother’s face was compared to a corpse for foreshadowing her approaching death.


A Mind Map

My Mother at Sixty-Six Mind Map
A Mind Map of “My Mother at Sixty-Six”


External Resources


More Kamala Das Poems to Explore

  • “An Introduction”
  • “A Hot Noon in Malabar”
  • “Dance of Eunuchs”
  • “A Request”
  • “Only the Soul Knows How to Sing”


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3 Comments

  1. This was excellent and so well-explained! Thank you so very much!

    1. We’re more than happy to help! Please rate the analysis if you wish. Let us know the names of some poems that you want us to analyze.

  2. Everything is amazingly explained and providing a mind map too is just a cherry on top! thanks a lot

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