BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
The shade of the trees,
The single hut,
A few flowers,
And a sky,
In the picture
That hangs on the wall.
As my eyes rest on the flowers,
My heart wanders
In search of
Of the painted hut.
—Pada Veettin Thanimai, Oru Maalaiyum, Innoru Maalaiyum (2000)
The most enduring memory Salma’s friends in the Tamil literary circle have of her is arguably the sight of her eating dosai. It was the first time most of them were meeting Salma.
Kalachuvadu Publications, which had only published seven books since it was revived in 1994, decided to launch four more to coincide with the World Tamil Conference, Chennai, in 2000. Among them was a compilation of Salma’s poems, Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum. Salma, who was as anonymous as Elena Ferrante at the time, decided to attend the conference on an impulse.
“It was her first exposure to a literary event. Her mother was a hesitant accomplice in this escapade. To travel alone was unthinkable!” her publisher Kannan Sundaram writes in his introduction to the German translation of her first novel, Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai.
Salma, who is now 48, told me her mother would accompany her everywhere. “It was considered wrong for a woman to go out alone. People in the village would say ugly things. Even later, when people knew who I was, my family would not let me travel alone—it was a question of the family’s honour. I would feel sorry for my mother. It was a traumatic experience for her to be at these literary meetings. She would be so bored, she would start nodding off within minutes of an event. People still tease me about it—they’d say, ‘Just like the mothers of cinema actresses accompany them everywhere, so does Salma’s mother.’” She smiled. “You know when I started travelling alone? When I had to go abroad.”
The famous dosai incident occurred years before that.
Kannan recounted the story in his introduction: “A few of us invited her to walk with us to a nearby restaurant. She glanced at her mother, and then receiving a silent message which we could not interpret, came with us. As we walked, it was obvious she had trouble negotiating the city’s crowded platforms and roads. In the restaurant it was a sight to watch her eat a dosai! Again a first! We teased her mercilessly but she enjoyed every bit of it—to this day she retains that sense of humour.”
Salma began to laugh when I asked her about it. She was not used to eating out. No one in her family liked to eat at restaurants. Before she was published, she would only visit cities when someone had to go to the hospital. They would leave after breakfast, and do their best to return before lunch.
“At the hotel, when they reeled off all these varieties of food, the only one I recognised was dosai,” she said, “So I asked for it. Then it took me an hour to finish eating. There were all these men around me, and I felt a sense of koocham (shyness).”
She was particularly averse to eating in public. Her parents had once taken her to Kodaikanal for the day to cheer her up—it was during the period when Salma was resisting marriage, threatening suicide every time they broached the subject. They thought a trip would do her good, and left for the hill station by the 5 a.m. bus. Salma remembers the smell of frying bajji on the street.
“My father bought a plate of molaga bajji for me,” she said, “I refused, because everyone else on the street seemed to be looking at me. I was so tempted to eat it, this steaming hot bajji in the cold of Kodaikanal. But I couldn’t.”
Now, she was surrounded by strangers who were keen to talk to the poet they so admired. She would not look at them. She stared at the leaf and picked at her dosai.
Salma is now described as a “controversial” poet. The “bold” language she uses is seen as having encouraged other young women writers to follow suit. However, when one knows the story of her life, one understands that she is tackling taboo subjects not to be sensationalist, but because she has lived them. Her language is non-conformist in the sense that the dialogue is realistic, uncensored.
It is perhaps to tell the story behind her work that Salma agreed to British filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s proposal to document her life in 2011.
Speaking on the phone, Kim told me she had first heard of Salma when she was at a film festival in Delhi, showing her Pink Saris (2010), a documentary on Sampat Pal. She had attended a women’s seminar during the festival.
“It was very, very depressing,” she said, “Everyone was being so negative, saying ‘Oh, things aren’t going to change.’ And then suddenly, Urvashi [Butalia] said, ‘Look, girls, there are things happening; we just never hear about them’, and she tells us about Salma, and I thought, ‘Ah! I’ve got to do it.’” Butalia’s Zubaan had published the English translation of Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (called The Hour After Midnight). Kim left India with copies of every work of Salma’s that had been translated. “You know, Nandini, I love this woman,” she told me, “She’s a brave, brave woman. What she does is this brave thing—talking about very personal things. It’s so easy to talk about politics in the abstract, which is what people normally do, but to actually talk about your own self in that incredibly unguarded, passionate way, it’s so rare. It’s rare enough in Europe, but for this girl from a little tiny village in Tamil Nadu…even when I’m talking to you about her, I’m in awe of her.”
The documentary told the world a story which was known mainly to Salma’s friends, of how she had been pulled out of school, and confined to the house until she agreed to marriage; her husband and in-laws did not like the fact that she wrote, but Salma did not give up. With a little help from her parents, and a lot from her friends, she became a successful writer and politician. Salma’s books had already been translated into several languages. But the documentary catapulted her into a larger arena. She was being invited to film festivals across the world, more translators came forward, and she became a role model, a woman who had defied tradition and constraints.
This came at a price. Voyeuristic details of her early life and her marriage worked their way into every write-up on Salma. Back home, her international fame evoked jealousy in those who believed that she was being judged on merit of her struggle and not her talent.
I first interacted with her at the World Writers’ Festival 2014 in Paris. The documentary was screened, followed by a discussion of Salma’s work. The image of Salma as a formidable woman began to dissolve when someone asked her about her niece Fathima, of whom she is very fond. At the time, Fathima had just finished school, and her parents were keen to marry her off.
“I just want my Fathima…,” she said, in her careful English, and had to pause because her voice was breaking, “…to finish her studies. I don’t want Fathima to suffer.”
Several members of the audience stayed back for a tête-à-tête. Typically, they were more interested in her life than her work. An Indian-origin woman asked me to translate an intrusive personal question, which I refused to. Salma, who had heard the exchange, later squeezed my hand and said, “Thanks. I don’t know how to say ‘no’. Even when I don’t want to answer questions, I do.”
Through the week we spent at the festival, Salma and I spoke often. The organisers had asked her to read her poetry in English rather than Tamil, and she asked me whether her English was passable. She laughed, “At least they didn’t ask me to read in French.”
By the end of the festival, she had begun to address me in the singular, trading the formal neenga for the informal nee. It told me I had been promoted from reader to friend.
“What is interesting about people like her,” Kim Longinotto said, “Is that she has incredible strength, and she knows it, and she knows she’s amazing, and she knows she’s done something unique. But at the same time, she has really dark nights and moments of doubting herself and moments of guilt, and she’s very, very conflicted. I think that’s why it’s so easy to be her friend, because she has doubts like we do.”
Things have changed in the years since the dark nights, and Salma has put it all behind her. But every time her story is told, she is forced to relive those times.
Writer and historian Prof. A. R. Venkatachalapathy, a long-time friend of Salma’s, told me, “She’s become a prisoner of her biography.”
In the author’s note to her latest novel, Manaamiyangal (2016), Salma writes, “I have just one request for my readers. Please leave the creator behind when you enter the creation. I wish to take leave of you here. Please don’t take me inside with you.”
Among Salma’s earliest readers was Kannan Sundaram. He is not particularly fond of poetry, he told me, but her work was striking. She would send her poems to literary magazines. When her early work was published under her own name, Rokkiah, it enraged her family. Her husband would ferret out the poems she had hidden in various places and tear them up. So she worked out an elaborate conspiracy. She would write in bits of calendar paper in the middle of the night, standing in the common toilet of the house. A pen was hidden inside a box of sanitary napkins on a shelf in the toilet. She would stuff the paper into her blouse, and then slip them between her sarees in a cupboard. When she got the chance, she would copy them out neatly and give them to her mother, who would have her father post them to magazines. Salma sent some of her poems to Kalachuvadu. She told me Kannan made a phone call to her one day, asking for more poems. She gave a secret notebook of her poetry to her cousin Hameed, who was already making a mark for himself as a poet under the pen name “Manushyaputhiran”. Manushyaputhiran was also an editor at Kalachuvadu.
Through him, Kannan heard her story, and knew that she had not finished her schooling. It showed in the spelling mistakes she made.
“Despite all those shortcomings, her skill came through in her poetry, her fiction, everything that she wrote,” he told me. “I particularly remember her book reviews. They’re so sharp. Where did she get such inputs, what were the sources, where did she find the tools for such insightful analysis, without stepping out of her home? No one can forget them. And people don’t forgive her for them either,” he added, with a laugh.
It was through these reviews that Venkatachalapathy first encountered Salma. He had moved to Tirunelveli, near Nagercoil where Kalachuvadu is based, and would go to the office every week to look at the submissions.
“Once, Kannan produced a review of Thoppil Mohammed Meeran’s novel, Saaivu Naarkaali (which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1997),” Venkatachalapathy said, “It was a hard-hitting review. Kannan asked me what I thought, and I said it’s a fantastic piece—it’s a new voice, a new perspective, it’s not something that I’ve ever heard before. The writing had lots of grammatical slips. But as an experienced editor, I can say there are two kinds of writing—writing which can be edited, and writing which cannot be. The latter is impossible to salvage. You change one sentence and then you have to keep changing the whole damn thing. This person’s writing was so clear, and the most important thing is you could also see it was a fresh voice. Obviously it was not an experienced writer, but there was maturity.”
Kannan told him who the writer was—Manushyaputhiran’s cousin, a young woman writing from Thuvarankurichi without the knowledge of her family.
“Thoppil Mohammad Meeran has never forgiven her for that review,” Venkatachalapathy said, with a smile, “Generally, Thoppil has received velvet-cushioned, kid-gloved treatment, as a new voice from the Muslim community. He couldn’t take the shock. That too from a woman, which is worse, and a Muslim woman.”
He tried to get even with her by reviewing her novel. But he didn’t simply condemn the novel. He chose, instead, to quote provocative passages out of context, including a reference to a lecherous father-in-law.
“He was basically trying to provoke fellow-Muslims,” said Venkatachalapathy, “It is a particularly perverse mind. First, this is what he could read in the 500-600 page novel; and the second perversity was that he should put these passages alone out there.”
Salma reviewed books early in her career, but the animosity she faced from fellow-writers made her decide to stop.
“No one seems to want honest feedback,” she told me, “If you don’t praise everything they’ve written, they see you as an enemy. Now, when people call me to book release functions, I know they want me to compliment their writing, not analyse it.”
“What she does is this brave thing—talking about very personal things. It’s so easy to talk about politics in the abstract, which is what people normally do, but to actually talk about your own self in that incredibly unguarded, passionate way, it’s so rare.”
Twenty-three years after he read the review, Venkatachalapathy remembers a particular sentence from it. “I had reviewed the novel too, and I remember I’d picked out a very jarring metaphor. Salma, too, said it jars and grates—the writer was trying to suggest that the sun is harsh and bright and scorching by saying, ‘The naxalite sun rose’.”
Readers tried to guess who “Salma” might be. The popular opinion, even among prominent writers, was that this person must be a man writing under a woman’s name, because the writing was too intelligent to belong to a woman.
Ironically, one of the funniest bits in Salma’s Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai is among the most poignant. A woman writes a letter to her husband, who is in Saudi Arabia. On his next trip back home, he laughs and says, “What atrocious spelling! Didn’t you go to school, makku?” He is so oblivious to his own privilege that he doesn’t realise how crippling the lack of an education is.
“My father, even my mother, wanted me to study further,” Salma said, “But no one had ever gone to school after coming of age. The village is like a large family. You can’t defy traditions easily.”
But because she was such a keen reader, she had educated herself in ways that other women from her village hadn’t.
“The spelling mistakes in the letter that Sherifa writes to her husband are not exaggerated,” Salma said, “Girls in the neighbouring houses would write letters to their husbands in the Middle East. They’d sometimes bring them to me to see if they’ve written correctly. These are the kind of basic errors they would make. Some of them had even forgotten to read. They would bring letters their husbands wrote them, hidden in magazines or newspapers, and ask me to read them out. So, many of them preferred to speak and sing into cassettes—their husbands would have bought them tape recorders from abroad—and then they would send those through someone else who was going there.”
“You’re so fair, akka,” Rabiya said, “I wish I were fair like you.”
Waheeda laughed. “What do you expect, running around in the sun all the time? When you come of age, you’ll be inside the house like me, and you’ll lose your tan.”
Rabiya imagined herself becoming as fair as Waheeda. She could not wait to get her period.
—Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
Salma was telling me how she had nearly lost a ring that was loose, demonstrating how it had fallen off. I noticed how long and slender her fingers were.
“No wonder you keep describing your characters’ beautiful fingers,” I said.
Salma laughed. “We don’t do anything through our teenage years, right? They do so much to make sure we’re beautiful. We don’t go out in the sun. We don’t do any housework. We just sit in our rooms like so many dolls. On the one hand, they want us to be lovely. On the other, no one can see that beauty. Once we’re married, we go out wearing burqa. But until then, we can’t step out of home.”
“What happens to your friendships? You can’t visit each other, right?”
Salma began to tell me about her childhood friends—four girls who used to go to the cinema. They were inseparable. “We were all really tall too. Naalum maadu maathiri varadhunga nu pasanga ellaarum engalai kindal pannuvaanga (Literally, “Other kids used to say look at the four of them, coming along like a cow”). Our houses were very close. But once we all came of age, we might as well have lived on different continents.”
She decided they would keep their friendship alive through letters. She would write in detail about her day, and beg her mother to play courier. But the other three were too lazy to write, she says. They were happy to sleep, cook, and eat. They told her mother they had nothing to say, every day was like every other day. None of them could meet until all of them were married. The bonds had broken.
“I was just thinking about my brother. It seems I have to wear a dhavani from tomorrow. And I can never get rid of it. Amma told me. My brother will scold me. And he won’t even let me go to the movies from now on,” said Madina.
The recollections of her brother that had been imprinted on her memory reinforced her image of him as an imposing, even terrifying, man. She did not look forward to his arrival. She believed his visit would be thoroughly annoying.
“If you’re sure you’re going to wear a dhavani from tomorrow, I will too!” said Rabiya, cheerfully. “Both of us will give each other company, all right?” she said again, trying to get Madina to lighten up.
As soon as she had said it, Madina’s face glowed with happiness.
“Really?” she said, “I was feeling awkward about having to start wearing dhavani. The women will tease me, and say gross things. I’m so relieved, di!” She tightened her grip on Rabiya’s fingers. In the grip was the confidence that Rabiya would do anything for her, that she belonged to her.
—Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
Putting a face to the name was not an easy task. Salma’s early work is dedicated to her friend Lalli, a labour inspector in Tirunelveli who came to her house to meet her after reading her poems in a magazine called Suttum Vizhi Sudar. It was Lalli who helped her plan a family tour with a secret agenda. It was an all-woman group, comprising Salma, her mother, her cousins, and their children. They took a train from Madurai, and then got on to a van Lalli had arranged. They did some sightseeing in Kerala, taking the children to the zoo. On their way back, they made a slight detour.
“On a summer morning in 1994, I was working in my newly set-up office of Kalachuvadu, in the front yard of my house,” Kannan writes in a foreword, “A large vehicle pulled up in front of our gate. Several heads were visible, mostly women with their saree dupattas pulled over their heads. They waited outside the gate for others to get out and join them so they could come in as a group. We were expecting them. I knew one of them was Salma. She was coming to visit my father Sundara Ramaswamy. My father ran an open house, so we were quite used to visitors, a few announced but mostly unannounced coming in, at all times of the day. Food was prepared in excess, anticipating guests. There were guest rooms upstairs. A literary magazine once ran a box item saying, ‘Don’t waste your money booking a hotel room when you go to Nagercoil. Just go to Suraa’s home!’
“The gate opened and they all walked in, a little hesitant. This was probably their first visit to a non-Muslim household. I could immediately pick out Salma—I had seen a photograph of hers earlier. She wore her saree slightly above her ankles, the way village women wear them, and seemed uncertain in her movements, hinting perhaps of her relatively secluded life. But in my mind, probably my family shared this feeling too, she was a wonder we were waiting to meet.”
She was equally keen to meet Sundara Ramaswamy. She had read his J.J.: Sila Kurippukkal, and was struck by the language.
“It was the first book of his that I’d read, even before Oru Puliyamarathin Kathai. We speak about post-modernism, but even what we think of as post-modern writing reads like regular stories. His writing was so different. It would surprise you at every turn. I thought he must be very young, maybe 30 at the most.” She laughed—he was 47 when it was published, and nearly 60 when she read him for the first time. After having read his work, and then read about him, she wrote a letter to him. “He replied immediately,” she said, “That was even more surprising. For that great a writer to sit and write a reply by hand and then post it…if I see I’ve got 10 emails now, I postpone replying to them. And he…imagine!”
He would send her recommended reading material. Later, he even visited her house with his wife, and his imposing presence and dignified bearing, along with his formidable literary reputation, would lend respectability to the career she had chosen.
It was at his instance that Salma attended the World Tamil Conference, Tamil-ini 2000, put together by Kalachuvadu in Chennai. The conference had parallel sessions, with more than 250 delegates and attended by a couple of thousand people, said Venkatachalapathy. It was where he first met the writer whose reviews he had so admired six years earlier.
“The day before the event, I went to Sundara Ramaswamy’s room, and among the people there was a young woman. You should have seen her. She was sitting like this”—he slumped forward, balling his hands into fists—“and I have to show you how she walked.” He stood up, slouched, and trudged forward. “She was barely 32,” he said, sitting down again, “And, you know, she’s an attractive woman. But if you saw her back then, you’d know from her gait, from the way she carried herself, that there was this complete lack of confidence, of self-awareness.”
It is hard to imagine Salma, who now addresses political rallies and travels the word reading from her work, in that avatar. Kannan described how she was once invited to Madurai to address a book club. The event was recorded on audio tapes. Salma’s voice is not on the tapes. She mounted a stage for the first time in her life, and was so paralysed by anxiety that she could not speak a single word in the several minutes she stood in front of the microphone before walking back in defeat.
“I hadn’t begun to think of myself as a writer,” Salma said, with a smile, “When you’ve got some books published, it gives you this confidence, this idea that you’re someone. I remember when my first poetry collection came out. I couldn’t believe it had happened. After all the fuss over my writing for magazines, I didn’t know whether I could continue to write, whether [my family] would let me write, whether I would ever be published. And for me to have written all these poems, and for them to have been released as a book…it felt like a dream when I held it. It was such joy.”
However, at the book release, Salma refused to go on stage. She was worried her photograph would appear in the Tamil press, and her family would learn of the subterfuge.
Venkatachalapathy told me he did not speak much to her at the conference, assuming she would be uncomfortable speaking to men. Ten days later, he received a letter from her.
“It was two sheets of paper torn from a spiral-bound book, I remember,” he said, “And it was a beautiful letter.”
It was the beginning of another of Salma’s lasting friendships. They would not meet for a couple of years. But Kannan kept him in the loop about a big project that was under way—Salma’s novel.
Nooramma realised there was no point in pleading with them. She felt an inexplicable sense of liberation. The decision to set her aside from the village would not be reversed. There was nothing she could do against it. But an impulse to protest in some manner raged inside her. Her newfound sense of independence surged through her body and broke through her qualms. “So you dignitaries won’t let me be part of the village anymore? Let it be so. You say it’s a sin for my daughter to have run away with a kafir. Is there a single man in this village who hasn’t slept with a Hindu girl? Let me see. Let a single man in this crowd stand up and say he hasn’t fucked a Hindu hooker, and I’ll admit that what my daughter did is wrong.” She stuck out an arm and looked at each man in the crowd in turn, pointing her index finger at them as she swung round. As they stood, stunned into silence by her words, she raised her voice again. “Can any of you say honestly that you haven’t? Allah will question all of you when the time comes. My Rahman-e! My rab-e! What have you allowed these bastards to do to an old woman? This cruelty will not let you live in peace. Oh, God, oh, God, my heart’s on fire!” With a cry, she bent down and threw fistfuls of sand into the air.
—Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
Salma had begun to write Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai in 2000, on manuscript notebooks a friend had gifted her. She finished it within a year, but was apprehensive about the repercussions its publication could have.
But something she could never have envisioned was coming her way. Panchayat elections were due in October 2001, and her husband Malik, an aspiring politician, had planned to contest. But Thuvarankurichi Panchayat was reserved for women that year, and Malik decided to make Salma his proxy. All of a sudden, the woman whose face was hidden from the world had to go out and ask for votes. Malik was happy for her to address public meetings.
The campaign had given her immense confidence. People would ask Malik where his wife learned to speak so well. Realising that her writer image could come in handy, he had encouraged her to reveal her identity. On October 25, 2001, the day she won the election, her first press photograph was taken.
Salma commanded respect everywhere she went. She would meet district collectors and government officials to voice her grievances, and they would grant her an audience immediately, while other panchayat chiefs waited their turns. She once told a collector that there wasn’t enough water in the 15 wards in Thuvarankurichi, and wrote an application for water tanks in each ward. The collector said there was no provision to grant water tanks for town panchayats—they could only be installed in village panchayats. She argued that Thuvarankurichi was more village than town. The collector acceded to her request. Later, Rajya Sabha MP Cho. Ramaswamy, transferred funds to her for the installation of solar-powered lights even without meeting her. Her writing had convinced him of her intelligence and reliability. Malik, who would accompany her on these missions, saw that she was being given special treatment. He also realised she would not be his proxy.
Salma’s newfound confidence emboldened her to agree to the publication of her novel.
“First I’d hesitated to publish it because I had written things no one else had. It was around the time Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were being persecuted for their work. People now knew who Salma was. Things could turn dangerous.”
Kannan convinced her that he would have trusted editors look at it, and she could rework the novel if she wanted. But there was a catch. She had no copy, and was convinced the courier service could not be trusted.
“I had written it when my husband was not supportive of my writing,” she said, “So it was in three big books, and some loose sheets, and some smaller books, all hidden in a cupboard. This was entirely handwritten. How could I send it? I was terrified it would get lost. I couldn’t even courier it directly, because there was no such facility back home. I’d have to get someone to courier it from Trichy or Madurai. Whom could I trust? Finally, I decided to send it myself, when I had work in Madurai. I went to the courier office, with a family friend. But I got cold feet. The family friend said she would have it photocopied and then courier it. I refused, and took it back home. Finally, Kannan said he would send someone trustworthy from his office to personally deliver it. I had to agree. I could barely breathe until I knew it had safely reached their office. Comedy-aa irundhudhu.”
Venkatachalapathy was among the readers Kannan consulted. They marked out passages that might cause trouble, and Salma removed some sections. The novel was published in December 2004. It was released in the Landmark Book Store at Spencer Plaza, and received unprecedented media attention.
All hell broke loose. Islamic organisations were enraged.
Back in her village, someone told the Jama’at chief that he had been described as a womaniser.
“I had not meant him specifically,” Salma told me, “I was making the point that religious leaders have stringent rules for their followers, but they don’t practise what they preach. But he thought he recognised himself in a particular character. He is still not on talking terms with me. He even worked against me in the elections.”
“First, I’d hesitated to publish it because I had written things no one else had. It was around the time Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were being persecuted for their work. People now knew who Salma was. Things could turn dangerous.”
Kannan had sent a photographer to Thuvarankurichi while designing the cover of the novel. Among the pictures he took was one of two women sitting in a doorway. Kannan asked Salma if it was all right to use the photograph.
“They had covered their heads, so I thought it was fine,” Salma said, “It was my fault. I should not have done it without asking their permission. I was naïve. I didn’t know all these things. When Kim [Longinotto] made the documentary, I saw her getting signatures from everyone who was interviewed. That’s when I realised this is the protocol.”
When the book was released, the women were identified by the house in the picture. They were furious.
“They came and asked me why I had used their photographs in a heretic work,” Salma said, “They said why not use your photo, or the photo of someone in your family? I apologised. I had the cover changed in the next edition. Finally, I gave them a recommendation and helped them get into the quota for Hajj. Now they’re friendly again.”
But the novel did make Salma vulnerable to attacks from conservatives and political opponents. Years after its release, in October 2010, an aspiring politician and writer Aloor Shanawas essentially trolled Salma through a cover story in the Islamic magazine Samanilai Samudhayam.
He took objection to Salma having identified herself as “atheist” on Facebook. In a 10-page article punctuated by images she had put up on Facebook, used without her permission, he bemoans her faithlessness and fame in equal measure.
The piece was purportedly about television programmes during Ramzan that year.
After a long analysis of everything that he believes is wrong with them, Shanawas writes, “Another thing which shocked viewers during the seher special programmes at Ramzan were the clothes and speech of Salma. It was a pleasant shock to see our sister, who appears at literary gatherings in new-fangled clothes, with elaborate hairstyles, makeup and jewellery, covering her head and speaking about religion on television.”
He went on to quote bits from various interviews she had given earlier, out of context. In one, she had spoken of the religious indoctrination of children, recalling an instance of her sons being horrified when they saw her wear a friend’s pottu on her forehead.
“Going by her statements, it appears her sons are better qualified than she to advise Muslims on religion during seher,” he writes.
His magnanimity and open-mindedness had prompted him to attend a discussion on her book in Chennai, he said. He had, at first, been happy for his “beloved sister”, when he saw how well-attended the event was. As it unfolded, though, he was troubled by “certain questions”. His mind raced. He believed he had uncovered a sinister plot by the media and “certain high-caste publishing houses” to defame Muslims by hailing Salma’s atheism as progressive.
“They idolise and encourage her for having renounced her religion, for having defamed Islam in her work, for making public appearances without a veil or other identifiers of her Muslim culture,” he said, and added, “Will India Today set aside pages to speak about writers who are working for the awareness and reawakening of Muslims? Will Kalachuvadu write essays on them? Will The Hindu and Vikatan write about them with photographs? Will websites give them space? Will they be invited to conferences abroad? Without any publicity or laurels, there are Muslim writers fighting against all odds to pursue their work.”
The reason for his resentment is clear soon enough. “For her Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai, Salma has been getting invitations from America, which is on the other side of the world. But [my] Kaithiyin Kathai has not brought [me] invitations even from Andipatti.
The reason for this is that Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai speaks about the liberation of Muslim women by running away with Hindu men, whereas Kaithiyin Kathai speaks about [Abdul Nasser] Madani (accused in the Bangalore serial blasts case of 2008), an exemplary Muslim, and other innocent Muslim prisoners.”
Other detractors would speak about the wantonness of Salma’s women characters, of the obsession with sex in her work.
“In all these discussions on sexuality in the novel, no reference is ever made to the fact that a Muslim man in the novel has an open long standing relationship with a Hindu-Dalit woman,” Kannan said, “It’s not sexuality itself, but the politics of that sexuality that infuriate her critics. Her scathing criticism of the male domination and religious oppression of women in her novel adds fuel to the fire. She was branded as the Tamil Taslima Nasreen.”
Najima, as if she had just remembered something, suddenly said, “Hey, Mumtaj, who stitches your blouses? I’ve wanted to ask you for the longest time. He makes them really well!” In a swift move, she pulled the veil off Mumtaj’s head, swung her around, moved her pallu to take in the cut of the back and neck of the blouse, and then lifted the saree off to stare hungrily at the front portion of the blouse.
“Adiyei!” cried Mumtaj, pulling the saree back over her chest, “Are you out of your mind?” She giggled, as the blood rushed to her face. But Raima understood that she was beet red from coyness, not anger.
“Like you’ve got something no one else has! And is it going to shrink if I look at it?” Najima smirked, “You haven’t told me yet, who stitches your blouses for you?”
“That Battaani Bhai,” Nafisa answered for Mumtaj, “Who stitches yours, isn’t he good?”
“I gave it to some idiot and wasted the cloth. Look at how he’s messed up the front,” Najima said, dropping her pallu so that they could look at the cut, “Hm…what difference does it make whether we get clothes stitched or not? Does any husband appreciate his wife’s beauty? They fall on us like so many animals, fumble around in the dark, do their jobs, and then get up and walk off.” After that frustrated speech, she giggled suddenly and said, “They won’t look at you if you wear a saree, and they won’t notice you if you’re naked, eh?”
Raima felt unbearably discomfited. What would Ayishama’s daughter, who had been weeping by her mother’s corpse and was now listening to all this, think?
—Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
One of the characters in the novel, Waheeda, is horrified at how public her biological functions have become after marriage. Her mother-in-law begins to wail when she doesn’t miss her period the first month; the neighbours reassure her that Waheeda will certainly miss her period the next time. As the date approaches, everyone asks her if she has got it yet. When her husband complains that he has married a greenhorn who makes sex an ordeal, her neighbours bring pornographic tapes and adult magazines to impart lessons, with her mother’s blessing. Waheeda remembers how annoyed her mother would be when she went to the cinema.
“We have this unnatural approach to sex,” Salma said, “It is either seen as something pure and procreative, or as something that must be hidden, as dirty and wrong. Sex is a bodily function, like eating. It’s something you need when you cross 18. But we treat it as a sin. We don’t talk about it. Maybe that’s why women are harassed all the time in our society. There is so much restraint, and people don’t know how to break out of it except in the most perverse ways.”
“Landmark had just started selling Tamil books in 2004,” Venkatachalapathy told me, and laughed, “I remember, there was some controversy. A popular writer said, ‘I went to Landmark and asked where the Tamil books were, and a security guard came and took me by the collar and escorted me outside.’ Landmark responded saying they would never do that. But the point was there were no Tamil books. Now, they started selling them, and they wanted to do an event to showcase that. That event was Salma’s book launch. Sundara Ramaswamy spoke on the occasion, and Susie Tharu was also there. It was a big event. Four books by Tamil women writers were released.”
Sundara Ramaswamy was a crucial figure in Salma’s career. He did mentor several writers, but was particularly fond of Salma.
“I would refer to him as appa,” Salma said, “I don’t know what to describe him as—he was father, friend, mentor, adviser, all-in-one. It’s a special relationship.”
When she was not sure whether to enter politics, she turned to him for counsel.
“He said go for it, and the rest as they say is history,” said Venkatachalapathy, “It completely transformed her life.”
Kannan told me how his father used to tease her, especially after she became panchayat president. “He was very playful with her. He once called her up and gave her a task—he said within five years, you have to destroy all the mosquitoes in your panchayat. Then every six months, he’d call her and ask if she’s destroyed the mosquitoes. That’s the kind of relationship they had,” Kannan said, laughing.
When Salma went to their home, Sundara Ramaswamy would take her to Thiruvananthapuram and show her around. As long as he was around, her family was happy for her to travel without her posse.
Salma broke off into peals of laughter when I asked her about the mosquito elimination project.
“He was so funny,” she said, “He would joke all the time.” She remembers a particular incident. One of her short stories had won the Katha award, and she travelled to India International Centre in Delhi to receive the prize. Sundara Ramaswamy was there too, to receive a lifetime achievement award. Salma was escorted by her sister Najima, who in turn was escorted by her son. Najima and Salma spent three days at the IIC—it was their first real lit fest, Salma said—and would sit with Sundara Ramaswamy after the day’s sessions.
“One day, I remember, he suddenly said, with an absolutely straight face, ‘Salma, un akkave mattum padikka vachirundhaa, oorai enna, ulagathaye vithiruppaa. Needhaan appaaviya irukke, avo periya aala irukka. (If only your sister had studied, she’d have sold the world. You’re an innocent; she’s something else).” Salma was almost incoherent with laughter as she recounted it. “Just the way he spoke would crack you up.”
All the things that concern me
Occur in my absence.
Before I can touch and feel
They are over.
I do try
To touch something
Before it has passed me by.
Defeating my attempts,
These things that happen to me,
Happen without me.
With its flowers, people
Is much larger than I.
Must I give permission
For my body to breathe
In my absence?
—Swaasam, Oru Maalaiyum, Innoru Malaiyum (2000)
In Kim’s documentary, there is footage of the two sisters standing at a beach. Salma is in salwar kameez, her hair flying in the breeze; Najima is in a burqa. A lively-eyed woman with a ready smile and a way with words, Najima says, in the film, “When I see her, I think I wasted my life. Why didn’t I write poems and get them published? Why didn’t I seek the opportunities she did?”
Najima was married off at 14, and had a child within a year.
Also seen in the documentary is Salma’s friend Kamila. We can only see her eyes. She is shrouded in black from head to toe, complete with niqab.
“I tell people even now that a girl called Salma from Thuvarankurichi is a big star in the literary world,” she says, as Salma laughs, “I remember all the books you used to give me to read. Sundara Ramaswamy’s short stories, Jayakantan…I still read out to my children from those.”
To hear them talk is to think of all the Rokkiahs who did not become Salma. Salma told me about the women in her own family who are brilliant at things that are seen as male bastions. Some of her cousins are so good at figuring out finances that they could have run their own companies, she said. Her mother-in-law is among the brightest women she knows.
“But their misfortune was they were born in a particular time, in a particular community, where they were shut up and denied opportunities,” she said, “It happens even now.”
In 2006, Salma resigned her panchayat post and stood for the legislative assembly elections. She had joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) by then. Karunanidhi was immensely fond of her writing. He would address her in the singular. It appeared certain that she would be given a ministerial berth if she won the seat. She lost by a small margin, and there were whispers about sabotage by resentful rivals. But she was given a prestigious post, the chairpersonship of the Social Welfare Board. She had three official cars at her disposal, was allocated a large flat by the state government, and had the power to bring about the social change she had envisioned since childhood.
Her biggest achievement in this capacity was to stop child marriages, she said. Even after the DMK government lost the election in 2011 and she had to resign from her post, she was appointed head of women’s welfare within the party, and had the ear of the powers that be.
“Just last month, I told the collector about a child marriage and stopped it,” she said, “The girl’s teachers had told me. She was in Plus 1 or Plus 2. We keep trying to spread awareness. But I find that they’re getting girls married off younger and younger.”
Some families send their daughters to madrasas instead of school. Most don’t send them to college. There is no college in the village. And those who can afford the bus journey worry that their daughters will commit that most heinous crime—falling in love.
Kim Longinotto’s documentary tells the story of two girls in Salma’s village. One is a 20-year-old who consistently topped her school and college exams. Salma tried to convince her family to let her finish her studies, at least by correspondence. “Malik tells me that this girl could become a collector one day,” she says, as they give her the wedding invitation, “Let her not stop studying.” Everyone smiles awkwardly. The other is an 11-year-old girl who was sent to a madrasa by her mother, who didn’t want to stop her education when she came of age. The child was miserable, and kept asking her mother to bring her home. On the day she was scheduled to return, the girl said she was going to change her clothes, and came out bathed in kerosene. As her mother screamed, she lit a match and set herself on fire. After three days battling for her life in hospital, she died.
“I don’t know what to do,” her mother says, trying to smile for the camera as tears course down her cheeks, “My younger daughter is 11 now. I wanted them to study, to achieve something.”
“Whatever happens from here on, that is your life,” there was a note of determination in Amma’s voice.
In the vain hope of hearing a word of encouragement, she pleaded, “I will die.”
“There is no shame in dying.”
Neither of them had anything to say after that. In that one pronouncement, she realised she was an orphan who had nowhere to go.
—Yudhdham, from Saabam (2012)
“I worry for Rabiya,” I told her, “She’s 12 when the book ends. But you know she’s going to get married someday. You know she won’t be happy for long.”
“Everything will end someday. That’s how it is for all women,” Salma said, “Childhood is a different ball game. And then there’s marriage. You go live with a stranger. It’s crazy, isn’t it? You get into it, deciding you will make adjustments. Okay, I like Ilayaraja songs; it will be great if he likes them too; then we can listen to the radio together. That’s how you think. And once the children come, no woman wants to break her home. Even with love marriages, I don’t know how much love there is, really. People appear different until you move in with them. That’s why I like the idea of people living together, as they do in the West. It takes a couple of years of living with someone before you understand whether you really get along. It’s because we see it as an affront to our culture that we have all these queues at the family court today.”
Several of Salma’s women characters walk out on their husbands. In Manaamiyangal, one even divorces her husband for marrying a second time.
“I’ve written so many poems that have been lost. I try not to think about them. Some were torn up by my husband. And some by me, in my idiocy. I’d written one on talaq. Loose-u thanama kizhichi pottutten. I was worried I would regret writing it if it was published. Back then, we didn’t have computers, right? Otherwise I could have saved them.”
It is disturbing how much of Salma’s work is rooted in reality. We were discussing the forced suicide of a character in her work.
“It was a story I heard when I’d gone to stay with my grandmother during the school holidays,” she said, “One day, the daughter of a family we knew in the next village had died. They said it was an electric shock. My grandmother and others went to their house. When they came back, they were gossiping about how she had had an affair with a bank employee who was renting the house, and they made her drink poison and kill herself so their honour would not be tarnished.”
Your visions of me
As a woman who haunts
The dens of prostitutes
Assault me as I sit here listening
When you point at a friend of mine
And say, “He is your father”,
To our children,
When you claim I resemble
The woman who killed her offspring,
Before our children,
It strikes me
That the reach
Of your show of dominance
Does not end with me
—Ellai, Pachai Devathai (2003)
I interviewed Salma over several days. On the first day I spoke to her for this piece, she was in the middle of several television appearances. It was March 8.
“You know how it is,” she said, “Everyone has a special programme for Women’s Day. I’m on my way to the Sun TV office now. Shall we talk after?”
Her schedule for the month was dizzying. The party had organised a month-long celebration for M. K. Stalin’s birthday. Salma was to give away the prizes at a rangoli competition for women on March 16. Two days later, she had to give a talk at a women’s college in Pondicherry in the morning, and then return for a special function at a school in Chennai.
“The house is falling to pieces around me,” she sighed, “There’s so much work to do, so many things that are not working.”
When I accompanied her to meetings, I saw several people line up to introduce their protégés to her. Not sure who I was, some of them swore they had seen me earlier at political events, and offered me coffee, food, chairs, and “cool drinks” in no particular order.
Salma’s rise in party politics had necessitated a move to Chennai, in 2006. She brought her sons and her sister Najima along.
Living in the state capital, she got to meet writers and intellectuals far more often than earlier. The same year, she was selected as part of the Indian delegation to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“I tell you, no visa officer in his senses would give her a visa,” Venkatachalapathy laughed, “She is called Rajathi at home. Her official name is Rokkiah Begum Shamsuddin. She is not educated, and she uses the pen name of Salma. She also had a Pakistan visa stamp. So they thought this was some kind of joke.”
When Salma was refused a visa, she was so furious she announced in the consulate that she would return in two days, and leave with a visa.
“She told me she swore to herself if they don’t give me a visa, the Indian delegation will not go. So she called the National Book Trust, which is the nodal agency, and said this is what happened, don’t blame me later if I do something really dramatic.”
She went to Frankfurt. Among those whom she met was U. R. Ananthamurthy.
“It is not easy not to like Salma,” Venkatachalapathy smiled, “A lot of the big names became fond of her, protective of her, encouraging of her.”
Salma does have a way of endearing herself to those around her. Her childish energy is contagious. Kim laughed while speaking of how excited Salma is on her travels. She said, “You know, when we showed the film at Sundance, we took her to this club where they had music and you should have seen her—she was like a little girl, her face lit up, we couldn’t get her out of there, she was in there all day. She didn’t want to move, she just wanted to listen to the music and she said, ‘You go and dance, you go and dance’.”
Towards the end of 2006, Venkatachalapathy received an email from the University of Chicago. They were keen to organise a conference of South Asian literature, named after the Tamil scholar Norman Cutler, who had passed away four years earlier. The conference was to have a featured writer, and they asked Venkatachalapathy for suggestions.
He said he had two names, both writers who had started their careers fairly recently, and who had never been abroad. That would make for a transformative experience.
“I hope I have these mails somewhere,” he told me, “So you don’t think I’m making this up. The names I gave were Salma and Perumal Murugan. But my gut instinct was that there’s no way a Tamil Muslim woman writer, the very first of her kind, would not immediately be picked.”
Salma spoke no English at the time, but the organisers didn’t care. They told Venkatachalapathy they would like to have him along too, and he could translate. At the time, a translation of Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai by Lakshmi Holmström was under way. The University of Chicago invited Holmström too, so an extract from the translation-in-progress and the poems she had already translated would be available.
Venkatachalapathy and his wife Anitha filled out the visa forms. Salma wrote an autobiographical essay, which was also translated.
“We put together a small booklet, and printed about 200 copies to distribute at the conference,” he told me, “Let me see if I can find it here.” He typed ‘Salma’ into the search box of his computer. In my enthusiasm, I was leaning into the screen and saw several folders and files pop up. We began to laugh.
“All these statements of purpose and documents and things I’ve translated,” he said, “Now I’ve told her I won’t do any of this anymore. She’s been to more countries than I have. From Pakistan to Albania to Galicia, I don’t think she’s left anything out. I can’t tell you what a hit she was in Chicago. At that moment, she could have had anything for the asking.”
The university wanted her to be a writer-in-residence. Other attendees extended invitations to conferences. Salma had too many commitments back home to be able to accept, but it was the transformative experience everyone had hoped it would be. Literature had given Salma what traditions had stolen from her.
Raima Periamma had been comforting Waheeda. She was inconsolable. She didn’t want to get married. Rabiya found it hilarious. ‘Which idiot will not want to get married?’ she thought, ‘How beautifully you can dress up, in silk sarees, with lots of jewellery, and flowers, and garlands. When I get married, I’m going to be happy!’
“Can you smell the perfume, akka?” she asked, “It’s what the groom is wearing. It’s super, isn’t it? And he looks really good too. You’ll like him very much, I swear. Even his feet are gorgeous, white and clean. It seems he travels by plane! There will be a lot of scent bottles in his home abroad, don’t you think? Maybe he’ll take you there someday!”
—condensed from Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
Even before Salma had begun to travel the world, she brought it home through literature.
Kim Longinotto, while telling me what made her want to film Salma, said, “Her story is repeated so many times all over the world, it is a really, really common story in a way, but we never hear about it, because the people that it happened to, they disappear and you never hear from them again. And most girls accept it, and you got the sense very much from Salma that all her school friends had sort of reconciled themselves to it in a way that she hadn’t. She told me that her friends, in the rooms that they were kept in, would have cricket stars or film stars and those sorts of people on the walls. And Salma had Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara…I love this idea of her seeing herself as a Nelson Mandela supporter, because when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, there were millions of us all over the world, we were demonstrating and there were protests and it was a very public thing. But this was Salma locked away, nobody would have heard about it, and she’s standing up to everybody and everything from this room. All she had were her dreams, and it was a very lonely protest, like Nelson Mandela’s own.”
Salma would get her uncle’s grandson, who had been her classmate in school, to bring her books from the library. That was how she accessed literary magazines, and jotted down the addresses to which her poems were sent.
Her father saw how desperately she wanted to read, and decided to do his bit.
“When I was a teenager, there were gaps between my teeth,” Salma said, “So I had to go to Madurai to get braces put. But the village should not know about this. If a girl who’s come of age goes to a hospital in Madurai, people might begin to gossip. So my mother and I would wake up before dawn and go to the bus stand in burqas and wait. My father would go to pray, and come to the bus stand directly. We must have made that journey 3-4 times. First, I had to get the measurements done, and then the clip put, and then tightened every six months. So we’d go to the dentist, and then have lunch, and then my father would take us to the movies. He didn’t like the cinema himself, but he would indulge me. I remember watching Amman Kovil Kizhakkaale (1986). We could not return to the village until after 10 p.m.,, because that’s when everyone’s asleep. So we had some time in the evening.”
Salma’s favourite haunts were New Century Book House and Bharathi Puthaga Aalayam in Madurai. She would devour Russian literature. Sitting in her room, and immersing herself in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekov, Salma would envision a world where poverty was annihilated and everyone was equal.
“Whether it’s Dostoevsky’s work or War and Peace or Resurrection, even among these great ideas—about what causes war and how a country is run—are these insights into the lives of ordinary people, into human emotions, into what happens to relationships in wartime, for example.”
Her favourite Tamil writers were Pudumaipiththan, Jayakantan, T. Janakiraman, Aatmanaam, Aadhavan, Mouni, and Ashokamitran. When she got in touch with Sundara Ramaswamy, she would read the books he recommended.
On the walls of her room, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela shared space with Fidel Castro, Karl Marx, and Lenin.
At the conference in Chicago, the delegates were put up at the hostel of the College of Theology.
“These were big apartments, not rooms,” Venkatachalapathy told me, “And the south side is not a great neighbourhood. It’s completely quiet. After dark, there’s no one on the streets. The day after we reached, Salma came and told me she could barely sleep, because she was reminded of all these Victorian novels.”
Salma’s works have been translated into English, French, German, Catalan, and Galician.
María Reimóndez, her Galician translator and an author in her own right, recalls meeting her in 2006, through her friends N. Manimekalai and I. Ambalavanan in Trichy. Salma seemed rather shy, she told me.
María said the book was remarkably well received in Galician. While critics admired the storytelling in the novel, and María’s adherence to its nuances and language was appreciated, readers could relate to “emotions, situations, and violences that women often endure in all societies.”
In her introduction to the translated version, she warns readers of the dangers of objectifying the text as “Muslim women’s experiences” or “Indian women’s experiences”.
“I explained how this was a story about a very particular community, and how this door had to be opened from our side, making the effort to go through it without the blindfold that colonial expectations and the current state of Islamophobia promoted in the West/North. Maybe this, and the fact that Salma was in Galicia to launch the novel, helped get readers a different look at the novel and see more similarities than differences. In fact, many expectations, relationships, restrictions and emotions that the novel conveys were close to Galician readers, women in particular. The tongue-in-cheek conversations about sexuality, for example, are very frequent here too. The novel also helped move away from the ridiculous discussions that we witness here often about ‘Islam’ and ‘women’, usually more concerned with specific clothing items than with what the women themselves have to say, with a deeper analysis of politics and place.”
In her introduction, María points out one of the most striking aspects of Salma’s work—the detailing. Calling her a craftswoman, she writes that the ideas Salma explores are trapped with “the small stitches of daily life—the most tiny details, the movements, the preparation of meals, the inclination of a hand, the lives of objects. It goes into the longing for childhood, homesickness, determination. Because, if something is utterly relevant in Salma’s work, is her love for detail and complexity, her attempt to show the roots of how patriarchy makes women its first accomplices, how it closes doors to those who try to rebel due to the danger, so clearly expressed in the text, of being a role model for others and therefore the key to destroy domination.”
“What shall we play? There are just two of us,” Rabiya said.
“The Amma-Aththa game, what else?” Ahmed said eagerly.
He ran to the store room and got the play set. The two of them had bought identical ones at an exhibition in Madurai. He opened the box and gave its contents to her. Inside were miniature plates, ladles, tumblers, pots, dosai pan, and other vessels, carved in wood. He had not lost a single thing. She had lost more than half her set. She was jealous of him, and annoyed at herself. A boy is so responsible, and here I am, a girl with no sense of responsibility, she scolded herself.
Ahmed ran to the store room and brought some rice and murukku. She had arranged all the vessels in the corner of a hall, and improvised a kitchen. She made a show of cooking the rice he had brought.
“Listen up, get me my food quickly. I have to go to the shop!” he said, impatiently.
“It’s ready, come this way,” she said in a timorous voice, as she filled a tumbler with water and put out a plate for him. Then, she used the ladle to scoop out some rice and a few broken bits of murukku on to the plate.
He finished eating in silence.
“All right now, I’m off to the shop,” he said, got up, moved a little further away and then returned, “Phew, there was brisk business at the shop today. Quickly, get me my food. Let’s eat together.” He then ran to the cupboard, dived under it, and returned with a marappaachi doll coated with dust. He wiped it against his shirt, and then handed it to her. “Here, this is our child. Give him some milk too.”
—Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (2004)
In most of her works, across genres, Salma explores certain themes over and over again—extramarital affairs, honour killings, infertility, religious attitudes to family-planning surgery, inter-religious love matches, spousal abuse, illness, and mental retardation. Death is visited several times in her poetry, short stories, and novels. In the forewords to each of her works, she asks the reader to forgive the repetition, but highlights the metaphysical nature of this device. In visiting these issues over and over again, we find ourselves obsessing over dissimilarities within a sameness—and this is the lot of most of her characters, who are unhappy in their own ways under the same circumstances.
She looks at how women turn to each other for support, but usually let each other down. They are not stereotypes, and they are not role models, and they have their foibles and pettiness and generosities and jealousies. Her writing is not sexually explicit so much as it is emotionally honest. In her work, sex is both a terrifying experience and a carnal need, and rarely titillating.
This is why her work is hard to label. To call her writing “bold” or “feminist” or “modernist” is to run into problems, particularly in translation.
“The sensitive reader is moved by the milieu in which these things are written,” said Venkatachalapathy, “But often what happens is that in translation, some things come across as a pathetic attempt to shock the reader. The reader of English is rarely shocked by anything.”
But analyses of Salma’s work have fed into the myth of her “shocking language”, to its detriment. And those who cannot access her work in the original could be put off by what is emphasised in both the translation, and the personal story that accompanies it.
“Salma doesn’t need any concession as a woman writer,” Venkatachalapathy told me, “I know I’m saying something politically incorrect, but a lot of drivel is published because this is the first time women are coming up. Very interestingly, in 100 years of modern Tamil writing, there have been very few real women writers. There have been writers who have come from privileged backgrounds and who have not really extended the frontiers of Tamil literature, who didn’t explore new areas, who didn’t have a new language. Salma’s writing is very sensitive to the power of language.”
What my mother says subtly
My sister says angrily:
That the blame
For the discord in the bedroom
Lies with me.
In the bedroom,
Your first question is:
“What is the matter today?”
It is likely to be
The last word too.
From the shimmer of a million stars
Rises a finger, to point at my hooker’s trade-off
As their counsel floats
Through trembling nights
The lament in
The childlike voice of a cat
Helpless to feed its kittens
Pierces my heart.
May have complaints
Has been determined
In the hope of a little affection
And to fulfil the responsibilities
Of being the mother of your children,
And because I need
And other little favours
From the world outside,
For me to, if possible,
Exert some authority over you
Perhaps even command
A little respect,
Knowing there is a price to pay,
My legs part.
—Oppantham, Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum (2000)
As soon as the journey was planned, Nanni had come up to her to speak in private.
“Look here,” she hissed, “Don’t let that woman jabber on in the car. And you can’t make me sit next to her. She doesn’t bathe, and I can’t take the reek. And you can’t switch the AC on. That woman farts incessantly. If the windows are closed, I will throw up.”
What monumental worries, she thought to herself, for how long had Nanni been making this list?
—Vilimbu, from Saabam (2012)
Because of the dark themes in her work, Salma’s sense of humour and the wittiness of her dialogue are often underestimated. She has characters with extreme quirks, many of whom are based on people she knows. In that sense, parts of her novels are comedy of manners. I asked her about the characters who are obsessed with cleanliness to the point of pathological illness.
“When I was a child,” Salma said, “I would find bad smells very disturbing. My mother and sister would yell at me. I would not let people use my towel, or lie down on my pillow. I would hide the pillow cover in my cupboard and lock it so that no one could use my pillow. But, more seriously, there’s this myth that Muslims are not clean. But Islam has given a lot of importance to cleanliness. My mother would not carry my children before her prayers, because she was worried that they would pass urine. She would finish her ablutions, pray, change the saree she had prayed with, and only then allow the babies anywhere near her.”
My eyes fell on a photograph in Salma’s living room. It was a photograph of her with DMK patriarch Karunanidhi. She was wearing a burqa. It was politics that allowed her to discard a garment she had always resented. When she stood for the MLA elections in 2006, the working committee told her that popular opinion among the voters, who were mostly non-Muslim, was that it was not a good idea to vote for a Muslim woman—it may not be easy to meet her. Salma discussed this with Malik, and he saw her point.
“I would wear a cotton saree, pulling the pallu across my shoulder, but with my head uncovered. People saw me as one among them. I felt a sense of freedom I hadn’t since I was a child,” she said.
Her mother-in-law was not happy with her decision. But her husband was on her side.
“Even when Kim asked to interview her for the documentary,” Salma smiled, “My mother-in-law said, ‘How can a Muslim woman appear on television and talk?’ Immediately, Malik snapped, ‘So you’re saying what [Salma] is doing is wrong? You think she’s disgracing the family?’” She laughed.
Malik, who now heads the gram panchayat back in Thuvarankurichi, visits Chennai every week. Salma goes to her village when time permits. To one who observes them together, discussing politics and family, they appear to be in an equal, respectful partnership, a contrast to the scenes from her work, of a fearsome husband who regularly humiliates his wife.
Venkatachalapathy pointed out that politics helped her liberate herself. The victim was now the decision-maker, more empowered than anyone else in the family. But he and other friends worry about the effect politics has on her writing. “When you move in those circles, meeting rogues and hypocrites and sycophants, you lose all creativity,” he said, “But she’s caught the tiger by the tail. If she left it, what would she do?”
In Aloor Shanawas’ attack on her, he claims Salma told him that her prominence in party politics is not because of her writing, but “a dole given to her by Kalaignar [Karunanidhi] for the backwardness of her community.” He went on to challenge “Salma, who people say has so gutsily documented the hardships of women in the community” to “write boldly about the corruption and nepotism and domination of arts and business in her party.”
“I feel both her writing and her speech are more restricted these days,” Kannan told me, “For about 10 years, she didn’t write much.” In his foreword to the German translation of Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai, he writes, “Though she is able to help many downtrodden women and children and fight for the rights of the transgender community, her career as a writer has suffered. She is now unable to be outspoken on social issues as she has to take into account her position and also the views of the party. One is apprehensive the party will succeed where her family failed—in silencing her voice.”
Salma admitted that politics has forced her to censor herself. But it doesn’t have to do with politics alone, she said. “Look at what happened to Perumal Murugan. He’s not in politics. Books are taken to court all the time, and they’re banned more often than not.”
If she is forced to make a choice between her two careers, she knows which will take precedence. “As a politician, you can bring about change by passing an order or a law. But as a writer, you change people’s mindset over time. Whether it’s Bharathi’s poems, Puthumaipiththan’s stories or Periyar’s writings, they bring about a gradual change in thought and perception, and therefore in society.”
“So, when are you writing a political novel?” I asked her.
She laughed. “I need more maturity to write that, I think. But here’s the novel I’m writing now.” She showed me a file with loose, ruled sheets, filled with her hesitant handwriting. As I tried to decipher it, she pressed a cup into my hands.
“Gulab jamun,” she said, “I made it this afternoon.”
We had been at the meeting for most of the day, and I wolfed it down. “It’s nice,” I said, with my mouth full.
“It’s a ready-to-make mix. I can’t cook.”
“Didn’t your mother give you lessons before marriage?” I asked.
“Yen maamiaar kaytadhaye nee kaykkare (You’re asking me the same question my mother-in-law asked),” she grinned. As I laughed with her, she added, “My father-in-law used to say ‘She’s very good at boiling water.’ That’s how bad it is.” She sighed. “You know, when they marry you off early, you have this sense that you’ve aged fast. That you haven’t really lived. There are so many things I want to learn—to swim, to dance, to drive a car…but I feel I’m too old to learn any of those things.”
“When you talk like this, it makes me think what would have happened if you’d had those freedoms early on. You’ve got this far with so little,” I said.
“Well, if I’d been able to go out into the world and had that independence, I would not have felt the pain of these difficulties, not experienced them. I don’t know if I could have imagined the suffering of other people and written about it as well. Other people’s experience does work its way into my novels, but I suppose you can tell what has a personal stamp.”
On my way out of the house, I noticed trophies piled almost on top of each other near the shoe shelf.
“You’ve even got some here?” I laughed.
“You should see my home in the village,” she said, smiling, “My akka tells me I should remove the silver and throw all of them away.”
I was reminded of Sundara Ramaswamy’s quip about Najima.
After she was married off at 14, and moved to her paternal aunt’s home, Shahul treated Subaida with great affection. He would buy her something to eat every day on his way back from work; he would bring her earrings, bangles, and various trinkets from the market. She liked him very much. Their mothers would whisper together every morning. Then, they would ask Subaida, “Did you bathe?” Surprised, she would blink, “Yes.”
“Ada! Not that bath, you fool,” they would mumble under their breaths.
That night, she was woken by a rustling sound. She opened her eyes to see Shahul caressing the saree she had hung out to dry on the clothesline.
‘What is he up to?’ she wondered, and observed him in silence. Shahul took the saree and her blouse and disappeared into a room.
She was astonished. Her confusion and apprehension gave her the courage to follow him. The door of the room he had entered was locked. She pressed an eye to the keyhole.
Shahul was wearing her saree and blouse. He was staring at his reflection in the mirror with longing.
Terrified that he had gone mad, she muttered, “Allah!” to herself. She felt dizzy. ‘Aiyo, Allah, has my husband been possessed by an evil spirit?’ she wondered in horror.
—condensed from Manaamiyangal (2016)
(Translations by the author, with permission from Salma and Kalachuvadu)
(Published in the April 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)