The Three Faces of Salma*

The as­ton­ish­ing jour­ney of one woman who es­caped servi­tude to be­come a cel­e­brated Tamil poet and so­cial ac­tivist

Reader's Digest (India) - - Con­tents - KR­ISHNA WAR­RIER

The as­ton­ish­ing jour­ney of a cel­e­brated Tamil poet and ac­tivist.

It’s a Jan­uary evening at Park City in the US state of Utah, where, at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, a packed au­di­ence is spell­bound as a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Salma is screened pub­licly for the first time. It’s the story of a woman who fought or­tho­doxy, im­pris­on­ment in her own home and mar­i­tal vi­o­lence to find her place among Tamil’s most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary poets. After the 90-minute screen­ing, the 45-yearold poet is her­self in­tro­duced to the au­di­ence by the film’s di­rec­tor. She gets a stand­ing ova­tion.

The film has since won four in­ter­na­tional awards. “Salma, for all its cel­e­bra­tion of a life lived against the grain,” pro­claimed US en­ter­tain­ment- trade mag­a­zine Va­ri­ety, “has a sweet strain of melan­choly that res­onates, and sug­gests the story isn’t over.” In­deed, for the woman por­trayed in that film, the past three decades— dur­ing which cir­cum­stances gave her three dif­fer­ent names—have been a roller-coaster: From to­tal sub­ju­ga­tion to heading her town pan­chayat, be­ing able to pub­lish

her po­ems and short sto­ries, help­ing oth­ers, and trav­el­ling the world, her story is stranger than fic­tion.

“When I was young, I dreamed of free­dom,” she says. “To­day, I’ve ful­filled that dream, but I am still seek­ing hap­pi­ness.” Re­cently, at her flat in Chen­nai, I tried to fathom what drives this ex­tra­or­di­nary woman to live her dreams.

Ra­jathi, the Sen­si­tive Girl

“Back in my vil­lage, when my name was Ra­jathi, that was my win­dow to the world,” says the tall, at­trac­tive woman, point­ing to a small win­dow with iron bars in a pho­to­graph. “My older sis­ter Na­jma and I could look out only from that one win­dow.” “What could you see?” “Just a bit of street. And since it led to the ceme­tery, hardly any­body ever came that way.” Yet that win­dow was all-im­por­tant, a por­tal to light, air and the out­side world. Stuck in­doors, and con­fined to that one room, if any male vis­i­tors came by, Na­jma and Ra­jathi used to fight over their turn to look out the win­dow.

In re­mote Thu­varankurichi, in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruchi­ra­palli dis­trict, the ja­maat coun­cil at the lo­cal mosque set the rules. After a girl at­tained pu­berty, the world out­side was for­bid­den ter­ri­tory. One by one, Ra­jathi’s class­mates too were con­fined, with no hope of any fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. “That’s how it was for Mus­lim girls, till they got mar­ried,” she tells me. “After that they’d be con­fined to their mar­i­tal homes any­way.” At age 11, Ra­jathi’s mar­riage too was fixed to Ma­lik, a lo­cal boy. Few peo­ple in her vil­lage were in­ter­ested in read­ing. But Ra­jathi fre­quented its small pub­lic li­brary. It had sev­eral Tamil trans­la­tions of Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture, and the lit­tle girl moved on from comics and mag­a­zines to Tol­stoy and Dos­toyevsky.

Re­stricted to her home from the age of 13, a cousin brought her li­brary books and mag­a­zines. With no news­pa­pers at home, Ra­jathi read random pages in which gro­ceries came wrapped. She re­mem­bers think­ing des­per­ately: Is this it? Do I just have to live within these walls like my mother and sis­ter, marry, have kids…and die? In sheer frus­tra­tion, she started to write down her feel­ings about the misog­y­nist so­ci­ety around her, and the un­re­lent­ing lone­li­ness—Na­jma, at age 14, had mar­ried and left.

By the time Ra­jathi was 15, the in­ten­sity of her feel­ings com­pelled her to switch to po­etry. Writ­ing was a re­lease from her trou­bles. It kept her oc­cu­pied and gave vent to her grief.

Soon, she was pub­lish­ing ar­ti­cles and po­ems in two small mag­a­zines— her fa­ther posted them to edi­tors. When she was 19, Kalachu­vadu, a lead­ing Tamil mag­a­zine, pub­lished two of her po­ems. Its ed­i­tor, in­trigued by the young poet’s sen­si­bil­i­ties, and the spell­ing er­rors that re­vealed her un­fin­ished school­ing, be­gan to cor­re­spond with her.


All the while, Ra­jathi’s par­ents were se­ri­ous about get­ting her, too, mar­ried. She wept and protested strongly, even go­ing on hunger strikes. Once she pushed a thin metal stick into an elec­tri­cal socket, in a sui­cide bid. All she got was a shock and burned fin­gers. But Ra­jathi man­aged to fend off any at­tempt to get her mar­ried un­til she was 22. Then, one night in 1990, her mother woke the house­hold, com­plain­ing of a ter­ri­ble pain in her ch­est. The doc­tor who ex­am­ined her di­ag­nosed a life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion. Ra­jathi hastily agreed to marry. It turned out to be a hoax con­cocted with the doc­tor’s help.

Rokka­iah, the Bold Bride

Se­curely mar­ried off, she was now un­der the con­trol of her hus­band, Ma­lik, a land-own­ing agri­cul­tur­ist and pop­u­lar lo­cal politi­cian. Ma­lik’s fam­ily kept her in­doors and re­named her Rokka­iah, be­cause Ra­jathi, they said, didn’t sound Is­lamic enough. She con­tin­ued to write even after her two sons, Saleem and Nad­heem, were born. She had to hide her po­ems from Ma­lik. “Most nights he’d pick a fight,” she re­calls. “He’d tell me to stop writ­ing. It could go on all night. One day, he got some kerosene and said he’d kill him­self, if I didn’t stop. An­other time, he threat­ened to pour acid on my face. So I would sleep hold­ing Nad­heem against my face, since I knew my hus­band wouldn’t harm his son.”

Rokka­iah kept her notebook un­der the bed and wrote while Ma­lik was asleep. Ma­lik found and de­stroyed it. She then wrote on bits of pa­per. “I’d hide in the toi­let, stand there and write down as much as I could. I hid the pen in a box meant for san­i­tary tow­els. I hid my po­ems in the wardrobe un­der piles of saris.”

When her mother vis­ited, Rokka­iah would get her to smug­gle the po­ems out so that her fa­ther could post them to edi­tors.

Rokka­iah also as­sumed the pen name “Salma” to hide her true iden­tity. The Salma po­ems caused a sen­sa­tion—per­haps no Mus­lim woman had ever writ­ten with such can­dour and in­ti­macy, with no in­hi­bi­tions about por­tray­ing vil­lage cul­ture or sex­u­al­ity.

Her poem Op­pan­dam [The Con­tract], for in­stance, be­came a huge suc­cess:

…The first words I hear Every night in the bed­room: ‘What’s it tonight?’ These are, most of­ten, The fi­nal words too…

Op­pan­dam goes on to de­scribe, in the first per­son, feel­ings about the man from whom “the mother of your child” craves some real af­fec­tion.


There isn’t any—it’s a mere do­mes­tic con­tract end­ing reg­u­larly in sex­ual in­ter­course. The ev­ery­day metaphors and sit­u­a­tions are po­tent. (English trans­la­tions, and Tamil orig­i­nals, of her po­ems can be read at the web­site po­et­

Their au­thor, how­ever, doesn’t con­sider these ex­pe­ri­ences uniquely per­sonal. “Nei­ther my pain nor my feel­ings are solely that of an in­di­vid­ual; they be­long to all such women,” she has said.

Al­though some read­ers may find her verse shock­ing, Salma gets wide crit­i­cal ac­claim. “She writes from her own ex­pe­ri­ence and has de­vel­oped a unique style,” says Tamil poet and play­wright Devi Bharathi. “She is one of the pi­o­neers of mod­ern Tamil writ­ing. Though there are many more women writ­ers now, no one has come close to her.”

Adds UK-based Lak­shmi Holm­strom, who has trans­lated some of the works: “I would de­scribe her po­ems as, at their best, in­tense, coura­geous and hon­est.”

From Rokka­iah to Salma

In 2001, fol­low­ing a quota sys­tem, the Thu­varankurichi town pan­chayat seat got re­served for women can­di­dates. Ma­lik thought it would give him more power if his mother or his sis­ter got elected. When they both re­fused, his only op­tion was to ask his wife. See­ing op­por­tu­nity and free­dom, Rokka­iah agreed—and won.

Soon af­ter­wards, Arul Ezhi­lan, a Chen­nai-based jour­nal­ist and ad­mirer of Salma’s po­ems, learnt from a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor that Rokka­iah was Salma. Ezhi­lan reached her vil­lage and se­cretly waited in Rokka­iah’s sis­ter’s house un­til a woman in a burkha came by.

“I’m Salma,” she said. Ezhi­lan in­ter­viewed her and was cap­ti­vated. “May I take your photo?” he asked. Salma hes­i­tated and looked around. There was only a lit­tle boy there. “Quick!” she said, lift­ing her veil. Ezhi­lan clicked.

When the story was pub­lished in the widely pop­u­lar Tamil mag­a­zine Anan­tha Vikatan in Oc­to­ber 2001, Ma­lik, her in-laws, in­deed the whole vil­lage was out­raged. One of their own was the writer of sen­sa­tional po­etry that ex­posed so much!

Rokka­iah’s five years as chair­per­son of the town pan­chayat up­set some of the male land-own­ers, but she won over the women and the op­pressed labour class with her hard work. “The govern­ment had for long run a self­help ini­tia­tive,” she says. “I mod­i­fied it and in­vited women to join.” That en­abled many women to get loans to start small busi­nesses for which Rokka­iah helped train them. Mean­while, Ma­lik and his fam­ily re­al­ized they could no

longer con­trol Rokka­iah. She was now the tough, in­flu­en­tial Salma. No less.

When her pan­chayat term ended, she de­cided to write more—this time openly. In 2004, she pub­lished Iran­dam Ja­man­galin Kathai, about girls grow­ing up in a con­ser­va­tive, ru­ral Mus­lim com­mu­nity, her semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel. (Its English trans­la­tion is ti­tled The Hour Past Mid­night.) She also con­tested elec­tions to the state assem­bly. “But my ri­vals played dirty,” she re­calls. “They pho­to­copied pages from my book, which had my views about re­form­ing my com­mu­nity and dis­trib­uted it among Mus­lim vot­ers in the con­stituency.” Salma lost by a small mar­gin of votes.

But a new win­dow was to open for her. Chief Min­is­ter Karunanidhi ap­pointed her Chair­per­son of the Tamil Nadu So­cial Wel­fare Board. Salma shifted to Chen­nai with her sons.

In the city, Salma’s so­cial work, es­pe­cially for women, gave her life a new di­men­sion. She was in­stru­men­tal in stop­ping many child mar­riages. “I’d get a call and go with a po­lice team,” she says, but re­grets it was hard to in­ter­vene in Mus­lim child mar­riages, be­cause of per­sonal laws. Yet she tried to help wher­ever she could, giv­ing out her mo­bile num­ber dur­ing her speeches or TV in­ter­views, so that young girls could call her di­rectly.

When the Wel­fare Board term ended, Salma sud­denly had a lot of time at hand. She pub­lished Saabam [The Curse], her col­lec­tion of short

sto­ries. To­day, she also trav­els widely. She is in­vited to lit­er­ary meets, women’s or­ga­ni­za­tions, Salma film screen­ings and award cer­e­monies. “I now have an iden­tity,” she smiles. “Re­cently when I was in Lon­don, a man came run­ning be­hind me and asked, ‘Are you Salma?’ This was a bit scary, but he turned out to be a fan and in­vited me home for din­ner. I couldn’t go only be­cause I had a flight to catch.”

Be­tween writ­ing in Chen­nai, where she con­tin­ues to live, she of­ten vis­its her vil­lage, 400 kilo­me­tres away, to be with her hus­band and her par­ents, and to at­tend to so­cial ser­vice ini­tia­tives. There, she’s also been try­ing to get Mus­lim girls to re­main in school— but vil­lage el­ders still don’t like her in­ter­fer­ing in this.

Even so, Salma’s work is ad­mired by many. And her car­ing for oth­ers has changed lives. In 2010 she launched an NGO called “Your Hope Is Re­main­ing” that works to­wards women’s rights.

“Salma madam is like a mother for me,” says a 26-year-old woman, whom we will call Shan­tha. “If it were not for her, I can’t imag­ine where I’d be to­day.” Shan­tha’s eyes well up as I chat with her at Sa­ho­dari, the Chen­nai YWCA’s home and coun­selling cen­tre for women in dis­tressed sit­u­a­tions. Four years ago, Salma had helped res­cue Shan­tha from the clutches of sex traf­fick­ers who locked her up and ex­ploited her for eight years, dur­ing which she gave birth to a boy, now aged five.

“With Salma madam’s help I got my son ad­mit­ted to a board­ing school,” Shan­tha tells me hap­pily. “She ar­ranged for the ex­penses from a for­eign donor.”

“Did you know that, many years ago, Salma madam too was locked up in a house?” I ask.

Shan­tha re­fuses to be­lieve it. “How can that be? You must be talk­ing about some­one else! Salma madam is so fear­less.”

She had good rea­son not to be­lieve me. I was talk­ing about Ra­jathi and Rokka­iah. Shan­tha had only known Salma.

The poet at home to­day.

Pos­ing by the old win­dow in her vil­lage.

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