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Of subjugation and sexuality



Date:05/07/2009 URL:


Back Literary Review

In Conversation





She feels truth is central to literature and is also pained that women, especially Muslim women, don’t read her much. Meet Tamil poet and novelist Salma… 



‘I know the ground reality and write about the things I have experienced or seen with my own eyes.’




Photo: M. Moorthy


Literature as a vehicle of change: Salma.


She had to give up her name to find her identity. She had to branch out of the mores of society to find her roots. A woman not entirely at ease in a men’s world, she even became the sarpanch of her village near Tiruchi when her husband realised he could not contest as the seat was reserved for women! Meet Salma, born Rukkiah, a school dropout because her parents believed good girls did not go to school post-puberty, a poet whose writings surprised her husband who thought she had buried her pen long ago. And now a novelist who continues to cock a snook at the conservatives, but stays within the confines of faith.


Not read by her mother or even her husband, Salma’s is a world of comforting anonymity at home. It changes at once to instant recognition when she steps into the portals of the literary world. Not exactly at ease with English, this Tamil writer is becoming one of the most identifiable voices of women in general and Muslim women in particular, thanks to the English translations of her works. One week in New Delhi, next week in Tripura, the world is indeed her oyster.


A glance at her latest book, The Hours Past Midnight, brought out by Zubaan Books in a fine English translation from the Tamil original by Lakshmi Holmstrom, and you know Salma’s pen is in no danger of running dry. Nor is she going to have a fan following of only Tamil readers or a handful of feminists. “Wherever I go, people enquire about my background. They want to know about my school, why I had to drop out midway, they want to know how I became a writer. I would very much appreciate they understand my writing. Most English writers are removed from the margins of our society. They do not have an ear to the ground, as many of them are from the upper crust. I am fortunate. Because of my background, I know the ground reality and write about the things I have experienced or seen with my own eyes. I have experienced disparity first hand.”




Salma might be gaining newer readers every day, but she is disappointed her core subjects don’t read her. Nor do they write to her. “I write about Muslim women, their subjugation, little Muslim girls and their aspirations. But when I get mail from people who read me, there are only one or two mails from Muslim girls. And Muslim women don’t read me. They are not interested in literature in the villages. I tell all of them I am not Taslima Nasreen. That matter is totally different. I am not going to write anything that goes against my religion. I tell this to my husband and family too, who advise me not to write on controversial issues. In fact, my sister, after reading my work, advised me to change the names of my characters. I said no, as it is the trust of the Muslim society. And people are uncomfortable with truth. Society does not want the truth to come out. But unless you address a wrong, things will not be rectified.”


Talking of controversy and Salma, they have been together for a long time. So much so, today Salma wishes just to be seen as a writer and not have every word of hers dissected for its possible myriad meanings. “For The Hours Past Midnight I used memories of childhood. For instance, on Eid, Muslim girls dress up in fine clothes. They also want to go to the Masjid for prayers. But whereas boys go to the Masjid, girls stay home or play outside. I have seen a lot of life and from my childhood such discrimination used to anger me. As a teenager I used to think that when I grow up I will write about these things. Islam permits women to go to the Masjid, but the society does not. I don’t accuse anybody. It is the way it is, but I can at least try to change something with my writing.”


It has not been easy. “I started work on this book in 2002 and finished it in two years but I was afraid of the criticism or protests from people as had been the case with my poetry earlier. The point is, in our society, when you talk of a woman’s body, her rights, there is a lot of problem. My book is about women’s issues. Sometimes I wish more women read me but unfortunately back home, most women don’t read.”


Many Muslim women back in her village “of a few thousand people” may not read her, but Salma is already the flavour of the season with people raving about her works even at the London Book Fair and earlier the Jaipur Literature Week. “It is all thanks to the English translation,” she says, modestly, then admits, “I don’t know English fluently. I cannot understand fine differences, but from whomsoever I have spoken to, there is no better translator of Tamil works than Lakshmi Holmstrom.”


Familiar world


And as we wind up the conversation, there is a sneak preview of what’s to come. “I am working on another novel. I have not decided on the title yet.” Then there is going to be a Hindi translation of The Hour Past Midnight. Does she know Hindi herself? “No. Hindi nahin maloom,” she shoots back. Never mind. She does not need to know. The world understands the language of subjugation and sexuality, aspirations and ambitions. In other words, Salma’s world.






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