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Tamil poet Salma shares with candour, why women writing poetry is an act of rebellion in conservative societies.
“Women writing poetry face opposition because it is evidence of women’s thinking!”
This simple but alarming statement was at the heart of a talk I had the opportunity to hear, by Tamil novelist and poet Salma, at the ongoing Bangalore Poetry Festival.
While I am not much of a poetry reader, I have read Salma’s first novel, Irandam Jamangalin Kadai, and it explores the intricate web of familial and social relationships in which women’s dreams are routinely fed to the machine until they emerge crushed and unrecognisable at the other end.
Salma locates her work in the rural Muslim society of Tamil Nadu that she is most familiar with, but that is not to say women from other societies cannot relate to it. The story of women’s subordination to ‘larger causes’ is a familiar one.
Salma’s talk last evening titled Oru Pennin Kadhai (The Story Of A Woman) looked at this story through the lens of her own journey – from being disallowed to go to school after eighth standard, to navigating a marriage where the fame of her writing, marked her out as a woman who brought shame and trouble to her family.
It was also a story of redemption through writing – of how her love for poetry and writing gave her the courage to keep going, even when it meant writing poetry in the toilet and hiding her work in recesses within the home.
In her own words, “I was born in a place where it cannot even be imagined that women can have dreams. I always knew that I would not be allowed to finish school, but I started drawing my dreams larger. I refused to fit into the only dreams that society allotted to me – home, husband, children.”
Paradoxically, the fact that society would not allow her to explore any alternatives, led her to immerse herself in the world of reading and writing. “Loneliness led me to reading”, as she puts it. She credits the Tamil translations of Russian literature as well as the works of Tamil reformer E.V.R.Periyar with introducing her to a wider world, and to the possibility that women could have a life beyond what she had been shown. It also made her an atheist. (More on this later).
Here she spoke about how the family is complicit in maintaining the narrative of woman as someone whose primary role is to be attractive to men, the myth that “a woman is her body” – when mothers encourage daughters to focus on beauty with a view to making a good marriage. Conflict with her family arose when she started writing poetry and it became difficult to find a man who would marry her – women who wrote poetry were seen as subversives, unsuitable to family life.
While she did marry and have children, Salma spoke candidly about how, for many years of her married life, she faced much trouble from her husband and family, over her writing. Especially when her poetry explored women’s sexuality, her family could not bear the resulting notoriety; just the fact of a woman writing poetry was alarming enough, because it was evidence of her thinking independently.
Her husband’s question, “Why don’t you watch TV?” was amusing when repeated and drew laughter from the audience, but is actually a ghastly reminder of the very small and homogenized boxes that women must confine themselves to. A poignant episode that she related was about how her son came back home from school and requested her not to write anymore, because “My friends’ mothers say you are a bad woman.”
When her poetry with erotic overtones was published in India Today, it led to a furore with Islamic fundamentalists claiming that she was writing “wrong things” about Muslim women – that in reality their lives were happy, they were ‘innocent’, and did not have sexual desires or think in the way she portrayed them. But as Salma says, women everywhere are women and have the same dreams. How could Muslim women alone be hermetically sealed away in those boxes?
For a woman who writes about ‘bold’ themes, one of the consequences almost always, is the tag of being a loose woman, and Salma’s story is no exception. Despite such constant harassment, she says that she resolved not to stop writing: “I realised that I can only survive as a writer. All my other childhood dreams had been crushed.”
Salma’s own story took a better turn after the 2001 Panchayat elections, when she contested (and won) a seat reserved for women in her village. She says that the support she has received from government officials on account of being a writer and the way it enabled her to relate to people, finally convinced her husband that writing was not the work of “mad people” but something of value. Since then, she has had his support for her writing.
Salma began her talk by saying that the lives of women in rural India varied enormously from that of women in urban India, and while I appreciate what she was saying, I am pretty sure many women in the audience would have related to her story of women’s confinement in petty boxes. The degree may vary, but the sentiment remains.
p.s. The Q&A session was evidence that every passionate female speaker must be in want of a man (or two) who will mansplain to her the things she already knows.
One man wanted to know if she felt supported by the feminist movement, and answered his own question saying that feminists never spoke up in such cases. Presumably he was referring to ‘such cases’ of Muslim women. Of course, the fact that Salma’s novel was translated into English and published for a larger audience by Zubaan, a feminist publishing house was unknown to him, but hey, who needs facts when you have the authority of being a man?
Another condescendingly explained to Salma that she ought to have cited Bharatiyar instead of Periyar, saying, “If you have read Bharatiyar’s work…”. Excuse me, but anyone who has studied in Tamil, in Tamil Nadu, and writes poetry as her very livelihood, has presumably read Subramania Bharati. In any case, Salma did not actually claim Periyar as the ‘first male feminist’ – only that he was a feminist much before the the term was adopted by a large number of women. The gentleman then went on to tell her that “Today, Muslim women are not oppressed like this anymore…”
Irony died a quiet death. During her talk, Salma had been telling us precisely how Islamic fundamentalists claimed that Muslim women were not oppressed…well, here was a member of the liberal intelligensia that supposedly attends such events, contradicting her lived experience and happily doing the same!
You can view more of Salma’s work here:
The Hour Past Midnight (novel; English translation)
Irandam Jamangalin Kadai (novel; original in Tamil)
Wild Words (A collection in English of work by four Tamil poets, including Salma)
Top image via Twitter