The pandemic home might be a novel experience of confinement. But for a vast majority of women, lockdown is less metaphor, more the solid mesh of rules and restrictions that has always held them back. That is certainly true of the characters we meet in the fiction of Tamil writer Salma. In the opening story of The Curse: Stories (Speaking Tiger), a new collection of her stories, three women get into a car. But even as they journey away from their home, the claustrophobia of their shared lives pursues them. The story is told from the point of view of a young woman, who is acutely attuned – in a way that women are burdened by the weight of others’ emotions — to the rift between the two elderly women. The ceaseless complaining, their unsaid rage twisted into tussles over little things is a language that only the women hear and respond to – the male relative in the driver’s seat is impervious to what’s going on. Though about nothing calamitous, the narration unsettles the reader with a persistent nervous anxiety.
Like other stories in this stellar collection of short fiction translated by N Kalyan Raman, ‘On the Edge’ is an exposition of the power of family ties to bind and incarcerate. “The condition of being forced to live in a very cramped place, of leading a life of restriction and subordination, creates a certain neurosis. It makes the women play this game of one-upmanship. The story is the expression of this neurosis,” says Salma, 52, over a video call from Chennai.”
Since she began writing in the 1990s, the defining feature of Salma’s writing has been the close, uncompromising attention she brings to bear on home and marriage, and the women who live inside its walls. These fictional worlds make space for the tetchiness and tedium of the domestic life. The desire, discomfort and pain of the woman’s body finds expression in a way that is not sanitised, that is definitely rare in Anglophone fiction. In this circumscribed world, women nonetheless strain for freedom, as we see in two recent translations – The Curse and Women, Dreaming, the English translation by Meena Kandasamy of Salma’s 2016 novel Manaamiyangal.
Book cover of Women, Dreaming
The experience of imprisonment was crucial to Salma’s becoming a writer. “I started writing when I was 15 or 16, as a response to my anxiety about why my life could not be different, as a critique of society [and what it was doing to me],” she says. In Thuvarankurichi village in Trichy district in Tamil Nadu, where she was born Rajathi Samsudeen, she lived a carefree life till she turned 13 – custom demanded that all girls who came of age do not step out of their homes. She was pulled out of school, imprisoned indoors, often in a tiny, dark room, for nine years – till she was tricked into marriage by her mother. In that confinement she had begun to write poetry. She had become Salma. In her marital home, her writing was met with anger and threats from her husband. It was her mother, who came to her aid, smuggling out the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry in secret, and sending it to literary magazines and publishers. In the 1990s, even as her poetry brought literary acclaim to Salma, Rajathi’s battles remained the same: to keep writing, and not blow her cover. When she did attend the rare literary gathering, it was via subterfuge: she travelled out of her village with her mother on the pretext of medical visits.
Book cover of The Curse
There are no unambiguous heroes or fallen villains in Salma’s stories; the mother-daughter relationship, too, is a deep shade of grey. “In Indian culture, motherhood is considered very sacred. I want to talk [in my work] about what happens outside the sacredness, between two human beings with different aims. The mother is not only a mother, but a woman who has to be conservative to survive under oppression. The daughter naturally yearns for freedom,” she says. For Salma, freedom came from politics. In 2001, when the local panchayat seat was reserved for women, her husband reluctantly turned to her, hoping she would remain a proxy for him. The writer seized the opportunity to step out of the house, campaign without a burqa, won the election – and never looked back.
Salma’s poetry – and later her fiction — broke new ground in Tamil literature. “Women’s writing in Tamil didn’t challenge the basic principles that held society together. In the 1950s-60s, some of it was reformist. Later, Ambai struck a different path, though she chose a more cerebral mode. Salma writes from the gut, and she tells the universal story of women. She does it not just from the body, but also with a very keen sense of how society is organised, both emotionally and materially,” says Kalyan Raman.
Religion is complicit in the entrenched oppression of women in Salma’s stories. Women, Dreaming explores how Wahhabi Islam trickles into a community, squeezing even the limited freedom for women. But the protagonists are not just helpless Muslim women who spur the Hindutva saviour complex in post-2014 India. For Salma, whose clear critique of orthodox Islam has angered conservatives in her Tamil Muslim community, the politics of the current moment makes her uncomfortable. “While I was writing this book, this kind of Islamophobia didn’t exist. It was fair and honest criticism, but, at the moment, I feel very protective of my community, which is under attack under the BJP rule. Their livelihoods are being taken away, they are facing targeted violence,” says Salma, who is a DMK member.
While The Curse’s stories lead the reader into the psychological states of domestic confinement, Women, Dreaming is about two women cast out of marriage. Parveen has been sent back to her maternal home by her in-laws. Mehar chooses to divorce her orthodox husband when he decides to marry again, an act of rebellion that plunges her into mental dissolution. The novel follows their attempts to free themselves, though it remains sceptical that such transformations are possible. Solidarity between women doesn’t come easy, even if it seems probable. “All women are not in a position of strength. Only when they have power can they help others,” says Salma.
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In these works, one hears the drone of grumbling, that most domestic of languages – repetitive and never-finished, like the labour that feeds the home. Women gripe and grate on each other; they are haunted by an inarticulate anxiety, they suffer reproductive violence of multiple abortions: “With the anger that flowed out of her lower abdomen, she sensed blood flowing out and drenching her menstrual rag” (‘Childhood’). Despite the surface calm of Salma’s words, an unexplained dread floods the stories, recalling Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Writing from within the darkness of the home, Salma has spoken of the woman’s body and its unacknowledged desires, its sexual awakening. “In our culture, a woman’s body is either oppressed or considered obscene or sacralised,” she says. A story like ‘Toilets’, about a woman’s difficulty in peeing at home and outside, is remarkable for how it turns the woman’s bodily experience of discomfort and damage into powerful literature. It recounts how a pervasive architecture of shame and denial – from the assumption that men should not see or hear women use the toilet, to the lack of public toilets and the ordeal of a pregnant woman squatting in an Indian-style toilet — leads a woman to think of her bodily urges as punishment. “The natural inclinations of the body and what it means, not only in terms of desire but also of comfort, are denied to us. In our culture, a woman’s body is something that is waiting for liberation. And, therefore, this is something I want to write again and again in my stories, through my stories. That the body is a living thing, before it is anything else, before what culture makes of it,” she says. “For women and society to look at a body as a potential source of pride and confidence, society has to call off its oppression.”
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Salma’s journey is remarkable – not only because she fought and won against her family, but because she remains inside, a clinical chronicler of the oppression of home. “Indian women, can they ever leave home behind?” she asks, with a smile. She has no illusions about its power to change the lives of other women. “Literature, especially the kind I write, is not something that reaches masses of people. Nor does it become a part of literary discourse,” she says. What then is escape? “There are certain things you get over by speaking and writing, and that is a very constructive thing,” she says.
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