Path of a Rebel Poet – 1
My first crossing of paths with Poet Salma, so to speak – was through a bundle of controversies. Until then, I’d only had a vague idea of who she was. Looking at excerpts of her work made me determined to find out more about her, and I read every interview I could ever lay my hands on.
But those weren’t enough. Soon, I wanted to see the rebel in person – because so often, what you read is very seldom a real reflection of who a person is. I dug into her whereabouts, and – surprise! – discovered that she was in Chennai after all – and met her.
Perhaps those of the glittering literati out there have already read all there is to read of her – but to me, it was an experience and a half. That’s what I’ve tried to record here. Perhaps Nandhu might like to add his perceptions as well. :)
“Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.”
- Paul Engle
She’s a study in contrasts.
The name Salma has echoed around hallowed corridors of modern Thamizh literature for years now; resounded around bastions of Muslim culture, creeping gently into the hearts of keepers of so-called tradition and those who raised their voices against women and their much-vaunted liberation. Her works, with their sharp, evocative descriptions and stunning imagery about the fate of the everyday, suppressed woman have ruffled entire flocks – leave alone feathers – in some very high places. And for good reason: she has never been afraid to express herself truthfully, when it comes to being the voice of a section of society that has had little chance to speak out. Her poems carry a strong flavour of the physical body, inciting her critics to lash out at her poems in the basest way possible; mild-mannered peers have suddenly been roused to shocking statements, while radical thinkers and feminists welcomed her with open arms – and the world soon followed suit, laying her open a wide path of acceptance. Albeit dotted with boulders with jagged edges.
Salma, the poet – has always been synonymous with powerful words and emotions.
Still, the woman who greets me with a cautious smile when I first step into Poet Salma’s home is not quite whom I expect to see. I quickly revise first impressions of finding, perhaps, a poet who is immured to life, too world-weary or artificially enthusiastic about everyday happenings. And when I look closely, I see a woman armed in battle costume: prepared to defend against invasion if necessary, yet willing to relax her guard when she is approached by friends. Happily, as we settle down to talk, I begin to discover a spirit the likes of which very few actually have the felicity to know.
“What would you like to know?” she asks in a quiet voice, as though worried of committing some faux pas in rushing headlong into her life story – but since that, essentially is what I wish to know, she continues with a slight smile. Her eyes remain clear; no theatrics here. “Not much there – my life was very much like many others in the same situation.” Her words, though, belie the truth.
Born in Thuvarankurichi, a small town near Thiruchirappalli, Salma – who, incidentally, was named Rokkiah – grew up in an ultra-conservative Muslim household and society, governed by every rule and dictum that it is possible for a family to ever impose on young girls.
“Women had little chance of an education there,” remembers Salma, of her childhood. “We couldn’t go out much before marriage – and we were married at 13 or 14, at the most. I myself was engaged when I was 13,” she grins suddenly, at my rather shocked face, and a good-humoured woman makes her presence felt. “That’s not really surprising, you know. But I wouldn’t agree to getting married so young. I already had ambitions of doing something with my life, so I kept protesting against it. Not that it had much effect. Marriage was the only option, and everyone knew it. Still, I managed to keep myself surrounded by my first love – books and literature. I had to keep in touch with that side of me.”
A Master’s Degree Thuvarankurichi might not have offered – but what about the basics? Surely she went to school in her teens. “Ah, yes,” she smiles. “I did go to school – but that came to an abrupt end because of a certain incident. You see, I liked going to the movies, probably because simple pleasures were denied to us girls so much. In those days, Thuvarankurichi’s theatre had only night shows that started at 7 PM; once in three months they had a matinee. Naturally, we wanted to have a taste of the movie-going experience – but the whole outing was fraught with restrictions. I had a few friends my age; every one of them would get permission; but I would have to stand by the pillar at home” – she mimes herself leaning on an imaginary pillar – “my arms twined around it, waiting endlessly. And even then, I would receive permission only if I read 2 pages of the Quran.” She pauses. “I must have been 11 or 12, then. I often spent my time – what I had of it – in the local library, reading and re-reading the ancient classics and whatever else was there. And that was when we, my three friends and I, suddenly decided that we might go to the matinee show. To think was to do – and we were inside the theatre, at once. We didn’t even know what movie was playing. We found our seats and prepared to enjoy the show – only to find that we were the only girls in the whole theatre. And there was a reason for that – the film in question was some kind of an X-rated movie!” She chuckles. “You can’t imagine our intense mortification. We’d covered our heads, and all the men in the theatre kept looking at us, trying to find out who we were, but they couldn’t see enough in the dark theatre. Worst of all, my younger brother was there too – on the men’s side!” She shakes her head. “Somehow, we sat through the whole show, and waited for almost an hour in the theater afterwards, until everyone had gone out. We were hoping to make a quiet exit. And when we came out – good God, the whole crowd was waiting outside, hoping to see who these daring girls were, who came to see such a movie!” She shrugs. “And that was the end of it. We got a terrible lashing when we reached home, and it was decided that I wouldn’t go to school any more. As it was, I would have had to stay home once I reached puberty, so it was only a matter of time.”
What did prick her intensely in the incident, though, was the fact that her younger brother, who had watched the movie as well and been the one to inform the household of this ‘terrible’ act, was not even brought to book and continued as before, while she herself had been reprimanded to within an inch of her life. “I couldn’t digest this obvious discrimination,” she admits. “It was too much to bear that he could get away with anything, even though he was younger – just because he was a male.”
She hadn’t any choice, though. Time at home now stretched away before her interminably, with hours and days of nothing to do. At least, that would have been the case for any other young woman. Not Salma. “I started reading a lot when I was 14, right until 20. My interest in literature grew – and I was, by nature, a girl who wished to know a lot; a girl with dreams. But I had no one to share my thoughts with; no friends. In the place of animate human beings, I turned to even more animate companions, my books. I turned into a bookworm.”
Her parents, ordinarily not inclined to leniency when it came to her education, gave way to her thirst for reading. “They didn’t object to my spending my time this way, within the four walls of my house,” says Salma. “And so I came to read everything I could lay my hands on. Russian literature proved to be a treasure house of knowledge; thought-provoking, the tools that helped me continue to dream, to envision a future that might lie outside this enforced prison. If I hadn’t been able to have my fill of Tolstoy and Mayakovsky in those days, I might have withered away into nothing. I might even say that this proved to be something of a plus point.” Later, with increased reading and absorption came an awareness of language and translation, and the eagerness to devour more. She read a good many works of Periyar as well, and spent time on Marxist theories, the words seeping into her as water in a sponge. Quick on the heels of such extensive reading came the next step – writing.
“When I first started writing poems, I took the name Rajathi for two reasons,” she explains. “Firstly, I wanted an identity of my own, not the one I had right now, bound within the confines of my social restrictions. Secondly, I didn’t want anyone who might read the work to connect them with me, for obvious reasons,” she smiles. “My parents knew that I wrote – but as it hadn’t caused much of a problem thus far, they didn’t object.”
Thus began the early years of the most productive period of her life: she wrote so many poems, mostly based on her own life and emotions that they must have come to around “17 or 18 volumes, if they were put together now.” Most were, she says, feminist, of course. “A woman couldn’t show herself, couldn’t afford to express her own opinions – I was subject to a lot of unkind teasing when rumours of my writings got out. Some even scolded me terribly. How dare I, a chaste Muslim woman, write?”
Word of her writings, the maturity and freshness in her work began to make waves in the literary world, though. She was contacted by various writers; readers began to recognize and look for her work in the Tamil dailies and weeklies – one example was Chuttum Vizhicchudar, a magazine that offered writing space for women; writers S V Rajadurai and V Geetha, themselves keen on Russian literature and Periyar, wrote to her about her work, urging her to continue. Such appreciation, says Salma, prompted her to concentrate, driving her on towards better work.
Needless to say, it could not last long. Plans for her marriage were dusted and brought up again, and this time, despite all of Salma’s protests, there was little leeway in the matter. Too much time had been lost, her family said, as Rokkiah had been promised to a man; no more could be wasted.
Salma was depressed. “I didn’t like the life I was living now; not my home, my surroundings, anything. I knew what kind of life awaited me once I was married – I would just move to the next street, and be swallowed up in the drudgery of chores and household work. I would be carefully kept away from so-called ‘corrupting influences’ – I wouldn’t be allowed to explore my urge to delve into myself, to live life in a city, perhaps, to know people, books, places,” she says. “It would be the end.”
She did try arguing that she must be allowed to write at least – but the request was flatly denied. “There was such a huge gap in our very thinking,” says Salma. “I knew that my future in-laws thought I’d been given too much freedom, doing things no woman should ever be allowed to do; they insisted that I give up writing for good. I refused.”
Not that her refusal changed circumstances; no member of the family gave it serious thought. She would protest until marriage, and then would give it up just as any other girl would. “For many Indian women who have lived like me, after all, there is no ambition, no drive,” Salma muses. “Everything comes to a full-stop after marriage – it’s just the husband, the in-laws, the children.”
And so, Salma entered holy matrimony – “I couldn’t run away, could I?” she grins – and began a not-so-new life, according to tradition and expectations. Nothing would persuade her to give up dreams of writing, though; her new family was equally convinced that she would. This was the first step to what would morph into a protracted battle of wills – but that would come later. First, how was a young bride like herself to even attempt to write, under the watchful eyes of the whole family?
“I wasn’t more than 22, then,” Salma reminisces. “And I was eager to get back to work – but couldn’t. My inability to do so made me discover newer and newer methods to circumvent it,” she laughs.
Anna Akhmatova, acclaimed as the leader, the heart and soul of the St Petersburg tradition of Russian poetry for half a century, wrote her poems, it was said, in pieces of tissue paper, in jail. So did Salma emulate Anna, in her own way. She could not write at night; the night-lamp would give her away. Day was her only recourse, and she snatched minutes out of every chore possible to scribble poetry on scraps of paper, and hide them away. This was essential, as her family – in particular, her husband – were incredibly suspicious that she had gone back to her ‘old ways’ and continued to write, and carried out spot-checks at inopportune moments. “I would write even when I was in the bathroom,” confesses Salma. “And then I would stuff the papers somewhere inside the bathroom, and then find a way to send it out. Occasionally, I changed places too, to avoid discovery,” she laughs.
It was around this time that she adopted the pseudonym Salma. “Kalil Gibran’s work has a heroine in it by this name,” she says. “I read the work; it appealed to me, and I began to use it.”
By now, correspondence from fellow writers and readers had grown to such proportions that an elaborate set-up had to be created for Salma to access her mail. “Amma received all the letters meant for me, and forwarded them; I would read, write replies and send them back to her, and she would post them for me.” All these elaborate precautions did not guard her from being found out, though; when someone stumbled on her pieces of writing, there was hell to pay. “There would be furious quarrels,” comments Salma. “They would grill me about the subjects I’d written, like feminism – and since quite a few of my poems expressed my own sorrow, they would keep asking me if I wrote such things because I was sad in my in-laws’ home,” she says. Such relentless inquisitions shaped her into a rather reclusive being; one who is wary of opening her heart easily to anyone.
Setbacks such as these only served to fire her ambitions to succeed; Salma continued to write, pushing opposition to the background. During these trying times, it was legendary Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy – affectionately known as Su Ra – who helped her keep her confidence, and continue writing. Kalachuvadu, his publication house and a premier literary magazine, promoted her writings heavily, publishing her first collection of poetry, Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum (An Evening and Another.) August 2001 saw the book’s release function, in Chennai – and presented a fresh set of problems. How was Salma ever to leave home, let alone attend the function of her own book’s launch? As it was, even her photo couldn’t be acquired without a great deal of difficulty.
In the end, Salma found a rather circuitous way out. “I pleaded sickness and got permission from my in-laws to travel to Chennai for around 10 or 12 days,” she explains. “I had no copies of the book,” – which, incidentally, took the Tamil literary world by storm – “and got medical certificates in the city before I came back home, as they would demand proof of my treatment. No one knew anything of what had happened.” The success was rather bittersweet.
In September, 2001, a vast band of silver appeared on her horizon – except that Salma didn’t recognize it as such, at that time. The Panchayat Board elections were around the corner, and Salma’s husband wished to compete. Part of a well-known family and with a creditable number of supporters, he was sure of success – except for one small hurdle. Thuvarankurichi came under the Women’s Reservation sector, which meant that no man could compete in the Panchayat Elections. “He asked his mother and sisters, all of whom refused; then he came to me. All I had to do was compete in the election; he would take care of everything else.” Confused about this seemingly golden opportunity offered by people who had hitherto refused to let her have even her own identity, Salma turned to Su Ra, her mentor, who urged her to accept – and she did.
[To be Concluded]