Path of a Rebel Poet – Part II
Yes, yes, I know. You’re all quite ready to throw brickbats at me for not posting the second part of the …. don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what. Blame a prolonged sickness for my vanishing off the face of the Metblog radar. Anyway … here’s Part 2 of the Salma Chronicles.
Oy, where did I stop off? Ok, got it.
By the way, go here for Part 1.
It proved to be the turning-point in her turbulent history, opening the doors to a second, far more successful era of public life.
Quite suddenly, from being a nameless X in a large family, Salma suddenly found herself the cynosure of enormous public interest. “I, who couldn’t even give a photo for my first book, had to pose for posters all over town; speak in mikes in front of crowds – I tell you, I was stunned.” Her voice is low. “It shocked me that they who wouldn’t let me even write in scraps of paper, now let me speak to strangers – simply because it was in their best interests.” Never one to let such opportunities slide by, Salma took the Election bull by its horn, put in a good deal of hard work; victory was hers. Salma breezed through the Swearing-in Ceremony, aware, for the first time in her life, that her family actually supported her success. It was the first time a literary personality in the area had entered the political arena as well – and Salma intended to make her mark.
For 30 years, Thuvarankurichi had seen no Local Body elections. Two local bigwigs, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim had always conferred among themselves and managed to elect one or the other when term was up. The Panchayat’s assets were theirs to squander; property which would have brought in Rs 10,000 from the Government was leased to private parties for Rs 2,00,000, which was later split equally among said bigwigs, some of which went towards maintenance of the Temple and Mosque. Mismanagement and squalor reigned supreme.
“I changed all that,” Salma announces, a triumphant note in her voice. “I wasn’t afraid any more, and I’d decided that since I had taken a post such as this, it was time for me to assume responsibilities and live up to expectations.” Her husband, now forced to see her as a fully-fledged, responsible Panchayat Board Chairperson, understood that her life was hers to lead; politicians and other players in the arena saw her growth, and began to accord her respect.
From being the position of an exalted personage that no one could approach, Salma quickly transformed the office into what it had been meant for: public service. “People trooped in to see me from 5 o’clock to 12 o’clock, bringing in their issues, hopeful that I would address them.” Thuvarankurichi had no good roads, no school – and no place to complain. “Our country would be a better place if proper authority is given to Panchayat Officials,” asserts Salma. Never one to shirk her work, Salma made sure she fulfilled the duties expected of her: she journeyed to Chennai as often as was required, visiting and petitioning MPs and MLAs of all parties, in a bid to gain the benefits due to her people. “There are a great many Collectorate Schemes that address everything from cleaning sewers to organizing water-supply. The Namakku Naame Scheme is one such – but nobody knew of such things. Worse, they didn’t care.” So well did she work towards providing the people of Thuvarankurichi such basic amenities such as water, roadways, streetlights, community networks and organizing sewage, that she won the Collectorate Award in recognition of her services.
In 2004, the Institute for Social Sciences (ISS), New Delhi, selected 30 women out of Panchayat Presidents all over the country for purposes of training, and travel to Pakistan – and Salma was part of this privileged group. Visiting a much-maligned neighbour, where President Pervez Musharaf had allocated 30% of the Panchayat positions for women, Salma had an excellent opportunity to visit an alien land, so similar to her home, observe its people, language, its dynamics. “We traveled for around 18 days – a truly wonderful experience. Pakistan and India were said to be enemies, but her people think of us as brothers and sisters. They see us as one of them.” Salma and her group visited Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Ghaziabad – 13 cities in all. Among the sites she saw were the school India’s current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh studied in, and Peshawar, near the Afghan border, where foreigners weren’t allowed. Her travelogues and experiences were later serialized, to much acclaim in the popular Tamil weekly, Kumudam.
Around this time, she gained the introduction and friendship of poet Kanimozhi and her illustrious father, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Karunanidhi. Frequent meetings followed; ideas and thoughts were exchanged. “In 2006, I was the DMK candidate for Marungapuri, and won by 1000 votes,” she informs.
Meantime, her achievements in the literary world brought her as much criticism as praise. Salma’s works gained the most attention, perhaps a little unfairly so, for her physical descriptions and her unapologetic use of body parts and acts in poems, rather than the actual issues addressed. One of her most controversial works is Oppandham (Agreement), a widely (mis)quoted poem, the cause of a great many arguments and harsh words, even from well-respected authors and poets. A translated excerpt reads:
“Mother tells me that every mistake in the bedroom is mine
To discharge your responsibilities to my child,
To get you to pay for sanitary napkins and birth control pills,
And, if possible, to lord over you for a while,
My knowing vagina opens itself.”
Unaware of the ways and means to respond to such frank writing, missiles flew from all directions of the literary world, first shocking, then rousing her to defense. “Society, I believe, is naturally against women. People talk a great deal about what a woman goes through – yet, when confronted with the brutal truth, they prefer to shut it out, ignore it, deny that it’s happening,” she comments, when asked about her peers’ reaction to her in-the-face writing. “Educated people like Palanibharati and Snehan, who have made a mark in the world of poetry themselves, couldn’t accept my poems and writings; they thought it was an insult to the very ideals of womanhood.” Then she smiles mischievously. “Such people, I think, haven’t really read their literature well. What are my works compared to the remarkably descriptive passages in Sangam literature? All I can tell my detractors is this: Let them criticize those great works, and then throw stones at me.” She considers the issue for a few more moments. “The truth is that they can’t accept women who have gained in status, in intelligence – and the easiest way to attack me is to call my work obscene. They can’t stand the attention women receive.”
Her first novel, Irandam Jamangalin Kathai (Tales of Night’s Late Hours), about the naked truths that exist in a Muslim society, a remarkably closed world, brought such ire on her head that even critics were stunned at its ferocity. “I wanted to project my world the way it really is, the way I see it: all the male chauvinism, the restraint placed on womenfolk, who can’t show their emotions – naturally, the Islamic community couldn’t accept it.” She sits up, indignation in her eyes. “And why shouldn’t we change, as a society? Why can’t we recognize the bad points, the weaknesses for what they are? We need to take stock; bring changes.”
Regretfully, her own two sons, brought up in the closeted atmosphere of Thuvarankurichi, showed disastrous signs of emulating narrow-minded elders. “What can you do?” she asks rhetorically. “They react the way they see their elders react. I’ve brought them to Chennai, to change their ideas – let’s see what happens.”
Not all of the literary world heaped criticism on her, though; in 2006, she was invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair – Salma was the only poet from Tamil Nadu. In another trip to the Chicago University, daily readings were conducted, where translators and students discussed her works – an honour that had her floating on clouds. Well-known translator Lakshmi Holmstrom is currently involved in translating Salma’s novel. Salma also won the Devamagal Arakkattalai Award in 2002 for her poetry collection; a Katha Award for her short story in 2004, and the Amudan Adigal Award for all her writings.
Brickbats and accolades from literary achievements aside, Salma has concentrated on public service as much as on her poetry, allowing her natural instincts for service free rein. March 2007 saw her assume the responsible position of the Chairman for Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board. “What I am now, is more to my taste, my thinking. My responsibilities in this office are more towards women and their welfare – I want to do my best. I’m concentrating on the issues of female infanticide, creating more awareness about suicides, especially among students of the 8 th and 10th standards. One must realize that there is life after failure, not give in to every depressing impulse. I want to make this a movement over the whole of Tamil Nadu.” She also hopes for the opening training schools for Panchayat Chairpersons, that they might be prepared to take up their posts and serve people.
As she sits back, calm and collected, no trace of the trials she’s gone through on her gently, unassuming face, I am struck by her strength, her ability to withstand such severe emotional storms and come out, seemingly unscathed. “The more I was restrained, the more did I feel the need to break out of the shackles that held me down – because I felt that such restraint was unfair, unnecessary and cruel,” she comments. “That, I suppose, is the real lesson: never give up – come hell or high-water.”
Big bunch of thanks to all the people who liked Part 1.