By Safia Begum
In this Café Dissensus conversation, the Tamil author, Salma, speaks to Safia Begum. Salma writes poetry and fiction. She is based in the small town of Thuvarankurichi, Tamil Nadu. Her writing is known for its boldness about addressing the taboo areas of Tamil Muslim/women’s experiences.
Safia: Could you please tell us something about your childhood, family, and studies? Why did you have to leave your studies so early?
Salma: [Laughs] In my village life has not changed compared to life in cities, specifically for Muslim women or women in general. In cities, girls can go for education but, in the villages, it is very different and, specifically, Muslims do not want to send their girls outside. After 13, all the women should wait for marriage. I could not pursue my education further. There, in my village, girls have to wait for their marriage after 13. Fortunately, I was able to access the library nearby. I wanted to go out and study. My parents wanted to send me but it’s a custom in the society. So, they could not send me. They said, “You can read, get books from library”. I read books, like on Russian literature and Marxism. I was happy about the kind of books I was getting to read. Due to these books my thoughts changed and I began to compare my life with the life in the outside world. We are also human. Why we should not get education when all the women are getting education and all the rights? Here women are getting married without knowing anything. They do not know about the outside world, what happiness and life is. Their happiness is all about eating good food, jewelry, husband, clothes etc. They do not know how their husbands are dominating them. It is still happening everywhere; not just in the villages but with educated women also. It is not only about village women’s life but about all the women.
Safia: When did you first think of writing and why?
Salma: Some women say that my husband is good and he has given freedom to me etc. I ask, “Why is he giving it to you?” I say, “It is your life; it is your freedom; he cannot give it to you”. I couldn’t go out to protest and argue with religious people etc. I realized this. I couldn’t do anything and I felt very bad. But I could share my emotions through my poetry and I began to write. My poetry came out and everybody came to know about it. They began to say, “How could a Muslim woman write like this?” Everybody criticized me. I did’t care about anybody. My father and mother supported me. They said, “She stays inside the house. What’s wrong if she writes?”
Safia: When did you get married?
Salma: At 13 years of age, my marriage was fixed but I thought I wouldn’t marry this person. I knew that he didn’t know anything about literature or poetry. My husband’s family also opposed my writing. They argued with my parents, “Why do you allow her to write?” My parents said, “She writes only to kill time”. Then they broke the engagement. After some time, they again came back and my father agreed. They thought she would stop all this after marriage. The Indian mindset – they do all these things before marriage but they stop everything after marriage. After two or three children a woman’s life is over. Many educated women do the same thing, too. I know two sisters; they studied engineering, got married to doctors, and went to the UK. Now they are living in the UK and are not doing anything. There, they just take care of their children and family. The mindset of typical Indian women. Before wedding they beautify themselves and after wedding their life is finished. Wedding is their destination and that is the problem. In my case, I was not interested in marrying this guy but my parents said to them that she would stop writing after two children. I did not want to marry this person but my parents fixed it.
After marriage my husband and his family did not allow me to read and write. I always kept quiet. A lot of things happened…After that I changed my name to Salma. My actual name is Rajathi. Still my family calls me Rajathi. My pen name is Salma. Then I published my poetry collection. People did not know who Salma was. I wrote a novel, The Hour Past Midnight (2009).
After that this election thing happened. [My husband was planning to contest the local Panchayat election. But the constituency was reserved for women.]My husband asked my mother in-law and sister-in-law to contest. They said no to him. Then he came to me. He said, “You just sign. I will take care of it”. I was worried; if he did anything wrong, then I would be arrested for it. I spoke to my friends. They said, “You are a poet but you don’t have any identity. Nobody knows who Salma is. Now you will get a chance. Why should you not contest?” After that I signed it. If men wanted to do anything, they would do it. If we, women, wanted to do anything, they would not let us do it. I stood in the election as an independent candidate. I got elected. Thereafter, I got coaching through the government programme about how to run the administration. After election, I went to meet the collectors and other officials. They began to respect me because I was a poet. My husband then understood why writing was so important. Before that he used to say that writing was a waste of time and that the poets were mad.
Safia: You might have surely faced some sort of resistance from the religious and other leaders. What kind of challenges did you face in your journey as a writer?
Salma: Yes, they called me and threatened me. After that I joined the party. Then the party was behind me. So I was not worried. But, still, they call and ask me why I write.
Safia: As a ‘regional’ writer, who writes in Tamil, how do you feel about the global acceptance? How far has translation helped in this regard?
Salma: Yeah, without translation, it wouldn’t have been possible. Now, when I travel around the world, read my poetry, and people feel connected to it, I see everywhere the same situation.
Safia: How supportive was your family at the initial stages and now? How has been the shift from your parents to in-law’s home as a poet?
Salma: At my parents’ home, I was free to read and write. But my husband and his parents did not allow me. I used to read in his absence. If I wanted to write at night, I would go to the toilet, stand there, write, and come back. In the toilet, we had a small box for sanitary napkins; I used to hide my pen and papers there. And, again, in the morning I would take it out from there and send my poems to the magazines. My mother used to help me. At home, we had servants and I never had to wash my clothes. So she used to come and take my clothes. At that time, she would keep those writings inside the cover and, later, send them to magazines. She got the letters to me, which came from outside.
Safia: What is more liberating for you, writing or politics? Why?
Salma: Writing is only writing. Reading and writing liberated my thoughts. Politics only helped me to come out. Now, both the things are important to me but we need to liberate our own thoughts first and only after that we can think about the outside world.
Safia: How do you bring gender and Muslim issues in your writings?
Salma: In my poems, you will not see any identity. My poems only talk about women’s issues. My novels are only about Muslim women’s issues. My poems deal with universal issues. I write novels because I have experiences with Muslim women, which I want to record.
Safia: Do you think your work/message is reaching Muslim women, who you want to address?
Salma: No, it is very difficult because a very small number of people read literature. See the poetry collections. They publish only about 2000 copies; so is with novels. The mainstream magazines bring out about 2 lakh copies. We should wait for at least 3 or 4 years. This is the problem. Only a few women getting education and only a handful of women are interested in literature. Many women are inspired by me. Literary interest is not easy to develop. They should take interest in it; we cannot push them. See how many people have read my poetry or novels. Not many women read my poetry.
Safia: One last question. What are your suggestions to the budding writers, especially women from the Muslim community?
Salma: They should not get discouraged by anything and keep writing.
Safia: Thank you!
Safia Begum is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Folk Culture Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad. She works on the Folklore of Muslim Communities. She is from Hyderabad.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’