When Tamil writer Salma finished a draft of her second novel Manaamiyangal (2016), recently translated into English by poet and writer Meena Kandasamy as Women, Dreaming (Penguin Random House, ₹499), she censored it. Nervous that the entire story would be dismissed as obscene, she decided to parse the words of her characters, pulling away the rough-edged common-speak she imagined them to be conversing in. “The world thinks Muslim women shouldn’t speak like that,” she says, over the phone from Chennai.
And yet, it is precisely the fact that Salma’s women speak, and speak without interruption, that makes her writing so powerful. Most of her stories are set in an unnamed small town in Tamil Nadu, amid Muslim women whose lives are largely confined to the home. Here, despite the muzzles of patriarchy and religion, Salma reveals the women’s deepest thoughts—their desires, fears and dreams.
Fifty-two-year-old Salma’s commitment to writing about women in the voice of women has brought her a good share of trouble. In 2003, she and three other women poets received death threats (from a Tamil film lyricist on TV, no less) and abuse from male Tamil film lyricists and their supporters for allegedly obscene content. But despite it, she says, she is firm about writing women into the Tamil literary field. While she is blunt in her criticism of literary censorship in the country, she has also found ways to push women’s narratives by dancing around inevitable social and political threats. She takes complex themes like the Wahhabi influence on Islam in India head on, but without stating her contention explicitly; she allows the characters to do that work. As one of her translators, N. Kalyan Raman, says, “There’s no one like her…. She isn’t afraid to take risks.”
Although Salma is best known to English readers for her visceral poetry, she is also an accomplished writer of prose. For her, poetry is a form that expresses her current emotional state, but prose allows her to write about the world as she sees it. Recently, two of Salma’s fictional works were translated into English—Women, Dreaming and The Curse, a collection of short stories, translated by Raman. On the one hand, the two books are distinct because of the inherent differences in their forms. And yet they read also as companion texts, for they are united by the world they share. Salma herself says that most of her stories unfurl in the same town, along the same streets. “That’s why I choose to focus more on what’s happening inside the characters,” she says.
Women, Dreaming follows the lives of a small community of women, who are related either by blood, marriage or lived experience. When Mehar’s husband, an increasingly conservative man with a penchant for distorting Islamic law, insists on marrying a second time, Mehar does something unthinkable: She divorces him. What follows are the dark days of any messy divorce, but Salma complicates its telling. As Mehar fights for the right to her children and to move on with her life, she struggles against societal strictures, of course, but also against her own deteriorating mental condition. We feel her pain most sharply in her inability to make sense of her own thoughts—it is a universal, yet entirely private experience. This is where Salma’s writing shines—we don’t understand the women through graphic actions upon their bodies, as is common in the media, but through the imperfections and conversations in their minds.
The more we follow Mehar into the most intimate spaces of herself, the more we learn about the women around her: a forlorn mother, a bitter neighbour, a sister-in-law—Parveen—who is more an ally than an opponent. Parveen, sick of her brother’s dogmatic ways, also sees her own traumatic past reflected in Mehar; she must choose between supporting her biological family or the sisterhood that shapes her life. Despite the oppressive patterns of marriage that all the women have inherited, they are clear that they don’t want to pass this on. In often misdirected ways, they work around their everyday predicaments to give the youngest, Sajida, a shot at a proper education and a different life.
Kandasamy, who calls this a “pitch perfect” novel, says Salma’s writing stands apart from hackneyed women’s narratives because she captures the half-uttered nuances between the women. Her stories are also contemporary and immediate. Whether it’s the thrill of seeing a raunchy video on a cellphone, or the desire to be that English-tongued woman in jeans, Salma’s characters are grounded in situations which, although fictional, are also very real.
For Salma, capturing the essence of real places and people is paramount. That is her political comment. She doesn’t paint altruistic futures or fluffy tales of simplified hope. Nor does she fall into doom-filled pity narratives. Keeping overwrought emotions at bay, Salma balances documentary with the unstated assertion of a different future for women.
Raman, who has been translating Salma’s work for over a decade, points out that her women, despite being confined in a difficult life, never give in to the systems around them. They might not be leading a crusade, but their imaginations still roam free.
While Women, Dreaming offers a long and sustained journey through many women’s imaginations, The Curse compiles a series of incidents and obsessions in the lives of various women. Written at different points in time, each story gives us striking portraits of characters that are wrestling with external pressures, but also with their own demons. At first glance, it might seem that stories repeat, playing upon similar ideas too often, but Raman points out that their treatments are very different. One story might be about bodily functions, he says, and another about space.
In a brief story titled The Trap, the conflict is simple: There’s a knock on the door. The narrator is torn between knowing what lies behind it, or ignoring it for fear of something terrible unfolding. There’s no grand plot. Instead, Salma offers us a fragment in time, in the weariness and irrationality of a woman’s inner dialogue. Here, Raman keeps the prose taut, heightening the tension readers are supposed to feel. Slowly, the narrator’s seemingly strange tussle begins to make sense. We register the presence of the narrator’s husband, who, even in his half-slumber, manages to verbally abuse his wife. Salma tells us very little and yet gives us an entire history.
In a longer story, Toilets, Salma takes us in a very different direction. When Shamim’s aunt is taken to the hospital for a crippling stomach ache, Shamim is forced to think about a particular bodily relationship in her own life—with the toilet. The story moves back and forth between Shamim’s evolving relationship with excretion, privacy, and her sense of self. Salma takes us through Shamim’s bitterness about sharing one toilet with a house of 18 people, through her first encounter with a Western-style pot, and her reticence about peeing when she really has to go.
There’s something both comic and tragic to the narration: “When a woman peed, the patter of urine falling must not be heard outside. ‘How can a girl make noise while peeing?’ Amma would scold Shamim. Just to avoid this, Shamim would open the tap as soon as she entered the toilet for the noise of falling water. It would drown out the sound of peeing or shitting, making it inaudible to those outside.”
For many Indian women, controlling and calculating when and how you pee is hardly a foreign experience. But Salma uses that to probe larger questions of bodily autonomy, menstrual rights and religious control. As she does with much of her work, she renders the political personal—in the most literal and immediate sense.
Salma’s clear-sightedness and the directness of her prose carry through in both translations. But for her these are more than aesthetic or creative exchanges. “In Tamil,” she says, “there was absolute silence around my novel. Translations are giving me a more powerful audience.”
Poorna Swami is a poet, dancer and writer based in Bengaluru.