Reading the first novel of the Tamil poet, Salma, I found myself worrying about the persistence of loud and easy adjectives. The world finds it hard to get past labels such as “bold” or “erotic” — anything generally held to be “controversial”. Once the popular imagination perceives a writer as “specializing” in such subjects, there is every danger that these facile labels will get in the way. The reader may then be deprived of some of the depths or nuances the work has to offer. This danger is heightened if the writer is a woman. And if the writer is a Muslim woman, it can rise to a shrill pitch of voyeuristic sensationalism. I can only hope that this kind of stereotyping will not determine the way in which Salma’s work is viewed.
Salma is actually Rokkayya from Tiruchirapalli district in Tamil Nadu. This wife and mother of two had to become “Salma” partly because of the unwelcome attention she and her family got in response to her poetry. But there are the other facts that almost make up for this imposed pseudonym, thus giving us cause for optimism. Salma has negotiated a creative space for herself within the family and community so that she continues to write; the family is apparently proud of her achievements. Even better, her explorations encompass not only word and image, but also political action through the panchayat. This means Salma, a female member of a traditional Muslim household, is a powerful poet, a skillful novelist, and an outspoken panchayat head — a mix of identities that makes her a most potent symbol of possibility.
Salma’s novel, Irandam jamattin kadai, translated into English as The Hour Past Midnight, begins with a striking poem bearing the same title. The poem sets the tone for the way in which the lives of many women will be unfolded in the succeeding pages. The very first line states a position of female disadvantage in a matter-of-fact, yet challenging, way: “These nights/ following the children’s birth/ you seek, dissatisfied,/ within the nakedness you know so well,/ my once unblemished beauty.” In fact, the body is ever-present in the poem, and in the novel that follows it.
What are the qualities of this body that cannot be forgotten for a minute? It is capable of “unblemished beauty”; its nakedness is capable of desiring and evoking desire. It is vulnerable: it thickens, its belly gets crisscrossed with birthmarks, it repels. “Nature has been more perfidious” to a woman’s body than to a man’s body; even more than his, her body “isn’t paper to cut and paste together, or restore”. In short, the woman’s body is a source of mystery, pleasure and humour, but also drudgery, shame and pain. The body’s varied abilities and appetites, as well as the web of rules that have been constructed to hold all these firmly in control, fill up the lives of women from girlhood to old age.
This blooming, desiring, bleeding female body is the canvas on which Salma’s novel is inscribed. It is a sort of Everywoman’s body that belongs to many stories strung together. Consider just a few of the girls and women whose lives are revealed in The Hour Past Midnight. There is the anonymous girl called the “podum ponnu” — the “enough girl”— named in the hope that she will be the last girl in the family. There is a young and beautiful woman, Firdaus, who has been married to a man working abroad. But it is as if “within a month the most important events of her life has [sic] happened, and were now over”. Her family has had to ask for a talaq because Firdaus took one look at her husband and refused to live with him. Later, as her mother wept at having produced such a “wild and defiant” child, Firdaus was astonished at her own daring: “How could a village girl like her have had the courage?” There’s another divorced young woman, Maimoon, whose parents plan to get her married again. But before that, something has to be done about the baby she is carrying. The midwife is summoned in secret to perform an abortion. But Maimoon’s body cannot withstand the hellish twig-and-ointment operation. She dies a slow and painful death along with the baby that drops from her body in clots of blood.
There’s the mistress who agrees to be sterilized so that she does not lose her married lover; there’s the complex mix of loneliness and desire driving those women who do not have love or sex in their lives. Most of all, there are the “hidden lives” and the lives in which the one constant is a suffocating sameness. The hidden lives are best illustrated by a recurrent image: the doorbell rings; the girls in the house who have “come of age” run to their rooms and hide. “In every house in the village, girls who had come of age ran and hid in exactly the same way”. As for sameness, there is the example of Waheeda. She has been on a visit to a big town. But on being asked about it, all she can say is that since the same rules apply in village and town, there was little she actually saw or experienced on her trip.
The interconnected stories of Salma’s novel illustrate the various ways in which the body makes its demands on a woman in a patriarchal society. First it requires modesty, the kind that makes a mother teach her daughter shame. When Zohra sees her daughter’s breasts revealed by a wet blouse, she grabs her by the shoulder and shakes her hard. “Shouldn’t a female child have some sense of shame?” Rabia does not quite understand — till she looks down at herself through her mother’s eyes. Once she does this, she too begins to feel embarrassment. Rabia is learning that from now on, she will be a girl, or a woman, with all the attendant burdens all the time. To begin with, she has to cover her breasts with a davani, a half-sari. She must learn, in mixed company, to “shrink into herself”. The next step will be “coming of age” — once she begins to menstruate, “she mustn’t come before men”. And at the end of her life, she will have brought this dangerous body safely to shore if she dies a “vaavarasi”, while her husband is still alive.
It has a voice, this womanly body, but it is a voice “deep-buried in the valley of silence”. When does this voice stir? Among what companions does it emerge from the depths in which it is hidden? The voice of a woman’s body — the voice of a woman — is a nocturnal animal. It is in the “hour past midnight when dreams teem” that this voice may assume an almost feline power: “the tiger which sat quietly within the picture on the wall/ takes its place at my head/ and stares/ and stares.” Perhaps it is this tiger that enables Salma to reveal not only the pain and compromise that colour her women’s lives, but also the frank sexual talk, the confident teasing, and the redemptive female camaraderie.