For most Muslim girls in Thiruvarankurichi, a small village near Trichy, menarche marked the beginning of a cloistered existence. For Rokkaiah, it began even earlier, on the day when she and her friends sneaked into a cinema hall to watch a Malayalam movie, which happened to be pornographic. In a small community, opinion is formed as quickly as news spreads. The judgement was pronounced soon after. Rokkaiah was to discontinue her education and stay at home, while her brother who accompanied her to the movies was let off after a thrashing.
This was Rokkaiah’s first revelation of the unwritten un-explained impositions made on a woman. More questions followed, with no answers except “Because you are a girl”. Her loneliness and the many books her brother brought from the lending library fuelled her thoughts and provoked her to start writing. But when her name appeared with her poem on a magazine page, it brought about what she calls “ a culture shock”. Writing by a woman was unheard of and even more radical were poems which talked of a woman’s life and loneliness. Criticism flowed from all quarters. Her fiance's family were known to have second thoughts about the marriage owing to her writing. They reconsidered their decision later, saying “How long will any girl continue to read and write?... only until the birth of two children”. Despite Rokkaiah's protests, the marriage took place. It was the family honour that was at stake. In her husband’s home, she was constantly under supervision, which irked her endlessly.
I could not understand the mystery of the thali around my neck which seemed to have the power to transform my entire life. I wanted to snap it, hand it over to my husband and go back to my parents... but they only harped on the justifications for continuing the marriage.
For 10 years she continued to write late in the nights in the bathroom and hid her works between her clothes. To avoid verbal and physical threats, Rokkaiah adopted the pseudonym of Salma. In 2000, the publisher of the magazine Nizhagal offered to publish a collection of her poems. Salma attended the book release in Chennai under the pretext of seeking treatment for gynaecological issues. The book was published with no pictures or any details about the author.
The year 2001 saw Salma in a very different role. Salma was nominated for the post of panchayat president by her husband, who was keen on the post but was unable to get it as the seat was reserved for women. Her pictures appeared on walls and leaflets, she regularly appeared on public platforms making speeches accompanied by male family members. By then her poetry had won her recognition in the literary circles in Chennai. On the day that Rokkaiah won the panchayat seat, a TV channel used the situation to interview her, the poet Salma. For the few people who realised that the interview was not about the election, Salma had a ready answer. “If you are willing to accept me as President, why won’t you accept me as a writer?” Increasingly, Salma has begun to see and use power as a shield, even against the many accusations from her family. But with the increasing publicity that has surrounded her in recent years, they have come to believe that women’s writing isn’t useless.
Salma contested the elections to the Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly in 2006 but lost by a narrow margin. She was then appointed Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board and relocated to Chennai in 2007. She, however, regrets that she has not been able to do enough for the women of her community, who she feels are exploited. There are very few NGOs, if any, run by Muslim women and you need the permission of the Islamic organisation in the area to get access to the women. While a few women in her village are now receiving education till Class 10, she doesn’t see this as a larger trend. “The condition is almost the same in rural pockets of Tamil Nadu. As long as the men remain ignorant, the chances for the empowerment of women are almost negligible. We can only hope that the recommendation of the Sachar Committee will make a difference.”
Her literary works are still committed to the cause of the women in her community. There is a poignancy with which she addresses issues regarding crises in the bedroom or of sexual desire of women.
By recording the murmurs of my inner emotions and the extraordinary aches of my body which are fobbed off as taboo, I try to create tiny ripples in the frozen silent space. My writing depends on me and I depend on my writing.
Her work has brought her a degree of independence, still denied to most women in conservative Muslim pockets of rural Tamil Nadu. She is regularly criticised on both her work and appearance. On being asked about her stance on the burkha she quips “ I find it inconvenient to work wearing a burkha but I don’t wanted to be quoted as being against the burkha”. Some fears live on.
(The italicised words are from Salma’s address at the Norman Cutler Conference on South Asian Literature at the University of Chicago in May 2007)