Her work is an aromatic blend of bluntness, beauty and pathos
Rajathi Salma is a renowned contemporary writer of flourishing prominence in the Tamil literary arena.
Her work is an aromatic blend of bluntness, beauty and pathos. She opens up the long-locked rooms of taboo with her potent expressions.
Salma has become the voice of women’s untold experience within a dogmatic community.
Born in a rural village Thuvarankurichi in India, Rajathi Salma, an ordinary Muslim girl with extraordinary dreams, grew up fearing the day she would be stopped from attending school.
At 13 years of age, she was restricted to a room isolated from the outer world until her marriage. But that could not suppress her thirst for knowledge.
Girls who attained puberty were expected to spend their life in seclusion until the day they get married. Salma started to read intensely from whatever she could get her eyes on.
She would continuously ask a family member to bring her books from the nearby library. Books carried her into an entirely different world.
Confined to four walls, Salma read anything and everything from literature to philosophy, which triggered endless questions within her and encouraged her to think about her own identity.
She started to write poems and those became her source of light amid the darkness. Some of her poems were published in local magazines and people in the village started to talk about her, most of the time, furiously.
This caused a shockwave in the conservative society around her. They could not digest how a woman who by all means should be confined to home started to pen her raw thoughts.
Salma was forced into a marriage at the age of 19. Her husband’s family were paranoid of the telephone calls and the letters she was receiving and they feared that she would break free from her marital ties.
They threatened her to stop writing. Rajathi was left with no choice since she knew the consequences of her divorce in a closed society. She disguised herself under the pen name Salma and started to write.
She recalls in her writings, that she would wake in the middle of the night to write. Sometimes she would scribble standing in the toilet and, she used to hide the books amid her sarees in the wardrobe.
She sent them to editors through her own family and nobody knew that Rajathi was the real person behind the sensational writer Salma. Her poems were published in the renowned Tamil literary magazine Kalachuvadu.
At this time, Kalachivadu was set to publish her poems as an anthology. The poems, describe the adversities women endure in silence in their segregated lives. In 2000, her first poetry collection, Oru Malayum Innoru Malayum (One Evening and Another Evening) was published.
She was notified of the event in Chennai, to which she travelled with her mother, coaxing her husband’s family saying that she was going to see a doctor regarding a problem in her womb. Salma recalls her inability to bring home her first book fearing the consequence of confrontation by her in-laws.
After more than two decades of isolation, her salvation came in the form of her own in-laws.
She was asked to compete for village council seat reserved only for women by her husband who wanted ensure his political power in the area, which was a huge turning point in her life.
It gave her an aura of identity. In 2007, she was appointed as the chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.
She says in an interview: “My writings had never criticised religion directly. I only spoke about the system, the culture and the tradition, and about how our male-dominated society is controlling the women.
“They don’t give any proper freedom, rights, to them. Islam has permitted something for women, but the religious people in our place won’t give us those rights. However, many people confuse the two. They say that I attack religion.”
Read Rajathi Salma’s poem, ‘Breathing’ (translated by Hari Rajaledchumy) below:
B R E A T H I N G
Everything happens so quickly
Before I can feel it.
I keep trying to feel something
Before it’s too late.
It all happens in my name
Without me being there.
The world is so much bigger than me.
Should I carry on breathing?
If I’m not really here?
Salma brought out her second book of poems Pachai Devathi (Green Angel) in 2004.
Also in 2004, she published her debut novel, Irandam Jamangalin Kathai (The Hour Past Midnight).
It is a melancholic tale of young women growing up in a conventional, rural Muslim community. It is said to be her semi-autobiographical novel. The novel was translated into many languages including English.
Saabam (The Curse), an anthology of short stories was published in 2009. Today, she travels extensively, attending literary meetups, human rights events, and awarding ceremonies.
Salma’s Irandam Jamangalin Kathai was longlisted for the DSC Prize and the Man Asian Prize 2010.
Her latest novel Manaamiyangal (The Dreams), which talks about the void created in the lives of women by the cultural norms, was published in May 2016.
British filmmaker Kim Longinotto made a film on her, Salma, which was first screened in 2013 and was honoured with 13 international awards.
Watch the trailer for Salma here:
It’s the story of a woman who fought against conservatism, confinement, injustice and chauvinism in her own silent way.
Her words remain poignant and powerful and she stands tall as a remarkable icon of integrity.