Years ago, to be precise, at the age of 22, Rukkaiah dropped a bombshell in the conservative and Islamic confines of a hamlet in Tamil Nadu called Thiruvankurichi, when she scribbled her controversial poem Oppandum (The Contract) under the pen name ‘Salma’. The words were her way of venting her anger.
Like most of the girls in her village, Rajathi, as she was called prior to her marriage, was denied education when she reached puberty. A small window of her house, painted in green, facing a deserted street was her only link to the world outside. Clutching the window grill, her sister and she would look into the street to capture any sign of life in a world which was taboo for them. Time flew by and anger brewed. She resisted marriage proposals until the age of 22 when she was tricked into it by her mother. Sadly, even after her marriage, the fetters did not loosen. Its repercussions emerged in the form of the poem Oppandum. It was her first daring declaration of sexuality under the name ‘Salma’, her anonymous identity for quite some time.
She sulked for two years and was angry with her mother who had coaxed her into marrying by acting ill. But call it a paradox, it was her mother who smuggled the writings that she jotted down in pieces of paper she could lay her hands on, from her in-laws’ house to the publisher. Daring to defy the existent norms, Salma has become one of the most noted poets and writers of south India. Her story has reached different quarters of the globe. Kim Longitto, a film director from UK, has produced a documentary on her.
When I caught up with her at St Albert’s College, she was all smiles. Her face did not show any shadow of the bitterness she had to swallow during her early years of life. She had come here to promote her film Salma which portrays her struggle. The programme was organised by the Film Club and Women’s Club of the college.
It is one among the 10 selected films under the category ‘Movies that matter’ by the Amnesty International. “I was told by the Amnesty International that I should travel across the country promoting this film for it talks about human rights violations. They will bear the expenses for it. And now I am here,” she says.
So far she has had 11 screenings of the movie in the state. “The response was truly overwhelming. There are many who still go through the same plight as mine. Education is a way out, but sometimes, I feel sad that even education fails to liberate women. What we need is an education that permeates to grass-roots level,” she points out.
Asked what she did first with her new-found freedom, she says, “Earlier, I was Rajathi and Rukkaiah, But neither of those identities gave me freedom but Salma did. Now I am enjoying it to the fullest as a breath of fresh air.” She did not waste any time before commencing her education which abruptly ended at the age of 13. “I completed my graduation in BA Tamil and now I am pursuing my post-graduation in MA History,” she says.
She got the first vibe of discrimination when she was barely 12. She narrated it in hushed tone still suggesting that freedom is yet to be gained in its true sense. “Once we went to watch a Malayalam movie Avalude Ravukal. We were clueless about the film. The moment we entered the cinema hall, all eyes were on us. That was the end of everything. When my family got wind of it, I was barred from going to school even before I reached puberty. But I was shocked when I saw my cousin, a male, who also watched the movie but could go scot-free. For him, nothing changed,” she says.
Confinement did not end her urge to be liberated, thanks to the umpteen books she read. “I devoured every book that came my way and was quite amazed by the world, the Russian literature opened for me. Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy put me on a pedestal to cut out a new path,” she says
Salma has come a long way. There was a time when she used to go to the common bathroom of her house and write poems on small sheets of papers despite the stench and hide them.
For, very often the scribbled bits would disappear as her husband would take them away. But now things have changed. She entered into politics with the backing of her husband. But still her relationship with him and sons are distant. “They are yet to accept me with a liberal mind,” she says.
But that is not going to deter her from going ahead. “I should do more, there are many girls in my village who could not muster the courage to come out of the confines,” she said.
Salma’s work comprises poems, short stories and novels. Some of her works daringly examine woman’s sexuality and her identity and some were also translated into English. One can flip through her works at www.poetsalma.com