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Dispatches from a dark place

Rihan Najib | Updated on February 02, 2021

Grey area: The experiences of women brought to life in Salma’s stories find expression across cultures and generations   -  ISTOCK.COM

Salma’s The Curse is an intense exploration of women’s lives — all straining under the weight of custom and tradition in conservative Muslim households in Tamil Nadu

* The substance of Salma’s fiction is universal and contemporary

* The shot of Salma at the window is particularly compelling when viewed in the context of her powerful female-centred fiction and poetry

* The most heart-wrenching scenes in the collection emerge when women contend with the possibilities of what their lives would have been like had they been born under different circumstances

* Raman’s lucid translation effortlessly transposes the Tamil setting into English

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In a dark room, a woman leans against the bars of a small window. Light streams on to her face, illuminating it in stark contrast to the bleakness around her. She is in the room she was confined to for six years by her conservative Muslim family until she was married at 19. “What could you see?” she is asked. “Nothing. Just a bit of the street,” she responds. This scene is from British film-maker Kim Longinotto’s 2013 documentary Salma, which follows the incredible journey of acclaimed Tamil writer and politician Rajathi Salma.

The Curse / Salma; Translated by N Kalyan Raman / Speaking Tiger / Fiction /₹350

 

The shot of Salma at the window is particularly compelling when viewed in the context of her powerful female-centred fiction and poetry that have, at its core, the desire to inhabit a larger, unfettered world on one’s own terms — and the anguish of not being able to do so. Her confinement as well as the abrupt end to her education, perforce, turned the author’s gaze inward, compelling her to write with unflinching clarity and finesse about women’s lives, especially in relation to matters such as Islam, patriarchy and sexuality. She achieved prominence for her novels and poetry that brought out the experiences of Muslim women, such as Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadhai, translated to English as The Hour Past Midnight (2009). Her latest novel Manaamiyangal was translated into English as Women, Dreaming (2020).

The Curse, Salma’s latest collection of stories translated from Tamil to English by N Kalyan Raman, brings forth the author’s imaginative prowess in full force. A slim collection of eight stories published earlier in Tamil, The Curse explores female interiority by dissecting complex relationships among men and women, all of them straining under the weight of custom and tradition in conservative Muslim households in Tamil Nadu.

The collection opens with the story On the Edge, translated from the Tamil Vilimbu, setting the tone for the book. Young Jassi accompanies her elderly grandmother and grand-aunt to the hospital, a task that proves to be more difficult than she imagined, given the caustic relationship between the two older women and their respective neurotic quirks. Jassi tries to maintain a delicate peace at all costs, despite being caught in a maelstrom of conflicting feelings of anger, pity, resentment and love. The story is a keenly observed study of the oblique ways in which women denied the language to directly address their needs cope; a subject that is revisited in other stories in the collection.

The Trap begins with a light knock at the door at an odd hour at night. An unnamed woman fears the worst and her scornful husband goes to investigate. The story sharply examines the woman’s state of mind as she anticipates something ominous emerging from the darkness. She asks herself, “How long can I stay like this, gripped by fear and anxiety?” The real trap, as the story’s title hints, is not some unknown threat waiting outside the door, but rather, the exhausting emotional torpor that conspires to keep the woman from walking out the door.

The titular story, The Curse, published in Tamil as Saapam in 2012, explores how trauma is passed down generations. Written with the taut, haunting intensity of a horror story, the story follows a family where the women pay the price for the crimes committed by the family’s patriarch. However, it is the story Toilets that truly evokes awe for Salma’s perceptive and observant prose. Toilets begins with the protagonist Shamim being asked the question: “Why would anyone suppress their urge to pee?” The question is posed by a male doctor, revealing a singular ignorance of the issues women face in the absence of adequate toilet facilities and the severe health challenges they encounter as a result. Shamim’s lifelong challenges of using the toilet is a nuanced analysis of the very real struggles women across India continue to endure, bringing to mind film-maker Paromita Vohra’s documentary Q2P, which dealt with the abject state of toilets for women in Mumbai.

The most heart-wrenching scenes in the collection emerge when women contend with the possibilities of what their lives would have been like had they been born under different circumstances. In the story Childhood, Mehrunnisa, a 20-year-old mother of two still reeling under the pain of her second abortion, meets a college-going woman her age. Mehrunnisa’s lost years and dreary future are laid out in sharp relief to the boy she had grown up with, who is free to build his life and career.

Raman’s lucid translation effortlessly transposes the Tamil setting into English, without compromising on the linguistic specifics unique to the Muslim community in South India. It’s also interesting that he chose to retain the spoken sounds of certain Arabic words instead of opting for their conventional spelling. For instance, the ritual ablutions before prayers in Islam is typically written in English as ‘wudu’, but Raman has chosen the word ‘Olu’, which is how the word is usually spoken in South India. Another example is the choice of the word ‘Bajr’ to describe the early morning prayer ‘Fajr’.

Even though the stories are set in Muslim families and describe various facets of Islamic culture in India, the substance of Salma’s fiction is universal and contemporary. The experiences brought to life in her stories find expression across cultures and generations. Women, Muslim and otherwise, continue to be stifled in a system that has designated them inferior. The Curse is a saddening reminder that the truth is often far harsher than the fiction it inspires.

Rihan Najib is a Bengaluru-based journalist

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Published on February 02, 2021
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