… but that’s no reason to brutally suppress alternative views, says poet-activist Salma
Of late, dissent has become a trigger for violence against writers and intellectuals in India. For Salma, the Tamil poet-activist who was honoured with the Mahakavi Kanhaiyyalal Sethia Award for Poetry at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, this isn’t a sign of a healthy democracy.
“Thinkers are being called ‘urban Naxalites’ and treated like terrorists,” she says over a phone interview with MetroPlus. “It is the duty of writers to comment on contemporary society through their work; that’s how we change and adapt to the times. But to disallow any kind of alternative view, is not right,” she adds.
Against all odds
Speaking up for the marginalised has been a constant for Salma. Whether breaking free of the social constraints imposed by her orthodox Tamil Muslim family or highlighting domestic violence, the poet has never held back on articulating her thoughts through the prism of feminine experience.
Her own story, set in her hometown of Thuvarankurichi (66 kilometres from Tiruchi), of being denied education from the age of 13, and being married off at 19; being a voracious reader and closet writer whose talent was discovered against all odds, is awe-inspiring.
Salma is a nom de plume that Rajathi Rokkiah, born in 1968, adopted from a character featured in a novel by Khalil Gibran. Considered controversial at first for expressing ‘shocking’ sentiments in her poetry, Salma faced obscenity charges and violent threats (along with three other women poets), in 2003.
Her novel Irandaam Jamattin Kathai (The Hour Past Midnight), a sensitive portrayal of Tamil Muslim family life, was long-listed for the Man Asia Booker Prize in 2004. She has also penned two collections of poetry — Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum (An Evening and Another Evening) in 2000 and Pachchai Devathai (Green Angel) in 2003.
The life of the 51-year-old alternates between literature and social activism. As the founder of Chennai-based NGO Your Hope is Remaining, Salma has been working for gender equality especially among rural women since 2010, besides handling an active career in State politics that began after she won the Ponnampatti Panchayat elections in 2001.
She also served as the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, and was instrumental in establishing several landmark schemes for the transgender community in the State. Currently the State deputy secretary of the DMK’s Women’s Wing, she has three more books — two novels and a poetry anthology — in the pipeline.
When asked about the impact of the MeToo movement on gender relations in the workplace, Salma says that women have long been denied the respect due to them. “Women’s status has changed little since when I first started highlighting domestic abuse through the Social Welfare Board. Society is not ready to treat us on a par with men, even though we have far more opportunities to work these days. I’m glad though, that the MeToo movement has helped victims to speak up about workplace harassment,” she says.
It is more pertinent to teach children about gender parity early in life, feels Salma. “If parents don’t treat their offspring equally then kids will never learn how to respect themselves or the opposite sex as individuals,” she says.
Dividing her days between Chennai and Thuvarankurichi, where her family resides, besides travelling widely for literary engagements, Salma is a busy person. “Everyone expects a married woman to be at home and look after her family. But this is just a myth. A family is the joint responsibility of both husband and wife. We have brought up our two sons to be independent, and my husband realises that this works best for us,” she says.
With an unusual way of expressing her thoughts, Salma’s writing style is modern and incisive. “Writers can rise above politics, but writing in itself is an extremely political act,” she says.
“Since any poem or story I write is based on what is happening in society today, writing automatically becomes a politically-charged thought and activity. Administration and writing are different modes of conveying political thought. This is also the reason why writers are feared by rulers the world over.”
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