Story of the Deep Night

On the nights,
following the birth of my children,
you seek
in the midst of my nakedness
so familiar to you,
an old, unblemished beauty
and are disappointed.

You are revolted, you declare,
by my fat body,
and its stretch marks.
Your own body, you say,
is unchanging.

Buried in the deep valley of silence,
my voice moans and sighs.

It’s true your body is unlike mine.
Loud and open,
yours proclaims itself.
Before this perhaps,
you have had children elsewhere
and by others.
Since you have remained
unmarked by their birth,
you can be proud.

But what of me?
These birth marks cannot be mended,
neither my decay.
After all, this body is not a piece of paper
to be cut and pasted.
There is no restoring it.
Nature plays false,
much more than you.

Wasn’t it with you that it began –
that first phase of my downfall?
Stranger than night is deep night,
that breeder of dreams.

The tiger,
so peaceful in the picture
that hangs on the wall,
visits my bedside in the deep night,
watches keenly.

Chandana Dutta: When you began writing, what was that initial process like? How did the first flash of poetry come about? Could you recognise what was taking place creatively within you? Was it a reaction to something; a creative, poetic, perhaps liberating reaction for you? How did you protect this creative side of yours in the face of the problems you were going through? How have you sustained this instinct over time?
Salma: I remember writing first when I was ten. It was a short story.

Even as a child, a little girl, I had many dreams within me. But all of them were somehow about getting an education, having jobs and, most of all, the freedom that would come from it. That was how I remember it.

Even in the 1980s, my village had rigid social norms, rules decided by the men, and due to this women’s lives were not free and independent. One of the banes resulting from the ignorance of the Islamic communities was the exclusion of women from public spaces. Because of this, there was almost no education for women during those days.

I had a great interest in books even from a young age. I was eager to read anything that came to my hands, whether comics or children’s books, just about anything, even old newspapers used for making parcels. I used to find excuses to visit the homes of my teachers only for this. There was a small library in the village, which I used to visit during my school holidays. In 1981, I wrote my half-yearly examinations, a few months before attaining puberty. And then, just like that, my education was stopped. The education of all the girls in our village would be put to an end when they were in their eighth or ninth grade. Puberty was considered the right time to stop a girl’s education. In such a situation I had to contend with the diktat to stay confined within the house. It was like a jail term where I could not cross the threshold of our house.

There was a huge gap between my dreams and my actual life. The life that my sisters and all my friends accepted happily, exasperated me and made me furious, generating within me a barrage of questions. That became the moment that birthed my poetry. This pushed me to create poetry, to create my own language and form. Poetry became a form of expression for my grief, criticism, and anger. For me, this was my freedom song. When the poems started getting published in magazines, it produced shock and hostility in the community. This adversity and criticism was not only directed at me but also at my parents and family. My parents had to bear scrutiny and judgement that they had failed in the proper upbringing of a girl child. And though it created several difficulties and much emotional strain for me, I held on to the belief that there was no need to give up the creative path which I had found for myself.

This creativity was a “space of freedom” which I had found for me by myself, which I found as a means to identify myself as someone apart from society which could not provide me either with education or any other opportunity. Losing it would be equivalent to losing myself, so I had to retain poetry as my language.

Initially, my poems were published under my name Rajathi in small hand-written publications. I would have been 15 at this time. It gave me immeasurable self-confidence and pride to see them in print. I could redeem myself from self-pity only because of this. But these things were happening without anyone’s knowledge. But then, when I turned 17, one of my poems was published on the back cover of a monthly magazine along with my name. A relative who received the magazine on my behalf – as the postman could not hand it over to me personally – received a shock on seeing my name in print. He promptly showed it to some other relatives. It was then circulated among the villagers. They raised hell. My parents faced severe criticism and were subjected to all sorts of enquiries. My would-be mother-in-law pulled me up in person for this and expressed her displeasure to my parents.

But instead of submerging me in fear or regret, all this produced a kind of excitement in me. Perhaps because I was a creative person. The world saw me as a poet, did it not? That was enough in itself to give me immense happiness. That happiness ensured that my creativity did not diminish in the later periods. I thought to myself that no matter what others had wanted to take away from me and perhaps had succeeded too, they could not divest me of my creativity. It is this thought which bolstered me to retain my creativity.

CD: During this initial phase, at the beginning of your life as a writer, were you aware of the work of other poets and writers? Who were these poets and writers who inspired you? Or did your words and poems just come to be, in a space that was largely self-created and self-propelled?
S: I had not read anything by women in my language, which is Tamil, till the time I began to write poetry. Therefore, there was no such influence on me. However, I had read literature translated into my mother tongue, from Russian and other foreign tongues, particularly works by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Bertolt Brecht. To an extent, therefore, I had formed an understanding of the structure of poetry and the possibilities of expression through it. Fortunately, till then, I had not read any poetry that was tame or dull.

It was providential that most of the books available in my village library were translated Russian literature which offered me a window to connect me with the outside world through its variety of information. It, thus, opened up ideas of history and war, the destruction that is created by war, and how it affects love, human relationships, made me think of questions of self-development and isolation and suchlike. This exposure shifted and changed my understanding of literature and had a huge impact on me. My literary taste improved too. Anna Akhmatova’s struggles and her works motivated me immensely. Every time I thought of her as a warrior-revolutionary, I was filled with self-confidence. Mayakovski’s poems, brimming with self-realisation and inner questioning, affected me in a big way.

My inclination was to create poetry that was a reflection of my observations of whatever was happening around me. The loneliness and lack of trust and confidence which was palpable in my poems resonated greatly with my own life. I was conscious of how these feelings had induced a sense of self-pity in me. My poetry was, therefore, not located outside of me or the space I inhabited. My life experiences became my inspiration and ensured that my poetry was original and emerged organically from my core on its own. More than from the experiences that were taking place outside, my poetry was shaped by my own feelings, my deep inner state of mind and simple use of language. This style, my style, happened naturally. There is really no limit for a poet or her poetry, the poetic space is unrestrained and abundant. Any experience can be visualised in the poetic form. It is this freedom which is the strength of a poet. I didn’t have any experience outside the limits of my own house nor did I have a relationship with nature. Thus my own narrow space necessitated that I write only about the lives of women and their complications.

Excerpted with permission from i, Salma: Selected Poems, Salma, translated from the Tamil by K Srilata and Shobhana Kumar, curated and conceptualised by Chandana Dutta, Red River Press.