Salma’s short story anthology titled 'The Curse: Stories' has been translated by N Kalyan Raman and published by Speaking Tiger Books.

Tamil writer Salma amidst greenery
Features Interview Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 11:53

It is an overnight bus journey and an older woman traveling alone hesitates to walk up to a few strangers, all men, with a request. Her need is urgent, unavoidable and yet her conditioning stops her from making that very simple request - “Can you stop the bus so I can pee?”.

She therefore holds it in for the rest of her journey, falling unbearably sick the next morning with a bloated stomach and an intense pain in her lower abdomen.

“Why would anyone suppress their urge to pee?” Shamim, the woman’s niece, is unable to understand her aunt’s reasoning. The story begins here with a visit to the hospital and from there goes on a memory trip as Shamim thinks of her own strained relationship with toilets. Somehow toilets always seemed to hold it all against her and she too hated them with a vengeance.

Once, when she was 16, she was forced to pee into a plastic tub by her mother because the alternative was to walk past a group of men working in their backyard to reach the toilet. The alternative was unthinkable to her family. She recalled how one of her suitors declined to marry her because her house lacked a proper toilet.

Shamim is the central character in Tamil writer Salma’s short story titled Toilet. This story is part of an anthology titled The Curse: Stories written by Salma, translated by N Kalyan Raman and published by Speaking Tiger Books.

Through her relationship with toilets, the story discusses not just a woman’s struggle in gaining access to this seemingly ubiquitous amenity, but several layers unravel, from the struggles of a menstruating woman to manual scavenging. There’s an exceptional honesty laid bare in its narrative and the truth that glares out from its lines could make you cower.

“The toilet could even be personified as a man,” Salma says. “I will be happy if the reader is able to see that,” she adds. While this story has not been published in Tamil, being translated to English for the book first, Salma says she’s eager to know of the Tamil speaking community’s response to it.

“Many women still think it is wrong to go to the toilet at odd hours, in the night. They even put up with physical discomfort because of that notion. I want women to be able to think about it seriously,” the writer and poet who hails from Trichy says.

There are many such women like Shamim in Curse: The Stories. The title story (Saabam in Tamil) could very well be from folklore (the style reminding one of Gabriel García Márquez’s stories) and leaves a lasting impact. The curse in this story is laid upon a family, for an act of greed done by its men. The curse, however, is borne by its women. The strangeness is only compounded by the dubious yet unshakeable nature of this curse. It follows or is it being followed?   

The story is inspired by what she had heard as a child, Salma says. “I am not sure if it’s true or not, I don't believe in such curses either. But there was a family that was rumoured to bear a curse in my village. The women would return home after being married… But I looked at the man to be the curse.”

“How he must have hurt her and how it affects her mental peace… We don't think of the man’s role in such issues. It is easier to call it a “curse” instead and carry on. A man’s role is important to a woman’s mental health,” she adds.

When this story was published in Tamil, it caused a flutter around the religion of its characters. “It is wrong to go looking for such identities in stories and to interpret it with some agenda,” Salma offers.

Most interesting is the placement of the next story in this collection. This one’s called Black Beads and Television (Karugamani TV) and the echo of the thaali (black beads/karugamani) can be heard here too, but in an entirely different voice. In fact Zakiramma from this particular story is Salma’s favourite of all, she admits. “There are a few women who make their own decisions and she is one such character. I know of such a character in real life. This happened in their house, in fact,” she chuckles.

This could also be the most endearing aspect of this short story collection. The women in it could be someone you know or have heard of in real life. Be it the woman in The Trap (Pori) who wakes up when there’s a knock on her door in the middle of the night and is unable to sleep thereafter due to anxiety or Mehrunnisa in Childhood (Baalyam) who deals with untold physical and mental agony thinking about her waning youth.

Salma is someone who regards a woman’s body to be of great value, one that can be used to make political statements. She shares that she has always held women who made use of their bodies to script success in their lives - from actors to gymnasts and athletes - in awe. “It has to do with how they change their bodies, against the conservative notions held in society. They achieve many things using their body. There’s value to that which is considered to be vulgar by the society,” she adds. This idea reverberates strongly in Mehrunnisa’s narrative, when she looks at her own self in the mirror and thinks of all the things she could’ve been.

Over and over again we are reminded of society’s role in scripting these women’s fate. For Salma, it was this very reason that pushed her into writing. “There is this, sort of, a yearning. Why am I not like the other women… Why was I denied a college life…Such things made me realise how unequal this society is and consequentially, how it had caused a lot of pain. My stories are on this,” Salma says.

And such a fate created by society, Salma adds, is the curse upon women. “This society makes a curse against its women. 'Ipadi than nee irukanum. Ivlo than nee' (This is how you should be, you are only so much)… that is the curse.”

Three of the seven stories have not been published in Tamil before and have directly made it to translation. Translator Kalyan Raman makes a keen observation on Salma’s women and writes, “As a writer, Salma closely follows the constant inner shifts of the women in her stories, who seem to be driven as much by memories and a wistful yearning as by the need to press on against a pervasive social condition of captivity and subordination.”

It is true that while these women have been unfairly subjugated by the society, and continue to be treated so, they persevere. They protest in their own ways and take you by surprise. Both in The Curse, where it feels like this curse is lifted, although ambiguously and in The Orbit of Confusion (Kuzhapathin Sutrupaathai), this is seen.

Quite undeniably, these are stories that have not been told in Tamil before this. Salma too agrees that there’s a huge vacant area when it comes to women’s voice, especially a Muslim woman’s, when telling stories about women. “Some do write poetry but poems are indirect. Stories are more direct that way. Even if some come forward to write, they quieten down when there’s too much criticism. That is why I had the eagerness to write stories. These are things that need to be recorded. Only after Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (Sahitya Akademi winner who lived in Nagercoil) was the Islamic way of living recorded in the form of stories. Yet a woman’s voice is still lacking here and this is a gap that I am trying to fill,” she adds.