The Universe in the Closet



Tamil poet Salma on the point at which a private crisis becomes the collective biography of womanhood.

NKR: The subtle feelings, perspectives and interiority of a young woman in a domestic setting have formed the underlying theme of all your poetry. On that basis, you could be termed as a pioneer in the contemporary tradition of Tamil poetry. Could you say something about how the aspiration, goals and language for your poetry came to exist and grow in you?

S: As I was physically confined to the house from the age of thirteen, with little or no opportunity for contact with the outside world, it was my experience of reading books that gave me the urge to write. Protracted periods of loneliness and the related emotional crises determined the language and content of my poetry. Feelings that could not be shared with anyone created a language of intensity. 

In the small village where I come from, girls’ education was allowed only until they attained puberty. This was a strict, though unwritten, code followed by the entire community.

I was twelve years old at that time, studying in the ninth standard, at a stage when my elementary education would be over in just a couple of months. As it was a Saturday, it was a day off in our school. The four of us – three girls from my class and I – were studying in our favourite library. A matinee show was on at a movie theatre nearby. Getting permission at home to watch a movie was a rare event. And in our village theatre, matinee shows were rare. (As girls, we could not go out of the house in the evenings.) In our eagerness, we decided to go to the matinee show without informing our families. Whilst they were under the impression that we were studying at the library, we proceeded to the theatre. We did not even know the title of the film being screened that day. Only when we went inside did we find out that it was a Malayalam film with an “A” certificate (Adults Only) [Note: a genre of soft-porn films popular throughout Tamil Nadu, especially in the rural areas] and that there were no women in the whole theatre apart from the four of us. We could not leave because the doors were locked; so we buried our faces in our laps the whole time to avoid recognition and returned home after the show. It turned out that my brother was among the audience inside the theatre. As the news of our misdemeanour reached home before we did, we received a sound thrashing. From the very next day, we were forbidden from going to school. (My brother went to school as usual; only I was punished.)

From that day, right up to my wedding day, I had to spend nearly nine years confined to my house, never crossing its threshold and not meeting anyone outside my immediate family, especially men about whom the rules were very strict. I experienced that period of my life as one of intense loneliness. To describe in words the sadness of spending the most important and joyful season of one’s life entirely alone is an extraordinary thing. The language of my poetry formed and developed in a situation where I had no access to even ordinary friendship where I could share my feelings, dreams and desires.

NKR: Personal experiences delineated in your poems – especially, the narrow boundaries decreed by domestic arrangements, loneliness, pain and sorrow embedded in relationships, oppression of (male) authority – could have been that of many other women in a similar condition. Does this affect your writing of poems in any way? If yes, could you describe how, exactly?

S: Rather than characterizing the experiences expressed in my poems as personal, I would say that my poems reflect what I sensed of the feelings and experiences of other women who exist in similar life-situations. I gave a resonance to those feelings in my poems. Neither my pain nor my feelings are solely that of an individual; they belong to all such women.

NKR: In your poems, the relation between the body and emotion is expressed and explored quite naturally. Where did you get the urge to explore this ‘natural’ facet of life, which was suppressed for a long time in the Tamil world of letters? Was it due to familiarity with role models in western or Tamil literary worlds? Like-minded friends? Loneliness? Political awareness made possible by feminist thought?

S: There were few opportunities in my younger days to encounter western ideas or to make friends in the outside world. A woman’s subjective feelings are structured in relation to her body. In fact, her feelings are structured from her body itself. It is the body which determines her feelings. I was able to reflect on this relation between body and emotion in a woman from my own experience of life.

NKR: Do you ever wonder in what direction your poetry might expand in the course of time? Could you say something about it?

S: My poetry has never determined any goal for itself and expounded on it. My poetry could travel in any direction as time passes. I only know that I am eager to travel in many directions and touch many different themes of life.

NKR: In recent years, your work has used the forms of the short story and novel. Do you consider them to be an extension of your poetic engagement? Or, are there any special creative reasons for your choice of these forms?

S: I do not consider my novel or short stories to be an extension of my poetry. If I can distil a theme into poetry, I do so; then it takes shape as a poem. I write a short story when the theme fits the form. The arena of a novel is vastly different from these two forms.

© N Kalyan Raman (Translated by N Kalyan Raman)  
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