There was no five star hotel launch and cocktails at the release of the English and Malayalam translation of the novel Irandaam Jamangalin Kathai (The Hour Past Midnight) by Salma, which is author Rokkaiah’s nom de plume. The recent launch happened at a dimly lit auditorium in Chennai where long shadows danced on a floor on which dancer, Chandralekha, had once set her steps to music.
The original version, which is in Tamil, was published in 2004 by Kalachuvadu Patthipagam, the publishing house that has supported Salma, 41, throughout the years she was writing secretly without her family’s knowledge. Zubaan books published the English title this year.
So, how much of the story is the way the author would like it to happen, and how much of it is autobiographical? "I am in many characters in this book, a bit of me is in every character," reveals Salma. The Hour Past Midnight is not her life story, however, nor is it the story of any one woman. It is the story of the girl child in the deep South, the story of daughters and sisters and hapless mothers and grandmothers, all caught in an inexorable web of growing up, getting married, bearing children and dying. It is the story of "woman in the set framework", her life’s purpose limited to four walls, the walls slowly rising brick by brick, inexplicably; this is not a story about breaking barriers. Symbolically, almost, the story ends with a rising wall. Yet, another wall.
The protagonists of this tale set in the 1970s and 1980s, are little Rabia and her 16-year-old cousin, Wahida. It tells the story of a time when little girls can watch fish in the mosque’s water tank... when the Hazrat (priest-teacher) says, "Rabia, come and sit by me. Your mother has sent word that I should teach you really well." Most little girls know this kind of a teacher, there’’ a certain timelessness about it.
But is there anyone from whom Salma drew inspiration? "I was in Class III or IV when I had an English teacher. Her daughter joined our class that year. She spoke English, wore dresses, the family had relatives abroad and got letters with pretty stamps on them. That was the first time I became aware of a world outside of my village," recollects Salma, who was born in 1968 in Thuvarankurichi village, near Tiruchirapally. She went to the local Tamil medium government higher secondary school.
"It was for the first time I consciously wanted to be like someone else, speak English, travel, wear beautiful clothes. It was the time when I began to search for the world outside," she says.
There is also the swing and jasmine, childhood love and a proper school until one has "come of age". Then it becomes a time when the whole world — most of all, Mother — screams, "your chest is showing" and the "davani" (the paavadai or half-sari worn over the long skirt) comes on. It is a time when uncles and fathers admonish thus, "Come here Rabia’s Mother... what is this, you are failing to teach the girl proper practices... look at her, there is no cloth covering her head...." This is just the beginning. "Fathers never have any bonding with girl children in rural India. There is no touching the child, playing with the child, no exchange of ideas," Salma points out. "The emotional abandoning of the girl child begins at birth. In the villages it is real, a reality that touches every household, rich and poor."
Among Muslim societies in India, the Tamil Muslims are considerably progressive, with access to education and healthcare for women. "That is in the cities. In the villages, the mindset remains the same — a girl is taught until middle school and married off by 16 to the most convenient man available. Compatibility is of least consideration, love is frowned upon," reveals the talented writer. She also reveals that a woman "who has been happy" with her husband at night must have a bath, wash her hair and the bed sheets before five in the morning. Beyond childbearing within marriage and housekeeping, there is hardly any function a woman is thought fit for.
For Rokkaiah-Salma, the journey has been turbulent. Married young, a chance encounter with politics in 2001 catapulted her into public attention. The chief seat of her village’s panchayat (village council) was reserved for a woman, and her husband and family decided she should contest the local polls. "I was afraid. I knew nothing of public life. My husband said he would look after the administration, I had nothing to worry about, the files would come home. I won with the support of the Hindus in the village who also voted for me," she reveals.
"Once I was elected, I began to think: The ultimate responsibility of governance now lies with me. It is my signature on the files. I began to quickly learn the ropes," Salma says. Nine years on, she is the chairperson of Tamil Nadu government’s Social Welfare Board and maintains, despite all the talk of development, that in rural India young women are not getting a real chance for growth beyond the confines of their narrow social order.
Coming back to The Hour Past Midnight, besides the young protagonists, it is also the story of mothers — Zohra, who has a dark fear in the centre of her heart; and the liberal Rahima.
Zohra has to make peace with her husband’s Hindu concubine Mariyayi and sister-in-law Rahima. The past too weighs down on her — Firdaus, her beautiful sister, left her older husband "with wolf-like features" chosen for her by Zohra’s husband. Firdaus is not the first in Zohra’s family to leave a husband. Zohra’s maternal aunt, Maimoon, too, had done the same. Then suddenly one morning, Maimoon vomited. Grandmother Kadija, Mother Amina and a farm hand took Maimoon to a midwife who had scorpions tattooed on her hands and used a twig to dig out the foetus. Maimoon had died screaming.
"The terrible memories" and their stories destroyed the women who lived but did not change their attitude. For Firdaus, the penalty for falling in love, again, is a glass of poison the mother raises to her lips. No call here for legal abortion at a time when the country has all the requisite legislation in place to prevent foeticide and access abortion legally.
There is also a hint of the slow Talibanisation of villages in 21st century India, the importing of a more intolerant version of the faith by men who have travelled. The Suleimans, for instance, who make a tolerant community condemn an old beggar woman to starvation for the alleged sins of her daughter.
Concludes Salma, "I have kept religion away from my book but, yes, I have tried to deal with the social consequences of diktats in the name of religion. I love my community. As a writer, I want social change. I want to be open to debate but that is not happening." — WFS