Culture & Society

Salma's Poems Are A Journey Through The Many Battles Of An Indian Woman’s Life

Tamil poet and novelist Salma’s poetry goes to do justice to the same idea or thought when she writes about women using herself as the pedestal.

i, Salma's Selected Poem book cover

i Salma: Selected Poems

Translated from Tamil by K Srilata and Shobhana Kumar

Conceptualised and curated by Chandana Dutta

Published by Red River, 2023

There’s a reason why Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits have a seductive effect on those who seek the bare skin and absolute honesty on the linings of the painting. The paintings never pretend to attract people. They finely represent the moments of Frida quietly. Tamil poet and novelist Salma’s poetry goes to do justice to the same idea or thought when she writes about women using herself as the pedestal. i, Salma, Selected Poems, conceptualised by Chandana Dutta and translated from Tamil by K. Srilata and Shobhana Kumar, is where for the first time, we get to find a collection of Salma’s poems in English. The book also holds an exhaustive conversation between Chandana Dutta and Rajathi Salma where the curator tries to peel the mind scribbling such poetry.

The curator of the book Chandana Dutta conceived the idea of compiling Salma’s most prominent poems during a literature festival. At the very end of the book, in an interview with Dutta, Salma opens-up about her life, poetry, religion, the way she perceives her community, the country, its politics and many other significant topics. It is important since it is coming from a woman who has strong opinions, and the courage to spill them out without being hesitant about her choice of words. Even after living under an oppressive marriage, with stringent in-laws, her hunger to have an identity of her own sets an important example for those who believe that any kind of obligation is the end of the line. It is important to find a way to a place where freedom is not a namesake, but a body with a silhouette and a shadow of its own. It is as real as anything can be. The essays of Perumal Murugan, Kannan Sundaram, and Meena Kandasamy enunciate the works of Salma and her life.

Loneliness is a companion of a housewife, which happens to be the bitter version of a homemaker. The poet coils around it in her poem, ‘When All Traces Have Disappeared’, to ask a mirror to be her close friend, and knowing that the electric fan is bluffing the act of friendship just to cage her where she feels claustrophobic. Men lose their childhood when strength overpowers their natural vulnerability. Women, mostly Indian women, lose the same when the grip of a marriage tightens holding morality and compulsion to be with one man by setting free every bit of choice. Widows tell the story from the same lens, but that gaze towards the frame of her dead husband who still has authority over her body and mind is the toxic truth.

“the long loneliness

of a barren widow

clad in a white sari –

all this, I remember

without reason,

as I rock the crib.

Where is the place for a woman

whose traces have all disappeared?”

Human beings have complex thoughts. Out of all the innate and acquired ideas, the most complex ones are associated with our body. For a woman, society keeps it in default mode. In the poem, ‘The Body’, the poet constructs a road and a distance between the body she has and how she desires it to be. It often happens because of the large shoes women are expected to fill by forgetting their own cravings and desires.

It does seem inappropriate but addressing this becomes difficult. Therefore, when Ismat Chugtai’s short story Lihaaf was adapted for the screen, people magnified Ismat’s decision to find and fulfil her raw desire as an act of cheating. Whenever a woman gathers courage to keep her body in the forefront, patriarchy would not allow it to happen. Salma’s vision of the meaty body of a woman is the skinned mind of most Indian women.

“In the running water

her body dissolves.

My body is taut,

unable to soften.

On my back,

a vedaalam

who won’t let go.”

(realiseedalam is vampire in Tamil).

There is a reason behind every parting. In the first instance, we might be unaware of it, but as time passes, one gets to its importance and strength. Parting people define love more effectively than those who are cherishing the process. Salma does that in her poem, ‘Rain of Parting’ where she talks about the essence of sharing, which is deeply associated with the strings of a relationship. Also, to silence the noise or chaos a partition creates one has to get attached to an external stimulation. For her, it happens to be rain. Our faith in the person we form a connection with is also significantly stitched to the time we invest in the relationship. So, both of them create ripples inside each other. The ripples matter. The heartbreaks do too.

The poet writes:

“From this moment

there will be

no one to share

this night,

this rain,

this despair.

The rain is on a mission

to plunge this burning heart

in memories

and douse it.”

The freedom of a woman is corroded many times in the twenty-four hours of a day. Even when we ask a woman to hide the lace of her bra, maybe out of respect, we are disrespecting the space where she lives. A free-living, quirky, witty woman sounds appealing. But at the same time, the weird vulnerability of a man has to do anarchy with his own self to pass judgment on a woman he does not even know. In the poem, ‘The One Who Has Become Herself’, the poet presents the joyous version of a playful and joyous woman. The fabricated moral concepts of our society cannot disturb her choices since the former ones are too weak to submerge the latter ones even from a non-ideal perspective. History is not just a documentation of the bloodshed. It also presents strong arguments on the necessity of a woman’s freedom to balance humankind.


Salma writes:

“When the world advices

cover your body, guard your youth,

she retorts,

‘You’ve been eliminating me from history.’

No one, she insists, can offer her as alms

the space which is her due,

she says,

as if travelling speck of river sand,

shapes the water’s course.”

Patriarchy is stubborn and weird. Indian society nurtures a weirder kind of patriarchy which gets justification through tradition, family and religion. So, it can be easily said that for an Indian woman, who maintains her freedom, finding a safe space is like looking for good songs in a room that oozes toxic masculinity. The rebirth of a woman’s identity is a major crisis for those who subscribe to patriarchy, knowingly or unknowingly. Salma’s poetry stems from the core of the crisis which unburdens both men and women. That’s how the true kind of love prospers even after the fall of a million-year-old empire.


i. Salma: Selected Poems is the journey of a woman through many battles of any Indian woman’s life. The meticulously translated and edited poems are surely going to pull the necessary threads of those who need it. The documentation of the fight against oppression is seductive, triggering, and enough to ruffle a few feathers of power.