Heidegger argues that a poem is a special kind of building, the original admission of dwelling. Gaston Bachelard [Poetics of Space] argues that a building is a special kind of poetry and ‘one of the greatest powers of integration of the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind”.
In Kim Longinotto’s 2012 film Salma, this building for the poet is a small room which contained thoughts, memories and dreams, and dreams of womankind.
Salma is a south Indian Emily Dickinson mapping her poetics of space. For Dickinson, the door emerged as a richly layered metaphor for loneliness, loss and death, but also for memory, secrecy and safety. The window through which little Salma looks at life outside is ‘her door’ to poetry. Through her constant gaze, we see and hear her deep thoughts stirring. The film Salma is not only about Salma and her poetics of space, but her imprisonment has resonance in all girls who are locked up in a building or space the moment they reach puberty. But for these girls the door isn’t reversible like Dickinson’s: there’s no crossing over or crossing through for most girls, except extraordinary Salma.
Salma’s parents gave her away to an aunt who was only 7 herself because she wasn’t what they wanted- a boy. Salma’s aunt hid her own period from her parents so they wouldn’t lock her up. Salma went back to parents at 5 for school and at 13 she was locked away, stopped from studying and forced to marry.
The window was created and made to shut women off from the outside world.
Tamil Muslim girls lose the outside world when they reach puberty. When Salma was locked up she wouldn’t eat, only cry, hunched in a corner when she wasn’t looking outside the window. When they reach puberty parents snatch everything away from their daughters: school, books, friends, escape, socializing and life. In the western worlds, socializing is of the utmost importance for children and is encouraged, and if it doesn’t occur, sometimes social services intervene. In Tamil Nadu, girls have no one to share sadness with, except four walls. But Salma’s imprisonment became bearable because she would dig up and read the bits of newspapers in which her parents’ goods came wrapped from the thrash.
Salma was locked up for 9 yrs until she agreed to marry, and only acquiesced to marriage because her mother was stressed out and her life was threatened. After marriage however, Salma discovered that her mother lied, and had the doctor also lie for her. Because of this deception, she didn’t speak to her for 2 years and married Malik who, together with family, controlled her. Her mother in law complained that she refused to wear the burqa, Malik shouted at her and hit her, but all she thought of was writing. At night, after he went to sleep she would write in a notebook, but the next day it would be discovered and thrown away. She would then write on scraps of calendar paper in the toilet where she hid a pen. But they would take that away, too. “Living through the years, but saying goodbye to life. All you have is time, but no life.” She hid her poems under saris and when she filled a notebook, her mother sent it clandestinely to get published. When the book was launched they made excuses to meet the publisher: they said they were going to a wedding. The mother sent Salma’s book of poems because she didn’t want Salma to be locked so young, like an old lady.
Salma’s poetry stunned the publisher. Her legend had spelling errors because she didn’t really go to school, but they were extraordinary. When the publisher met her, everything was new for her, including crossing the road by herself and eating a meal out. Malik continued to shout all night for her to stop writing and even threatened to kill himself then throw acid on her face, but she slept with her male child across her face to prevent that.
Salma’s poems caused sensation: no Tamil woman had ever written about her life as honestly.
She wrote about the gulf between wife and husband; “where they sleep together, but could kill each other”. The physical proximity between husband and wife carry with them a deep, insurmountable emotional distance. A journalist got a hold of her photos and went to her village to do a piece on her and saw her how young, sad and beautiful she was, wearing a burqa and asked her to take a photo. She refused initially then quickly let her burqa down, and 2 were photos shot. When her photo hit the news, it identified Salma as the writer of a book of poems that exposed village culture, and Malik made her vie for village leader which she won. His family was then forced to allow her to go out.
One day, Salma asked Malik why he stopped her from writing and going out and then suddenly decided that she should run for elections. He explained that for his mother and father reading, writing and not wearing burqa brought dishonor to the family. It is a criminal act for women to not wear a burqa in Tamil Nadu and other places.
Salma’s four years on the council upset the village, but made her popular with women. Her post as welfare board president changed her life as well as others’: it got her out of the village to the world outside, the world she longed for when she was locked up as a little girl, and she went on to help and counsel other girls to get out of imprisonment and suicide when they felt they had no other choice but to choose marriage or some form of suicide.
Women and girls like Salma can only dwell in the dickensonian possibility of writing their pain, loneliness and lost childhood in verse. Words are their only salvation. Salma wrote poems and is the most famous Tamil poet today, with her poems which challenged the traditions and codes of conduct in her village, and the treatment of women in our society. The image of a young Salma locked in a dungeon with a tiny, barred window stays with you long after the book has been read.
“This bed, which reminds me of pregnancy and fills me with fear, is the weapon my Master wields.”
“My bloated body and belly creased by stretch marks are truly repulsive, you tell me; and that my body will not change – not now, not ever my voice, long buried in a trough of silence, mutters to itself: Yes, it’s true. Your body is not at all like mine, with its fanfare and its flagrancy.”