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Column: How did this young woman scandalise her entire village? By writing poetry.

As a young woman, Salma was forced into a life of virtual isolation – in first her father’s and then her husband’s home. But when her raw and eloquent poetry finally found an audience, the reaction was explosive, writes filmmaker Kim Longinotto.

My home’s empty spaces
banish me, indirectly,
from this land;
and I return, resolving
never to step beyond
the limits decreed,
to the courtyard of my own house.

– Extract from ‘Home’ by the Tamil poet Salma

IN JANUARY 2011, I was in Delhi showing my film Pink Saris. The festival was held at the India International Center and the screening was outside at night, under a half moon, in the lovely gardens there. During a seminar the following day, Urvashi Butalia, head of the Indian feminist publishing company Zubaan Books, proudly told a group of us about a Tamil writer and poet, Salma, who she had recently published.

Salma’s story was so inspiring and unusual that I knew I wanted to make a film with her.

Salma grew up in a village in Tamil Nadu, South India. When she was born, her father was very disappointed to have another daughter. He already had three girls from his first wife and now his new wife, Salma’s mother, had failed to give him a boy. So Salma was handed over immediately to her aunt who was just a child herself, only seven years old. When Salma’s aunt reached puberty, she was married off and so Salma had to go back to live with her parents.

Salma loved school and having friends but in keeping with village tradition she had to give up studying when she was just thirteen years old. She was kept inside her family home, often restricted to a tiny room, for nine years, until she agreed to marry.

More years as a virtual prisoner

After the marriage, Salma’s husband still refused to let her go outside and she spent a further 15 years kept inside except for occasional visits to her mother’s house. During this time Salma became a devoted reader and then started writing herself, composing poems that are raw and eloquent expressions of her experience of seclusion.

Using an elaborate system of subterfuge, and with her mother’s help, Salma’s poems were smuggled out of her home and eventually found their way to Kannan Sundaram, a publisher in Nagercoil, who, recognising their power and originality, printed them in his magazine. They caused a sensation. No one had ever read Tamil poems like these, composed with such passion, and from a woman’s point of view. They were so beautifully written that people imagined they must have been penned by an educated city dweller, man or woman, and written in the persona of a village girl. There was great speculation as to who this “Salma” might be.

The village was scandalised

Finally a Chennai journalist, Arul Ezhiland, managed to track Salma down in her village and persuaded her to let him take a quick photograph. Her picture appeared in his magazine and the mysterious Salma was suddenly unmasked as a village woman who had hardly ever been outside her home. The village was scandalised and Salma’s life was very, very difficult and dangerous for a long while. Salma’s husband, Malik, was the head of the village at the time and, though he himself was hostile to her writing, his powerful position in the village probably afforded her some protection.

The next elections for Malik’s position as “Panchayat Leader” came under a special government edict that only women be allowed to apply for the job that year. Malik tried to persuade several women in his family to run as a surrogate for him, but they all refused.

The road to political representation

Then, in desperation, and at the last minute, he asked Salma. She signed the form and her life was transformed. Her mother-in-law suddenly had to allow her to go out to campaign. Salma could also argue that she would never win votes if her face was hidden from view. Salma’s remarkable journey back to the outside world had begun. She won the election and went on to become an activist and a political representative. Her fame now extends beyond Tamil Nadu, across all of India and the world.

Salma’s experience is striking. Although her fate as a virtual prisoner kept shut away in her own home is one shared by millions of women, very few manage to fight their way back into the world and live to tell the tale.

Urvashi’s excitement in sharing Salma’s story with us was tangible and infectious, and so I wrote to Salma saying, “I’ve heard your story from Urvashi, and I think it would be great if we could make a film together about your life.”

At this point, I thought the film would be structured around Salma’s work as President of the Social Welfare Board—a job she’d been doing for four years. I imagined we could film her stopping child marriages and encouraging women who were being abused at home to fight back.

I got an email back from Salma almost immediately saying: “When do you want to come?”

This is an extract is an extract from upcoming book SALMA: FILMING A POET IN HER VILLAGE  by Rajathi Salma and Kim Longinotto. It is kindly reproduced with the permission of the authors.

Salma by Kim Longinotto has its Dublin Premiere at  6.30pm on Friday 27th September as part of the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival which returns to the IFI this September (26–29). Check out the exciting line up here.

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