The writer is upset. An image of the dark, migrant girl with a sleeping infant on her shoulders knocking on the window panes of luxury cars at a traffic signal in Delhi haunts her like never before. A dream was born, “Yes, I want to help them, save them; poor children.” Salma started talking of her dreams, new projects, love, society and above all, women.
The Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board has already started her discussions with various NGOs, child health centres, and UNICEF, for the implementation of a potential project aimed at saving the lives of street children. “It’s my dream, whenever I get a chance, I work towards it,” says the writer-activist, who is also a leading campaigner of women’s rights in Tamil Nadu.
Life was never a bed of roses for Raajathi Rokkaiah who had to defy all odds in a rigid oppressive tradition that characterised Thuvarankurichi, a village in Tiruchi. She had to hide her identity to have her poetry published, fight relatives to establish her right to write, and sacrifice the certificate of good conduct. Yet, she dreamt of freedom. And finally, luck came in the form of the Panchayat elections. The journey to freedom had begun. From Ponnampatti Panchayat president to Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, it was a trip to everlasting freedom for Raajathi Rokkaiah alias Salma.
“No girl in my village could have imagined the journey I had. It was such a backward society,” recalls the writer. “Now I am enjoying everything, especially freedom. For me, power is secondary.”
The unexpected twists of life makes her think about a guiding light. “I didn’t expect to reach where I am now, I tend to ask myself the reason,” she smiles as she continues to share her thoughts. “But I don’t want women to be controlled in the name of any supreme authority. You worship goddesses here, and at the same time suppress women. It’s cheating,” thinks Salma.
The author of Irandam Jamangalin Kathai (2005), a novel that portrays the plight of Muslim women, believes ‘well-defined morality’ suppresses the woman’s body and mind. “It controls women’s desires and thoughts.” For Salma, morality has a different connotation. It’s all about love and heart. “Can we try not to hurt people close to us? Can we help them to get over their disappointments? Can we make them happy? This is morality for me,” explains the writer.
“Why are you misguiding women? Do you know about your responsibility?” This was the response from an NRI after a TV programme on her was telecast a few weeks ago. Salma had urged the women participants of the programme to shed their fear and shyness to face society. She had to argue with the angry Indian for more than an hour. “What kind of responsibility are they talking about? We need freedom to choose, act without fear, and we don’t want to wait for the permission of a man for that,” her firm and loud voice affirms.
But those angry outbursts don’t distract the tireless campaigner in her. The Social Welfare Board has now taken up the task of making the public aware of the powerful Domestic Violence Act. It has been conducting training programmes for women, police, counsellors and even judges. Salma says these sessions are very effective. She has invited the Chief Justice of India for a seminar on the Domestic Violence Act, which is to be held this month.
Salma is clear about the root cause of violence against women. “Women’s minds and bodies are suppressed, and that leads to violence because they are under total control. You are not allowed to open your mind.” This was also the reason behind her attempt to bring in the physicality of women in her poetry which drew a lot of criticism. She wanted to uncover her buried desires and proclaim her freedom. “My pain, choices, desires and thoughts; I want to express everything. Then only, can I participate in life with equal rights. I hate loneliness, I want to participate because my feelings are the same as you,” the rebel writer opens up.
Is she a feminist? The writer says she sees life from a larger perspective. “I see personal feelings and human loneliness too.” But she believes her life is more connected to women. Yes, being a woman who has seen and experienced the pain of life can’t stop her from writing about them. “I don‘t need a feminist tag, but I am not refusing it either,” says Salma.
Though the role of a public official suits her well, she feels restrained at the same time. Salma’s writing and politics are two entirely different worlds — a world of freedom and a world of limitations. This creates a conflict. “Now, my thoughts are controlled, writings are controlled.” And when she says she wants to quit politics after some years, there blossoms a writer’s quest to search for the ‘meaningful’. “I want to write about more important things.”
Three books by Salma will get published in March 2010 comprising her short stories, poems and a collection of articles and book reviews. Her next novel focuses on the subjects of morality, society and writing.
On January 7, Salma will visit New Delhi again to receive the ‘Rashtriya Gaurav Award’ from the India International Friendship society. Awaiting her there, are the busy roads, the chilly winter and the melancholic eyes of the woman, wearing drab clothes, knocking on the window panes of her car at a traffic signal. ‘Dreams’ are calling….