Salma has come a long way, from writing while hidden inside a toilet, to having a film made of her life

Sitting in an airport lounge, waiting to change flights, Salma has an epiphanic moment. She casts her mind back to a very different past and nearly stops breathing for a second. “It was such a powerful emotion. Here I am, travelling the world alone, as an adult. I think about what I might have been, and it just chokes me,” she says.  

Tamil poet-writer Salma has come a long way from Thuvarankurichi hamlet in Tiruchi district of Tamil Nadu, both figuratively and metaphorically. In dulcet tones she speaks of the bright morning of that journey, her voice dipping, not rising, as a powerful emotion seizes her. She still has trouble coming to terms with all the bouquets that have come her way, especially after Kim Longinotto’s film about her life. 

With the film, she thinks that she has truly arrived. Salma the film, through a series of interviews, tries to bring to light the realities that have shaped the poet, of how she would write hiding in the toilet because she could not pick up a pen outside. Married forcibly while in her teens, she spent years cooped up in a dark room in her house. “I would wait until everyone was asleep at night before sneaking to the toilet to write. I stashed paper there. I would even save the newspaper sheets that the provisions came wrapped in, because sometimes that was the only written word that I had access to.” 

Like other girls in her village, Salma stopped going to school the moment she attained puberty. “It is still happening there,” she says. “Most women in my village are living the life I was meant to live. And that’s always in my consciousness. I think I’ve been lucky. Very lucky.” From sneaking away with her mother to attend the launch of her poetry collection or to receive an award, Salma’s life and Facebook pages are filled with pictures of a happy woman celebrating with friends from across the world. 

Salma, unlike her sisters back home, was saved by the word. The words were kind to her. “I’m aware that but for my words, I’d be back there in Thuvarankurichi, cooking and grooming my kids within four walls.” The other change agent was a fortuitous entry into politics. Thuvarankurichi seat was declared a woman’s seat and her husband asked her to stand instead of him. “There was opposition from the family but I said yes. Maybe I said yes because of that,” she laughs. 

This was the start of her journey outwards. Stepping out of home was a big step; from there into the rough and tumble of politics was a rude shock. Salma was determined to persist, since the route of confrontation was infinitely preferable to staying within four walls. 

Salma’s solid body of work includes poems, short stories and novels, some of them translated into English, open in their handling of sexual relations, about a woman’s sexuality and needs, and their examination of a woman’s space within the home. Her work, both subtly and obviously, chips away at patriarchal systems and misogyny.

 As for Salma, the film, it has received rave reviews at the various festivals it has been part of, including Sundance, Berlin, Sheffield, Documentary Edge Festival, and ‘Movies that Matter’ at The Hague.

 As the sun shines brightly outside her government flat in Chennai, Salma is getting ready for yet another trip abroad, to another film festival. She has invitations pending, invitations to talk, film showings, and more. For the girl from Thuvarankurichi, it’s her moment in the sun.