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The unseen world of Tamil Muslim women

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S. THEODORE BASKARAN

A story that covers six Muslim families in a Tamil Nadu village

THE HOUR PAST MIDNIGHT: by Salma; Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom; Zubaan, 128 B, Shahpur Jat, I Floor,

New Delhi-110049. Rs. 350.

The many subcultures that surround us make the colourful strands in the tapestry of Indian life. Hepsibah Jesudasan documented the Christian community around Cape Comorin in her Tamil novel Putham Veedu (the new house). Thopil Mohamadu Meeran recorded the life of Muslims in a fishing village of southern Tamil Nadu in his moving novel Oru Kadalora Giramathin Kathai (the tale of a coastal village). These are valuable recordings of a way of life disappearing fast. This English translation of a Tamil novel by poet Salma, The Hour Past Midnight, is set in the backdrop of Muslim community in central Tamil Nadu.

What is special about Salma’s work is that it takes you by the hand as it were inside the unseen world of Tamil Muslim women and the problems encountered by them in that milieu. That includes the utter lack of space for women, child sexual abuse, and the persistence of caste prejudices among Tamil Muslim, malaise that could be traced in any Indian community.

Nearly a decade and a half ago, Salma attracted attention as a promising young poet through the pages of the literary magazines Kaalachuvadu and Puthia Paarvai. Patriarchical eyebrows went up when her poems echoing the voice of women, with explicit sexual imagery, appeared in print. The short film, She Write, by Anjali Montero and K.P. Jayashankar in which she featured along with three other Tamil women poets drew a lot of acclaim to her poetry. There are critics who see a close connection between her poetry and this novel. In fact, some of the characters can also be recognised.

Document

When this novel, Salma’s debut, was published by Kaalachuvadu in 2004, it did not attract as much critical notice as her poetry. The novel’s value lies more in documenting the ethnographic details of a community at a particular time in history rather than being a work of art. It demands some patience and perseverance on the part of the readers but once they get their teeth into it, it opens a world hitherto not written about. In fact in her author’s note in the Tamil original Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai, Salma says that one of the aims of her novel is to document women’s life and that some readers might find it tedious. The English version does not reduce the tedium.

This is a story that covers six Muslim families in a village in Tamil Nadu and moves along chapter by untitled chapter, revolving around the lives of Rabia and a few other Muslim girls over a period of one year.

Inspiration

The novel has drawn deeply from Salma’s own childhood in a village near Tiruchi. Here the plot is subordinated to capturing the postures of the community she is writing about. This of course is the pre-Babri Masjid demolition period and so you do not find signs of a revivalist Islamic community. In any case, Salma does not touch the issues concerning Muslims in Tamil Nadu. Among her cast of characters there are non-Muslims such as Mariyayi, dalit mistress of Karim, through whom the author highlights the Tamil Muslim attitude to caste and women.

Though Holmstrom has made a gallant attempt, she is unable to surmount the problems posed in translating a novel that is narrated largely through spoken Tamil of Muslims. The distinct Tamil Muslim milieu, reflected in Salma’s original, eludes Holmstrom’s English. The translation bulldozes this distinctness. I wonder if such spoken variations can be captured into a language like English at all.

The translator often retains Tamil words such as ‘Chithi’, a kinship term for which there is really no English equivalent. But she also retains the words like ‘thinnai’ which can be expressed as veranda. Unfortunately, Salma’s prologue to the Tamil original, which contextualises her work, does not find a place in the translated version. Similarly, one misses Ravikumar’s very perceptive introduction. The book is impressively produced, with an evocatively appropriate cover design by Kadambari Zachariah.


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