Homebound and without freedom: Is there a way out?

The Hour Past Midnight
Salma, Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom
Zubaan, 2009,
pp 478, Rs 350

 They have had several hurdles to cross in what is perceived as a closed, patriarchal society bound by religious power. Salma’s novel revealed with honest anger how education, freedom of movement and freedom of expression have been denied to the Muslim women by their menfolk. The female is an engine for procreation and no more, as adroitly indicated by the child’s play of Ahmed and Rabia. The Telugu poetess Mahe Jabeen’s frustration spells it out:

“There’s nothing other than women to talk about
In the street corners of life.
The world here goes around
Women and sex.”

How very true of The Hour Past Midnight. Salma contents herself with just documenting the day-to-day life for her array of suffering women: Fatima, Mumtaz, Rahima, Sherifa... Even when a Sabia here and a Sainu there seem selfish, we can only blame the system. Man is supreme here and the young women should not only veil their faces but shroud their passions as well. One year in the novel’s layout suffices to give us the cycle of  life in these households and disclose the pulse-rate of the people. 

Salma throws in some specials to complete the picture: deaths, a marriage, an elopement, even the revolting sin of a crude abortion. And yet, there is nothing pedestrian about the telling. There is pain, but no fury. With Salma, the act of mere recordation has become an act of remonstration. She seems to whisper: Well, things are like this, so is there a way out?

Obviously, the way out is not going to be easy. So what happened to Firdaus who rebelled against an unwanted marriage? Death. Maimoon? Death. Fatima? Death again. So many deaths of young women often killed by their own parents for daring to cross the Rule. But man can do what he likes and leer at generations of women. He lays down the law whether it is a marriage proposal or a business proposition. There is then Mariyayi whose presence reveals the ugly practice of untouchability in Muslim households. However, for the enjoyment of sex she is very much ‘touchable’! 
There are too many characters and incidents in the novel but the central thread shines with the presence of the ebullient Rabia inching towards her teens, little realising the shades of the social prison house that would soon close around her. The loving togetherness between Rabia and her elder cousin Wahida leaves a lump in our throat. The gentle Wahida symbolises the tragedy of a woman caught in a loveless marriage.

Even if she wants to get out inspite of knowing about the fate of the Fatimas and Firdauses and Maimoons in her society, she cannot. Nature itself now rises against her freedom in the shape of a growing child in her womb. Rabindranath Tagore had used the same situation in his famous novel Yoga-yog. His heroine Kumudini rebels against her laschiveous, immoral husband Madhusudhan and returns to her natal home. But she finds herself pregnant and gets escorted back by a triumphant husband, not unlike the caveman with a club in his hand, dragging his woman away as his exclusive property. In Salma’s novel, it is the crude, licentious Sikhander who wins in the end. And the equally crude Suleiman (Allah Guardian) who would be winning the race for religious fanaticism. 

Salma’s story that created waves in Tamil Nadu has been very well served by Lakshmi Holstrom. Yet the absence of a detailed glossary of non-English terms proves to be a nagging handicap throughout the reading of The Hour Past Midnight. But I am sure, a second edition is not far-off to fill up this lacuna.  
 

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