Rokkiah, 34, alias Salma is a poet, panchayat (village council) head, and a mother of two. She comes from a traditional Muslim family living in a village near Tiruchirapalli district, Tamil Nadu. Salma's passion for poetry started at age 13. She writes on man-woman relationships and social issues. In her poem 'Oppandham' (Contract) she writes: "Mother tells me that all bedroom mistakes are mine...To discharge my responsibility to your child as a mother, To get you to pay for sanitary napkins and birth control pills, And if possible to lord over you for a while, My knowing vagina widens itself".
In 2003, an article titled 'Kamathu Pal' (which literally means `milk of desire') in a leading weekly newsmagazine, drew attention to her work and the bold writings of other women Tamil poets. Later, some men objected to their kind of poetry and launched a campaign against them. Although, Salma's husband and family were initially disturbed by the sensational publicity she got, they are now proud of her status as one of Tamil Nadu's leading poets. She has also become one of the most effective and outspoken panchayat heads in the state. An interview.
Q: When did you start writing poetry?
A: I started at age 13. Although I would not really call that poetry! I studied up to Class 9. I started writing seriously when I was 17. Two of my collections got published in the literary magazines 'Kala Chuvadu' (in 2000) and 'Uyirmai' (in 2003). They contain around 60 and 80 poems respectively. I contribute to other magazines too. I came second in a short story competition conducted by Kala Chuvadu and Katha of Delhi in 2003. The theme of the story was death.
Q: How did your family and community react to your writing poetry?
A: There was opposition from the beginning. While my parents did not prevent me from writing poetry, the community objected because the view is that a Muslim woman should stay at home and not show her body or face. My poetry became an issue when my marriage came up. I agreed to write under a pseudonym (Salma). They thought I would change my mind after marriage. I did not.
Q: Have things changed now?
A: I am happy that now, especially after the media publicity, attitudes have changed. The fact that Salma is a poet has now become positive for both the community and family. For my first collection, I refused to give my photograph or even attend the release function. Now, when I go to the district collectorate, I am recognized as Salma the writer. I have power.
Q: What about the current controversy over `erotic' poetry by Tamil women poets? How did your family react to the whole episode?
A: In 2003, an India Today (Tamil) article, titled Kamathu Pal, featured my writing and of some other Tamil women poets. My family was very upset, especially my husband, with the sensational article. In the same year, a few men attacked some of us for writing `erotic' poetry. I personally believe such attacks should be ignored. This whole thing was generated by some men - film lyricists - for publicity. In my poems, I have used words like `yoni' (vagina) and `an Kuri' (penis) just a couple of times. Now, after some months and after several media interviews, my family has also been able to see things in perspective.
Q: There is a lot of anger and frustration in your poetry, especially over how men treat women?
A: This is a universal anger. It is not mine alone. Everyday I see how women are treated in society and I am unable to tolerate it. I express the feelings of all women in my poetry. I hope my poetry will help people think; that more people will write; and that there will be awareness.
Q: What are your main roles as a panchayat leader?
A: Mainly we do social service. Ensuring water supply, putting up street lights, cleaning the environment ...We get both state and central funding. We are able to function thanks to members' support.
Q: How do you combine the roles of a homemaker, panchayat head and writer?
A: At home, I have help to look after my two sons (aged 12 and 9). Panchayat work takes up a lot time - phone calls, visitors... I have to be patient. This year, the water problem has been terrible. I do this work during the day and at night, I read, think and write. I read English classics translated into Tamil. I am planning to enter politics - joining the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). I am doing this with the aim of getting freedom. My life changed after I entered politics (in 2001) and I want this to continue.