February 20, 2009

The Secret Lives of Women


THE HADEES he had read yesterday talked about how it was Shaitan who always tried to corrupt us. If we escaped his attempts, we would surely go to Heaven. In Heaven, rivers of milk and honey flow, thousands of Houri women serve the men and make them happy. As she remembered this, she wondered, if there were Houri women for the men, wouldn’t there be Houri men for the women too? (From Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadai by Salma; my translation)

?????? ???? ????? ??????? ??????????? ????????? ????? ???????? ??????????????. ????????????? ????????????????? ???????? ???? ??????????????? ???????. ????? ?????? ?????? ???? ?????, ????????????? ???????? ??????? ??????? ?????????? ?????? ?????? ????????????????????? ?????? ?????????? ????????????, ?????????? ???????? ??????? ???????? ?????? ??????????? ???????? ?????? ????????????????? ????? ?????? ????????. (In the original)

So wonders little Raabiya, one of the central and most engaging characters in Salma’s novel, Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadai, a novel almost entirely about women, in a close-knit Muslim community in Tamil Nadu, living in a village close to Madurai. Men work outside the home, men’s word is law, men must be served first at all times. Raabiya, who is only 10, has already been taught all this by her mother. Yet, it cannot stop her from wondering whether in heaven, there is a different fate set aside for women than the one they find on this earth.

In a conservative society, women’s actions are seen as the honour of the community – any deviation from a strictly outlined code, has severe consequences for the law-breaker who is seen as having disgraced the entire community. When one woman deviates from this code, restrictions are imposed even more severely on all the others. A small pleasure, that of going to the local movie theatre occasionally, is now taken away from them. In the midst of this severe repression, the secret lives of women play out as they steal guilty pleasures from the limited world that is allowed to them.

In this secret world that Salma creates, men are almost entirely absent. This is often true in a literal sense ; in many households, the men are away earning in distant lands, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Dubai, coming home only once in 2-3 years. However, even in households where the men are present, they are mostly divorced from the daily life of the household. They return home for their meals, but their preoccupation is their work, the communal worship at the village mosque and the company of other men, and sometimes, their mistresses. The women then are the true leaders of the daily household, even if their power will never extend to any ‘important decisions’. Women, who organize most of daily life, must necessarily internalize the harsh rules that keep their lives limited. Daughters who have attained puberty are forbidden to step outside the house, their schooling stopped. Widowed daughters who return home, are forbidden to dress well, for fear that they may attract other men. Young girls are reprimanded at all times, to remember to ‘behave like a girl’. It is mothers who must maintain this regimen, for any failure to do so can lead to severe consequences including social ostracism and failure to find a husband for one’s daughters.

Yet, in this climate, the women enjoy themselves with whatever they can find. Young women sneak in cheap magazines and devour the salacious stories. A porn tape finds its way in through someone abroad and is even used to educate a newly-married girl. The women discuss sex and their bodies freely and with much relish. Food is another source of enjoyment. Restricted to the four walls of the house, even an exceptionally well-made ‘aanam’ (sambar) becomes a source of pleasure and conversation. If one woman in the village acquires a new kind of earring, every other woman rushes to get the same design made. Jewellery, clothes, weddings, gossip – these fill the day when the chores are done.

Nor do they let the men govern every decision. Raima, for instance, gets her fallopian tubes tied, as a permanent contraceptive measure, even though she has to do this on the sly and face her husband’s wrath later. For girls who have not yet attained puberty, there is still much freedom to be had. Running wild after school, playing on the streets, going from house to house – Rabiya and her band of friends are enjoying a short, enchanted time which will soon disappear as they grow older. Mothers hope that their daughters grow up as slowly as possible, while envying them the freedom and carefreeness of childhood.

Not all this can however prevent even the most strictly brought up women from occasionally questioning the state of affairs, especially when it affects their own lives. Some of the secrets are more dangerous ones. Men can have mistresses openly, but Nafisa who is cheating on her much older husband, faces both severe guilt and the possibility of severe punishment, if found out. Firdaus who finds her bridegroom incompatible, ends the marriage and returns home immediately, only to fall in love with a Hindu man.  Her brother-in-law Karim who has organised the marriage, disregarding Firdaus’ wishes, himself has a mistress, but his transgressions are accepted not only by the community, but by his wife as well.

Since I don’t want to give away the ending, I am not going to dwell on more of the plot here, but throughout the novel, even as the women go about their day to day lives and squeeze as much enjoyment out of it as possible, there is a feeling that this can’t go on forever. Sooner or later, when the secret lives of women clash with the norms of a society whose barometer of honour is it’s women’s conduct, there is bound to be an explosion. Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadai doesn’t surprise, but the explosion that happens is not in the nature of a resolution; rather, it ends with a feeling that the constricting of women’s lives is not ending all that easily. At the same time, there is some hope as Salma gives some of her characters at least, the will to cross this line, even while knowing what it will cost them.


Publishers: Kalachuvadu

Price: Rs. 250

Note: To my knowledge, Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadai is not yet available in English or in other languages.

10 comments to The Secret Lives of Women

  • Thanks for this. I’m really looking forward to this – actually, there is an English translation due from Zubaan very soon. We had a reading of the first two chapters in Hyderabad recently, with Lakshmi Holmstrom, the translator, present.

  • LitUpLotus

    @ Aparna – Thank you for shining a light on this book

    @ Space Bar – Bless you for the good news in your post about an English translation! Tamil is my mother tongue and though I speak it fluently I never did learn to read and write it.

  • I believe this is part of the english translation ->


    It was longlisted for the Man Asian Litrerary prize. Had read it sometime back and your post reminded me of it. The book seems like a promising read, from what can be seen from the excerpt.

  • anil sharma

    expressive and articulately summarize the contents.

    anil sharma

  • R.Sajan

    Please read the recently published ‘Amen- Autobiography of a Nun’ by Sr.Jesme of Kerala. Please read the Reports about St.Abhaya, Sr. Anupa Mary etc. These women were victimised not for drinking in public; but for becoming nuns to lead pure and secure lives. Their abuses are more serious than men and women getting involved in bawls in pubs.

    Do you ladies not feel for them? Please get Nisha Susan, herself a Catholic, to lead you in sending Chaddis to the Pope and Kerala Bishops. Rush to the couriers right now.

  • Ajith

    @Fake Sophia Cherian who is probably a chaddi and male: This is a book review; if you don’t understand what that is, go read up a dictionary.

    @ R. Sajan: As above. Now run along for your Sunday lathi drill. ‘Hindus’ like you are a disgrace to Hinduism.

  • Is this book based around true life incidents or is it purely fictional?

  • apu

    Space Bar – as another commentor has said, thanks for pointing that out, I wasn’t aware. I’m sure that will help the book reach a larger audience.

    LitUpLotus – you are welcome.

    Mithun – thanks for the link. Somehow the translation seems a bit weird to me, but I’m not a very good judge, so probably it’s just the effect of having read the original recently.

    Aathira – I’ve read a few interviews with Salma in which she mentions having gone through similiar experiences – for instance being cloistered at home on attaining puberty. Salma herself belongs to a rural community. So, while it is fictional, I guess it has been inspired by real life incidents.

  • nikhil

    heartfelt congratulations to this initiative in its entirety & in its loving detail-

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