Salma’s debut novel is a moving and beautifully-written must-read, says Sian Norris
Salma, a renowned Tamil poet who has faced obscenity charges and violent threats in her homeland of India, has written what can only be described as an extraordinary novel in The Hour Past Midnight. It achieves a richness and poetry in its language that I haven’t found in any other novels that I have read recently, whilst maintaining a tightness of plot, strong and emotive characterisation, and a heartfelt exploration of the lives of Tamil village women living in modern India.
The novel tells the story of a community of Muslim women and men living in a Tamil village, from the perspectives of the women. The book sings with different voices, from the child Rabia, a girl who is about to come of age but as yet is still a young girl, her mother and aunt Zohra and Rahima, and the cousins, neighbours and women who make up their small and intimate community. It is a book that rings with laughter and female friendship, and yet can quickly turn heartbreaking and frightening. The novel’s action takes place over a couple of weeks, as the families prepare for Ramadan and the marriage of Rahima’s daughter Wahida to an older man she has never met.
What I loved about Salma’s writing was just how evocative and richly detailed the description was. I felt that I could walk into the village tomorrow and I would know where everyone’s houses were, would know all the women as well and as intimately as I know my own friends, would be able to play with Rabia and Madina and chat warmly to Rahima about preparing for Wahida’s wedding, complain with Farida about her mother, giggle and gossip with best friends/rivals Rafiza and Mumtaz. The novel immerses you in the world of these women, immerses you in the life of the village, examines the minutiae of the daily lives of the women and their relationships and inner feelings so fully, that by the end of the novel I felt a sense of loss that I was no longer part of the book. I could have willed the book to continue forever, endlessly exploring the lives and learning more about the characters.
Credit has to go to Lakshmi Holmstrom for her marvellous translation, which was so beautifully done it made me wish I knew Tamil myself to fully understand the beauty of the prose.
Salma is a political writer, as we learn from her biography, and through the book we discover more about the oppression women suffer in the village, and the sense that in this community there is one rule for men and one rule for women. This comes through strongly in seeing the world through Rabia’s eyes, a child about to turn into a woman. She can’t understand why her male friend (who she is in love with) is allowed to go to the cinema whilst she is beaten for doing the same. The strict differences in the way the sexes are treated is brought sharply into focus with the return to the village from Saudi Arabia of Mumtaz’s husband, and the strict rules he insists the mosque lays down to restrict the freedom of the village women; from banning them from the cinema to far more damaging and violent repercussions for the transgressive, rebellious women who populate the novel. The double standards are also apparent in the women’s marriages. Mumtaz is afraid that her husband will take another wife when she doesn’t get pregnant; Wahida is dismayed that her husband has had affairs whilst she is a virgin; Firdaus is forced to live in disgrace for having left her old and wealthy husband who she didn’t love.
Yet for all that the women are taught to be submissive and obedient, they are strong, daring and brave. They are resourceful and clever and loving.
The double standards between male and female behaviour culminates in a devastating and heartbreaking event with family and friendship betrayed. Salma demonstrates how religious morality can result in something of a twisted morality, where human rights and familial bonds are destroyed in the name of religion. She describes how the women who transgress are punished in the name of religion, when really all they are doing is standing up for their own selves and their own hearts. Because the story is told from the different perspectives of the women in the village, Salma can really exploit how the women view and react to the situations they are witness to and experience. We are given a real insight into the characters and their lives. We are also shown how through suffering and oppression, an anger is born that can only have destructive consequences.
A lot of the novel is painful and sad to read, as we live through the characters’ pain and struggles with their lives. But more than this, the novel is often a joyful study and celebration of female community and friendship. Some of the most wonderful moments in the novel are when the women are all together, talking about their lives and bodies and marriages and sex lives to one another, laughing and cooking and eating and sharing their lives with each other. There is some bitchiness and a lot of snide gossip, and a lot of laughing and teasing, just as there is whenever a group of female friends and relations get together and talk about their innermost lives. Although we cannot ignore the terrible events and betrayals in the novel, what I took from it was this real celebration of women’s friendships through the ages, from the children Rabia and Madina’s tender and loving relationship, to the close bond between Zohra and her sister in law Rahima. And what this book really highlights perhaps is that it is the intervention of husbands, fiances, fathers and father in laws that break and damage the bonds of women’s friendships, often with tragic consequences.
In The Hour Past Midnight, Salma has written what can truly be called a women’s novel, a novel that celebrates women, explores and delineates in great detail their lives, their thoughts, their struggles and their friendships. And it is all done in the most beautiful and evocative language, with the greatest delicacy and complete lack of pretention and preachiness.
I urge you to read this book, it is superb; moving, funny and eye opening. The characters and their lives will stay with you long after you close the last page.
This book is currently available to buy online, through publisher Zubaan Books