“The Contract” and other poems

The contract

my sister will repeat in anger
what Amma says more subtly:
that I am to blame
for all that goes wrong
in the bedroom.
Everyday, in the bedroom
these are the first words to greet me:
‘So what is it, today?’
they are
the last words, too.
From a thousand shimmering stars
pointing fingers accuse me of whoredom
– once again –
and counsels float into the trembling night.
The child-like sobbing of a cat
unable to feed its litter
seizes me by the entrails.
You too
may have your complaints
but Time and our history
make very clearwhere I now stand:
To receive a little love
– however tarnished –
from you
To fulfil my responsibility
as your child’s mother
To buy from the outside world
my sanitary napkins and contraceptives
and for many other little favours
To hold a little authority over you
if possible
To strengthen what authority I have
just a little
In full knowledge of all this
my vagina opens.



Today, I build a fort in the wasteland
to safeguard myself.
I shall not forsake my fort for any voice
just like that,
our eyes on the path
for him who
even after his arrival, looks
like he isn’t there at all?

As the fire in his heart
played on the tongue,
the edge of his eye darted,
sparked till
the crackle, the burst,
the leaving . . . why wait?
Why enfold the beating heart
in the palm?

“Is he not there, at your place?
Ok, fine. . . He might come . . . Anyway,
if he comes, I’ll let you know”
— the voice at the other end,
how may it know
that he may not
come at all?

Under some lorry,
under a truck —
“Oh no, no no!” Just to say this,
is it, that we wait?
Are we waiting for pain, for Death?

Fear that filled the eyes up to the brim
spills out in drops,
silently clots in the dark.

Now, any time,
this wait will be over
it will be over
it’s almost over.

Let anyone come
knock on the door
give me the news —
What do we wait for?
Why wait at all,
for him to come or
not to come?

Finally, from the open door,
as if darkness itself has barged in,
he comes, as if he hasn’t come at all.

Now, the wait
is for another day, another night!



Upon the almirah against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades a bat clashes,
falls, scatters.

But birds, thousands of miles away fly across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains and have never, so far,
lost their way.


A midnight tale

These nights
following the children’s birth you seek, dissatisfied,
within the nakedness you know so well, my once unblemished beauty.
You are much repelled, you say,
by a thickened body
and a belly criss-crossed with birthmarks; my body, though, is unchanging
you say
today, hereafter and forevermore.

My voice, deep-buried in the valley of silence, mutters to itself:
True indeed,
your body is not like mine: it proclaims itself,
it stands manifest.

Before this too,
your children, perhaps, were born in many places, to many others; you may be proud
you bear no traces of their birth.

And what must I do?
These birthmarks cannot be
repaired, any more than my own decline –
this body isn’t paper
to cut and paste together, or restore.

Nature has been
more perfidious to me than even you;
but from you began
the first stage of my downfall.

More bizarre
than the early hours of night is the hour past midnight when dreams teem.
It is now, at this midnight hour the tiger which sat quietly within the picture on the wall takes its place at my head
and stares and stares.


An evening, another evening

Another evening falling, fading
into the crevice of loneliness.

Feet, lacking strength to cross walls
circle and circle
within the darkness of the inner rooms.
The breath of the room’s proprieties rises, sulphurous, in the hot wind.
Meaningless to dig out frozen dreams
or try to melt them down:
there can be no change of opinion.

In this universe
there may be many creatures alone with their prey
living amicably together leading pleasant lives.

These tense nights that are yet to come,
the baby’s restless whimpering
will be transformed, perhaps into a joke turned against me.
The present is as tangled as the world of a cat
that lurks in the kitchen.

A thick skin forms on the tea waiting to be drunk.
The smell of scorched food compels.

In reception rooms full of animation there is no one at all
whose acquaintance I can claim.

The solitude of the bathroom awakens a fear
of despising the naked.

Houses risen high within cages extend themselves
only to frighten me.

In this garden
enclosed within four walls there is no shade for me to sit.

The open spaces of the roof-terrace secure no privacy.
There is no chair anywhere on which I can sit
and swing my legs.

If only the baby
were to lend me his cradle
it might be possible to sleep.


The solitude of a painted house

Hanging on my wall
the shade of a painted tree,
a single cottage,
some flowers,
a sky.
My eyes rest on the flowers
while my heart seeks
the solitude
of the painted house.

All the poems have been translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström
Salma is a well-known name to readers of contemporary Tamil literature. With two volumes of poetry – Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum and Pacchai Devadai – and a novel – Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadhai – all of which have been translated to several languages, Salma has made her mark as a distinctive literary voice. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s English translation of her novel, entitled The Hour Past Midnight, was recently shortlisted for the Crossword Book Prize. Salma’s poetry and fiction have carved an undeniable place in the Tamil literary terrain for the articulation of desire and sexuality as well as the emotions that animate the domestic space every day, subjects that are often considered beneath literary consideration.
Lakshmi Holmström was an Indian-British writer, literary critic, and translator of Tamil fiction into English.