“I want my work to register the extent to which the human condition as a whole has been debased”: the poetics of Rajathi Salma, celebrated author, human rights activist, and speaker

Acknowledging Women’s History throughout March and in every month: stories like Salma’s demonstrate the power of reading and writing to empower and uplift entire communities.

portrait of salma

Salma on the roof of her house in the village.


In this book, documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto and poet Rajathi Salma collaborate to tell the story of Salma’s life as well as the challenges of creating a documentary film. Salma’s poems, one of which is published below, deal with a uniquely female experience of seclusion and privation.


The language I acquired through voracious and eclectic reading helped me express what had happened to me. I do not believe in imposing any restrictions on my work. When a poem is born a mysterious knot within me gets untangled and frees itself. Through my writings I want to invite the reader into my world and into a profound experience of sharing. Once she has entered my writing, I aim to keep her in an endlessly engaged condition. I want the sound of the voice rising from my text to reverberate at all levels of her mind.

Besides trying to present the situation of women in society, and the problems and hardships they face, in an honest and original manner, I want my work to register the extent to which the human condition as a whole has been debased. I hope to convey what I see as the persistent absurdity of human life that flows from the sense of isolation that surrounds me and which persists today. Writing finds its proper direction in the quest for self and the pressure of suppressed emotions.

I try to understand the reason for my existence and establish my identity through my writing. In most of my work I have focused on the isolated condition of women, the lack of confidence this produces in them, and the unbridgeable but entirely fabricated gap in the relationships between men and women. The physical restrictions and denial of education faced by the women of my community have found their due place in my texts. Life has taught me a feminist way of thinking.

salma and longinotto with documentary crew

The film crew in Salma’s flat in Chennai. From left to right: Kim; Samyuktha PC; Salma; Sara Lima.



Entirely bereft now
of its identity,
my ancestral house,
where I used to live,
has crumbled to ruin.

Although I do not
live there anymore,
it stays with me still,
along with my childhood.

I used to fly
over the jungle made up
of its mezzanine lofts.

Its pillars hid me
on moonlit nights
and on those
darkened by moonless skies.

Even the wall of the latrine,
witness to the terror
of my first bleeding,
has collapsed to the ground, along
with all its other secrets.

Many were the times
we had sought shelter there:
I, on one side of the wall,
and this neem tree on the other.

With its walls lost to ruin,
the house stands alone,
staring at the ground where it had
once cast its shadow.

Traces of my play hours
still remain, perhaps,
on the wall of an upstairs room.

salma and family - four generations of tamil women

In the village. From left to right: Amina, Salma’s grandmother; Fatima, Salma’s niece; Salma; Salma’s mother, Sharbunnisha.


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