Review: Women, Dreaming by Salma
In The Laugh of the Medusa, French feminist Hélène Cixous wrote of the impossibility of defining “a feminine practice of writing” as it “can never be theorized, enclosed, coded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist”. Women, Dreaming, writer and activist Salma’s second novel, encapsulates a particular version of Cixous’ “feminine practice of writing”, one that is not only hard to theorize and encode but also one which, in Cixous’ words, aims to “always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system”. Set in a Muslim village in Tamil Nadu, Women, Dreaming, attempts to articulate the inner worlds of the women of this village where everything is dictated by an orthodox religious dogma propagated fervently by its male population. As the novel begins, the reader is immediately drawn into the parallel life trajectories of the narrative’s two central women protagonists, Mehar and Parveen. The lives of these two women are connected through Hasan, who is Mehar’s husband and Parveen’s brother. Hasan embodies misogyny and notions of toxic masculinity that are supported by his staunch, albeit misled, religious beliefs and the patriarchal institution of marriage, or in the case of this village, the practice of marrying off barely pubescent brides.
It is through the parallel arcs of these two women and of their mothers as well as Mehar’s daughter Sajida that the trauma, struggles, desires and transgressions of three generations of women are narrated. Another poignant portrait is that of Amina, Parveen’s mother’s aunt, who is visually impaired and has never received a marriage proposal. After being thrown out of her marital home due to unmet dowry demands, and unable to live with her brother, Parveen moves in with Amina. Parveen’s husband is impotent and Amina has never experienced physical intimacy. There is therefore a constant and unspoken acknowledgement between the two women of the pain caused by an absence of physical intimacy, a yearning that each recognizes in the other.
By turns suffocating, brutal, raw and poetic, the narrative emphasizes the inability of these women to significantly alter the course of their lives. At the same time, it also presents the limitations of language in articulating this helplessness. While the thoughts of these women convey the complexities of their situations and present a domain that lies outside of policing, the outward expressions of these inner ruminations are manifested through the two extremes of silence and tears or loud exhibitionist crying and the hurling of curses. Salma’s story is not restricted to the interior landscapes of the minds of the women who are the central characters of the novel, but also depicts the domestic domain to which these women are relegated. “Like a sari that had not been pleated properly, the street was full of irregular folds of little verandahs, a trademark of Muslim streets, spilling onto the width of the road.” The sari simile emphasizes how these spaces encapsulated the lives of these women who rarely stepped out of their homes, and socialized largely through these “irregular folds of little verandahs”.
However, snapshots entailing possibilities of freedom are sprinkled throughout. While Parveen remembers, as a carefree little girl, being asked to pose by visiting foreign tourists and how she had effortlessly performed for the camera, Sajida remembers a photograph of Mehar’s in which she was wearing bell bottoms and an oversized shirt carrying with it a memory of how her mother’s friends experimented with the clothes of a male relative and a clandestine mission to get the film of the borrowed camera developed. These literal snapshots of possibility are interspersed with the harsh reality of their lives under Hasan’s constant oppressive supervision.
Women, Dreaming, which succeeds in presenting the inner universes of these women deprived of even a discourse of rights, is a much-needed addition to the South Asian feminist literary landscape. As Cixous wrote, “a feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic…”
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.