Book Extract: The freedom that isn’t hers

…or the persistence of gender-blind social mores and how these imprison a woman

Girls in purdah (Photo: Getty Images)
Girls in purdah (Photo: Getty Images)


Title: The Curse: Stories
Author: Salma (Tamil original)
Translator: N. Kalyan Raman (English translation)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages 192
Price Rs 350 (Paperback)


She must have been sixteen then. ‘Ah, ah, pull it up…pull it up…harder, that’s it. Here, take it.’ When she woke up startled by the melee of voices, she was confused, unable to grasp what was going on. Eyes still drowsy with sleep, she glanced at the clock. It was seven.

Expecting a scolding from her mother for having missed the early morning prayer, she got up from the bed. Picking up the dupatta which had come loose, she stood near the bed and wore it properly.

From the sounds drifting in from the backyard, she guessed that the motor was being repaired. She opened the window of her room and peeped out at the men who were standing in the stone-paved passage near the well. Kaliyappan and his co-workers were pulling out the pipe. Someone must be standing inside the well.

She had to pee urgently. She wanted to call out to her mother, but it seemed impossible. Beyond the stone-paved passage was the kitchen. She pondered for a while about what to do, then decided to raise her voice and call her mother.

Her mother didn’t like her yelling in front of men outside the family. Still, there was no other way out. ‘Amma, Amma,’ she called out in a loud voice. Feeling disheartened, she shouted a little more forcefully, ‘Amma!’

‘Amma, little sister is calling you.’ Hearing her holler, Kali called out to her mother who was in the kitchen.

‘What, you’re up already?’ As soon as her mother entered the room, Shamim said, ‘I badly need to pee, Amma.’

Book Extract: The freedom that isn’t hers

‘There are men standing near the well. You can’t go there now. Hold it in for some time,’ Amma said. The toilet in their house was on the opposite side of the courtyard, past the well in the middle. To get there, Shamim had to walk past those men. Amma was worried that they might see her.

‘So what if they are standing? I’ll rush there and come back. Or you can tell them to wait outside for a few minutes.’

‘Why don’t you keep quiet for some time?’ Amma chastised her into silence. ‘With two men pulling it from above and two more holding it from below, the job is only half-done. How can they let go of the pipe now? They’ll take it out completely in a bit. Can’t you wait for five or ten more minutes?’ Amma pleaded with her.

‘A girl should get up at five and say her prayer; this one sleeps till seven instead.’ Amma complained, going on and on. Shamim clammed up and sat near her mother.

It was almost nine, but the work wasn’t over yet. Sitting around without brushing her teeth was even more horrible. After waiting in silence for ten minutes, she repeated, ‘I am going. I can’t bear it anymore.’

But now a totally new idea occurred to her mother. ‘Sit here. I’ll be right back,’ she said and strode quickly to the kitchen at the other end of the courtyard. She came back holding a wide, round plastic tub in her hands. Handing it to Shamim she said, ‘Lock the door from inside and pee into it,’ and went away.

Shamim bolted the door, squatted over the tub and relieved herself. It felt as if she had come back to life after dying. Her mother carried the tub across and poured it down the toilet. Shamim remembered how she had suffered the same kind of acute pain in her stomach on that day.

Until she was eight, her family and her uncle’s family lived in the same house. The sole cause of the daily rows that broke out between them was the common toilet situated in the back portion of the house. […] Only later did her grandfather build a toilet in the stone-paved yard at the back of the house, despite the constant traffic of people there. […]

Whenever people moved about in the courtyard or entered the house, it would be clearly audible to the person inside the toilet. Similarly, use of the toilet by women would become a difficult matter if there were men and visitors moving about in the house.

When a woman peed, the patter of urine falling must not be heard outside. ‘How can a girl make noise while peeing?’ Amma would scold Shamim. Just to avoid this, Shamim would open the tap as soon as she entered the toilet for the noise of falling water. […]

When she had her monthly periods, the situation became even more horrible.

She had to wash and rinse her menstrual rag inside the cramped toilet, carry it to the room near the well at the entrance to the courtyard and hang it up to dry on the washing line.

Odds and ends collected over many years were piled up in one corner of that room. On the other side, a heap of coconuts lay along with pieces of stripped coconut fibre.

There was no dearth of bandicoots, centipedes and house lizards. She sensed with some alarm that the moment a light switch was turned on, they scurried away in every direction and hid themselves.

At times she had to walk past a cat that had just delivered a litter, growling at her from a corner, to hang the washed rag to dry as well as pick a dry one from the washing line to wear. She could not even imagine doing this during the night or when there was no electricity.

Why can’t we fix a washing line in a corner of the courtyard and hang at least one rag there? She couldn’t ask her mother because she would say, ‘The men folk might see it.’

She had to be lucky to be able to come out of the toilet immediately after washing and rinsing the menstrual rag. No man should be moving about in the house at that time. No one should see her as she crossed the distance of ten feet to the room with the rag hidden in her hand. For this reason, she and her sister visited the toilet only when there was no man present in the house.

On some days, if visitors, especially men, dropped by while she was washing her rags in the toilet, nothing could prove as horrible. Until her mother had chatted with them for at least half an hour, served him a cup of tea and sent him away, she had to remain standing inside even as her legs ached, sweating in the afternoon heat, and cursing the visitor, tears flowing from her eyes.

A regular among the visitors was Amma’s young cousin who wanted to marry Shamim’s elder sister. He would come visit at least two days in a week, trying to catch a glimpse of his beloved on the pretext of speaking to their mother, incidentally boring her to death.

As time passed, Shamim couldn’t defecate out of shyness if people were moving about in the house, or if she heard them talking when she was in the toilet. […]


Shamim’s cousin was building a new house in the plot opposite their house. It was a three-storey building. Built with funds brought in from Saudi Arabia, it was coming up as a mammoth structure. That house subjected her to even greater torment.

‘On all three floors of the house, there is an attached bathroom inside the bedroom, with fittings from Riyadh,’ her mother said. Shamim had discovered the phrase, ‘attached bathroom’, with the aid of Rapidex. How wonderful it was to have a toilet inside the bedroom. It was beyond her imagination.

During evening hours, she would sit on the rope-cot in the courtyard, and gawk with keen interest at the new house standing tall before her. One day she wanted to see that magnificent bathroom for herself. They had finished plastering all the walls by then. Only the paint work was left.

Whenever she thought about the colours in which they would paint the house, she would laugh to herself—as if it made any difference to her life.

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