Posted by Monisha Raman
Away from the urban matrix, India’s fabric is an amalgam of its small towns and cities, each unique in its mould and frame. The common foundation across these towns are the gender narratives, among others. The small towns are unsympathetic towards feminine needs and wishes. In her poignant novel, The Hour Past Midnight, Salma explores the underlying entanglements of women in a closely-knit community trying to straddle a rugged terrain through resilience. The Hour Past Midnight, originally published as Irandam Jamathin Kadhai in Tamil in 2009, was translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and published by Zubaan Books.
Anyone who grew up in a closely-knit community in a small town would know that just like bonhomie and cordiality that is pretty much like a force of nature, gossip rules the lives of the people. The town in Salma’s canvas is no different. In such an Orwellian environment in The Hour Past Midnight, the big brother closely watches every woman, her movement, her act, her deeds and her adherence to the unwritten laws.
Also read: Book Review: A Nest For Lalita By Ken Langer
Education and Empowerment
Though Salma’s story is set in a different decade in the past where people were dependent on radios, there is limited change in the scenario today. In The Hour Past Midnight, women are not sent to school after adolescence, married in their teens against their wishes and relegated to spend the rest of their lives in the kitchen and tending to the children and family. Ignoring this rule would invite the delinquent label.
Though women are extensively qualified in small towns across India today, it still does not translate to their empowerment.
Cultural Forces in Female Sexuality and freedom
The liberty a woman has over a body is culturally dictated in small towns. A widow wearing fine clothes and jewellery is a blasphemous act. Salma explores these intricacies with her beautiful prose and intense narrative in The Hour Past Midnight. The author depicts the barriers to sexual freedom in a constrained environment for which she has faced widespread backlash.
Wahida is compelled to face the precariousness of physical intimacy at the tender age of 15. Forced into a marriage as an adolescent against her wishes, she is baffled by the lack of tenderness in the man she is wedded to. Unsolicited candy-coated conversations from her father-in-law and his repulsive carnal actions further add to her bewilderment. Her only exposure to the idea of love coming from the movies, she ponders on reality and fictitious nature of love and relationship in The Hour Past Midnight.
In sharp contrast is Firdaus’ grit and her rebellion. From refusing to get physically intimate with her husband whom she considered unattractive to find her calling in love much against the socially constructed norms, Firdaus defies the invisible thorny fences of cultural conventions in The Hour Past Midnight. She is astute and is completely aware of the consequences, and her resolve when confronted is inspiring.
Like Firdaus is Fathima who, by following her heart, is forced to abandon her young son and aged mother. Sherifa, who soothes her agony by rekindling the loving memories of her deceased husband, is forced to marry again for companionship in The Hour Past Midnight.
Desire and gender gimmick
Love, passion and longing are all intrinsic human emotions. Salma brilliantly portrays the bigotry deeply embedded in the society in distinguishing and discriminating them into men and women in The Hour Past Midnight. When it is the call of testosterone, it is a hasty act, rooted in entitlement and masculine privilege; a reason that men are neither ashamed to speak about their infidelity nor feel the pinch when it is discussed in their midst. However, when a woman finds love outside of marriage, her presence is vilified in social gatherings and sinister references are made.
Salma explores this bigotry with Nafisa and Karim, both members of different families living in the same street. Karim has a longstanding relationship with his help, something that his wife is aware of; and Nafisa with her friend living in the same town. Encountering hateful assertions by other women at social gatherings is a norm for Nafisa whereas Karim’s association is discussed in an impassive manner in The Hour Past Midnight.
Marriage is a deep-rooted commitment. The onus of loyalty lies with both partners. However, in case of a fall, the male is often pardoned and woman faces vicious slander. Her life becomes fodder for gossip, her every move scrutinised for distorted exaggerations.
Women in Salma’s story in The Hour Past Midnight have limited control over their lives, their bodies and their destinies. The women bear the burden of abiding by an invisible clock that dictates their marriage and childbirth. One loving wife is forced to leave her marriage due to her ‘failure’ to bear a child and a dutiful widow, content with the loving memories of her husband, is compelled to marry against her wishes for the security of her child. The women who dare to break these irrational conventions see an untimely end.
In a composite culture, there is a profuse emphasis on celibacy in women. To meet this goal, a woman’s freedom is snapped at a young age and her dreams are ripped. Financial independence becomes an unattainable dream and thereby, her dignity is ruined. The fear of celibacy being wrecked gives society the power to ravage a woman in many other ways, the prime being her self-respect. A change in this unreasonable paradigm may seem intractable but will be a gratifying one when it sets in.
A freelance content editor by profession, Monisha Raman finds solace in words. She is a borderline compulsive reader. Her essays have been published by New Asian Writing, The Curious Reader, Kitaab and Women’s Web. Her works of fiction have been published by The Punch Magazine, Phenomenal Literature (Vol.4 No.1), Active Muse and Jotted. She is passionate about travelling and considers coffee the elixir of life. Her anthology of interconnected short stories is now complete. She lives in Chennai, South India and blogs at behindthewoodendoor.wordpress.com. She can be found on Facebook and Instagram.