Sharanya Manivannan cuts a striking figure. With her expressive eyes and commanding presence, she is the visual epitome of a performer, a dancer. In fact, much of her writing does resound with the sense of movement in the prose, which percolates into the texture of the words. She is the author of the short story collection, The High Priestess Never Marries, which won the 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity (Best Book – Fiction) and was shortlisted for the TATA Lit Live! First Book Award (Fiction) and longlisted for the Atta Galatta – Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize. She also has two books of poetry, Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World, and a children’s picture book, The Ammuchi Puchi to her credit. Her first novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, will be published in late 2018.
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Born in India in 1985, she grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and has lived in Chennai since 2007. She brings the experience of living across cultures and geographies to her writing, which is rich and textured with cross-cultural references, mythologies and tonalities.
SheThePeople.TV spoke with Sharanya about her writing, her protagonists, their quest for love and resolution, the elusive ideal of romantic love versus the pragmaticism of everyday love, as well as her forthcoming book, The Queen of Jasmine Country.
For me personally, I write for women, I write in tandem with the women’s movement, and I am quite alright about losing those who don’t get the subtlety of my work. -Sharanya Manivannan
As a writer, your work examines relationships, abandonment, exile, and themes that revolve around primarily the personal experience. In The High Priestess Never Marries, you have women wresting with love, and yet taking control of their decisions. Do you see a dichotomy in how women approach love as an emotion and an act?
I’m not sure it’s healthy to compartmentalise love into emotion and action, because the nature of abuse in relationships (whether romantic, familial or otherwise) essentially rests on the idea that the two are separate. You know: “He loves me, even though he has a funny way of showing it.” So let’s break down that false dichotomy. There is something wrong with approaching love as anything but a verb and as a holistic way of being. Which is why you see my characters wresting – they give in completely, yet somehow, they never surrender. Somehow, they surface, no matter how deeply they’ve already been submerged. Here are two lines from the book, which appear in the vignette ‘Sandalwood Moon’: “There is a mystery to how war enters a person, and how it can be coaxed to exit without wounds. There is no mystery to the trajectory of heart, its arrivals and departures.” The only thing mysterious to me is why people choose fear over love, and let this attitude determine their entire lives. We all have war in us. We all also have the capacity for love.
Would you say being single in South Asia is an act of rebellion. Or would you say it is self preservation. I read somewhere you say marriage is antipodal to feminism. What makes you say so?
I don’t think marriage is absolutely antipodal to feminism, only that the institution must be interrogated (and often, that interrogation leads to a rejection of it in totality or in large part). Marriage in this part of the world is about maintaining patriarchal systems, and is entrenched with casteism, classism, colourism and a tremendous amount of misogyny. Marriage everywhere in the world was traditionally about the securing and maintenance of property, and about ensuring inheritance of the same through the control of female sexuality. These are not new ideas – there is an extensive amount of critical thinking and documentation about the same. So all I ask of conscientious people entering a marriage is this: be aware of what the institution is.
Coming to being single as rebellion and self-preservation. There is nothing as condescending as saying to someone, “You’ll find someone someday.” No, nobody can guarantee that. What is usually really being said is always, “One day you will give up your individuality, you will cease to wait for or pursue what you truly desire, and you will settle – just like I did.” Shoot it down. Reject the idea that partnership, however unhappy, is an inevitability. It’s such a beautiful thing, when love is not so unimaginatively goal-oriented. You experience it so much more deeply and differently when you don’t operate from a position of assumption and acquiescence.
Being single in South Asia can certainly be both rebellion and self-preservation, but only if one is reflective on the circumstances that make them so.
For so many of us, the refusal to cut down and confine ourselves into regressive roles is the reason why we are unpartnered, especially in heterosexual contexts. Let me give you just one example from my own life. I cannot partner with someone who doesn’t take my work seriously. It’s a deal breaker. Women are societally conditioned to give up their careers and passions and as a result, everyone is conditioned to subconsciously devalue those careers and passions. That makes finding a male partner who respects my work all the more difficult.
The women in your stories are from disparate universes, times, cultures. How do these characters come to you? How do you decide who you want to build your storytelling around?
Sometimes they come out of my diaries, and sometimes they come out of my dreams. There is a common link that binds them all, whether they are from a medieval century or my mid- 20s or are a myth out of time. That link is how deeply they surrender to the beauty and mystery of the universe, and are grateful to experience it with their bodies and their hearts. The extent of my decision-making usually begins and ends with a commitment to listen. The rest happens by itself. There is always a blurring between self and protagonist, not because of the autobiographical but because of this deep and empathic link that bonds us.
In your book, The High Priestess Never Marries, you examine and dissect love. How essential is the human search for that absolute all-consuming love, have we romanticised it too much to be able to see the fragmented beauty of an everyday love for what it is?
Absolutely. We privilege one kind of relationship above all else – the heteropatriarchal marriage. Which does not necessarily have to do with love itself, as we all know. This means that every other kind of relationship and emotional investment is given a lower rung, and this is detrimental. When I say my closest friends are my significant others, they are not stopgaps because I am not in a long-term partnership of a sexual-romantic nature. They are my significant others, not substitutes. Similarly, for those who bond deeply with their pets, parents, co-workers, siblings, students and so on. And let us not forget the love of work, the meaning of the word dedication. The love of the earth and a commitment to its preservation. The love of justice and equality and the willingness to fight for both. There are so many kinds of love in the world, and still we say the bondage (yes, I said bondage not bonding) of one man and one woman under the umbrella of an oppressive institution is the most important. Why?
There are so many kinds of love in the world, and still we say the bondage (yes, I said bondage not bonding) of one man and one woman under the umbrella of an oppressive institution is the most important.
I am not sure that the search for an absolute, all-consuming love is a good thing, either – especially when one stakes one’s happiness on a hypothetical person. The shattering of that concept, what you’ve aptly called fragmented beauty, is a truly wonderful thing though. There is so much joy in life once you begin to see things this way. It takes time, though, to realise it. It takes a lot of pain to de-condition oneself.
The first-person narrator is intrinsic to most of your stories. Is there a reason why you chose to write in the first person primarily? Do you feel there is a certain identification and empathy that the author can bring to a character when he or she writes in the first person?
Most of my characters are essentially alone – in solitude, or lonely. For this reason, the first-person narrative serves them best of all, because most of both their churning and their coming to clarity happens internally. All narrative modes have their own beauty. The first-person narrator gets a bad reputation only because some readers are uncomfortable with that level of reflection – and perhaps what is reflected back to them.
The first-person narrator gets a bad reputation only because some readers are uncomfortable with that level of reflection – and perhaps what is reflected back to them.
You’ve lived a nomadic life, across cities, countries. How do you think each place has contributed to your storytelling? Is there something specific that you’ve drawn from the essence of actually living in various cultures that has infused itself into your writing, perhaps without you even realising it?
I lived in Sri Lanka until I was five, then for 17 years in Malaysia, and have been in India for the last decade. There was a lot of trauma in each of those dislocations, and a significant amount of friction with Chennai, the city I’ve been in for over ten years. So for me, nationalism is like marriage – another dangerous thing to believe in, and another thing which I think most people lie extensively about, just like they lie about love as a foundation for traditional marriage. As I know from my experiences with trying to stay in and then having to leave Malaysia, no matter how much you feel you belong somewhere, that decision is not in your hands. You as a person are nothing but a statistic in the trickle-down effect of colonialism, racism, bureaucracy, politics – and sheer chance.
That pain is in every word I write, which is why there are some things I don’t write about at all.
In your collection, The Altar of the Only World, you speak of myth and intermingle disparate mythologies and mythological characters. How did this collection come to you? How did you decide which characters from mythology you would explore through your poems? And can you tell us a bit about your research process?
I wrote the first poem in the collection, Hanuman, straddling a second-floor ledge overlooking an inner courtyard in Adishakti, the theatre campus outside Pondicherry. It was one of the first days of 2009. My first poetry collection had come out in the previous October, in the same month that I lost my cherished grandmother. Just over a year had passed since I had moved to India under distressing circumstances. Everything was broken and I did not know it yet. I was 23 years old.
Recently, my closest friend pointed out to me that the poem is really, and very tenderly, about toxic masculinity. And the way I approached it was to centre the feminine loneliness that comes as a result of toxic masculinity. Sita in solitude, in chosen exile – and then, her spiritual compatriot Lucifer who was also thrown out by a divine beloved, and his star-twin Inanna, who enters the underworld and performs a painful personal excavation. The characters came to me one by one. Sita weeping in the wilderness was who it all began with, because of my exposure to Adishakti’s own work with the many Ramayanas.
The multiplicity of Ramayanas was the primary focus of my research, and non-canonical tellings were what I was most attracted to. For instance, the Sita in my book was born after Mandodari drank a grail of blood meant for a sacrifice, and this reorients everything about her story. It means that like Draupadi (who appears in one poem, “Fire-Forged, Blood-Born” to speak to her) she was also created of dark magic, and that Lanka is more than a prison for her but in fact the place of her origin. I read as extensively as I could. Lucifer as morning-star opened the heavens to me, and brought cosmic motifs into the work, and I enjoyed studying astronomy through a poet’s perspective. There still exist hymns to Inanna, such as those written by the priestess Enheduanna thousands of years ago – but how Inanna came to me was in a more metaphysical than literary nature. So the seven gates that she is stripped at and descends then ascends through correlated for me with the seven chakras, and I found the description of her shadow-sister/shadow-self Erishkigal to be strikingly like that of the goddess Pratyangira Devi. Research is a path to put yourself on, but you have to be genuinely open to what you find rather than contrive meaning. The deeper you go, the more esoteric things become – but they also align in ways that superficial readings will never be able to grasp.
Another important part of my research was performance. I held orality and theatre – the voice and the body – as equal to scripture and record. So dance, theatre, cinema and music were important to my deepening understanding of the archetypes I was working with. They weren’t necessarily Ramayana renditions, although they sometimes were. The effect is clear through my book – there is a Chhau dancer holding a moon on his back like an angel holding its horns, there are shadow puppets on the cover and in the pages, there is a mutilated face painted by sunset like a Theyyam dancer’s, there is the pulsar’s dying song reverberating across the universe…
There are versions of mythology in your work that are familiar yet unfamiliar to the Indian reader, how do you weave the different narratives that mythology spins off, together, what is it that makes one version resonate with you enough to have you work on it?
Whenever working with mythology, hagiography or standardised historical narratives, I feel there are two vital questions that propel me: what feels true to you, and what do you believe?
I do not subscribe to an easy, burn-it-all-down irreverence. Certain things have been held as sacred not because those who have carried them forward have all been violent and enforced their ways, but also because there is some kernel of meaning there, some resonance. This resonance is often lost in the big picture. It’s what I am interested in, even as I hold the big picture accountable for all the damage it has cost, whether that is the normalisation of everyday misogyny or the radicalisation of extremists.
This resonance is often lost in the big picture. It’s what I am interested in, even as I hold the big picture accountable for all the damage it has cost, whether that is the normalisation of everyday misogyny or the radicalisation of extremists.
Stories have always been told in multiple ways – each storyteller brings something different, each time. I once told Karthika Nair, author of the marvellous Until The Lions, that what she had written was not inspired by the Mahabharata, but in fact was the Mahabharata. That is not true for The Altar of the Only World. This is not a Ramayana (or Sitayana, as others have called their own works). It is about a psychic journey in which motifs from these myths illuminate things which are true in perfectly human ways. I owed no loyalty to any narrative, and I did not need to rehabilitate any character to update them to suit our modern ethos. The journey the meta-narrator undergoes has been true for people through time.
Do you think we do our mythology a disservice by the pithy binary good-evil renditions we popularise, or do you feel that all versions that keep mythologies alive in the popular consciousness are good?
The binary is absolutely a disservice, and the funny thing is that very popular versions often serve to deepen the divide. The problem is that some versions are given more legitimacy than others, and therefore suppress other narratives. So no, not all versions that keep mythologies alive are good by definition. Then we come to question of what is good then? Why do we accept what we are told so unquestioningly?
Take the canonical Ramayana and its discourse on dharma, or righteous living – if you really consider its events from a moral perspective you should have a very complicated response, at the very least. If you do not, there is something wrong with how you view and treat your fellow human beings. The Ramayana in the popular consciousness is not even Valmiki’s – it’s a mixture of Doordarshan’s TV serial and Tulsidas’ version. Most people don’t even realise this. There is such a paucity of imagination and of heart in the world that it staggers me. There is such dissonance between expressed beliefs and actions. Perhaps that links back to your first question. Where, indeed, is love?
The binary is absolutely a disservice, and the funny thing is that very popular versions often serve to deepen the divide. The problem is that some versions are given more legitimacy than others, and therefore suppress other narratives.
Your storytelling is very visual and performative in a certain way, even in your poems, the body and movement is very evident. How much of an influence does the performing arts have on your writing?
A profound influence. The influence of the performing and other non-literary arts on The Altar of the Only World was discussed above, but this goes further back for me. I was a dancer through my childhood and teens and although that is no longer a part of my life, the stage has always been something sacred to me. And voice – the way breath and body come together when you speak your words is what makes them become incantations. This is what I’d like to say to everyone who teaches language or literature to students: when you teach poetry, do not ever, ever, tell them to follow the line breaks as they read to themselves or aloud. Follow the breath. Follow the body. They will fall in love. And one day there will be fewer adults in the world who claim they don’t “get” poetry.
Light and dark, fire, sun, these words are seen over and again in your poems, almost like characters that populate them. What makes you return to these elements, across works?
Water and earth too, over and over. The natural world has primacy for me, from it I emerged and to it I return – and the same goes for my words.
As a creator, what is your creative process, how do you write. Are there any specific rituals or writing quirks you have?
In actuality, none. I just need to be comfortable. But there are aspects of self-care which one might consider ritualistic. They are mostly simple things: a bath, a swipe of kohl, moisturiser, sometimes some fragrance. I really love looking at plants when I look up from my laptop. I like having music on. And I need to be alone nowadays, although at certain times in the past I have enjoyed company or even co-writing spaces. If all this sounds like more than another writer needs, well good for them, I am glad they are easily coaxed into a creative mindspace. If all this sounds like more than another writer has – yes, it is true. I built it and I guard it and with all my heart I wish it for more people. For women, especially, because we are conditioned not to value ourselves or our work.
In this, the age of #MeToo, how and what lessons do you think the millennial woman can learn about individuality and self preservation from the women of myth?
By not being so quick to reframe them in a present context. There is not a lot of depth in many contemporary reframings of mythical women, because they reduce the character to a single dimension that is easy to consume. So she’s only fury personified, or only promiscuous, or only a victim.
Sit with her as you would any woman, feel free to judge her, cry with her, ask her questions – but most all, listen. She’ll tell you a story unlike any you’ve been told to swallow.
Are women writers today pushing the envelope enough, are we breaking narratives, redefining constructs, are we writing so women readers read our stories and know that there is an alternative and it might not always be the comfortable one? What is your take?
Yes! For me personally, I write for women, I write in tandem with the women’s movement, and I am quite alright about losing those who don’t get the subtlety of my work. Are we pushing the envelope enough? We can always go further. And I believe we’re making that effort. Both our lives and our art must reflect it.
And finally, congrats on The Queen of Jasmine Country. The subject, Andal, is fascinating, more so because so little is known about her. What was it about her that made you decide upon her as your protagonist, and what were the challenges you faced in researching her life and times?
If you look at the hagiography of the saint/goddess Andal, and you also look at the verses of the poet whose given name was Kodhai, you would have a great deal of questions. There is a discrepancy between the two. And further, it is clear that something happens that changes the girlish joy of the Tiruppavai into the despair and demand that is the Nachiyar Tirumoli. So who was the person who wrote those poems, and what was her interior life? So who was she, this teenage poet – who unusually for her time was both unmarried and literate?
The deeper the poems move you, the less accepting you may be of the hagiography. As I say this, I acknowledge that as one of the rare Hindu myths in which a woman gets a happily-ever-after, the hagiography has been held precious by centuries of women who found sublimation of their own longings in the divine marriage between Andal and Ranganatha, just as scholars posit that marriage itself is a sublimation of female sexuality. But it’s there, the discrepancy. And in that silence was where I found my own words.
I acknowledge that as one of the rare Hindu myths in which a woman gets a happily-ever-after, the hagiography has been held precious by centuries of women who found sublimation of their own longings in the divine marriage between Andal and Ranganatha, just as scholars posit that marriage itself is a sublimation of female sexuality.
In 2014, I had a dream in which Andal asked me to write a novel about her, a thought I kept cherished but did not move towards. In 2018, Kodhai came to me like a waterfall. In torrents and torrents. I wrote the novel in something like six weeks.
My greatest challenge in the writing of the book came from my personal life. Many of my friends come from very privileged backgrounds, and their displays of unconscious prejudice or dangerous ignorance on the topics of caste and gender were painful to behold. These were exacerbated by the attacks against the poet Vairamuthu late last year, when his suggestion that Andal could have been a devadasi in the Srirangam temple was met with horrendously misogynistic and casteist statements from women and men alike. I’d been busy researching a project about mermaids when Kodhai came to me as muse, and I had many despairing moments when I wondered about the costs of trusting her, and the story that came to me. But I trusted her. I trusted myself, too.
Women authors and poets of times gone past have never really got their due, their voices have been all but shouted down by the louder stridency of their male contemporaries. What do you think it is about Andal’s writing that has made her writing break through this stridency, and stay relevant even today? How do you identify with Andal, as a poet and a woman yourself?
The Tiruppavai is a very important part of liturgical practice in Tamil Nadu, particularly during the month of Margazhi (Dec-Jan). This keeps Andal’s work alive. But beyond that is the darker, openly sensuous Nachiyar Tirumoli, which doesn’t get its due. I personally know of people who recite the Tiruppavai as part of their religious repertoire, but have not even read the Nachiyar Tirumoli. It is worth noting that with the exception of the poem Varanam Ayiram (“A Thousand Elephants”), which is sung in Vaishnavite weddings, the Nachiyar Tirumoli is often elided or unacknowledged. The elision is deeply entrenched in the culture, even though both works are enshrined in the Divya Prabhandam, the Tamil canon of poetry by the Alvars, in praise of Vishnu. Her work has survived as it has through the efforts of translators, scholars, feminists – and yes – those among the religious who truly care.
I don’t identify with Andal, the goddess. I do identify with Kodhai, the poet. Like her, I was precocious; I started to write as a child, and by my mid-teens I was performing at poetry readings and publishing.
I don’t identify with Andal, the goddess. I do identify with Kodhai, the poet. Like her, I was precocious; I started to write as a child, and by my mid-teens I was performing at poetry readings and publishing. So it was no stretch at all to imagine her at that age – the human core of her, as different or as similar as her 9th-century surroundings may have been. And more importantly – like her, I have always found consolation in literature for the yearnings of the heart and the body. If you strip the fancy alangaram, the gem-encrusted hagiography, and see what’s really there – a young woman so desperate for love that she fasts and prays for it – I think you’ll see her as she came to me, too.
Feature Image Credit: Catriona Mitchell
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV