Monthly Archives: March 2009

It’s Still The Witching Hour

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I had such fun being live on air with Chennai Live 104.8FM’s Jane Jeyakumar this afternoon that I wished I’d announced it earlier! Hope some of you caught me there. Here are a few more media snippets on me/the book. Rumjhum Biswas talks about the launch, Vaibhav Vats writes an article based on an interview he did last month, and Verve magazine runs a feature in their March issue – with a never before published poem.

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The Venus Flytrap: Touching Souls

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When I was little and lived in homes with real gardens, one of my favourite things to do was to step on the thottanchinungi plant. Its little ferns would shrink to the touch, and then slowly open, repeating these gestures until the agitator bored of them. There’s a rhyme I remember the beginning of from those days, in Tamil. It went something like, thottanchinungi, thodupudingi: the fern that shrivelled up and snivelled like someone who had their earrings pulled.

I would eventually become something of an animist. I looked to coasts and trees and red earth. But I only remembered the shy, sensitive thottanchinungi at the beginning of the year. I’d been in the countryside for some weeks by then, anticipating catharsis yet entirely unprepared for it. It was a morning that came amidst many things, mostly devastating ones, but I remember a sense of exhilaration as my friend Rane and I sped off to even more rural interiors on an old, green motorbike. I think we were heading to a lake, but mostly, it was for the ride. Somewhere on the way back, I caught sight of the back of a statue, a typical Kali, a cacophony of arms and legs, and we stopped. I had to see it.

It turned out that what we had discovered was a Tantric shrine. “The serious shit,” Rane said, pointing to the shed full of tools for invocation. No one was around. I prayed that day with the promise to come back before I left this surreal dimension I’d found myself in for what was supposedly the real world. I had no idea then what was coming – I would not return before I went back, and there was nothing to go back to. The unraveling had only just begun. “It’s okay,” my friend said, weeks later. “The account has been opened. You’ll make the deposit some day.”

But I didn’t know all this then.

Climbing off the bike, my eyes following the flight of an astonishing black, white and red butterfly, was when I saw it, my old childhood friend the thottanchinungi. Of all the kinds of weed involved in my catharsis, this was the most symbolic. The mimosa pudica was the ultimate metaphor for the state of my heart that morning, and not just mine. We wait to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be touched. And then we retreat. We fold into ourselves and wait to be left alone. We burn that bridge and bloom again. We burn that bridge but we forget the way back, and over and over and over we build and burn, trapped in our private purgatories.

How easy to curl within ourselves. How hard to stay open, even to the things we think we have been waiting for all our lives. There is resilience. And then there is, simply, running away.

But although the plant I saw that day looked like the thottanchinungi, it didn’t respond to my foot. It refused to shrivel, but I no longer had the time or curiosity to play with it as I once did. Maybe it was something else, some other herb. Something that looked like one thing but was another one entirely. Unequivocal disappointment can be easy to accept. Just ask the thottanchinungi.

But maybe it was the thottanchinungi, only a stronger variant. What I know is this: it held its own. It didn’t shrivel at my skin, but rested calmly against it. Its soul to my sole. By refusing to recoil it stayed receptive to something else, something that held it open, thriving, fully unfurled.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

It’s My Party And I’ll Wear Copper Sulphate Blue If I Want To…

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Pictorial evidence, as requested in the last post’s comments:

Chennai, March 13 2009

Chennai, March 13 2009

Pix: Dilip Muralidaran.

Also, I wanted to add that Eric Miller pulled a surprise that ended the event with a twist, (thankfully – in lieu of a q+a session) by reading a poem written during the launch. Here it is, reproduced with permission:

“Poem for Sharanya”

On the occasion of her reading from, and launch of, her collection of poems, Witchcraft, at the Park Hotel, Chennai, 13 March 2009.

Goddess priestess, witch, poet.
What is this public persona you are weaving?
Will you shake the city?
Will you melt it?
All the world disappears
and is reborn
in the words,
sounds,
dreams,
hopes,
daydreams,
fantasies,
meditations,
colors,
shapes,
smells,
the ideas
you inspire.
Yes, bring down the moon,
and let us all discover where to put it.

After The Chennai Launch

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I woke up the morning after the launch with some badass blues. Readings normally leave me feeling exhilarated, but I was so sad that morning that it was over. Good readings are rare in Chennai. Very rare. That I stressed out over it, instead of just savouring it, left me regretful.

That being said, it went well. I think about 50 people came. If I didn’t say hi to a familiar face and give you a hug, I apologise. There were just so many people and so much to do and the press to speak to immediately before and after.

Speaking of press — big thanks to Niladri Bose of Hello FM, who ran a pre-recorded interview with me on his weekend shows. And to Sonali of Chennai FM, who recorded something just before the launch. Also to Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew of The New Indian Express for putting me on the cover of Monday’s Expresso. And to Shonali Muthalaly of The Hindu for this article in Metroplus. As tends to happen in print journalism, there are discrepancies — for instance I have never lived in Canada and do not consider myself a Sri Lankan refugee as to do so is to undermine the plight of people far less privileged than me (I’m assuming these two things were gleaned from an extremely literal reading of a certain poem in my book), and I’d probably said witches were persecuted, not castrated (!). I know that The Times of India ran an interview in three of its neighbourhood supplements but haven’t seen it yet. I’m also interviewed in this month’s Verve magazine, which is on the stands now.

But none of those made me quite as happy as Orange Jammies’ post here.

I’m deeply grateful to Ranvir and Devika of the Prakriti Foundation. I’ve known them for years professionally but only recently have gotten to know them on a more personal level. Both of them are inspirations to me in their own ways.

I’m also especially grateful to Salma, Vivek Narayanan, Tishani Doshi and Rumjhum Biswas, who all came to the launch. The support of other poets is so important.

And if anybody cares what I wore, I wore a ridiculous copper sulphate blue dress. :)

Prakriti Foundation and The Park Present… Witchcraft

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Prakriti Foundation in association with The Park is delighted to invite you

for the launch of Witchcraft, a book of poems by Sharanya Manivannan

on Friday, March 13 2009 at 6 p.m.

Venue: Leather Bar, The Park, Anna Salai, Chennai – 600 006

Dress code: Black

Praise for the book:

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife,” Ng Yi-Sheng, winner of the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils,” from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam, winner of the 1994 Paterson Prize and 2006 Juegos Florales

[Update: ABOUT THE DRESS CODE
I’ve been getting enquiries about the dress code. Why have one? Because we’re poking fun at the “Witchcraft” connotations. That’s why Friday the 13th and black outfits. Please remember that it’s *black* and not *black tie*, so wear a tee shirt by all means. It’s fine. :) ]

The Venus Flytrap: Bearing Witness

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Somewhere on the road between Thanjavur and Thiruvarur, on the scorching afternoon of the last day of February, I see them. The women among the rice crops. They are bent over, their fingers among the wet and the growing, only their lower halves visible from behind. The van passes them for only a moment but it is enough. I think about them for days. When a reporter calls shortly after to ask which female personality I would like to be for a day, I think only of them.

Where was it written that I could be this person – an artist, a traveller, a young woman fortunate enough to number among her graces the ability to chronicle her own life?

A guest of the Prakriti Foundation, I’m on a hegira from the city, heavy with sadnesses I can’t quite shake off even for the weekend. But what privilege to be among a small group of erudite aesthetes. To see Darasuram not as a mere tourist collecting photographic evidence of having been there, but with the luck to be with those who look upon every tiny carving with love, see the story in every stone, connect mythology, history, postmodern theory and the practical. To participate in a beautiful private puja in the home of the Senior Prince of Tanjore. To sit down on the dry Cauvery riverbed as someone explains the constellations above, illuminating the links between Orion and Nataraja, between the Southern Cross and Trishanku.

Where was it written that I could have this? Where was it written that I would not be one of them, a woman living somewhere on a sacred trail, tending to rice crops under a merciless sun?

What would my life mean if I had no language for it, if my interior world was the only one I could experience, let alone create? How much richer would it be, stripped of the filter of observation, the casual voraciousness with which I regard my experiences, knowing I can alchemize them into art? There is a point at which you become mercenary about the things you do, the ways you let the damage be done, because it’s inspiring. There is a point at which you justify anything because of the knowledge that you’re Rumpelstiltskin, and your life just straw ripe for the spinning.

I want to know it for a day, yes. A life exposed to the elements, so close to the earth, so far from mine. And on that day I want to forget myself, forget there was ever another way of seeing or being, forget that whatever happens, I possess the power of baptism. I want to know an interior life that cannot be absolved or celebrated in art. I think that, upon return, that day would devastate me. I think it would teach me things I do not have the language to imagine.

Later that evening, after a kutcheri during which the women I’d seen earlier continued to scatter seeds in the arable of my heart, we assembled for dinner under the stars at an old house in Thiruvayarur. We took the opportunity to share simple, impromptu performances. The Dutch musicologist recited what he called a poem for “adult children”.

“I saw two bears smearing honey on bread”, it went. “What a miracle! Ha ha ha he he ho! I saw two bears smearing honey on bread. What a miracle. I was watching them.”

The last line was the cinch, he said. The most magnificent miracle of all was not so much that it happened, but having been able to be there, witnessing it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.