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Book Review: Leila by Prayaag Akbar

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In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”

The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”

That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”

Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.

It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.

Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names?  This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.

In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.

Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.

(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)

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The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”

 

The Venus Flytrap: The Distraction of Waiting

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Here is a short list of things I long for that I can have, but don’t yet: leopard print d’Orsay pumps with a heel of precisely four inches; a holiday in the Western Ghats; an oxidised silver nose stud in a large indigenous design.

That last one has become an obsession. You see, I can’t seem to find any readymade ones that have the South Indian straight pin – simple, sleepable-in, stress-free. They all have coil-wires, also known as Bombay screws.

A year or two ago, I wound up in the Emergency Room at 1a.m. because a coil-wire nose stud I had worn that evening had irritated the inside of my nostril so much that the delicate tissue had swollen, and I could not remove the ornament. There I was, lying on my back in the ward, so perfectly aware of the ridiculousness of the incident that I decided to enjoy it. I think those on duty were slightly taken aback by my excellent taste (or maybe just the size of the bijoux versus the size of my face). How deliciously diva-like. “Madam,” breathed a wide-eyed attendant, clipping instrument in hand, “Is it gold?” Of course it wasn’t. It was cheap beads and alloy and mine for one-night-only, evidently.  But I was most pleased that my Midas touch was being admired. “Not at all,” I smiled, and let two strangers put their fingers into my nose.

What keeps me from just having another bespoke nosepin made, like I did for the one I wear daily (and why yes, that is gold)? How can I explain my waiting other than in terms of delayed gratification?

In this age of instant satisfaction, I’m in praise of anticipation. I don’t want everything at once. I want to want things before I have them, to know that wanting to be true. To first covet then cherish.

The to-be-read pile of books I waited a whole year each to have released in paperback, and still paid princely sums for. You’d think I’d have dived into them instantly upon arrival, surfacing with bed-raggled hair and raccoon eyes like on any morning after a torrid encounter. But no. They gather dust. Their pages don’t bow from being held open. I’ll read them all some day. Savouring. Just not today. They comfort me by the sight of them, their proximity to my sleep and dreams.

The slow burn seduction. The phone that pings and pings all day but never with that particular name. Until it is. And then another intricate dance starts, the more long-winded the better: reams of repartee, a season of sexual tension. Maybe that’s masochistically frustrating to some, but it’s catnip to nine-lived poets. The pleasure of all that is possible.

We must covet the things we can have, among the larger dreams we nurture, because life is full of disappointments of all sizes, and – for those blessed enough to afford it – this is one kind of self-care. We must indulge desire as a form of hope in the fight against futility.

Desire, and defer awhile. See if anything changes. Steady, steady, steady – what’s the rush? The world is ending, anyway.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Interview With R. Vatsala

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“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.”

Read my piece on iconoclastic Tamil writer R. Vatsala on Scroll.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

~ THE HIGH PRIESTESS NEVER MARRIES ~

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The High Priestess Never Marries

A Sri Lankan mermaid laments the Arthurian Fisher King; a woman treks to a cliff in the Nilgiris with honey gatherers of the Irula tribe; a painter fears she will lose her sanity if she leaves her marriage and lose her art if she stays faithful within it; one woman marries her goddess; another, sitting in a bar, says to herself, ‘I like my fights dirty, my vodka neat and my romance anachronistic.’The women in this collection are choice makers, consequence facers, solitude seekers. They are lovers, vixens, wives to themselves. And their stories are just how that woman in the bar likes it – dirty, neat and sexy as smoke.

Shortlisted for the TATA Lit Live! First Book Award (Fiction).

Selected reviews, interviews & articles

“A formidable debut” – Aditya Mani Jha, The Hindu Business Line

“Manivannan’s language has desire written into its very bones, from its simplest forms to a more complex reenactment of the power play between men and women. Sensuality judders through each story and each encounter is rendered erotic through its sharp intensity and temporariness. Hers is a liquid prose that flows from one vignette to the next. The words are limpid pools of passion and pain filled with portents of despair, palli doshams and other untranslatable astral signs. It is the perfect tongue for these high priestesses, poetesses, goddesses, and the vixen who love and live according to their own terms.” – Diya Kohli, Open Magazine

The High Priestess Never Marries is a tour de force of language, desire, and ancestral heartbeats.” – Richa Kaul Padte, The Establishment

“This collection of short stories by Sharanya Manivannan claims to set forth stories of love and consequence. To agree with her would be unfair, for her stories are so much more. They are my secrets and desires in written form, picked unknowingly from my body and mind, given back to me in a manner so exquisite that is almost painful to contemplate.” – Anusha Srinivasan, amuse-douche (republished in The Madras Mag)

The sheer power and beauty of The High Priestess Never Marries will leave you breathless…” – Baisali Chatterjee Dutt, Bonobology.com

“[An] anachronistic romance to me isn’t one that is boxed into a particular life, but one that gently touches that kind of certainty now and then, an act of belonging.” – Helter Skelter Magazine (with Niharika Mallimaguda)

“But it is only a particular beloved who cannot receive [love]. The world at large, with its wounded wings, its gaping craw, can.” – Scroll.in (with Urvashi Bahuguna)

“[W]hat calls out to me is the secret resilience of women, not the sexist assumption of their strength ” – THread (with Tishani Doshi)

“I love Sharanya Manivannan’s women. They did not demand my sympathy. They did not offer condescension either. They were beautifully vulnerable, incredibly human.” – Deepika Ramesh, Worn Corners

“Deep oceans, old legends, star-filled skies, turmeric, vermilion – all the environments and embellishments of this book – I felt, in the end, come together to explore and disclose a certain feminine mystique – ancient and eternal, brimming with desire, flawed, fertile, heartbroken. Most of all, irrepressible.” – Tulika B., On Art & Aesthetics

“The book started on a fun note: misadventures in love. It gradually grew into what it means to build alone, without the scaffolding of the social legitimacy of marriage. What does one do with her heart when it is chronically broken, but when she refuses to bend her will alongside it? That’s what the stories in this collection attempt to answer.” – SheThePeople.TV (with Sukanya Sharma)

“Manivannan, a well-regarded poet, brings her penchant for deft encapsulations to her fiction.” – Pooja Pillai, The Indian Express

Purchase online

Amazon.in

Amazon.com

Infibeam

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~ THE AMMUCHI PUCHI ~

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the-ammuchi-puchi

When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…

Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.

 

Selected reviews & interviews

‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings

‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog

‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day

‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters

‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie CoughlanWindows, Mirrors, Doors

On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog

 

Purchase online

Lantana Publishing

Amazon.in

Book Depository

 

sharanyamanivannanammuchipuchi

 

The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016

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