Tag Archives: short stories

~ 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

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Book Review: Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi

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The title page of this new volume of selected stories by Ashapurna Debi carries this evocative credit: “Translated into a Bengali English by Prasenjit Gupta”. It’s a small homage both to the many sub-languages that we speak, write and think in, as well as to the oft-forgotten translator, whose burden it is to prove an author’s entire reputation to a foreign audience.

In Ashapurna Debi’s case, that reputation is complicated. She began to publish her work as a teenager, in 1936, and by the time of her death in 1995 had penned a staggering 242 novels and novellas, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories. Although widely-read, her work was also largely derided for its tendency toward the domestic and quotidian. The author did not command respect, only recognition.

This is surprising, especially if one skips the excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis that serves as the book’s introduction, and returns to it later. Lahiri writes at some length about the author’s critical reception, offering the observation: “[A] complaint issued by critics is the author’s supposed conservatism, especially with regards to women’s lives.”

Only 21 of the aforementioned 3000 stories are collected in The Matchbox, and while the extent of the author’s palette remains out of the grasp non-Bengali readers, what is represented here contradicts, or at the very least complicates, her reputation as a non-feminist writer.

Ashapurna Debi’s feminism is extraordinarily subtle. She does not forget men: their rage, their worries, their susceptibility to being manipulated. In “Brahma’s Weapon”, Oshima seeks employment at a former flame’s company, to her husband’s jealousy. In “Glass Beads Diamonds”, Shomita shows up unannounced to a wedding in her ex-in-laws household, while her current husband waits in the car.  In the disturbing “Shadowsun”, sisters Mollika and Ghentu are pitted against each other since childhood, one deemed feminine and the other inferior. In “Earth Sky”, Rojoni is temporarily swayed by a warm welcome on a visit home but ultimately chooses to keep working at the tea plantation: the subtext is the pain of those at home, who cannot experience that freedom to choose. Her characters do not challenge the milieu that causes them this grief. They lie to themselves and to others: little Monoroma in “A Covering Of Leaves” learns from watching her deeply-bonded parents that love is the only true wealth but a pretense of success will spare the providers’ pain; in “Grief”, Shoktipoda decides to delay telling his wife Protibha her mother has died, and she in turn feigns not having seen the postcard with the news so as to fully express her anguish only when he comes home. They are not progressive in any way. The author, however, in her close rendering of their lives, lays bare the suffering within.

Only in the title story, “Matchbox”, does her concern for the status quo of a patriarchal worldview – take an explicit turn. “This is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.” In one reading, this is a statement of restraint. In another, it is a statement of sheer power.

Here, the introduction sheds light again, quoting from the scholar Manisha Roy’s 1972 critique: “Ashapurna Debi’s novels, which emphasize the glory of love in a conjugal setting, are frequently given to brides as wedding presents. They have attractive jackets, often with illustrations of a demure wife touching the feet of her husband to show respect.” On the one hand, her books were seen as light romantic reading. On the other, they told the truth about mundane oppression within marital contexts. This bifocality of her work is what explains its popularity: it was subversive literature about life within ordinary households, welcomed in those same households through a non-threatening guise.

In terms of language, that Bengali English brought to life by Prasenjit Gupta is well- rendered. The languages are interwoven effortlessly, without the awkwardness of italics. Onomatopoeic touches are maintained: a cat purrs pirring-pirring, and a drawing is made at khosh-khosh speed. A glossary at the back of the book needs little consultation – not because of a pan-Indian familiarity but due to the smoothness of the translation and the universality of the spaces in which the stories occur. There is something to be said for understanding through osmosis: in any fine translation, such ease is a characteristic most notable when it goes unnoticed. For instance, when Keshob Rai in “The Scheme Of Things” is full of vitriol for a child described as “that cold-in-the-nose, enlarged-spleen-in-the-abdomen, amulet-on-the-arm, tiger’s-claw-around-the-neck, rickets-stricken boy”, we need no explanation for the meanings of this odd string of invectives.

Reading these stories, one senses what its original audiences – those whose lives most closely mirrored those of the characters – must have felt. For lack of a better word, they must have felt understood. Even the distant reader, at times bored by the domesticity of squabbling in-laws or long-suffering spouses, sees the genius it takes to stir such clarity of recognition.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

Recent Interviews: Janice Pariat and Christine Chareyon

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The French pianist Christine Chareyon brought “‘Un Argentin A Paris”, a six-city tour of the compositions of Astor Piazzolla, to India earlier this year. Here‘s my interview with her for The Hindu Business Line.

I also interviewed the author Janice Pariat in the run-up to the announcement of the Shakti Bhatt Prize, for which her short story collection Boats on Land was nominated. You can read it here in The Sunday Guardian.

The Next Big Thing Interview

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I was tagged by Christopher Martin, author and editor (of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination) to participate in this blog meme. “The Next Big Thing”, is meant to find and promote new and in-progress books, by getting their authors to answer a series of questions. [I’ve seen some versions of this meme with one question fewer, but I’ve decided to answer them all]. I’m tagging: poet Monica Mody, who has a new book, Kala Pani, out soon; erotica author and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who always has an anthology in progress; and poet Anindita Sengupta, who has just completed her second collection. Looking forward to their interviews; in the meanwhile, here are my answers:

What is the working title of your book?

“The High Priestess Never Marries”. It’s a book of stories, short and long.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Literary fiction, preferably, with a distinctly feminist leaning. But if I’m realistic, some people will call it chick lit. And that’s okay.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was something I used to say to my friends, partly with rue and partly with sardonic pride: “the high priestess never marries”. After a decade of romantic complication, I had begun to see my life through the lense of the pseudo-historical notion (backed up by evidence from the devadasi tradition of South India to the oracles of Greek antiquity, among other cultures), that in order to retain her personal power, the “high priestess” – the free spirit, the maverick – had to disavow social norms expected of other women, such as the security of husband and household. In exchange, she was allowed freedoms, education and individual and political agency that most women did not receive. That was very much how it felt to me, as a woman in the early 21st century – that it was still a very either/or dichotomy, I could be an alpha female or I could be in a relationship, but not both.

So all the stories fundamentally grapple with the question of whether it is possible to both have love and be free. The story that probably best exemplifies this tussle might be “Afternoon Sex”, in which a woman is utterly devoted to her husband and the institution of marriage, believing both to have saved her life, but some primal part of her nature remains unexpressed and so she has this parallel life, another lover.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Stories of love and its consequences, underpinned by the motifs of sweetness, wildness and greed.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My women friends’ and my own experiences, and some of the cautionary tales that the men we were in love with and whom we thought we wanted to be like turned out to be. Many of us spent a great deal of time in dramatically dysfunctional relationships, often with permeable boundaries and complex power dynamics. Some of them were happy (see “Gigolo Maami”); some of them not (see “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”). All of them were rich experiences, but what was really interesting were the aftermaths. How it could take a year to admit to oneself that what had taken place was abuse. The bizarre self-flagellation that comes with cheating on someone who claimed infidelity was negligible. The fact that one’s libertine or bohemian ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but remain subject to the mores of the time and society in which one lives, as well as to human nature. The latent misogyny in heterosexual relationships. The fact that no amount of theory, politics or ideology can save you from being blinded by longing. The consequences, basically.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Although the stories are buoyed by female protagonists, it’s the male characters who’d be really fun to cast. What you have are these wilful, out-of-the-ordinary women who are fatally attracted to these men who are either terrible for them or with whom they are somehow unable to reconcile that love/freedom schism they perceive. So you can imagine: young or old, stupid or cunning, cruel or seemingly benign… they are very sexy men.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t have an agent or a publisher, so far. But the book is still incomplete, and until and unless it is completed I hesitate to go searching. But several of the stories have been published individually. They’ve appeared or are forthcoming in Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, Hobart, Verity La, Out of Print, Pure Slush, The Moth, Bengal Lights, Elle, Monkeybicycle, Erotique, Rose Red Review and the anthology Baker’s Dozen. One of them received an Elle Fiction Award from Elle Magazine (India) in 2012, another was a winner in this year’s Best of the Net anthology and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Most of the stories were written in about ten months, and what followed has been a fallow period of almost a year. There are only a few stories left that I want to write, but it’s impossible to say when or if that will happen. Also, my own understanding of what I want the book to be is evolving. I’ve already removed several stories from the manuscript, for example. Narrative and emotional cohesion matter to me when putting together a collection, something I’ve done only twice in the past, with a chapbook and a full-length book of poetry. The pieces must feel like they belong together, and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

What other books would you compare yours to within your genre?

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek for three reasons: its women-centricness is close to mine, its Spanglish inspired my Tanglish, and I love the easy mix of flash fiction and short stories, which The High Priestess Never Marries also has. Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, because those stories deal explicitly with that mixture of toughness and tenderness that independent, but empathic, women have. Gitanjali Kolanad’s very under-rated and graceful Sleeping With Movie Stars, which like my book is set primarily in Madras and also deals with love and lust as morally ambiguous articles. I didn’t think Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her quite fulfilled the premise he put forth in the media about the book – regarding a self-reflective masculinity and accountability in love – but the impetus is not dissimilar from my stories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Right now, I am at a philosophical crossroads. For most of my life, I really did believe that a complicated woman could not have an uncomplicated love life. I don’t feel that way anymore. I started out writing this book as a way to broach and explore questions about choice, ambiguity and consequence – but as the answers started to come, the easy-breezy, bindaas agency of my protagonists started to look far less easy and far less like agency. I’m working now from a space of doubt, not from a space of deceptively balanced equivocality. So here’s what I have to find a way of reconciling now, and it’s important to me to be able to do so, because I do not wish to write in the absence of integrity, if not clarity: what if the high priestess archetype is also only a reactionary paradigm, or if that model is in fact a way of perpetuating a system by creating a space for exclusion within it? And what if the high priestess wants to marry? Is she then not who she thought she was, or had she only always been limited by the notion?

Book Review: Nelycinda & Other Stories by Susan Visvanathan

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One would think the novella would find more favour in these times of abbreviated attention spans. Less demanding than the novel and meatier than the short story, it is the Goldilocks “just right” of texts. Susan Visvanathan’s “Nelycinda”, at just under a hundred pages, is a stunning novella. Told in twenty short chapters, it makes superb use of the neglected form, with a perfect balance of generosity and restraint. It should have been published as a stand-alone book; instead, Nelycinda & Other Stories becomes just that: one superlative piece of writing in a volume made unnecessarily plump with extras.

The title story is set just 300 years after the birth of Christianity, in a time when the southwest of India was a collision, or a collusion, of Roman, African, Chera, Chinese and other influences. Visvanathan writes about Kerala before it was Kerala with remarkable skill, painting a picture that is as vivid with texture and humanity as it is shorn of pretentiousness. At the centre of the novella is Susa, the wife of a wealthy trader who is frequently, and then seemingly permanently, travelling. At once ambitious and intimate, “Nelycinda” is both historical fiction and the story of one woman’s choices, circumstances and agency.

Not all the remaining stories in this collection are fillers, but the two that immediately succeed “Nelycinda” particularly pale in comparison. In “An Incomplete Travel Diary”, the second longest in the book, a former abused maid and her rich, impotent husband travel to India to adopt a child. In “Shopping in Paris”, both father and son in a family of Martiniquais musicians are obligated to choose between staying at home or travelling for work or love. Neither story compels in language or in mood, nor are their characters well-etched. It’s not progressive to suggest that an author mine a single landscape repeatedly, yet there is such a marked difference when Visvanathan writes about Kerala that it’s difficult not to wonder about her limitations.

A few stories are unmemorable, as when Visvanathan turns her gaze to Malayalis in the Middle East in “Gulf Baby” and “Further Away From Paradise, Returning Home”, or “Allapuzha”, which begins and continues as a short factual essay before suddenly diverting into a fictional introduction. There’s a pointlessness and an absence of grace in their lines, as though the evidently gifted author herself was ambivalent about them.

Still, the book is not without rewards. A trio of linked stories – “Correspondences”, “Pepper Vines Trail My Hair” and “Sludge Without Sun – are catalysed by the beautiful centre piece, in which a woman prophesied to die young maintains only a delicate and bittersweet attachment to the world. The first story comes long before the second, so that we arrive at the connection with delight. The collection ends on a strong note – “Odd Morning”, in which a Malayali American theatre actress leaves a train mid-journey, discomfited by its male passengers, and stays for weeks in a remote village.

Visvanathan is a curiously underrated author, despite her prolific output (Nelycinda & Other Stories is her fifth book of fiction; she is also the author of seven non-fiction works). In the best of her work, there is a lyricism and suppleness in the writing, tethered by deep reflections on history, gender and religion, and a distinction of style that deserves a larger audience. This collection of disparate pieces suffers only from bad curation. This doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the title story or the few persuasive ones. The demoted novella could have had better company, or none at all, but it is still a gem – albeit among a less sparkling assembly.

An edited version appeared in DNA.