Tag Archives: writing

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flood And Drought

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That night, the full moon visited the Pleaides after the cyclone had crossed. All was calm again, and in the absence of artificial brightness I took a single clay lamp to my room to mark the occasion. To reinforce the rattling doors of my balcony, which had already invited a deluge in earlier that day, a decorative item – an altar of steps – that had been stored outside had been brought in. The steps served their purpose as they done hadn’t in a while. They held up that little lamp, its reflection steady against the closed glass door. And I sat for as long as it blazed in the quiet, storm-strewn twilight, and poems came back to me.

So that the next morning, still utterly disconnected from any form of communication, I woke unto poems. I tried to be sensible. I thought of my deadlines first, the people who couldn’t reach me. I thought of all the things that would catch up with me the minute the networks started working again. But I could no more stem the torrents of poetry than I could the rainwater that had seeped beneath and between those balcony doors and creased the pages of the books I had left stacked on the floor.

I write to you pretending to be in another century, envious of writers who predated the Internet, or who were born early enough that they didn’t become usurped by it. What bliss, to wake up in the aftermath of a storm to filthy floors and untallied damages and find myself just as calm as the climate, cossetted in fresh poems. Is this what happens to me when I have so little static around me, when there are no tweets to click on or messages to attend to, when I can’t squander hours in idle browsing, cheating myself that I’m trying to find something interesting to write about?

Will the power come back on in time for me to send you this missive? Even the most ambitious of writers past didn’t have the conceit of today’s. They didn’t know if their manuscripts would survive ordinary accidents, sabotage, and finally, the postal system. But – unlike I have all year, except for the boon of this column – they wrote anyway. And trusted.

I could not raise potted plants this year, after the last ones I’d tended to died in last December’s floods. It was not that I was so attached to those ones that I couldn’t try again. Just that the keeping of plants is an indicator of heart-health. And mine was very small and stony and sad this year. In the interim, other forces took over my balcony: laundry, pigeons, storage, an altar that got its swansong on Karthigai Deepam.

The cyclone was the final coup in my efforts to reclaim the space. Now it stands completely empty, and full of potential. Will I dare to do it: to trust again? I will measure my capacity by beginning with things with thorns: bougainvillea, roses and cacti. Perhaps I only know how to parse the world in metaphor. But isn’t that too a way to look it in the eye?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “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

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The Venus Flytrap: We Have All Written/Said Problematic Things

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When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.

Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.

Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?

Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 13th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.