Tag Archives: writing

~ 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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Byron Bay Writers Festival & Reading In Brisbane

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Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I were at the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2016 to promote our anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (edited by Catriona Mitchell). Our festival appearances were followed by an event at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane. Read more about this year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival here. You can also see lots of pictures from the trip to Australia on my Instagram.

The Venus Flytrap: Ink On Paper

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It began with an unwillingness to lug my laptop across the city to a workshop. Almost whimsically, I carried just a notebook and pens. It turned out to be delightful: because of my predisposition that a computer is for “serious work”, paper for messy ramblings, I found myself writing in a unpressured, riskier way. Doing the co-ordinators’ exercises took on a meditative quality, free of the tap-tap of keys and tic-tic of mouse buttons, and the practiced way my body and mind’s subtle rhythms usually respond to the same.

Even though I work on computers, I’ve always loved the physicality of ink and paper, the felt intimacy of the word “flow”. So I own an avalanche of preferred pens and handmade notebooks, which I fill with dreams upon waking, lists, desperate releases of raw emotion, questions that have no answers that I can’t keep myself from pursuing, repetitive doodles of intricate paisley and arabesques, wishes, articulations of the unsaid. But not since adolescence, when word processing software became my best friend, have I really written this way.

But before that, my hands had touched the memory of trees each time I spilled my heart on paper. Among my most vivid formative periods was this: when I was 12, my classroom was a converted chapel located just outside the main building of my school. The bus dropped me off almost an hour early, so I was always the first to arrive. And I would sit there in that quiet room and compose lyrics, every single schoolday morning. It was my ritual and my sanctuary, my way (though I did not know it then), of building selfhood against quotidian loneliness, disappointment, confusion.

Our handwriting, rarely seen by anyone else after the end of examinations, have become such private things. Mine is more mood than calligraphy. When I don’t care, when speed is the only consideration, it is nothing but squiggles. When I do care, when I give myself to the visceral experience of muscle, eye, instrument and journal, there’s something to admire in the curvature of my cursive. I like black ink.

I’ve written this column by hand, in a notebook with a cover into which glossy tamarind pods have been pressed, a gift from another writer. Between this inscribing and your reading are many tap-taps and tic-tics and machines, but there are also the sounds of the very early morning and the smack of the newspaper against your front door (what gets delivered first at your house – milk, news, puja flowers?) and the rustle of pages of newsprint being turned over, still resonant somewhere with the sounds the city made deep into the previous night when my editors finally got to go home.

This ink, this first draft in my notebook, makes no noise as it spills. And I’ve decided that when I travel next, I won’t take my machine with me. I hope the words I send back to you will carry with them all the sounds that accompany their penning: seasprays and birdsongs, translations, homesickness and belonging. And the silences: of falling leaves, of smiles, and of things better read than said.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #SorryNotSorry? #NotOkay.

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Over the weekend, I strapped on a pair of red stilettos for a poetry reading organised by the feminist think-tank Prajnya. The theme of the event was “Zero Apologies”, and the poets shared writing in Tamil and English about being forthright, without fear. For me, I find that the first line of apology begins at appearance. I enjoy clothing, ornamentation and maquillage – but my enjoyment of the same is where external judgement of me also begins. It’s a topic I explore at greater length in an essay in a new book called Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, but for now, suffice to say: I wasn’t sorry at all for the thigh-high slit in the skirt I wore that evening, and I laughed off the fact that my gorgeous shoes were falling apart even as I stood in them.

What an empowering thing it is to stop apologising for being ourselves.

But even as I said yes to “Zero Apologies”, and was delighted to express none whatsoever, something lingered in my mind and it wasn’t just good manners. While preparing for the poetry recital and finding poems that suited the subject, I found myself thinking not only about when we should never apologise, but also about when we really should.

‘Sorry’ is a beautiful word. We say it both as a habit and as a force of conditioning that makes us downplay ourselves, but swallow it at the moments it is made for. We apologise, unnecessarily, for our necklines, our ambitions, our tears, our uncertainties, our emotions. We say the word for all the wrong things, but we’re miserly with it when we’re actually wrong.

I thought back to a few recent instances when I have said it and meant it, a strong word used to keep small lapses small. Once, when I didn’t make it to a dear one’s special occasion; once, when I apologised on behalf of someone I felt responsible for; more than once, when busyness or hunger made me snappy. And I thought further back into the past, to times when my apologies were insufficient. Because sometimes ‘sorry’ is just a placeholder, a way to salve things so they can be worked on slowly. When you have caused damage to another, you cannot justify having done so. You can only say, unequivocally, that you will try better. And then do.

Only in its most routine or manipulative deliveries is ‘sorry’ anything other than a starting point. Because, by itself, it’s never enough. It’s only the key to rebuilding, not an end to itself – and this is where we falter. We misunderstand both apology and forgiveness, centring them on incidents and not on understanding.

I will never apologise for being strong, dedicated, principled or flamboyant. But I will apologise for my blind spots, misreadings, temper and wickedness, should I have the clarity to see them, even if only much later.

And call me old-fashioned, but the one thing that I most believe no one should ever apologise for having or expecting? Good manners!

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.