“Sharanya Manivannan is a writer beyond parallel throughout the Indian subcontinent. Writing across a diverse range of forms, from the poem to the short story to the novel, she deftly weaves fact, fable and fiction together to create wildly original works. In her recent debut novel, she credibly gives birth to a luminous feminist hagiography, a mythopoetic Bildungsroman of startling beauty. Her poems and stories similarly chart the lives of characters who, deeply human in their fallibility and rife with contradictions, mirror the complexity of our own modern lives. Her language is sensual and sublime, lush with love and longing, ecstatic in its need to break free from mundane conventions. Mythology holds a prominent place in her writing and women, unapologetic in their outspokenness, are central to her narratives. She navigates desire and sexuality, corporeal and spiritual pleasure. She merges quotidian routine with extraordinary phenomena, the ordinary with the epic, and, the personal with the universal - a new way of seeing.”
You channel your creativity through a variety of mediums such as dance, art and writing. Are they kept separate or do they intermingle? How do you think this enriches the creative experience and does one medium complement the other?
I write, draw and paint. Of these, writing is the medium that I’ve had the most rewarding, complex relationship with. Drawing and painting were things I was told in school that I was not good at, and it was amazing for me to discover after leaving school that I enjoyed them and was not bad at them at all. I’m working on both writing and illustrating a graphic novel, and this is where I hope the most lucid intermingling will take place (my writing is very visual, so a different kind of intermingling always happens as well). I stopped dancing under deeply distressing circumstances in 2006, and it’s perplexing to me to still be assumed to be a dancer. I am not a dancer, and am almost certain to not become one again. Even as I say this, let me also say something I hope will be meaningful to others: in the course of life, you will lose forms of enrichment that you deeply love, and you will also find others. Five books into my career, I’m grappling with some of the worst self-doubt about writing that I’ve ever had. At least once before, I gave up on publishing entirely. Allowing for these honest reckonings also means allowing for honest cycles of ebbs and flows, droughts and fecundity. It’s dangerous to believe one is what one makes – because this means utter self-abasement when one isn’t making anything.
Why does mythology hold such a prominent position in your writing, be it prose or poetry? What prompted you to incorporate it into works which navigate desire and sexuality, usually from the woman’s perspective, in a distinctly Indian context?
Many things about mythology draw me towards it. Chief among these might be the way in which individual experience can be juxtaposed onto archetypal stories, or vice versa, as a way in which to parse those experiences. I’m also interested in reading between the lines, in exploring the interplay between the canonical and the practical, and oral narrative and imbued atmospheres. These reveal great lacunae, such as how people who believe themselves to be acting dharmically will in fact be cruel and arbitrary in their lives, as well as how people who believe themselves to be cynical actually engage with the world with largesse. We have a lot to learn from stories and story cycles that have endured.
When mythology becomes religiosity, it becomes unjust. It denigrates the physical while claiming (and failing) to elevate the numinous. It does so most damningly when it comes to the body – on which it inscribes mores of gender and caste. This is where desire becomes a necessary expression. There is numinosity in pleasure (here’s something I’ve not known anyone to point out – The Queen of Jasmine Country opens on a scene not of desire but of pleasure).
What is “a distinctly Indian context”? I noticed two things in the reception to The High Priestess Never Marries which come to mind now. One is that some readers found it “too South Indian” for their liking. The other is that my vivid descriptions of the city of Chennai were mistaken for love for it, when in fact the reverse – my feeling of being trapped in a profoundly unkind city – was what gave me the outsider’s observation skills and pearl-producing friction that went into the book. I am certain similar things are true for writing created all through the subcontinent, in terms of the diversity of milieus evoked and the authors’ personal histories. Speaking of my own: I grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and have only lived in India for a dozen years. The idea that there is any distinctly Indian context is incomplete at best.
In mythological stories, marriages occupy a pivotal position. The sexism which is built into this sociocultural institution has various patriarchal justifications co-opted from narrow interpretations of religious texts. Is there a conscious deliberation in your writing to convey an alternate perception to counter such interpretations?
Absolutely. The work that I do necessarily has a sociopolitical and contemporary grounding. But this is also why I am also deliberately subtle. If shock value ever appealed to me, I have outgrown it. I now see how much more is achieved through empathy. I have heard from so many readers in the time since Queen came out who had known Andal in a religious context and then saw her completely anew through my book. I had expected, largely because of bigots in my own circles, that religious people they would hate it. It was both surprising and affirming to see that what I had tried to do – to humanize the mythical Andal and return her to her life as the teenaged Kodhai – did have the effect of getting readers to consider and apply questions of caste, gender, sexuality and hierarchy.
I remember a friend laughing at someone’s critique of The Queen of Jasmine Country and saying, “It sounds like she wanted to read a book about Andal working in a dance bar in Vellore”. But how boring – how far can you get de-pedestalizing an icon only to pedestalize the iconoclast who trashed them? Tearing down and dismantling are not the same thing. The first is easy, and the second is both much harder to do but more long-lasting. I begin with the question of love – I look for where it is located, beneath the layers of appropriation and injustice – and I invariably find that the fire it contains warms without having to raze.
In your book, The High Priestess Never Marries, you examine and dissect love. What do you think of the current generation’s idea of love? How does popular culture influence the prevalent perception of relationships? Or does it work vice versa?
I think there are certain core elements about human nature and human experience that remain true through generations and centuries. The actions that have been performed through generations and centuries – such as the system of arranged marriage, sexual shaming, stigma towards the widowed, divorced and unwed and so on – are not reflective of those truths. By which I mean: what is true in the heart, the soul, the body. What is kind, what is vital, what is self-evident, what is sincere. What I hope is happening now is that by holding these truths in sight, people today (or any age) can make better choices. Popular culture will always influence people. It’s not enough to acknowledge and complain about how we are conditioned through our exposure to it. We must also endeavour to create art that enlivens what’s out there and complicates its messaging, and I see The High Priestess Never Marries as belonging to this category of efforts.
Sita, Lucifer and Inanna meet in the poems within the pages of The Altar of the Only World. How did such an unlikely trio of mythical figures from disparate cultures across the globe come together? In your opinion, what do similarities in the way different societies view the divine say about the human condition?
I began with Sita weeping in the wilderness, and immersing myself in study and thought about this character led me to drawing a parallel with the Persian Lucifer, who fell from grace because he refused to bow before anyone but his true beloved, God. And I thought – it’s the same thing that happened to her, the same exile because of devotion. Lucifer is the Latin name for Venus as the morning-star, so the universe then opened to me, and The Altar of the Only World is replete with cosmic imagery. Chasing Venusian mythology led me to the Sumerian Inanna and the story of how she meets her shadow-sister in the underworld. Altar grew in scope over the 8.5 years that I wrote the book. It began with the afterlife of love, and then became about resurrection.
There’s a lot of material from the field of psychology about why humans conceive of (or reject) a divine. At this time, I am not working with so wide a scope. Spirituality is very subjective, and I do believe that we need better models in public life for how one can have a spiritual life but also maintain secular and liberal values (which in my opinion are the only truly spiritual kind). I prefer to find and trace the webbing that connects experiences, stories and archetypes. By honing my focus this way, I hope to create work that serves to challenge and comfort.
You talk about the deep love an individual can hold for (a) god in your debut novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country. It is a love that refuses to adhere to the either/or binaries of erotic and devotional. How do you think this particular kind of love, both distantly pious and intimately sensual, compare to the way we tend to look at deities today?
In her own time, Kodhai-who-became-Andal was also subversive. She transgressed pollution laws when she stole the garland meant for Krishna for herself. She wrote with abandon about the very embodied and sexual nature of her longing for him. The real Kodhai would not have been appreciated in her society; she had to be absorbed into the pantheon as Andal in what can be read as an appropriation of her writing and her selfhood. I do not believe that she was representative of how people in her time felt or performed devotion, so the comparison to how deities are understood today doesn’t quite mean anything. I am also wary of any kind of glorification of the religious past, and to do so for Kodhai’s caste-bound context would be egregious. The context would be similar to this: someone out there, today, is writing with the same ferocity, and all around them are people who adhere to orthodox ways.
The Ammuchi Puchi is the story of two children dealing with the death of their beloved grandmother. What inspired you to explore the profound themes of loss and death in a book meant for children? Did you employ a filter in crafting a story of such emotional intensity for a tender-aged audience?
I was in my early 20s when I lost my grandmother, and sometime during the bereavement process I began to wonder what it would have been like if it had happened when I was still a child. At that time, I did not know of any books that could be a companion to a child who was grieving (I wrote the story a decade ago; it was not published until 2016 in the UK and 2018 in India, respectively). Children don’t need filters as much as they need respect and understanding. They are deeply intuitive and sensitive in ways that many adults choose not to be. As long as one avoids being patronizing, and meets the child reader in the same space of tenderness and wonder that one imagines they will encounter the book with, an alignment can be found.
What should be the relationship between arts and politics, especially in modern times? In an increasingly polarized post-truth world where we constantly obsess over the erection of borders, what is literature’s prerogative in bridging our differences? With that in mind, any word - of advice, caution, or general note - for young writers?
Artists of all kinds, as well as teachers, civil servants, journalists and so many categories of people, have a prerogative to respond in times of political strife. When lives and ethical imperatives are in danger, one should not rest easy. Anyone who does is in favour of the slide into evil.
However, pacing and personal reflection are both very important. Remember that there is only one of you. If you burn out, or if you face a consequence of some kind, you will not be able to do the work that you have to do. We are in a time in which it’s vital to take turns to be visible and vocal, and to recharge and to listen. It’s important to be inspired by revolutionaries of the past and present, but to be thoughtful about your own personal context. Those with structural privilege can afford to be at the forefront. If you do not have enough of it, your resistance must factor your well-being in in a different way. Whatever your resistance is – whether it’s teaching, confronting people in your family and alumni Whatsapp groups, coming up with memes, writing poetry, painting graffiti – whatever it is, know that it matters. Know that you can pause, pass the baton, and pick it back up when you can.
Sharanya Manivannan is the author of five books of fiction, poetry and children’s literature, including the novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, which was longlisted for the 2019 JCB Prize, and the short story collection, The High Priestess Never Marries, which won the 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity (Best Book – Fiction).