MEET THE WRITER

‘This book is a companion for those who have chosen to be single instead of unhappily partnered’

A writer reveals how she draws on her experiences, her travels, her friendships, her relationship with the natural world.

"Now and then you buy yourself a single red African daisy from a flower seller on the street. Sometimes you put it behind your ear. Sometimes you just keep it somewhere where you can look at it." 

Sharanya Manivannan's The High Priestess Never Marries is part-manual, part-journal as characters navigate the space between romantic demise and acceptance, and between doubt and resurrection. The book offers little in the form of neat and satisfying endings for relationships – instead, it speaks of what is possible in the clearing.

Manivannan grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and currently lives in Chennai. Her first book of poems, Witchcraft, was published by Bullfighter Books in 2008, and is a precursor to this book in many ways in their shared preoccupations. The author's voice here is less exploratory and more reflective as she sets out to build a subversive book of romance where it is possible to forge a meaningful life without ceasing to be lonely. Excerpts from an interview, where she talks of navigating Chennai, constructing a life from what is available to her, bringing the forest home, and much more.

What is a debut short story collection that really spoke to you? Why?
I read Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek perhaps 15 years ago, and it remained a big influence on The High Priestess Never Marries because of two things considered risky in a form (the short story collection) that is difficult to get published. The first was her easy use of Spanglish and Spanish, which was what made me realise all those years ago that literature could have languages blended into it without the effect being either exotic or kitsch. The second was the mix of vignettes and novelettes and everything in between. My book has quite a bit of untranslated Tamil and Tanglish amidst the English, and a similar format in terms of story lengths.

I remember reading Gitanjali Kolanad’s Sleeping With Movie Stars when it came out in 2011, in a really interesting time in my life where love was concerned, and it was very special for me as an outsider in Madras, a maker of art, a holder of philosophies that contradicted societal norms. I remember the tough, tender heroines of Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, which went some way in helping me realise that I could write a book of love stories and have it be questioning and subversive. And the lovely, light-drenched prose of Leesa Cross Smith’s Every Kiss A War. I chose to name these books in particular because they address the same themes in mine. There are so many more.

Could you tell us a little about how you knew the book was ready and what goes into plotting and writing a themed collection of stories?
When I say I worked on The High Priestess Never Marries for five years, those are just numbers between start and finish. Contained within those brackets are long silences, abandonments, diversions, and things both mundane and difficult that life brought. Similarly, I have been working on a novel, Constellation of Scars, since 2005. I’ve written four other books while waiting for it to be done.

I didn’t set out to write a book about love and freedom. I simply honoured the stories that came to me, and the themes emerged because I trusted them. When I realised that there were three recurring motifs – sweetness, wildness and greed – I was almost done with the book in terms of the number of stories, and I more or less knew what remained to be finished and could approach it in a cohesive way. Life takes convoluted roads and the time between seeing the whole picture and having it in your hands is not reliably measured.

You said somewhere that Ammuchi Puchi was written with the intention to heal. What is this book's intention?
The healing power of art is something I believe in deeply. This book posits the refusal to be unhappily partnered, and the acceptance of being single, as a radical choice, but more importantly, I think of the book as a companion for those who have already made that choice. It’s not so much a decision to be alone as it is a decision to build alone with the materials life has given you. My own is filled, as I wrote in an essay elsewhere, with “…light and flowers, low moons and relished victuals, paintbrushes and precious objects, laughter and rigour and pleasure, perfumed pulse points, reflection”. And books, and music, and all the arts. It would honey my heart to know my book belongs to someone else among their own such accompaniments.

Two quotes in particular stayed with me. "You take all the love you intended for only one thing and you spread it out..." and "I want a boyfriend like a banyan tree. A man who's a forest unto himself...a matrix generous enough for the world." In a book filled with relationships that come to an end, it is interesting to see the characters try to find a willingness to give.
The book gets sweeter as it gets to the end, because hope is such a necessary antidote to the darkness of the broken heart. In my experience, there are two kinds of heartbreak: one that contracts, and one that expands. In the first, the damage of not being loved back or loved well enough causes one to withdraw and withhold from the possibility altogether. In the second, rather than coming from not being loved, the pain comes from not being able to offer it, in its myriad gestures, its loyalties and kindness.

But it is only a particular beloved who cannot receive these. The world at large, with its wounded wings, its gaping craw, can. We cannot choose how we will hurt or predict what will heal us. We can strive to not create more pain. We can transmute our pain into something of meaning by believing in goodness and beauty. It’s not about ceasing to be lonely, only about – as in the Japanese art of kintsugi – filling the damaged places with gold.

Some of the themes from your first book, Witchcraft, carry over into this book: geography, belonging, navigating ancestry and the past, chronicling love and its demise. Do poetry and fiction emerge from the same instincts?
Yes, very much so. And things like travel, forging friendships, rituals – these emerge from the same instincts too. As I said earlier, art is ultimately incidental to experience. Not because art is necessarily autobiographical, but everything we are drawn to, and drawn to do, has similar origins.

Speaking of building alone with the materials life has given you, the forest and the sea are two sources of nourishment for your characters. What draws you to the natural world? Is its presence essential to your writing practice?
The natural world has an enormous presence in my writing – specifically the forest and the sea, as you’ve correctly identified. Rock salt and running water if you cannot have the sea. A potted flower and the light through the leaves of avenue trees if you cannot have the forest. We must touch base often. If I am being opaque, forgive me, I know no other way to be but this – always in awe of, always offered solace by, the wild.

In 2011, this book was tentatively titled Always the Bond Girl. How did you settle on the final title?
In early 2009, I wrote a story named “Always The Bond Girl” as a 23-year-old outsider negotiating love and sex in Madras, and I already knew then that there was a thread there that needed following. As I began to write more stories exploring the subject, and as I got older too, a more complete sense of the themes began to emerge. As did political and spiritual groundings.

I wrote the title story, “The High Priestess Never Marries”, in 2011, which was the year that I saw the whole picture for this book. There were personal shifts in my life, and the subject too had shifted: it was no longer just a fun book about romance, but one in which feminist spirituality is really the grounding force.

There was a lot of growth between those two titles, the working one and the true one.

There was a rather popular short story of mine, “Public Kissing At The Periyamudaliarchavadi Junction”, which I removed from the manuscript because I felt that despite people seeming to enjoy it, it lacked power – the solitary or subversive power my other characters have. These are the kinds of honesties one must have to her greater vision.

I tend to be farsighted about projects, in part because I labour on each for so many years, so when I grasp a cohesive theme early on, I start using a title for my own reference. A true title emerges later. My next book of poetry, The Altar Of The Only World, was called Bulletproof Offering for many years, a line from the first poem I wrote for it. But I knew from that first poem, “Hanuman”, what I had in my hands. Seven years later, the vision was deeper, but the first sighting was true.

But Constellation of Scars, my novel in progress – that title isn’t going to change. I started to write it when I was 19 or 20, but I couldn’t have written it then. It needed all my life has contained in this time. And it needs where I am going, too. It’s a bigger, darker book than I ever could have imagined before. But that first glimpse was synechdocal.

You said you stopped writing for a while. What does it mean for a writer to be unable to write for some time?
This happens all the time. So many stops and starts. A year without writing. Two years without writing. The longest routes off the map. Like how I started one book (Constellation of Scars) and wrote four other books without finishing the first.

It’s not abnormal to not write for long periods, I think, as long as your vision of a work remains with you. But what’s useful is that sometimes one has to be cognisant that the drought is symptomatic of something else. Are you suffering from depression? Are you in need of leaving a draining work environment? Sometimes the ebb is circumstantial. We must be kind to ourselves.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.