Book review

A subversive handbook, psychology manual and style guide for women who choose to remain single

But you could be fooled into thinking these stories are about lyricism and lovemaking.

In a poem titled “Fire-Walking”, from her forthcoming collection The Altar of the Only World, Sharanya Manivannan writes:

“Where is there room for fear
in the heart of one who has held
all the love and consequence
in the known and invisible worlds?”

The fire-walker who emerges from these verses in “seared steps”, with a heart “singed bittersweet” and “incandescent” as an ember, might well embody the narrative voices in Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence. Her fictional women are, for the most part, shamans: treading, traversing and transfiguring the paths of pain; mediating between the known and invisible worlds of love and its aftermath with a kind of electric, tensile grace.

Like the adulterous protagonist of “Afternoon Sex”, whose encounter with a gypsy tightrope acrobat performing on the street, the little Narikuravar girl “walking across the sky”, mirrors her own taut suspension or trapeze-like swing between home and the world, lover and husband, “volition and vulnerability”. Or like Arundhati in “Cyclone Crossing”, who becomes for the two men in her life at once the eye of the storm and a place of refuge, inviting a cataclysm upon herself. Or the meteorologist’s maiden in “Take the Weather With You”, she who divines precisely with the body that which her lover could only vaguely forecast with science, with an inner labyrinth of grief that corresponds to “some deeply arachnid matrix” of the universe.

Cadences and platitudes

Like many who risk rhapsodising in prose the mysteries of the human heart, Manivannan speaks both “in tongues and in terrible clichés” (as do the multilingual lovemakers in her story “Mother-Tongued”), in inspired cadences and tired platitudes, in truths and truisms. At its finest hers is a quicksilver voice, one that rises and falls fluidly with shifting vicissitudes of longing and loss, in rhythms more redolent of verse than of prose. Take the lunar epiphany of the woman on an inland hiatus from her maritime love in “Sandalwood Moon”, the phases of the heart laid bare in a flash of poetry:

“This is the weight of love: just because you can touch water doesn’t mean that the oceans are yours. This is the weight of grief: buoyant beyond disbelief. I have learned how to look for both before they come into view: diaphanous, a low-rising ring, light midwifed by light.”

Yet, as even elements that melt and flow with ease must (in the absence of enlivening heat) turn sluggish, Manivannan’s volatile prose too treads a dangerous and delicate line, its pellucid strains flushing purple in patches:

“Come back, my shaman of stars. The universe is merciful; it is ourselves we must forgive. I have waited for you so long, in every different hour of every single day, in this shuddering house, in this forsaken country. I have loved you in the old ways.”

— “Sky Clad”

And sometimes it is both, shrill and sweet, true pathos struggling through maudlin verbiage, sheer self-indulgence laced with redeeming laughter and lyricism, as in the Recipe for the Madwoman’s Martini, imparted to a friend on the phone by the serially bereaved protagonist of “Black Widow”:

“‘Intoxicant of choice: desire, regret or scent of petrichor. Then: seed from the tree of life. Basil from the garland of Andal. Monsoon, to taste. Simmer the first apportionment. Stir in the rest, singing slowly. Muddle the moon.’

‘You and your voodoo,’ the friend crows. ‘You and your goddamn opparis and operas.’

‘Our Lady of Night Madness,’ laughs the weeping widow.

‘Our Lady of the Torchsong.’

‘Our Lady of Beautiful Blasphemy.’

They cachinnate like wind chimes in a cyclone. “

In this interview, the writer affirms that for her poetry and fiction has “similar origins”, springing from vital, cognate instincts. As one navigates this book, there is a growing sense that this kinship of tale and song manifests itself here in ways more fundamental than even the music of words: in the intrinsically musical structuring of both individual stories and the collection as a whole.

This is nowhere more evident than in the luminous mosaics of some of Manivannan’s longer stories – in the elegiac fragments of “Conchology”, or the melodic vignettes of “Nine Postcards from the Pondicherry Border” – their unity relying on a bricolage of discrete, sensuous shards of experience; their chronology one of fatalistic recurrence rather than of linear progression.

Lyricism and bombast

One thinks of the musical form of the rhapsody – or a rhapsodic set of variations on a single theme – improvisatory yet integrated, free-flowing yet circular. For it is the temporality of the heart, cyclical as the tides, alternating between expectation and remembrance, that dictates both the contrapuntal arrangement of these stories and the more incantatory rhythms of their passages:

“And she waits, they say. For her consort, for the one who will cherish her, for the one who was thwarted from her. (But why did he turn back, why didn’t he stay, and wait for another midnight? And wait, for another midnight.) She waits. She waits with all of us who do. Under skies gravid with the light of long-dead stars. Under immersions that threaten the breath in our bodies. In excelsis. In affliction.”

— “Ancestress”

Their often frustratingly heady mix of lyricism and bombast aside, the more I taste of these bittersweet cautionary tales, the more persuaded I am of their practical and curative uses. For The High Priestess Never Marries is above all and most triumphantly a subversive handbook for survivors (albeit with “perfumed pulse points”, to borrow the writer’s own words). A self-professed psychology manual and style guide for women in our times who elect to remain single in the House of Love, replete with Sapphic wisdom, sexy stratagems, and decadent fun.

Speaking of stratagems, two pictures come to mind as one gets better acquainted with Manivannan’s fictional women – both disarmingly ingenuous, yet fragrant with sophistry and subterfuge. And they bleed into each other, shaping one another as co-dependent modes of fashioning and performing the feminine erotic self.

Two portraits: that of a woman adorning herself, on an empty stage, in the image of her goddess, and that of a woman simply walking, wandering the city streets.

The danseuse, and the flaneuse.

Over and over, the women in these stories deck themselves out for the dance of love – with scent and silver and flowers from street-sellers, with veils of arcane collyrium, deep vermilion of heartbreaks, and the tragic musk of omens disregarded as fiercely as they are held sacred. Thus arrayed, they play with operatic flourish the hands they are dealt – the vixen, the widow, the goddess, the slut.

A tad overdressed? Perhaps. But how else does a girl deal with the baroque of her everyday, fortify herself for the heart’s carnivals, Manivannan seems to ask. Between the instinctive and the histrionic, aattam and naatyam, in the dance of love, the lines have ever been fine.

Read in this light, the black-comical theatrics of a story like “Black Widow” becomes a ritual undressing of the poignant subtexts of the lives of single women in the city. Here, more powerfully than the widow’s interior monologue, the tale is told by the space and its props – tableau vivant of the inanimate; mute witnesses of her daily tragedy – the mirror that reflects her painted mouth and smudged eyes, the wilting coil of jasmine in her hair, the apartment empty of the evening’s guests, the “arabesque” balcony, the slow-burning cigarette, and in a corner the potted Venus flytrap that “doesn’t bite back”.

Myths and goddesses

Most compellingly, however, Manivannan’s women adorn themselves with a glittering arsenal of lived myths. Mythopoeia becomes a life skill in their precarious world, where “love itself, that old lodestar, is only a chimera, a trick of light, ephemeral as a full moon”, and to survive the self must incarnate over and over in a mythology of its own making. Where the solitary goddess shape-shifts her way through countless lives and loves, in forms tragic, vengeful or picaresque.

“Every time I adorn myself I do it to resemble her, she in whose form I was made.”

— “Ancestress”

And so in the prologue She manifests as sviya – self-born, wife to herself. In the title story, as High Priestess of the Pick-up Lines, wry oracle of urban heartbreaks. In “Scheherezade on the Shore”, as the sybillic storyteller in a seaside cafe who speaks, in parables, truths too unsettling for her dyspeptic Caliph to swallow, leaving us to wonder which of them would survive the telling, the night. In “Ancestress”, as Kanya Kumari , jilted on her wedding day, sabotaged for the greater good by a celestial conspiracy so that, years later, a demon could meet his end at her still-virgin hands:

“Think of her, a long or a little time after: finally comprehending that by ‘virgin’ all that was meant was that she must belong to herself, a state of the being not of the body.”

In “Salome”, she is pagan goddess to her Christian lover, revealing herself in a dance of veiled metaphors, “beheading” him in the precise moment of their “blood wedding”, in an act of oral sex. Elsewhere we see her materialise as a serendipitous Kali , deity of detours, in a wayside shrine outside Pondicherry. Or as a maritime Madonna in the south of France, patron saint of exiles stigmatised by love.

But, most unforgettably, in “Conchology”, she appears to the protagonist in a slum by the sea as the redoubtable Sarala Kali, fisherwoman and salt-tongued singer of dirges. In her, more than any other character in the collection, lives the writer’s alter ego: mirth-filled “goddess of perdurance”, consecrated by untold grief, spinning sadness into song:

“Sarala Kali never told me the story of her widowing, but it was in the crescents that glinted in her eyes under streetlights sometimes, and in the words she used to love the dogs and cats that seemed to surround her at all times. It was in the timbre not of her oppari voice, but the one in which she sang thalattu. Lullabies. It was in the way her hands rested when empty, and in the hollow at her throat. Most of all it was in the lies she told, the beautiful fictions, all the mythoi she channelled that could sound like they belonged to everyone else. But those stories sprouted from her navel, and she tore them out like a lotus stalk so that she could feed the world in the myriad ways it came to her.”

Footloose and ubiquitous

Sarala Kali disappears from the narrator’s life and the story, as abruptly as she had entered it. We never learn why, but strangely, we do not ask. And in the end, perhaps this is why we fall in love with Manivannan’s goddesses. Not for the glamour and artifice of their heartbreaks, but for the suddenness of their exits, the artistry of their escapes. For the women in these stories are always, irrepressibly, and often in spite of themselves, footloose, in a world that seeks relentlessly to anchor them in ways both sinister and benign.

Claiming descent from Maayi Ma, the legendary woman who was believed to have walked the beaches of Kanyakumari, “an avadhoota unbounded to the world, for six centuries”, they manifest as her modern avatars on the streets of Chennai—the flaneuse, the female walker, of the modern metropolis. Feminist scholars have debated her very existence, arguing that at no time in history have cities permitted women to loiter, to wander aimlessly and with a reflective eye, in its public spaces.

But in Manivannan’s cityscape, she is everywhere. Strolling in the seaside slums, stopping to watch gypsy street performers, buying a red African daisy from a flower vendor, taking autorickshaws across Madras to be “buffeted by its winds and smells”, frequenting cheap bars...always with a different lover in tow, a new heartbreak on her sleeve. Not the privileged outsider, the monocled man of means and leisure, but a visceral being mapping her body onto the city, heart and eyes wide open to its myriad impressions. In “Afternoon Sex”, Antara recollects the long bus rides of a clandestine teenage romance:

“One takes for granted the place in which they have spent all their lives. Only a jolt, an uprooting or bereavement, reveals its true nature. For me, exhilarated by my newly electric body, this was how I understood that the city, too, was a sentient creature; by crisscrossing its arteries almost daily, I learnt its heart.”

Years later, an unfaithful wife, she reflects again on the nature of these crossings and of double-crossings (“but what is the word for this: travelling away from my lover and back into the city before darkness, before doubt and rumour”). In “Corvus”, a woman returns to the apartment of a man she has betrayed many times yet cannot leave – “adulterous, armed to the teeth, my body an arcana of alibis”. Once again, sex becomes a pretext for navigating the city, and the adulteress walking its streets, “a woman of the night” in broad daylight, mendacious and mobile, knows it like the palm of her hand.

But at the end of the day, and in the final reckoning, Manivannan’s city belongs to the Goddess of Solitude, who idles on a whim under a downtown flyover for a midnight smoke with a man she knows she’ll never take home again. She who seeks, but never belongs, for like all exiles she knows “there is no country the shape of what you have lost”. She who is a palimpsest of all the places she has walked in, her consciousness altered and imprinted by their several histories intersecting hers. Who looks “at all there is to love”, and then chooses.

“How beautiful this city, or perhaps any in the world, is to a woman who knows her own bed awaits her even as she lingers, barefoot in the rain at midnight, pretending for just a few minutes that she doesn’t know everything she already knows.”

— “The High Priestess Never Marries”

The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence, Sharanya Manivannan, HarperCollins India.

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