“I grew along with the fence of sugarcane. My teeth, when they came in, grew strong on the flesh of those stalks,” says Kodhai of a childhood in rural Puduvai spent in tulsi groves, exploring the nearby wilderness on foot, swimming with fish and waiting for the cowherds to stop by her home for brief evening conversations. Sharanya Manivannan’s new novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, fictionalises the life of the Tamil devotional poet, Andal, who was born as Kodhai between the 7th and 8th century. The novel isn’t an attempt to introduce readers to Andal’s poetry, but instead creates a possible portrait of a woman whose literary and religious legacy lives on in Tamil Nadu to the present day where the holy month of Margali is celebrated with the recitation of her verses.
Only a few broad details are known or suspected of the life of Andal, and Manivannan fleshes them out into a plausible story that is accessible to modern readers for whom spirituality and divine love will be familiar or alien in varying degrees. Narrated by Kodhai, Jasmine Country follows the transformation of the young daughter of a priest into a woman who seeks a union with god on her own terms. Accompanied by other young women in her village, Kodhai sets upon a period of deprivation that will seemingly lead her to receive love from the divine form. In her path lies the opposition of her family who worries for the life of a woman who rejects the safe and known boundaries of traditional gender roles for a life which will never yield a home or children.
The novel engages with Kodhai’s unique status as the only female poet recognised within the Alvar tradition, and as the only devotional poet in that canon to be considered a goddess by virtue of her marriage to god. The stifling patriarchy she encounters when it comes to the written word and the world of priests are contrasted with the freedom and acceptance the circles of female devotees in both rural Puduvai and urban Madurai offer to her. Manivannan has created compelling scenes that show the allure of a spiritual relationship, and the way music, poetry, and dance become mediums for female devotees to unabashedly exhibit their faith. Jasmine Country realistically explores the reasons a young woman might forsake her family, and the comforts and surroundings she has known her whole life to seek a union with god.
The writing is rooted in the unspoiled landscape in and around Puduvai. Kodhai’s father is a priest, and the relationship of both father and daughter to flowers and trees mirrors their relationship to God. Kodhai’s father immerses himself in rituals such as braiding garlands of jasmine flowers each morning to offer in the temple, and Kodhai’s every metaphor, every daydream is laced with the imagery of the earth, both local and distant. In Manivannan’s characteristically lyrical style, the prose is sensual and tactile. She mines the tropes within Andal’s own writing to create Kodhai’s unique voice which combines storytelling and poetry.
Manivannan’s slim novel follows two critically-acclaimed collections of poetry and an award-winning book of short stories. Whereas her previous collections have drawn attention to various little-known mythologies, Jasmine Country is a step towards preserving the legacy of a real-life influential Tamil female poet whose achievements were unprecedented for her time.
The author spoke to Scroll.in about Andal’s adoption and surrogate families in the Hindu storytelling tradition, the celebratory ceremony that follows the onset of female puberty and the casteist lens through which such ceremonies are critiqued, the intersection between her voice as a poet and a novelist, the sense of seeking common in spiritual people, and more.
“I wanted to be a bride: garlanded, gorgeous, radiant with the knowledge that come nightfall she will be entered, illumed, broken whole.” As someone who’s immersed themselves in research about Andal, I wonder if you can hazard a guess or have theories about where her potentially idealised vision of sex – particularly the first time – could have emerged from?
The answer is really simple, and doesn’t require research on Andal at all: Kodhai is a 16 year old in a small town in the 9th century, who has never had a lover. She longs for one. Significantly, unlike others from her background, she has not been married off in childhood. Historically speaking, this is slightly mysterious, and gave me creative impetus to try and figure out why. She is not married, she has no lover, and the fact that she is both literate and outstandingly gifted sets her apart from her peers and society. The crux of my novel is one woman’s loneliness, charged by the desire that pulses through her adolescent body. If you look at Andal’s poetry, you may be struck by how frequently she describes her breasts for instance – and this too speaks of her youth, of how new and powerful her sexuality feels.
Lavish and prolonged celebrations follow the onset of menstruation in girls in Tamil Nadu (among other regions in India). Andal interprets the ritual as marking her “entry into womanhood, that told the world I was a woman before any man could make me one.” Some people view it as an extension of patriarchal norms, and some (such as Andal) see it as a positive affirmation of womanhood. Can you talk to us a little about this custom, and how you see it?
I should note here that today, the menarche ceremony is rarely celebrated in Brahmin households – and unfortunately, mainstream Indian feminism takes its cues almost exclusively from such backgrounds. The disgust reserved by some for this ceremony, which does not extend to disgust for caste-endogamous bride-viewing rituals for example, is usually casteist. That being said, there can absolutely be a patriarchal component to how it is performed, depending on the family in question. For instance, public notices announcing the ceremony may embarrass the girl. It’s this announcement aspect that is most problematic, because not only can it be a violation of privacy but it also directly harks to the practical function that such a ceremony may have once had, which was to make known to other families that a young woman was of marriageable age and that proposals were welcome.
Otherwise, a private menarche ceremony is literally the only time in which a woman’s period is celebrated in Indian cultures. For those inclined this way, it has very intriguing spiritual possibilities, honouring the feminine in spirit and form. Unlike a slew of ceremonies, such as raksha bandhan or karva chauth, that are male-centric and really aren’t worth reclamation, there is true feminist possibility in this one. Provided that the girl gives her consent, and that the family is committed to a greater thoughtfulness and openness about female sexuality.
“The night is as dark and still as a pot of unstirred indigo.” So many of the sentences in Jasmine Country could easily belong to a poem. Does your prose draw from poetic forms and syntax?
Absolutely. I bring my own sensibilities as a poet to prose, but what made this all the more intense is that my protagonist is herself not only a poet too, but among the most revered in classical Tamil. So you have one poet writing prose about another poet. How could it have turned out otherwise?
For my book’s plot, I followed the Tiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumoli closely, incorporating Andal’s own imagery into my own. Those who have read the poems – I recommend Archana Venkatesan’s translations – may ponder, as I did, why the first and second works differ so drastically in tone. The former is girlishly hopeful and joyous, the latter grows in both demand and despair. The Nachiyar Tirumoli begins, in the Tamil calendar, exactly where the Tiruppavai ends. The shift is quite mysterious, and nothing addressed it for me except a paper by Dennis Hudson called “Tantric Rites in Andal’s Poetry”. Reading it, I saw through the hagiography to who Kodhai was – neither a demure bride-to-be nor a god-intoxicated ascetic, but a wilful woman unafraid of her own magic, who sought to move life and the universe to do her own bidding. Deeply forlorn, yes. But profoundly self-possessed.
There are more than a few stories in the Hindu tradition about characters who grow up away from their birth parents and are adopted by people who became their surrogate family. Is there a reason that this is a recurring theme?
This is a lovely question to ponder. Perhaps it is to show how the child was inculcated with a distance from worldly attachment from the beginning (Krishna), or to infuse the character with trauma that later plays out and reveals something about the nature of human life or karma (Karna). Adoption of a child of miraculous origin also suggests the Judeo-Christian concept of virgin birth, which is an anti-sex view that many people hold across faiths, and sometimes in the absence of it too.
In recent times, we’ve seen attention drawn to the complexities of adoption and the possible loss of cultural identity and confusion that it can create for the adopted child. How do you think adoption affects the course of Andal’s life? Is it simply incidental?
The first pasuram of the Tiruppavai describes Vishnu as “Yashodai illam-chingam” and “Nandagopan kumaran” – Yashoda’s lion cub, Nandagopan’s prince. Yashoda and Nandagopan are the ones who raise Krishna, not the ones who gives birth to him. On the other hand, Periyalvar (the epithet of the garland-weaving poet, Vishnuchittan, who is Kodhai’s father) wrote as Devaki, who never knew what it was like to watch her child grow up. I found this interesting – Periyalvar writing in the voice of one who longs for a child (which some find to be emotive evidence that it may have been him all along, adopting the feminine erotic voice to write the poems attributed to Andal), while his adopted child firmly contextualises her lord as belonging to his adopted parents. Like herself.
The popular hagiography of Andal, that she was a foundling raised by a bachelor, also supports the view that she knew that she was adopted. In Kodhai’s case, I think her awareness does supplement her loneliness a little bit – not because she is anything but deeply loved in her incidental family, but because at the core of her is a sense of isolation, a sense of seeking that is true of all spiritual people and which is certainly corroborated in her writing.
The plants in Jasmine Country are generally referred to by their English names. As an author, how do you make the choice to use English rather than Tamil or even scientific names?
I thought about this a lot as I wrote, because Kodhai was my first protagonist who fully inhabits only one language – and that is not the language I myself write in. Given that the book is not in Tamil, but is in the first person, each usage of that language had to be meaningful, otherwise I found myself bereft in some way. It wasn’t like The High Priestess Never Marries, in which bilingual narrators simply reached for whichever phrase came to them. The use of English here was so there would be clarity as she crossed languages and centuries to come first to me, and then to the reader. This also informed my decision to use the “l” instead of “zh” in spellings such as Margali, Alvar and even Tamil. The reader who has some familiarity with Kodhai’s and my mother tongue doesn’t need the “zha” to know how a word is to be said; and, the reader who doesn’t have that familiarity is distanced by the affectation.
But then, because I am transfixed by beautiful words, and because there is something of the Tamil tongue in everything I write, there were certain almost-coinages. So for instance, I called the clitorea ternatea “virgin conch vine”, translating from the Tamil “sangu kanni kodi”, rather than using the sweetly poetic English “butterfly pea”.
Recently, we spoke about the mixed emotions that follow the publication of a book. Would you talk a little about what that experience has been like for you?
Every book of mine has broken me open as it reaches my readers. For me, only the writing is cathartic, only the writing makes sense. The rest is rawness: the shock of holding something to the light, like the shock of realising you are being watched as you look at yourself in the mirror. Queen is my fifth book, and by now I know I am to anticipate feeling, amidst my gratitude and celebration, certain contradictory emotions that are a kind of grief.
You mentioned in an interview that you had two dreams about Andal that moved you to write this book. Dreams are also an important medium of communication in Jasmine Country. What do the fabric of dreams lend to a narrative like this?
Those two dreams were as follows, and both happened in 2014: in the first, I was performing a kalyanavenduthal at a temple to Andal, and she rolled her eyes at the crowd present and told me, “If these are the options, No.” I can recall nothing of the second one except that she told me to write a novel about her, a message which I wrote down and folded away for some day...
In both the hagiography of Andal and in my book, dreams and visions provide pivotal plot points. It’s worth noting that from the Nachiyar Tirumoli, the darker and sensuous work that is often elided, only the poem “Vaaranam Ayiram” is regularly recited, as a fixture at Vaishnavite weddings. It is of a dream the poet has of her own wedding to Vishnu.
Kodhai is a dreamer, through and through – she escapes on the hallucinogenic of words to the landscape known as Ayarpadi, where she imagines herself to be a cowherd (and therefore free of the restrictions of her actual life). So dreams both while asleep and awake inform the narrative completely. This is the strange gift of any writer or artist – to remake the world through imagination.