Among contemporary Indian writers in English, there aren’t many who can write fiction as if it were poetry and do as good a job of it as Sharanya Manivannan. Her collection of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, might be remembered as the most lush fiction of 2016. In no other work that year did the descriptions, dialogue and denouements prioritise beauty to the extent that they did in Manivannan’s debut.
The High Priestess Never Marries focussed on a certain type of woman, one who is at ease with her freedom and welcomes its consequences with what can be called “appetite”. That nearly all renditions of this woman sought a transvaluation of love, found the creation or interpretation of beauty ultimately possible, and were generally distant from the mundane monstrosities of capitalism – glass or steel or concrete, say – gave the book its redemptive power.
But over multiple stories, this sameness created a tension with the contemporary setting, where a reader might demand more variety or a grittier kind of realism. At times, Manivannan’s embellishments gave rise to questions like “do people really talk like that?” or “do people really use such words?” Though I was enthralled by the collection (the story titled “Cyclone Crossing” is an all-time favourite), I also hoped that, for her next adventure in fiction, Manivannan would consider taking us to an elsewhere where the curlicues of her prose would be unimpeded by the jagged lines that the reader attributes to the world that is.
Kodhai, yet to be Andal
The next adventure, a thin novel titled The Queen of Jasmine Country, is here, and Manivannan has indeed taken us to an elsewhere. Set in the 9th century CE, the novel is narrated by a teenaged girl named Kodhai – later known as the Tamil poet-goddess Andal, who is credited with two great works, Thiruppavai and Nachiar Thirumozhi. Manivannan’s novel is interested in how Kodhai became a poet who could declare carnal desire for god.
The setting and the story, we see, have landed us in a place where everything that the Manivannan of The High Priestess Never Marries prefers is not only possible, but necessary: love can be, and is, the primary question and the primary answer; the creation of beauty can be, and is, a predestined reality; glass and steel and concrete can be, and are, forgotten about.
The novel starts with Kodhai the infant’s abandonment in a tulsi grove and her adoption by a family of Brahmins. Manivannan chooses not to fictionalise Kodhai’s background before this event. In Kodhai’s adoptive family, her grandfather is a priest, and her father Vishnuchittan, a devotional poet. Growing up, Kodhai is taught the alphabet and, with rituals of devotion as part of her everyday life, becomes a Vishnu devotee herself.
There is no doubt, however, that one day she will be made to marry someone and spend the rest of her life hearth-side. Manivannan ensures that the root of Kodhai’s transformation is found in her rejecting the idea of this real-world marriage – at first out of fear, and gradually, through eroticising her devotion towards Vishnu to an extent that no man of flesh and bones can ever be equal.
The erotic road
It is this erotic turn that the novel follows intimately. Chronologically speaking, it is first articulated in Kodhai’s menarche ceremony, an event joyously described by Manivannan, with a special focus on the “botanic enticement[s]” that adorn Kodhai’s head and the songs that her father sings during the ceremony (“lullabies Devaki could never sing to him [Krishna]”). Two revelations assail Kodhai then. The first one is about her own historic import...
“...in my imagination the flowers grew over me for a thousand years within their fragrance, until one day, a song set free from my throat would dispel the stillness. I would emerge in a farther century carrying all the history and libel and lore of this one. My body always sixteen years old, lush and life-bearing.’
And the second one is about her sexual attraction to Vishnu...
“...in the place from which the blood of the moon had blossomed from my body, everything turned to nectar. I closed my eyes and summoned his image: chest like a mountain, navel sprouting a lotus, lips that I envied the conch in his hand for having kissed. Come to me. To me. Come.”
Subsequently, during the winter month of Margali, Kodhai observes the pavai nombu, a month-long fast to please the goddess Katyayani for the favour of finding a suitable man. A cowherd woman named Matalilli has earlier invited Kodhai to observe the fast with her group, and like they do – becoming Nappinai (a Radha, or Radha-like, figure) and awaiting a Krishna to love them. For Kodhai, this once again focalises sexual desire on the figure of god. She writes poems throughout the month and completes a “manuscript” on the last day of Margali.
And hence to poetry
During the pavai nombu, Manivannan grants Kodhai’s sexuality expression and slowly laces it with frustration. That the absence of a corporeal lover in Kodhai’s life could be a reason for the creation of poetry is an inference that the reader is allowed; and it is in this practicality, the merging of teenage lust with a form of devotion, that Manivannan grants Andal the chance to be human.
Later, there is a spectacular section in which Kodhai visits Madurai with Vishnuchittan. In the crowds of the capital city, Kodhai feels a sense of liberty and the reader realises that nothing will be the same again. Her energy released, Kodhai suddenly has access to new modes of perception and devotion. For example, when Kodhai joins a communal dance celebrating Krishna:
“I have cavorted like a calf into this circle, invited by chance, not knowing that all along I was dancing in the place of Nappinai.”
Or when she watches the sport of jallikattu in an arena:
“And then I see him, unmistakable…He lifts his eyes and looks right at me and everything in the world that is not him dissolves. It is only for a second, like lightning splitting the sky. And then in the cloud of dust and footfalls and powdered dyes, he is gone.”
Manivannan’s achievement in The Queen of Jasmine Country is not only to grant a narrative to the transformation of Kodhai but also to trace it through the stencil of Andal’s poetry. Many of Andal’s poems are crafted into descriptions here, their placement sure to excite those familiar with Andal’s work. The book is thus a noteworthy addition to the Andal canon.
With regards to Manivannan’s own body of work, The Queen of Jasmine Country lets us draw a trajectory (my ignorance makes me exclude the children’s book, The Ammuchi Pucchi, from this equation). Between The High Priestess Never Marries and The Queen of Jasmine Country, Manivannan published a book of poems titled The Altar of the Only World, where poems about the mythological figures of Sita, Lucifer, and Innana touched upon issues of trauma, recovery, and lasting grace (the quest for an elsewhere, I am tempted to say, was already underway).
With the novel, we may see these three works together as a trilogy of sorts, a trilogy which emphasises and celebrates women’s agency, and one which straddles the contemporary, the mythological, and the historical book by book. Needless to say, it is also a trilogy which demands to be seen beyond the distinctions of prose and poetry.
The Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan, HarperCollins India.