When you did not come back for me,
I bit off my braid and walked
my heaviness to the river
and cursed the many ways I had
sought to hold you — how I had stood
bloodless under the victor’s flag,
disarmed pillage, all my hopes quivering
mother-of-pearl in the moonlight.
Once, love was an unmarked territory,
a way to forge an uncommon ground.
Then, love lit a burning boundary,
and lifted its great wings in shame and
circled and circled and circled.
— The Altar of The Only World by Sharanya Manivannan
When I read Sharanya Manivannan’s The Altar of The Only World two weeks ago, I felt ancient and young, euphoric and despondent, cold and feverish, broken and whole, all at the same time. I should not have been surprised really, for her writing stirred similar feelings in me when I read her short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries too.
It’s hard to go on with life after reading Sharanya Manivannan’s stories and poems. Her characters are affectionately demanding, like the matriarch in my family. I have to sit beside them, listening to their stories, and allowing them to feed me. In those stories, they are warriors, they are victims, they are rescuers, and they are all utterly memorable. They relate their stories with unrelenting candour; it shocks me and it liberates me. Those are the kind of stories I want to forget, only because I want to read them with a new pair of eyes again and take notes in my fresh, shimmering heart, and repeat the process. My love for the people in Sharanya Manivannan’s books is deep-seated and complicated, and my love for her words is unconditional.
Today, Sharanya Manivannan talks to me about writing her latest book The Altar of The Only World (a collection of poems), her love for mythology and celestial beings, and she even recommends some books for us.
The Q & A is here:
I understand that some of these poems have been with you for about nine years. How did you bear the weight?
It was the other way around. The poems helped me bear the weight of my life.
The cover art is gorgeous. How was the idea conceived? How did the process take shape?
I knew two things. The first was that I wanted Saurabh Garg, who came up with the beautiful red-blossomed cover of The High Priestess Never Marries, to design it. The second was that after a little dawdling on my part (because I’m someone who gets super distracted by beautiful visual art and every existing image seemed equally cover-worthy to me) I was absolutely certain that only shadow puppetry would do. Shadow puppetry spoke equally to the themes of light and darkness in the book, and was an homage to wayangkulit, tholpavakoothu and other art forms that were a part of my internal landscape as I wrote the book. Saurabh illustrated the beautiful shadow-woman you see on the cover. We had actually finalised another colour scheme, then the black and gold happened, and it was perfect.
I’d like to say at this juncture, especially for writers with their first book deal in the works — negotiating the cover art is not a lot of fun. It helps if you have clarity on your side, but you can’t be overly attached to your concept either. You’ll also be having that negotiation at the same time that you’re looking at your final proofs, so it can be quite stressful. The cover of The Altar of the Only World was an easier process for me because I knew the immensely talented Saurabh would be the one to make it happen for me (he had come on board to do The High Priestess Never Marries only after a fight!).
Why do you love Venus? The references are sprinkled generously in your poems.
You can see Venus in the sky with the naked eye some nights of the year, and she sometimes hovers by her lover, Mars, and our grandmother, the moon. There’s the traditional reading of the planet as the goddess of love, but you chase her a little more and you are unsurprised to find that she is also the goddess of war, as Inanna. And exiled from heaven, as Lucifer the morning star is. I love that complexity because it gave me so much for my poetry. I love that what has survived through the ages is a less austere kind of imagination, one that embraced the contradictory. We need more of that today.
Hanuman, Sita, Chayya enter your poems. Of course Inanna and even Chimera. Why does mythology influence your work?
Chayya in the book refers to Chayya Sita or Maya Sita — in some tellings, it is Sita’s shadow that undergoes all her trials, while the visceral Sita remains unscathed. Chimera in the text isn’t so much a reference to the creature but to the word that means illusory. I adore mythology because I really see it as a larger canvas for the quotidian. Somewhere near the beginning of my work on The Altar of The Only World, someone told me about how women in interior Tamil Nadu burn camphor in their palms during all-night therukoothu performances, and this stayed with me. Their empathy for Draupadi is also an expression of their own pain. The making and the consumption of art offer catharsis.
You are an ardent lover of folk arts. In The Altar of The Only World, I noted Chhau, Therukoothu, and Theyyam, and a beautiful poem on the ancient instrument Ravanahatha. How did you research?
A couple of years ago, when Karthika Nair’s brilliant Mahabharata-based Until the Lions came out, I looked at her bibliography and squeaked a little. I couldn’t have a bibliography for The Altar of the Only World because its greatest influences were performances, not texts, and I had not kept an exhaustive list of what I had seen, where, and who had performed or produced it. It felt deeply disingenuous to show off my library but not acknowledge the artforms and artists that had moved me to write these poems. So there was no bibliography. The research was always along two parallel lines, which themselves were parallel lines to my actual life and its events (nine years is a large fraction, at any age). One was experiential, the other was scholarly. In the earlier years of writing the book, it was dance, theatre, music, film and painting that most influenced my work, and I consumed as much art as I could. In the later stages, I went to the texts in a more rigorous fashion, reading everything from the Gvay Dvorahbi to the Raghuvamsam. Among these, I will tell you that I loved the translations of folksongs most of all. I wish there was more. Some of the work is incomplete, so we find it only where interlocutors like Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Velcheru Narayana Rao have highlighted it in their papers. At other times, the work is simply lost: there’s an intriguing, lively Mappilai Ramayana (from a Kerala Muslim community) that we have just a small chunk of in translation (I found it in a volume edited by Paula Richman). The existence of these hundreds of Ramayanas gave me the confidence to write my own outgrowth, which does not resemble the canonical epic chronologically but is immersed purely in the emotions of its female protagonist, who most often was treated as beautiful chattel. I put some of that research into this lighthearted piece: http://agentsofishq.com/ramayanas/.
I have always suspected that you are incurably in love with astronomy. 🙂 Not a lot of writers use georama and analemma as literary devices. I would love to hear about your love for all things celestial.
Lucifer opened the heavens to me. The light-bearer — the morning star! I truly loved being able look at science as a poet. I loved rolling those new words on my tongue (analemma, syzygy, occultation…), reflecting on the deep sadness of a pulsar’s song, receiving this new knowledge and bringing it into my language.
Did you slip in a tribute for Sylvia Plath too somewhere? A poem ends with ‘I’ quite like Plath’s ‘I am. I am. I am.’ and udumbara (fig tree) can also be seen in your book. Am I looking too much into it? 🙂
I’m not a Plath fan, to be honest, so no tribute was intended. 🙂
In an article, you mentioned that Malaysia closed its doors on you a decade ago. I am truly sorry and I hope Chennai is being kind to you. I am not able to shrug off the feeling that some verses are surreal lamentations of a woman who is uprooted, displaced. Am I hearing Sharanya’s voice there?
Of course. I’m a double exile. I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in Malaysia holding an Indian passport. It is no coincidence, although I may not have realised it at the time, that another double exile, Sita, was whom I was drawn to. You know, I was thinking the other day about how an interviewer asked me two months after I moved here (right before I got into trouble with the Malaysian government for writing that it operates on an apartheid structure) if India was home to me and I said “Yes”. I’d never lived here before, except for one failed half-year attempt when I was 19. But I was so profoundly traumatised that I said what I wanted to have become true. More recently, another journalist asked me, flipping through the pages of The Altar of The Only World, whose voice A Country Contains Nothing, which is in the Malay verse form known as the pantun, is in. She meant: was it Sita’s, Lucifer’s or Inanna’s? And I said, “Mine, actually”. Just like the poem The Amputees is really about the temple demolitions I had been tracking in 2005 and 2006 (more recently brought to attention in the film Kabali) which led to my eventual status as a political dissident. I poured my emotions about losing places I loved into this book.
The blurb quotes David Shulman: “Riptides of Tamil hide beneath or within her (Sharanya’s) honed English, for those who can hear and see.” I love that aspect in your books — the way Tamil hugs English. How is it seamless and sublime?
I have to admit it was a wonderful shock to read that line that in the blurb Professor Shulman wrote for my book, because where Tamil is concerned I often have imposter syndrome. I don’t write in the Tamil script except rarely with extreme care and with a trusted friend to look it over, although I do read it, slowly. Then there is the question of speech. I speak an Eastern Sri Lankan dialect, which is what I grew up with, and many Chennaiites (especially of the middle class and above, but markedly not below) are remarkably unfriendly, casteist and even jealous of or to anyone with an accent of any kind — be it in Tamil or in English. A few months ago, I heard Professor Shulman read from the Kambaramayanam under the banyan tree at Kalakshetra, and I enjoyed so much his own accent, for it was proof of how deep understanding and love don’t need to be reflected in only the superficial. Still, I speak Tamil only with those who aren’t comfortable in other languages, and at home, and with a few close friends. But I internalise the language absolutely when I hear it, and think in it as well. It’s interesting to me how my use of Tamil in English is noticed in the same way that so many people have told me that they’ve never seen Chennai written about like it is in The High Priestess Never Marries. Perhaps it’s the friction, the unbelonging, that allows me my askew and always alert perspective, and forces from me my creative rejoinders.
Some poems are slightly reminiscent of Rumi and Khalil Gibran’s works. Is it because of the mystical air around the poems?
Perhaps. I love Rumi’s poetry. I also love that a queer Muslim poet is still a bestseller in this bigoted world of ours. Which brings me to your next question…
My blogger-friends here and I would love to read queer literature written by Indian authors. Would you recommend some for us?
Let me offer a list whether or not I have read the author in question, because I’m just happy to signal-boost literature: Ismat Chugtai, Suniti Namjoshi, Hoshang Merchant, A. Revathi, Living Smile Vidya, R. Raj Rao, Vasudhendra, Rahul Mehta, Parvati Sharma. These are writers whose work has dealt with relationships and sexuality; I have left out of this list others who are queer but may not forefront the same in their work. My friends Nadika Nadja and Nawaaz Ahmed haven’t published book-length works yet, but they will. There’s a lot of good writing online and in anthologies too — and finding these writers and encouraging their work may pave the way to books from them too. I can’t over-emphasise the importance of sharing links in the age of algorithms. It can go a long way, both in bolstering a writer’s confidence, and in bringing their work to a larger audience. On that note, thank you so much for this interview, Deepika. It’s been a pleasure!
(Thank you very much, Sharanya!) ❤
Have you read Sharanya Manivannan’s books? If you haven’t, which one would you read first? Please feel free to share your thoughts. Sharanya and I would love to hear from you. Thank you for reading!