THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

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I am delighted to announce the publication of my fifth book and first novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, in October 2018 by HarperCollins India. A press release from HarperCollins India contains further details.

My book is now in bookstores all over the Indian subcontinent, and online on Amazon India and other retailers.

Please see below the image for links to selected interviews, reviews and excerpts.

The Queen of Jasmine Country_Cover Spread

“Manivannan’s writing is honest, beautiful and compassionate. Her recreation of 7th-century Tamil society is believable, and her storytelling, hypnotic. Her poetic prose serves as a delightful and sensual channel for Andal’s life, love and art. The poet-goddess could not have picked a better medium.” – Urmi Chanda-Vaz in The Hindu Business Line

“Remarkable… A torch song of both love, and freedom.” – Shreya Ila Anasuya in Verve

“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.” – Urvashi Bahuguna in Scroll

“What was it like to be Andal?” – an excerpt in Scroll

“So who was she really – this young woman from over a thousand years ago? What filled her nights and days, and led her to write such intense, vivid poetry? This is what my novel is about – going beyond her legend, and reading between her own lines.” – an interview in The New Indian Express

“If you strip the fancy alangaram, the gem-encrusted hagiography, and see what’s really there – a young woman so desperate for love that she fasts and prays for it – I think you’ll see her as she came to me, too.” – an interview by Kiran Manral in SheThePeople

“So Kodhai dreaming of the mythical landscape of Ayarpadi gives birth to another rendition of herself within that dream, committed to permanence in her poetry; and then there was me here in the 21st century spending my nights and days imagining Puduvai, conjuring up a whole life. Dreaming of the dreamer, who dreamt within my dream of her.” – an interview in Platform Magazine

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI – Indian Subcontinental Edition

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It was very, very special for me to have The Ammuchi Puchi – originally published in the UK by Lantana Publishing – be released in an Indian subcontinental edition in May 2018 by Puffin India. I’d always hoped that my book would be easily available to children here.

It is now in bookstores all over the Indian subcontinent, and online on Amazon India and other retailers.

Please see below the image for selected reviews and interviews.

Ammuchi Puchi.jpg

“”A powerful story about grief and loss…a wonderful reminder about the magic of imagination.” – Bijal Vachharajani in The Hindu

“”The language of grief and loss is universal. It can be as tender as you can make it. Or it can be lacerating. Both are heartwrenching. Manivannan chose tender.” – Shikhandin in Scroll

“The prose of the book is perfect for children, and will teach them the important lessons of: exploring their creativity, handling grief and the need for learning a variety of life skills from grandparents.” – Mithila Reviews

“Aa gorgeously illustrated tale of children dealing with the death of a beloved grandmother.” – The Hindu

“How to talk to your children about losing a grandparent” – Momspresso

Reviews, interviews and other press for the UK edition here.

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: How A #MeToo Story Is Told, Or Isn’t

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Every woman has a #MeToo story. It just depends on how she tells it. On who asks her, on why they enquired, on what triggered the memory, on what she knows now that she didn’t at the time – on a hundred different variables, in short. No, scratch that – every woman has #MeToo stories. Two or twenty. The count varies, for the reasons already mentioned and more. It’s just that she may choose not to frame them all that way. Or that she would rather put some or all of them behind her. Or that this new vocabulary may later liberate her, but for right now it overpowers her in so volcanic a way that she would rather not feel the things it brings up. She’d rather put them away again – hopefully not in their old hiding-place of shame, but in some new site where light slants on them in a different way, and perhaps over time she’ll know what to do.

Harassment that’s cut short through a slap, as recounted by several women in viral-friendly videos and tweets, also constitutes a #MeToo story – not the avoidance of one. Because the weight of the story lies not in the response, but in the intended outcome that the perpetrator had (and always, always – an unwelcome advance is about power, and a non-consensual action is about power; desire is never the main factor). So, in some of our #MeToo stories we’ve slapped our way out of a situation. In others, we’ve sweet-talked our escapes – the screenshots will not reveal how we gritted our teeth as we said mollifying things because we’d been raised to be diplomatic, or because we were afraid. In still others, we kept sleeping with our oppressors because we’d been gaslit into thinking we were loved. And in so many more, we’d diminished our presences so we’d seem to be unthreatening (read: unattractive) wallflowers, nodded or smiled and said as little as possible, or cut our losses and quietly left. A slap and a clean getaway are only possible if you don’t have a salary on the line, are assured that you can leave both the location and the context easily, do not have other kinds of politics and dynamics in the environment that convolute it further, and most importantly, aren’t at risk of retaliatory physical or other violence.

Over the past few weeks, as the #MeToo movement experiences its second wave in India, I made space to reflect on why I’ve yet to publicly out anyone, even though I’m fully supportive of the courageous people who’ve done so. My reasons are partly circumstantial, partly circumspect, and entirely complicated. I know this to be true for many people, because beneath the public wave are countless, powerful small ripples – private conversations and reckonings. I wish those who claim they’ve never been harassed or abused would reflect too. Open declaration is only one way of parsing trauma. If it doesn’t suit, pure denial or abject shame are not the only options. Slowly, we must teach ourselves new ways of healing and standing in our truths. Slowly. Because we aren’t just recalibrating our stories, we’re remaking the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 25th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Swords In The Hands Of Children

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How does a sword end up in a lake or a river, and stay dredged in its bed for millennia until one day someone’s small hands or feet chance upon it when none had before? That it fell overboard, that it was offered ceremonially or amidst a sacrifice, that its weight helped drown the body that wore its scabbard – the possible stories of how it came to be there are myriad, limited only by the imagination. But its long and silent afterlife in those depths is sheer mystery. This week, 8-year old Saga Vanecek was playing in southern Sweden’s Lake Vidöstern, its waters in low season due to a drought, when she discovered a pre-Viking era sword, which archaeologists have since dated to around 1500 years old. The archaeologists are still wading in those waters. So far, they have found a fibula brooch, which dates to 3 or 4 CE. And a coin from as recently as 18CE, which seems almost mundane in comparison.

If anything can be mundane, that is. What if the actual history of that coin is stranger than that of the sword?

There are other stories of children finding ancient swords in water bodies. In 2014, 11-year old Yang Junxi found a 3000-year old bronze sword while washing his hands in China’s Laozhoulin river. Last year, when another little girl found another sword in a lake, the discovery was laughed off by the person who claimed he’d put it there. Legend has it that Dozmary Pool, England, was where the mystical Lady of the Lake bestowed on King Arthur the sword named Excalibur, and where it was returned to as he died. Legend also holds that only the rightful Queen of Britain would next be given the weapon. Imagine being Matilda Jones, then age 7, and pulling a huge sword out of this very lake. And then having a local man who said he bought a cinema prop in the ‘80s with which he would drunkenly “knight” people claim he had thrown it into the lake back then as a Celtic ritual. How disenchanting.

When Monty Python and the Holy Grail was written, the lines “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony” must have seemed both brilliant and accurate. And they were, and would be still – except that we’ve seen what both capitalism-driven democracy and “due process” enact in the world, and don’t do for us, and the alternates don’t seem so farcical at all. Would I rather put my trust in a thrilled child who chances on a relic than on a predator who moved up level after level of power through entitlement and intimidation? Yes, I would.

I’m reaching for these stories neither as metaphor nor as deflection. Though it’s true that some things must lie in wait for a long time, and that the fantastical is sometimes real. It’s just that some weeks need a story out of the ordinary, for they help us cope with what is staggeringly, unconscionably unjust – and common.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 11th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Adultery Law

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What could we have told the woman who took her own life this week in Chennai – after her cheating husband allegedly told her that adultery was no longer a crime – about how that law had never been meant to protect her? The now defunct Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which had read: “Adultery: Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”

Note that precise phrasing: “consent or connivance”. Conveniently, the law as well as those who upheld it understood consent, and applied it so alliteratively – to connivance! Unless a man participated willingly in his cuckolding, his wife’s lover could be charged with a crime.

Could we have explained to that deceased woman how she had never had any recourse to justice through this law? That it had been devised for one man to punish another, and that for any woman (as per the moral codes of our society), shame itself would have been the first among various insidious punishments. If wives, being chattel, were allowed to emote, anyway.

If we’d been ignorant of this archaic decree, that was also likely to have been because as a law that men could invoke against one another, it hadn’t received much exercise in public memory. Men don’t so often go after one another in quite that way. Not as often as women get the blame. Not as often as women are turned on each other, conditioned for example to hate the one who got caught in a deceitful husband’s web and not the husband himself who so dexterously spun it. Or even if she hates that husband, to possibly not love or know her selfhood without even him.

This law had no provision for women to lodge a case. Not for women whose husbands were having affairs, nor for women who had been fooled by married men. In fact, lawyers speaking to the press suggest that one of the rare usages of Section 497 was as an act of retaliation by men facing dowry harassment proceedings. It’s vaguely disquieting how when a law that was hardly ever used was repealed, the fact of its rare usage only reinforces many things about misogyny in our social fabric.

I wish the deceased Chennai woman whom that law was used against, at least in speech, this week will be the last one ever to suffer because of it. And I wish also that after the striking down of the sexist Section 497 and the homophobic Section 377, the next to go will be Section 375, which considers rape within marriage to be criminal only if the survivor is below 15 years old. Where is consent here? All that’s evident is connivance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.