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MY BOOKS

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THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

The Queen of Jasmine Country_Cover Spread

Shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2019 [Fiction]

 

Longlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature 2019

 

Longlisted for the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award 2020

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD

The Altar of the Only World-15

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE HIGH PRIESTESS NEVER MARRIES

The High Priestess Never Marries

Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.” – Award Citation

 

Winner of the LAADLI South Asia Media & Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity [Best Book – Fiction]

 

Shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction

 

Longlisted for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2017

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI

Ammuchi Puchi

Honourable Mention for a Neev Children’s Book Award 2019

 

Shortlisted for a Peek-A-Book Children’s Choice Award 2018

 

Nominated for Best Writer Of The Year at the Comic Con India Awards 2019

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

WITCHCRAFT

Sharanya Manivannan - Witchcraft

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife.” – Ng Yi-Sheng

 

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils.” – from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam

 

(Out of print)

Poetry, Essays & Fiction (2018-2020)

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An essay, “Apportionments of Love”, appeared in the anthology Knot For Keeps: Writing The Modern Marriage (HarperCollins India 2018) and was republished in Scroll.

A poem, “Something Was Promised Me”, appeared in The Sunflower Collective.

A poem, “The Mothers”, appeared in Rattle.

A sonnet, “Sometimes, There Are Cyclones”, appeared in The Indian Express.

A short story, “The Walk”, appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring) issue.

Suvarnamaccha

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There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.

There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.

Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.

What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.

This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.

Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.

Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.

In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.

His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.

In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.

An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.

The Venus Flytrap: Healthcare Workers In A Time Of Health Crisis

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As a neurosurgeon and the managing doctor of a hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules would have directly or indirectly served thousands of patients. It was probably while in the line of work, treating COVID-19 positive people, that the doctor may have contracted the infection himself. He passed away over the weekend, and was prevented from having a dignified burial by two mobs of residents from the very neighbourhoods that his hospital serves.

On Sunday night, his family and a few colleagues received his body and travelled in an ambulance to a cemetery in Kilpauk. Here, the first mob refused to allow them to proceed. They then went to a cemetery in Anna Nagar, where a second mob unleashed violence on them, pelting stones and logs at the ambulance. A harrowing night ensued for the mourners and the ambulance staff, including sustaining severe injuries. It culminated in a colleague of the late doctor having to dig the ground with his bare hands in order to complete the burial, under police protection.

This was not the first such Indian instance, however. In Meghalaya, a deceased doctor’s family had to wait 36 hours before a burial plot was available to them, due to a mob of hundreds preventing the rites. The cremation of another doctor in Chennai, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was also initially stopped by a mob. All such gatherings were formed in direct violation of lockdown rules.

Medical workers have also faced sudden evictions, ostracisation from their neighbours, and other forms of discrimination during this pandemic. A report in The Guardian on March 20th detailed how a Kolkata nurse and her children were thrown out of their apartment without notice, and how janitorial staff and others had been sleeping on plastic sheets on hospital campuses, prevented by neighbours from returning home.

Just two days after that report was published, millions of Indians assembled with or without social distancing to bang pots and pans together, supposedly to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. As many healthcare workers themselves, both in India and abroad, have said: all such gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by demanding accountability from authorities, especially for increasing production and availability of PPE kits, as well as for increasing testing and other measures. Dr. Pradeep Kumar, who performed the final rites for Dr. Solomon Hercules, spoke to India Today about how misinformation spread to the public (about how the virus is transmitted, and falsities such as that lighting candles would dispel it) was behind the shocking breakdown of civil behaviour that night.

It is a mistake to aggrandize any role and assign noble qualities to it by default. But workers in the healthcare sector – not only doctors, but everyone who works in a medical environment – are at risk in this pandemic precisely because they are the ones fighting it directly. Everyone deserves basic dignity: the medical officer and the migrant labour, both. Middle-class India is revealing its vilest face through this pandemic, ungrateful to the vital people who administer the medications, clean the bedpans, build the cities, harvest the fields. How do we expect to survive without them? And do their own lives mean nought?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

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Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Nemesis’ Narrative

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Last week in lockdown viewing, I watched a Netflix mini-series called Self Made, based on the true story of the entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), born to formerly enslaved parents in the American South and eventual founder of a million-dollar haircare empire. It’s a show about race, class, gender, and the concept of beauty. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, there may be spoilers ahead.

In Self Made, Sarah’s arch-nemesis is the person who introduces her to cosmetology. The wealthier, light-skinned Addie Monroe first gains her trust then insults her, telling Sarah she isn’t attractive enough to sell her product. Sarah replicates the product and finds her own success, but her rival follows her like a shadow. Addie dredges up Sarah’s flaws over and over through the decades.

While watching the show, I thought – hmm, this feels true to life. Grudges can fester for ages. Sarah’s own trigger-proneness was also recognisable; there are certain old woundings that shape us, and which have the strange dual effect of propelling us forward but also dragging us back. Impressed overall, I spent a little time looking up the original Madam C.J. Walker, and found that the biggest criticism of the show was the portrayal of the real woman – Annie Malone – who was villainised as Addie Monroe.

It is factual that Malone (herself one of the first African-American women to become a millionaire) had employed the real Madam C.J. Walker briefly, but why their association ended is not documented. No evidence exists of a lifelong feud. Perhaps there’s a whisper of truth in it: that the two entrepreneurs disliked each other. Still, the way the filmmakers extrapolate this possibility undermines the legacy of both women. It suggests that their struggles (and triumphs) against societal discrimination weren’t nearly as important as their rivalry. Besides which, if anyone should have a bone to pick, that’d be the ghost of Malone, who pioneered what Walker studied and built on, only to become the jealous bête noire of a biopic.

The show made me wonder, ultimately, about my own animosities. In the narrative of my life, in which I am the hero (just as you, in the narrative of your life, are its hero), I wouldn’t want my various antagonists to occupy much space at all, let alone screen time. Of course they’re there, of course they’ve influenced everything through their sabotages and betrayals. It may even be true that it’s individuals, not structures or circumstances, who make particularly painful imprints on us. We may connect them to a larger problem, say, misogyny – but the one who enacts it is the one who induces our bile. Still – it’s not the anti-hero who makes us the protagonist, just as there’s no need to suppress another in order to play the lead in one’s own life.

Yet people do. This is the weird tic inside Self Made’s fiction that makes it compelling even while problematic. Addie Monroe feels exactly like that person: the one with such a hawkish eye on another’s journey that they think they’re running rings around that someone without noticing they’re really just walking in circles themselves…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Working From Home, Within A Crisis

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I’ve been working from home since late 2016, and I hope I can offer some suggestions on effectively doing so if you’re new to it.

To begin, some practical tips: never work in bed. It’s terrible for your back. If you don’t have a desk, use a dining table or kitchen counter. If you have enough space so that you can set up an “office”, do so, and don’t eat or watch TV there. Demarcating spaces will also help you demarcate time. You may feel you have a lot less or a lot more time than you did before. Keep daily checklists (personal and professional) as well as weekly and monthly planners. It helps to keep your eye on the big picture when the days merge formlessly. If there’s less work, set manageable growth-oriented tasks: updating your CV, making a vision board, etc. Leisure soothes; don’t beat yourself up.

Working from home is an enormous privilege, as evidenced by the thousands of migrant labourers who walked the Indian highways to reach their villages when this lockdown was announced. People who are or provide the supply chain, sanitation services, home deliveries and medical attention can’t work from home either.

This reality doesn’t nullify the fact that “home”, even if there’s a roof above one’s head and Wi-Fi, can be a highly toxic environment. This is truer than not in the Indian context, bound by patriarchy, where every family has a mountain of “dust” swept under a flimsy carpet. Set private boundaries even if others don’t respect them. For instance, commit to not engaging with anyone whose behaviour sets you off. Bite your tongue, keep up self-healing practices if you have the privacy to, and train your eyes on the long-term. If you realise that you don’t want to live like this permanently, accept that it will be months at least before changing your life becomes viable. Focusing on surviving this, then getting out.

No matter your scenario, mental health is a priority at this time. In a state of uncertainty, we are softer targets than ever. With the anxiety-inducing effects of constantly checking the news, paired with the tentacles of inadequacy that brands/influencers still shoot into our lives, it’s best to be careful about social media usage. Take up journalling: empty your worries into it. There are many guided or prompt-based practices online. Be flexible about how you define productivity. It’s hard to concentrate right now, so if you don’t learn a new language or tackle that to-be-read pile, it’s okay!

When you feel overwhelmed, return to this question: Who do you want to be when all of this is over?

The skills you acquire in this time are not only meant for crises. They are all adaptable into the next normal, post-pandemic. Try to see this period as a beautiful opportunity to inculcate practices for the long-term. These include taking up meditation or exercise, budgeting better, building meaningful connections based on communication (not activity), fairer division or more efficient management of household chores, eating more creatively, developing clearer socio-political ideas, achieving a healthy work-life balance, becoming self-disciplined and much more. Lean into growth, not fear.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.