Tag Archives: authors

The Venus Flytrap: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

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For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

The Venus Flytrap: The #BossBitch With Sweaty Palms

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I spent the weekend at a literary festival where I found myself skirting away from a certain famous author every time I encountered her. We smiled at each other courteously, she probably acknowledging that I was also wearing a Speaker tag, and me because I had no idea what to say to her. But I wasn’t starstruck. In fact, the situation was quite odd: since the age of 14, I had read nearly all her books. Except I’d never quite liked them. To go up to her for a selfie and a handshake felt hypocritical to me, and I reflected on these mixed feelings. Surely her books had taught or given me something? The problem: there was no way I could say what that was without seeming trite, artificial or downright rude.

So I smiled and kept walking each time I saw her, unable to acknowledge the many hours I had spent on her work. She must have found me haughty. The truth was more nuanced, and I had spared her the explanation.

n inverse of sorts also happened. I was among the audience at one session when a male author said something so offensively sexist that before my mind could react, my body did. I stood up and walked out without a thought – but not without a tweet (which didn’t name him) immediately after. Imagine the awkwardness the following day when a case of mistaken identity put me face to face with that author. I introduced myself, and he responded with, “I’m X, the one you don’t like.” Politeness kicked in, and “Sorry” was the first word that flew out of my mouth. And then I regained clarity. “Actually,” I said frankly. “Not sorry at all.”

Back in the authors’ lounge, I regaled my friends with the incident. “Looks like they put you on the right panel!” said someone, good-humouredly. She was referring to an all-woman session called Bitch Please.

These encounters and thoughts on open statements, private musings and the nuances in between all culminated for me at that panel, which was about being a woman in the public sphere. I balked a little, because it’s my words that I see in the world, not myself.  But later, looking at photos from all my sessions, I was surprised by my body language: straight back, crossed legs, direct gaze. Hashtag #bossbitch. If I didn’t know myself, I would have thought I was radiating power. My tension is invisible, even at the session where bright lights, noise and a migraine were making me so uncomfortable that my palms were literally sweating. I suspect many authors guzzle water onstage thanks to hangovers, but I do it as a nervous reflex. I wasn’t lying when I said in one panel that I am deeply shy and anxious. But I have to concede: to an observer, it probably looks like I am. Lying, that is.

Our interior selves react to other people’s public appearances. But it’s our public selves that respond openly to one another. Much falls between the cracks. Which has more integrity: getting the two to align more consistently, or admitting that they just don’t?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

My Friend Sancho And Amit Varma In Chennai

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I’ll be in conversation with Amit Varma about his debut novel, My Friend Sancho, on Monday evening. My Friend Sancho was longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Amit Varma is a winner of the Bastiat Prize, was named one of Business Week’s 50 Most Powerful People In India, and publishes India Uncut.

Details about the event:

May 18, 6.30 to 9pm

Landmark Bookstore, Nungambakkam, Chennai

Prakriti Foundation and The Park Present… Witchcraft

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Prakriti Foundation in association with The Park is delighted to invite you

for the launch of Witchcraft, a book of poems by Sharanya Manivannan

on Friday, March 13 2009 at 6 p.m.

Venue: Leather Bar, The Park, Anna Salai, Chennai – 600 006

Dress code: Black

Praise for the book:

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife,” Ng Yi-Sheng, winner of the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils,” from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam, winner of the 1994 Paterson Prize and 2006 Juegos Florales

[Update: ABOUT THE DRESS CODE
I’ve been getting enquiries about the dress code. Why have one? Because we’re poking fun at the “Witchcraft” connotations. That’s why Friday the 13th and black outfits. Please remember that it’s *black* and not *black tie*, so wear a tee shirt by all means. It’s fine. :) ]

Sangam House Reading On The 29th

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Aren’t you lucky — one more Sangam House reading for this season, and this time with an exhibition too.

I will be reading from new work, from the collection of poems I began while at Sangam House.

Metroplus Chennai On The Sangam House Reading

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The Hindu has a write-up today on Sangam House’s recent event in Chennai. It’s a good article, but I wish my name was spelt correctly. Read it here.

Sangam House Reading in Chennai

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The second of our two public readings for the inaugural season of the Sangam House writers’ residency will take place today in Chennai at Pasha, The Park Hotel at 7.30pm. Special guest Tom Alter joins Salma, Joshua Furst, N. S. Koenings, Mridula Koshy and Sharanya Manivannan. Writer bios are here.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008, Bali

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Some highlights…


With Bernice Chauly. We look like we’re at Zouk, but actually, we’re on top of a gigantic lily pond at the Four Seasons. Preeta Samarasan and Kam Raslan are blurry but present too.

With Jean Bennett, author of 27 books.

With Sharon Bakar, Deepika Shetty and Eric Forbes. Sorry, Deepika, there was no better shot and I so wanted to put up one with you all.

With Vikram Seth. Yes, this pic MUST come out blurry, no?

I heart Alberto Ruy Sánchez (and so does everybody else). He could charm every pair of pants off a centipede if he wanted to!

With Preeta Samarasan, Bernice Chauly and Tishani Doshi at a wine-tasting (like writers need an excuse). Too many cameras at the table! Preeta is gorgeous.

With Stephanie Theng. It was gratifying to take this because I’m used to being asked to sign things and to pose by myself, but rare is the… “fan” (*cringe*) who wants to take a pic with me!

Portraits of me…

Cam-whoring, as usual. Top pic by Chriswan Sungkono. Remaining three by “her personal photographer”.

And by me…


My beautiful and brilliant longtime friend Bernice Chauly, whose most recent book is Lost in KL, a collection of short stories.

Lijia Zhang, who worked for a decade in a missile factory – and wrote the tale!

Thanding Sari – doesn’t she look exactly like me in profile? I love her singing.

The Venus Flytrap: Ways of Worship

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It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.

We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.

I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.

It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?

We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.

I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.

Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.

Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.

The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.

An edited version appeared on Saturday in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.