Tag Archives: literature

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nobody’s Muse

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When the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag was 17 years old, she married a sociologist around a decade her senior, with whom she had a son. Her husband, Philip Rieff, published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, widely considered a landmark text, in 1959. For years, rumour held that Sontag had such a large role in the work that she was practically its co-author. Now, her latest biographer claims to have evidence that it was her work all along, and that she had signed over authorship out of desperation to keep her ex-husband from gaining custody of her child in their divorce.

History doubtlessly contains more erasures like this. I recall once watching the cellist and poet Kevin Gillam perform Bach’s beautiful cello suites. But which Bach did they belong to? He cited scholarship by the conductor Martin Jarvis that it was Anna Magdalena, the composer’s wife, who wrote them. Perhaps this memory surfaced because I’ve been rationing the final few episodes of the cancelled TV show Mozart In The Jungle. I adore it. It “has blood”, to paraphrase the maverick maestro Rodrigo De Souza (deliciously portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Bernal) at its heart. He is irresistible – therefore, best on screen and as far as possible from in the flesh, please. Please! Brilliant, and potentially brilliant, women spin into disorder following affairs with him. One of them begins to receive visits from ghosts of musicians past, just like he does. But it’s women who come to her, beginning with Nannerl, Mozart’s thwarted sister. Then others: women forgotten because they weren’t allowed to shine. They come as warnings.

And there are those left to wreck themselves, supernovas self-imploding, as the profoundly feminist and beautiful Savitri Ganesan biopic Mahanati (which I watched to avoid finishing Mozart) illustrates.

It’s something I think about a lot in relation to #MeToo. A monster’s art isn’t as interesting to me as the art that they suppressed. Many women went underground, remained footnotes, lost confidence and disappeared with nothing to their names. They only came into the orbits of monsters because they had some spark of talent in them too. There must have been more Sontags who didn’t manage to surface again. Maybe their work was stolen. Or maybe it was never made. It might be better to be celibate than to be someone’s muse.

Actually, to be honest, there’s one more alternative. The much-married Lawrence Durrell wrote (this quote is famously misattributed to his friend and fellow rake – I mean writer – Henry Miller): “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Well, speaking as the woman, let me rephrase. Replace with the pronoun of your weakness and try again: love them, suffer for them, and turn them into literature. I prefer to do it all, do it bleeding, and put my name on it too.

Come to think of it, it’s a sweet irony that Durrell is rarely credited for these words of his either. I wonder what Sontag (or her ghost, appearing to an ingénue on the cusp of a mistake) might say about that.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 16th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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

“A rare and incandescent book”. – Trisha Gupta in India Today

 “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.” – Tanuj Solanki in Scroll

“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

“Manivannan weaves an impressive story that feels new while drawing from the familiar.” – Krupa Ge in Firstpost

“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

“The Queen of Jasmine Country celebrates both love and womanhood like never before.” – Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

“The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading.” – Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, Birdsong & Beyond

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

“Long after you have finished the little book, the warmth of Manivannan’s words and the intricately imagined world of Kodhai will continue to hum in your head.” – Devapriya Roy in ScoopWhoop

“There’s much lush lyricism here, born out of the natural beauty of Kodhai’s small world, and one wonders if this is indeed the poet-saint herself writing about her life.” – Pooja Pillai in The Indian Express

[A] lyrical fable seeped in strong, indigenous, sensual prose” – Resh Susan in Huffington Post 

“Exquisite prose and the journey of a sublimely emancipated girl whose ‘words will themselves become prayers’… [A] garland of a book.”– Lisa Rani Ray

“This book was just so beautiful! So, so damn beautiful!”  Booxoul 

“A compelling testament on art, beauty, poetry and magic in prose that is way out of the normal league. This is legend.” – Hey DJ – Spin That Wheel

“I’m in love with each and every page of this book.” – Ronak R. Shah

“I found myself immersed in the feel of the words: there is so much power and depth in the words strung together, like a garland, each word chosen with care and which are full of depth and rich meaning.” — Chitra Ahanthem in Books And Conversations

“[TheQueen of Jasmine Country shows you the power of language when poets pen down a novel, this is where the play of language and the elegance of poetry comes into play.” – Sahil Pradhan in A hindu’s view

“These words that Sharanya uses to describe what Kodhai (who later goes on to become Andal) felt in the book, might as well describe Sharanya’s own relationship with words. She weaves them majestically like they weave silk threads, delicately soft, yet strong, firm and unbreakable.” – Anushree K in Women’s Web

“It was like a thunderstorm of a love affair that leaves no scar yet lingers forever in who you become because of it.” – from an interview by Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle

“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.” – from an interview by Rochana Mohan 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.” – from 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.” – from an interview by Nidhi Verma in Platform Magazine

“It was not the goddess Andal who came to me as a muse but a teenager named Kodhai, who lived in the 9th century and wrote incandescent and anguished poems, never knowing what would eventually become of them.” – from an interview by Varsha Naik in Free Press Journal

“Kodhai certainly knew the vision of those peaks. It is easy to imagine her: walking deeper into the forest, lifting her hems as she crossed small streams, stopping for elephant traffic, while the magnolia she tucked into her ear wilts through the course of the day. I lift my eyes to the mountains and drink in the certainty that what I see is very close to what she too must have seen.” – a travelogue in The Punch Magazine

“I felt as though a peacock had suddenly swept in from a place of camouflage, tail unfolded, and rearranged the world with its resplendence.” – an excerpt in Scroll

“I grew along with the fence of sugarcane. My teeth, when they came in, grew strong on the flesh of those stalks.” – an excerpt in Harper Broadcast

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: Ondaatje’s Bibliography

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A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.

Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.

These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Vidya, Dark As A Blue Lotus Petal

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Who can tell what will survive the ages? Sometimes I think of all the beauty we have already lost to neglect, or worse, to elision. So when the scant biography of the 7th century Sanskrit poet Vidya, given to us by her English language translator Andrew Schelling, opens with this acclaim – “All agree that Vidya is the earliest and the finest of Sanskrit women poets” – we must not fail to read into the line that follows – “Or, if any woman wrote before her, the work hasn’t survived.”

There is a whole other corpus of literature that is forever lost to us, a shadow corpus of voices that did not even enter what we call the oral tradition, and which never had a chance of inscription.

When we are fortunate enough to still have the actual work of a historical artist, hagiography should be given only second place. In some ways, the fact that Vidya is little known except to scholars and readers of classical literature has allowed her poetry to be appreciated on its own standing, and not on the basis of what is said of her. This is a unique position: to neither have been co-opted nor forgotten. Schelling says that about 30 poems by Vidya survive; of these I’ve found half of them translated into English in his books.

Usually, the work will speak for its makers in ways that interlocutors cannot. The Vidya in these poems was scandalous: “As children we crave / little boys / pubescent we hunger for youths / old we take elderly men. / It is a family custom. / But you like a penitent / pursue a whole / life with one husband. / Never, my daughter / has chastity / so stained our clan.”

She was sly, funny and interested in extra-marital affairs: “Neighbour, please / keep an eye on my house / for a moment. / The baby’s father / finds our well-water / tasteless, and refuses / to drink it. I’d better / go, though alone, / down to the river, / though the thick / tamala trees and stands / of broken cane / are likely to / scratch my breasts.”

She lived long enough to experience bitterness: “Now that the days / are gone when I cut their / tendrils, and laid them / down for couches of love, / I wonder if they’ve grown brittle and if / their splendid blue flowers / have dried up.”

She was also South Indian. To quote: “But a gossip / by nature, / southern by birth, / I can’t hold my tongue.” And as though anticipating a later poet who would describe her as “Canarese Saraswati”, she wrote: “Not knowing me, / Vidya, / dark as a blue lotus petal, / the critic Dandin / declared our goddess of verse-craft / and learning entirely white.”

Before you seek Vidya out for yourself, here’s a small and beautiful stanza, echoing to you from a distant century: “I praise that silent / listener / her whole body bristling – / only a poet / linking words with ineluctable cadence / can touch / her entrails with fire.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 1st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.