Tag Archives: stories

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Story Only Of What Survived

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There are objects and there are stories, and sometimes the two entwine.  Museologists embark on projects of assisted storytelling: the history of the world in one hundred objects, the history of India in two hundred. The latter, still being curated and inspired by the former at the British Museum, will find the objects catalogued into nine “stories”. Nine ways of telling, then. Nine connections of dots.

The objects have gravitas: articles of public religion, preserved scripts, art pieces. But something feels missing, scrolling through. This is not the history of the world as I understand it; this is only an arrangement of facts. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. But what has always spoken to me is silence. The true history of the world, as I encounter it, is in that which didn’t get told. In the British Museum’s project, for instance, we find the Ain Sakhri lovers, an 11,000 year old Israeli erotic sculpture. It doesn’t move me, but it reminds me of artifacts that do: the 6,000 year old Valdaro lovers, skeletons laid to rest with their limbs embracing, ceremonial flint blades along the thighs. Or more poignant still, the 4,800 year old pieta skeletons: a mother cradling her baby, her skull tilted in a gaze toward her child, discovered in Taiwan.

What I mean to say is: the story of only what survived, or even the only stories that survived, can never be the whole truth.

How would she have measured that life – that mother? What objects – what everyday mortar-pestle, what tooth relic of the firstborn, what period rag – evidenced it? Imagine tabling them for ourselves too: the synecdoches of a history of the self.

Weapons are among the objects in those museum curations of the history of humanity. Handaxes of white quartz, jadeite, basalt. They are beautiful, if we forget their use. And they remind me of a gemstone I gave someone because among its properties was the capacity to distil the darkness from drink. I hadn’t known yet that he was addicted to toxicity. That object belongs to him but its history belongs to me. There is the reverse too: a pendant I don’t wear because someone terrible owns the exact same one. Perhaps other people’s objects tell our stories too.

Years ago, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, I conceptualised an installation using absence. My absence, in fact. My departure from the country that was my home for 17 years, and all the things I left behind, not knowing that it was to be a permanent cleaving. What happened to that? Perhaps that artwork is a kind of object now, a question mark. For some reason, those photographs of workers on skyscrapers comes to mind suddenly: the way they posed dangling their legs over beams, eating lunch in high altitude without getting dizzy. Some things are like this. The frozen moment is best; all movement is precarious.

The object as narrative device. But that word’s the key I think. Device. Not a song, not a memory, not the way expressions flit across faces just long enough to tell the truth. A thing is only a thing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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I was very thoughtfully interviewed by Kirthi Jayakumar earlier in 2015 for Femina. The piece appeared in the Dec 18 2015 issue of the magazine.

Please keep your eyes and hearts open and your loving wishes sent in the general directions of The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) and The Altar Of The Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). And me, if you have more love to spare. Because I do, and I’ll try to make more books from it :) Happy new year! xo

Sharanya Manivannan Femina 1Sharanya Manivannan Femina 2

The Venus Flytrap: Flood Stories

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I counted myself among the lucky ones, while the city drowned. How lucky to be dry. How lucky to have water to drink, a toilet that flushed. How lucky to be parcelling food and not waiting for it. How lucky to be in my own clothes, and to have excess to give. And even when the power went out and took all lines of communication with it, how lucky to have little to do on a lightless night but to tell stories.

In hundreds of cultures, there is a legend about a Great Flood. The most well-known one comes from the landlocked region of the Abrahamic religions: Noah, and his ark of animals. Strangely, the elements of this myth are echoed in folklore everywhere: from the Aztec story of Tapi to the Masai story of Tumbainot to the Alaskan story of Kunyan. The common tale is as follows: that the world is punished with a terrible deluge because of human wickedness, and a chosen person or family build a vessel in which pairs of animals also took shelter. After days or weeks at sea, they finally release a bird or beast that returns, bringing a symbol of hope and dry land.

Hindu lore also contains a similar story: that of Matsya, the fish or fish-man, the first avatar of Vishnu. He warns Shraddhadeva Manu, a Dravidian king, of an impending deluge, and instructs him to build and fill an ark with animals, grains, seven sages and his own family – enough, as in every version of this tale, for a new world to come.

There are plenty of other twists, other downpours and other tales.

The Yuma of Southwest America have a flood tale which is also the origin story of the desert: a divine deluge is sent to eradicate dangerous animals, but when people insist that some of them must be kept for food, the waters are evaporated by a too-powerful fire. A beautiful Nigerian story goes that the moon and the sun were married, and their friend the flood demurs to visit their home but they insist; finally, the waters come through the doors and rise so high that the couple must live in the sky. In many South American flood stories, human survivors are turned into monkeys who slowly regain human attributes.

Primordial water is the origin of all life. A flood myth is essentially a second chance, to recreate: what must we do, once the earth is once again beneath our feet?

So many stories to tell by candlelight, in a storm, as one waits for the next opportunity to give, to get back out there and connect people, gather supplies, support the bravest among us all who wade into the worst-hit areas. I will not romanticise what it is like to wait, in that same darkness, for rescue.

When the floodwaters abate, there will be other stories. Among them, most of all, will be stories of ordinary heroism; ordinary because the massive outreach effort that the people of Chennai have shown is how humanity should always be. It should be ordinary to care. It should be habitual to think of others.

Flood stories are about destruction and punishment, but they are also about cleansing and renewal. They are about the obligation of survivors to question the methods of the past, and to build a future based on the wisdom of loss. What will we do differently, Chennai, now that we know how much we want that difference?

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

Book Review: Fish In A Dwindling Lake by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi, trans. Lakshmi Holmström)

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On the cover of Fish in a Dwindling Lake is this image: two women, their backs turned, look out onto a body of water. They must, we intuit, be silent. We know this because we know that in the presence of that which moves us, words only come later. This is the same poignance that this collection of eleven stories imbues.

For nearly four decades, Ambai’s writings have stirred her original Tamil readership with their forthright engagement with gender, particularly womanhood. In this, her third collection in English, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, her protagonists are held together by the reiteration of a single notion – “journey”.

Most are aged or aging but remain travellers: pilgrims, commuters, chaperones, vacationers, passengers. As with all voyages, it is encounters with strangers that teach them both about themselves and the world. In “Journey 5” two women holiday in Pondicherry with the intent of drinking wine, and find themselves partaking of a feast in the home of elderly strangers in a de facto relationship. In “Journey 7”, an unsuspecting Nani-Mausi at a train station finds herself escorting a runaway for whom leaving her husband may or may not be a kind of theatrical ritual.

Although others are set in places including Mumbai and Imphal, the most memorable stories evoke a deeply Tamil milieu, both in descriptive ambience and identifiable morality codes. One returns again and again to the stunning opening piece, “Journey 4”, in which a pregnant woman tells a stranger a shocking family secret, standing by the Kanyakumari shore. In, “One Thousand Words, A Life”, pregnant women again are its central characters: the tribulations of giving birth in a village during WWII leads into the heartbreak that “history is made up of so many silences”. In “The Calf That Frolicked In The Hall”, the collection’s third outstanding piece, the literary culture of Tamil Nadu in the ‘70s, when the anger of young men was considered glamorous, is both nostalgized and taken to task.

But the compassion of the author’s voice extends to men, particularly in “Kailasam”, in which thwarted male desire is treated with a complexity that only a feminism that has been steeped in actual human engagement, not just political rhetoric, would allow. Similarly in “Journey 9”, in which a gigolo is subject to brutality by a group of female clients, and washes his wounds in the home of a kindly woman who once declined his services.

The motif of water – still and flowing – emerges often, and evinces a series of nuanced tellings of what it means to inhabit a body that ultimately will return to the elements. A man falls or drowns himself in a well, another in a lake, a woman imagines carrying the tides home in a pot to her beloved, another has a refrigerator that forms mysterious shivalingam ice stalagmites.

Ambai’s work carries such power because it is neither sterile nor sensationalist, both things that writing that takes the body as an axis has the danger of becoming. In Fish in a Dwindling Lake there is a profundity and subtlety that could easily be attributed to age, but more importantly and less facetiously, to empathy. Like the young woman in the indelible “Journey 4”, like the nondescript women on the book’s cover, we simply watch for a long time, too stirred to speak.

An edited version appeared in The Hindustan Times.