When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…

Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.


Selected reviews & interviews

‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings

‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog

‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day

‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters

‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie CoughlanWindows, Mirrors, Doors

On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog


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The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016


Book Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II (trans. Pritham Chakravarthy)

There’s a certain brand of Tamil kitsch that has been in style, both regionally and nationally (and beyond, in some cases), for a couple of years now that is fundamentally antithetical to America’s hipster subculture. Both phenomena can be read, at first glance, as based on revival or reappropriation of the “authentic” – making the obscure or the lowbrow populist trendy. But hipsterism is self-conscious, reliant on posturing said to be “ironic”. The beauty of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II – a perfect example of contemporary Tam-kitsch – is that it contains no irony at all. It isn’t possible to enjoy these stories if there is a hesitation to enter their particular moralities or engage with their brassy sensibilities. Delightfully, however, they are so thrilling that it is very easy to.

The first volume in Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series carried seventeen pieces; while this one features only six, its stories are lengthier and by and large rewarding. The anthology kicks off on a spectacular note: Indra Soundar Rajan’s gripping novella “The Palace of Kottaipuram”. Originally serialized over 31 issues of Anantha Vikatan in 1990, this perfectly-paced mystery has all the elements of grandiose narrative. A royal lineage is thwarted by a curse dating to colonial times that avenges a raped tribal woman: all its male heirs die on or before their thirtieth birthdays, and its female ones do not survive infancy. The educated and urbane young prince Visu begins to believe in the curse after the death of his elder brother leaves him next in line, but his rational girlfriend Archana is not at all convinced that supernatural forces are at work…

The character of the intrepid female investigator is carried forward into “Highway 117”, the collection’s only major non-prose offering and its weakest link. Written by Pushpa Thangadorai and illustrated by Jeyaraj, its promising storyline – of Karate Kavitha, who pursues a temple-plunderer along a train route with her handsome sidekick Umesh – doesn’t translate well into the form. The illustrations are uninspiring, and seem mainly to serve the sequence in which the heroine, tied up in a chair with her blouse torn open to reveal her breasts, delivers a series of karate kicks to her assailant. Even this, unfortunately, isn’t done with particular panache. To this end, in terms of visual mediums, the lurid magazine and book covers – full of fanged creatures, sexy women and other titillations – and vintage advertisements which intersperse the stories are far more interesting and striking. The covers from the 1960s and 1970s are colourful, expressive and arguably even objects of a certain beauty – by contrast, the four covers featured from the 1990s seem markedly depleted in taste or attractiveness; no comment is offered on why, but one assumes they are representative of the aesthetic of that era.

Indumathi’s “Hold On A Minute, I’m In The Middle Of A Murder” suffers a little bit for its melodrama, but has enough bloodshed and black magic (“gained in the forests of Iran and Iraq”, no less) to entertain. The occupants and staff of a mental hospital come under the influence of spirit possession, vendettas beyond the grave, and a hodgepodge of faith systems that incorporate everything from Christian-Satanic binaries to Tantric rituals.

Two brilliant stories follow in this predominantly horror-based anthology: M.K. Narayanan’s “The Bungalow By The River” and Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning!”. The first is a ghost story set in Malaysia, and successfully evokes, without literary pretensions, a milieu and society that might be lesser-known among local readers of Tamil pulp fiction, and is more convincing both in its gore and supernatural themes than Indumathi’s piece. Kumar’s police mystery set in Coimbatore, meanwhile, contains a twist which – although translator Pritham Chakravathy and editor Rakesh Khanna say might be familiar – is quite ingenious to those who do not regularly consume crime or mystery fiction.

Both these stories are racy by the standards of the eras they describe: in the first, an “adamant” young woman consents to staying overnight on holiday with her fiancé, in the second, a jeans-clad, moped-riding woman and her friends watch pornography together in the mid-80s. The latter story in particular is traditionally problematic when it comes to that old bugbear: the desirous female (and her inevitable punishment), but pulp is hardly the place to expect otherwise. For those overly concerned, however, the anthology’s final piece, Resakee’s “Sacrilege To Love”, offers some minor consolation: it has two alternative endings, one for “diehard romantics”, and the other for those who, disgusted by the chauvinism displayed by all its male leads, might root for an offbeat happily-never-after.

There are two ways to read pulp: you can read it incredulously, lamenting the cause of beautifully-turned prose and rolling your eyes at all the rolling heads. Or you can read it without any self-consciousness, giving in to all its gaudy, gory glory. There’s really only one good way to do it though, and that way, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II is an absolute treat.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Legendary Suckers

It must be terrifying to have it happen, to wake up one morning and find your animals – livestock, but perhaps pets too – completely exsanguinated, three puncture wounds on each carrion, evidence of vampiric occurrence. You would test your gun and say your prayers, tell your neighbours, and little by little the mythology of the creature that did this would grow, as would its trail of carnage.

They say they’ve found it: the chupacabra. But then, they’ve always been finding it, then second-guessing that they have. A fortnight ago, not one but two strange beasts were shot dead in North Texas, and it seemed, not for the first time, that the mysterious “goatsucker” of contemporary Latin legend had been found. And, not for the first time either, these claims were invalidated.

One news report said: “the DNA test showed that the animal was a canine-coyote hybrid and not a chupacabra.” As if they had the DNA of a chupacabra to compare it with and be able to say, conclusively, that it was not one. As if the chupacabra wasn’t exactly that: a canine-coyote mongrel with mange and a bad reputation.

I’m not particularly invested in proving the existence of the chupacabra. I am sure that, to people who’ve seen it, or had it wreak its terror on their farms, it exists indeed, no less than the phenomena I’ve encountered are real to me. I will believe this without a grain of salt, but I fall into that category of people who aren’t affronted by the paranormal. What intrigues me, then, is how scientific efforts to classify this creature are so quickly nullified. For a creature of a relatively short recorded history, dating back to just 1990, it should be rather satisfyingly easy to catalog it as an unfortunate crossbreed and be done with it, putting us unenlightened freaks in our place.

Yet the chupacabra evades once again. And this is what makes me think that it isn’t that the chupacabra, with such a dramatic approach, doesn’t want to be found, but that we do not really want to find it. As with all things stripped of their mystery, it would immediately lose its draw. And we all enjoy a little mystery.

Relative to the cryptids I have known, I feel sorry for the chupacabra. It’s less pretty than a fox, shyer than a vulture, a disadvantaged predator. It hasn’t, thus far, been known to touch babies. I’m not saying I’d like to have one in my life, but having consorted with at least one incubus, turned from my door many more, and jousted with trickster gods and ordinary sleight, I think the poor thing deserves a break.

And then I remember some less supernatural, but equally scary, beings I have learnt (from much experience) to spot on sight, and I understand better: under the decoy of mythology, under the cover of night, those with no quintessential magic of their own perform as all parasites do. Perhaps, like an unconvinced scientist, I too have miscatalogued. What I may have maligned as vampiric might only be chupracabric – miserable, misunderstood, maybe delusional, and profiting from the gullibility of people like me, partial to the profound. I wonder what might happen if I name the next chupacabra I see as counterfeit, and rescind its enigma…

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Maladjusted Medium

“These leaves are used in headache ointments,” she said, and handed me a few. They had a interesting, pleasantly medicinal smell. I asked her what the tree was called, but its name is the last thing I remember from that evening.

We were in the playground, waiting for the baby to tire herself out. The woman speaking was employed by my friend, for whom I was translating the conversation. She walked over and tore a bit of bark off the same tree. “This is used to make paper,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing but these trees and maybe twenty houses, spread out far from each other.

“At night it’s pitch dark. By 6pm, my heart starts to palpitate. I can hardly sleep.”

“Didn’t you grow up there?” I asked. “How can you be so afraid? And what are you afraid of?”

“Ghosts,” she said. “I saw one when I was ten years old.”

Later, she would say that she didn’t normally tell people about these things. About how since she had seen that ghost, with its ghastly monkeylike face, she lived in nightly fear. About how some years after that, she developed the ability to channel deities, and exorcise the possessed – only in her case, it wasn’t so much an ability as an inability to resist being taken over. It always happened without her control, on two specific days of the week.

Later, I would also wonder why she had told this story at all – at 6pm on a Tuesday, no less.

It was the first her employer had heard of this side of her, and there were many questions. She carried on talking about her experience as a medium – but mostly, she talked about fear. Her fears seemed normal enough – fear of the dark, fear of spirits, fear of being in train stations at night, fears about negotiating life in this city as an unthreatening, working class woman.

At some point, she stopped me mid-translation. “I don’t want to talk now, I’m getting scared.” But it was too late. Even as we began to change the subject, she started to hyperventilate. Her slight body tensed and shuddered violently, her face contorted in anguish. I ran for the baby, thinking back on an incident from my own childhood in which a possessed woman had grabbed hold of me and flung me around like a crash test dummy. My friend put her arms around her until she calmed, sobbing. We left the playground as soon as we could.

There was only one thing about the possession that disturbed me, and disturbs me still: how a person of such power – a person who had the capacity to support her community as a healer – could have so little control over it. She was at the mercy of her own power. It had, in fact, turned on her.

And doesn’t this ring true for many of us? How easy it is to hide our own light, our own gifts, so as to get along with a hostile environment. But to get by on a mediocre life when one is meant for extraordinary things is to poison the self. On some level we are all maladjusted mediums. How many of the ghosts that besiege you are of your own killing?

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

Mayda del Valle on Grandmothers, Spirituality, and Faith

Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.

I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a  searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.

If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

I have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.

Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”

She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.

When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.

The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.

In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.

All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.

This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.

I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.

An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.

For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.

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