Tag Archives: writing

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

“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

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

“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

“What was it like to be Andal?” – an excerpt in Scroll

“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.” – an interview 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.” – 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.” – an interview in Platform Magazine

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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: Don’t Compromise

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Nearly a decade ago, I took some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. It was in the form of this unforgettable, but retrospectively mystifying, line – “You have to decide – do you want to be a full woman or a writer?” The person who said it was encouraging me to quit my job and be footloose and foolish, both nice and sometimes rewarding things for a young person to be. It was superficial advice without logistical backing, conveyed by someone not only with tremendous privilege, but who knew exactly what the effect on a vulnerable, hopeful person would be. It was cruel advice designed to ensnare: I would either choose “writer”, and suffer without grounding, or choose “full woman”, and simply leave the playing field. Either way, very little art would be made.

She knew I’d choose “writer”. I was fortunate to eventually be able to walk back some of my choices, and recoup some losses. But to this day, I’ve no idea what was meant by “full woman”, but an old note I found trying to work it out begins on an eerie and absolutely revealing line. “I don’t believe in sisterhood.” Certainly, the advice-giver wasn’t a fan of other women. So when she told me that it was alright to be financially dependent for the sake of art, what she was really saying was that it should not be possible for women to have full lives.

While I was still young enough to be living out that advice with relatively little consequence (there’s a finite period of time during which you can still do this; the trouble is that once you’re in the hold of that floating life, you won’t recognise when its expiry date has passed until your life blows up), I received completely contradictory guidance from someone who had equally wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t make art. She was not as eloquent as the earlier advisor, which is why only one line remains in memory – “You were younger then. You’re a woman now.” Funnily enough, this advice too had to do with being a woman. The advice was to “choose” to compromise making art for the sake of the security of a full-time job, and to also give up any hope of leaving a situation that did not feel like home. I was a little older, true, and so I recognised: the advice-giver, stuck in a painful place of not being creative, just wanted company.

These two encounters were far from the only ways in which people I’d cared about or respected tried to thwart my growth as an artist. They are good examples, though. The first encounter was with someone powerful, the second with someone who was also struggling artistically. Both harboured bitterness. They are also archetypal, and many promising artists meet them in the forms of mentors and friends along the way. They may be gatekeepers, artists or peers. Such an influence is partly why so many promising artists also disappear. When they offer you a trap that implies that making art is a sacrifice, self-indulgent or an obligation, remember: it’s not, and you don’t have to choose.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 14th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 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.