Our Mistake Is To Put Romantic-Erotic Love Before Other Kinds: Sharanya Manivannan

"I wrote The Queen of Jasmine Country in six weeks," says Sharanya Manivannan, "unlike the five years, nine years, a dozen years that I labour over a manuscript."

“I wrote The Queen of Jasmine Country in six weeks,” says Sharanya Manivannan, “unlike the five years, nine years, a dozen years that I labour over a manuscript.”

“I began to devour words with the knowledge that this was the only miracle of my life – to have them.” ~ Sharanya Manivannan in The Queen of Jasmine Country

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. Stoic silence and chaos – both find their existence almost simultaneously in what she writes. Her prose is like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold, rainy night, that comforts and caresses you like nothing else, while sending little shivers through your mind.

I got to chat with her and ask her about some things that matter, and her dedicated approach to her art, and her passion towards politics and society came unmistakably through. When she says something, it makes you sit up and take copious notes.

Writing about Andal

When asked where and how she found inspiration to write a fictional story about Andal, she paints a surreal picture about a dream in which she saw Andal, and how in the following year she wrote the prologue and left it at that.

She goes on to say – “But when it actually happened, it happened suddenly, and completely overwhelmingly. I wrote The Queen of Jasmine Country in six weeks – an unbelievable feat considering that I’m used to living with and laboring on a given manuscript for five years, nine years, over a dozen years and counting.”

Very poetically Sharanya tells us further, “I found Kodhai writing by lamplight in a cowshed in the late December chill. I found her exhilarated by her visit to the big city (Madurai). I found her wandering the foothills of the Western Ghats, keeping the company of deer and waterfalls and flowering trees. I found her in the smallness of her nights and days and in the grandeur of her own imagination, on which she takes flight to the mythical landscape of Ayarpadi. I found her, first and finally, in her poems. Which is the last place that most people seemed to look.”

Giving voice to the forgotten and the silent in her stories

In The Altar of the Only World, Sharanya makes characters from various epics meet each other, the forgotten ones get some space, and perspectives are shared and revered through these prisms of elapsed colours. “It is in places of silencing, erasure and obliteration that I most often find the stories that haunt me and turn me into first a witness and then a writer. It is not by chance that stories disappear, be they folklore or factual narratives about incidents that have prevented from entering public knowledge (be that through the media, or through history textbooks). They are often suppressed. The Altar of the Only World had Sita’s story as its base, which I built upon by adding the stories of Lucifer and Inanna. I found in the three of them a common core about devotion and the commitment to endure. Much of what I write is against forgetting. Whether that’s mythology in which a character is not given her due, or cultural narratives that we do not hear about, my work is to say – “Here is another way to perceive this.”

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Pic credit: Rahul Dev

Our mythology is replete with characters from all strata of society as well as sexual orientation. It is so vast that if we pick each of them, a completely novel dimension of the story can open. While artists are trying to subvert these stories to bring out nuances, we find instances where in our society these characters are largely used to misinterpret the narratives and the same Gods and religions are used to deny rights to the minorities.

Religious narratives and mythology twisted for vested interests of right-wingers

Sharanya articulates like very few can, “One of the dangerous ways in which religion interacts with fascism and oppression is through the co-opting of narratives and characters, forcing on them a spin that aligns with a larger agenda. So when it’s useful, a story will be pulled up as ‘proof’ of progressiveness. This is used especially to illustrate the past glory of a religion, or its supremacy over other faiths.

It is not only queerness but every way of being that contradicts the status quo that is given this treatment. So you’ll have misogynists talk about Draupadi as a symbol of female power, you’ll have casteists say Nammalvar was a non-Brahmin, you’ll have religious bigots bring up the Vavar mosque in Sabarimala or the presence of the Ramayana in South East Asia as symbols of syncretism, you’ll have queerphobes portray Mohini as a transwoman – but these are clever distractions. Symbolic distractions from what they espouse within the home, in society at large, and on the level of the state.

That people with a rightwing bent of mind do this is less interesting than the question of why people without such a bent of mind aren’t themselves willing to look more deeply. If we allow the rightwing to co-opt these narratives, twist them, elide them and keep them from being meaningful in any way but a sanctioned way, we do ourselves a disservice.”

Gap between the law and social practices

Sharanya has been a voice of the LGBTQ+ community and through most of her work she tries to paint pictures that strive to throw us out of our heteronormative comfort zones, as a society. So are we freer now to acknowledge our differences and respect them, what with the latest SC verdict about section 377 and some other progressive initiatives?

When asked she explains, “There is a long way to go yet. The law offers a scaffolding of protection, but that doesn’t necessarily trickle down to individual circumstances. Can a person be assured that they can be themselves in their own homes, in school or at college, in public places, in workplaces? That they will not be bullied, face discrimination, be oppressed, or be at physical risk? As a comparison, there are numerous Indian laws in place against dowry, domestic violence, rape, manual scavenging, etc. – but we don’t necessarily see their theoretical protections play out in ways that prevent the deaths of individuals or ensure that justice is given to survivors. Society needs to change, not only the law.”

Conducting surveys to placate the growing fear of the parents that now that the laws are not stringent their kids might ‘turn gay’ is being guilty of reinforcing the prejudice in its own way. “Perhaps, rather than taking the parents-talk-to-children approach, it’s the parents themselves (as well as teachers) who need to be educated and counseled first. So that their hearts and minds are open when their kids want to converse with them.”

Deconstructing ‘unconditional love’ in her stories

Taking the talk ahead, when I ask, “Is unconditional devotion to a person possible with the kind of avenues that are available right now?”, she emphatically brings to the table the point of what relationships mean.

Pic credit: Jaison

“Of course it is possible. But before we use the word ‘unconditional’, let’s ask ourselves what the ‘conditions’ are. And whether they make the whole enterprise more beautiful, or otherwise? Respect? Lovely condition! Honesty? Ditto! So when we say ‘unconditional love’, precisely what do we mean, and why do we value this idea?

The first mistake is to privilege erotic-romantic love over other kinds. There are so many kinds of love in our emotional palettes, and social conditioning hierarchises them. We can reject this hierarchy, and re-centre our lives, our priorities and our politics from the heart outwards.”

One should be able to distinguish between unconditional love and abusive relationships, so she says, “It is also a mistake to demand unconditional love, for many abusive relationships are based on this very template. Love is both something you shape into being and something that transforms you. You cannot pin it down to a contract.”

Marriage is a heteronormative patriarchal idea

The conversation goes on to polyamory from here, and while talking about its nuances she beautifully clarifies, “Polyamory (romantic-erotic involvement with multiple partners, without deceit) is much more complex, since it isn’t tied to the institution of marriage, and theoretically operates on certain principles of trust and honesty. When we dismantle patriarchal notions of marriage, we will and must go through this and other iterations of what it means to love, the role of desire, and the long-term purpose of partnering. Doing so isn’t at odds with love.

When we misunderstand marriage to mean love (and not, as it has always been, about strategic alliances, endogamy-maintenance, policing of sexuality, and other totally unromantic things), we then misunderstand the rejection of heteronormative patriarchal marriage to be the rejection of love. It is the very opposite. It is a demand that love reigns, and changes the structure.”

Feminism and the institution of marriage

There has been a lot of talk about the institution of marriage and the modern day feminist not being complementary to each other. Which is why feminists are very often asked about how they view marriage from the lens of their feminism.

Sharanya stresses that misunderstanding marriage to mean love is incorrect, and understanding marriage as an institution, its history and social function, its role in society today and in the past, and the vital statistics, is more essential.

“Let’s look at the incredibly high rates of women who leave the workplace in India soon after marriage, and the incredibly low rates of inter-caste marriage. Let’s look at the sexism built into wedding rituals and language, which clearly indicate that women are seen as part of household property, in temporary safekeeping in her natal home, and that men’s families do them a favor when they allow them to marry into them. It’s simply impossible to be a feminist and not interrogate these things. Feminism is necessarily about addressing inequity, while marriage is a structure that maintains inequity. Every generation of feminists has approached this as a fact, chipping away at this structure.

Pic credit: Anjan Kumar

So feminism and an unthinking acceptance of matrimony as a natural trajectory do not go hand in hand. That doesn’t mean that feminists cannot marry. It does mean that whether or not they do, but especially if they do, they are obliged to contribute to rehabilitating the institution and to challenging its inherent patriarchy.”

“They are obliged to contribute to rehabilitating the institution and to challenging its inherent patriarchy.” – What a wonderful, powerful thing to say!

Feminist dialogue on social media & choices

I immediately seize this opportunity to ask her about the recent criticism that contemporary feminism has received, for the nature of its activism being predominantly through social media, and whether she thinks social media as a tool to empower women is effective at least in some way.

Very succinctly she elucidates, “I can’t agree that third wave feminism is primarily expressed though social media. It’s primarily expressed through the choices we make, and the lives we live as a result of those choices. A fraction of our thoughts and feelings about the same make their way onto social media, where they then stand an equal chance of attracting the ire of hateful people, as well as of influencing those who have not been exposed to the possibilities of a more equal world.

This is one reason why there are many feminist voices on social media – despite the horrific risks of abuse and harassment, there is a chance of reaching out to people who really need to know that not only is misogyny not okay, but that there are movements that actively fight it. While the gamut of intersectional feminism is not well-represented online, I do think that online activism can be effective. For example, I sometimes hear from women whose families keep strict controls over them, who use anonymous accounts to either express themselves more freely (sharing their art, for example), or to be connected to a wider world beyond their restricted circumstances.”

This view, I, as an extensive social media user, endorse wholeheartedly. I have personally received several messages as to how the medium has been powerful enough for some tangible progressive changes that many women (and men) have made in their own lives.

Powerful words

There was something very unreal, uncanny at times about so many answers that Sharanya gave, with the way they resonated with me. Especially when asked about the practicality of her books revolving around the themes of love, loyalty and deep feelings of passion in a world that is slowly approaching a place of religious fanaticism and regression, she speaks about the silent resistor – “My feeling is that there are and always have been ‘rivers beneath rivers’, to paraphrase the feminist thinker Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That despite the ugliness of the world, which is not new, there are always people who believe differently, who quietly resist, who will support the resistance of others even if in their own circumstances the choices they can make are not counter-current. This is how we have oral traditions, for instance.”

She goes on to tell us how canons in epics have been subverted by so many artists in the written form as well as through other mediums and says, “I’ll give you an example from my learning that went into my previous book, a collection of poetry called The Altar of the Only World. On the one hand, you have the canonical Ramayanas (the one in our popular imagination is not Valmiki’s, as usually thought, but a combination of Tulsidas’ and Doordarshan’s). On the other, you have folksongs in Telugu and Bhojpuri and other languages which present more of Sita’s interiority, that show subversions and emotions that fly in the face of conservative strongholds. And which simply do not pander to a half-hatched feminist viewpoint that is overly influenced by either the Western or the Brahminical. So when a writer of today subverts the epic, she does so because of the treadpaths already left before her. It is short-sighted for anyone to think that their resistance is new or unique, just as inequality itself isn’t.”

So what does this mean to us as living, breathing individuals?

“That does not mean that the way the world is, isn’t demoralizing, on a daily basis. It is. Because everywhere you look there is fascism rising and vocal expressions of support for the same. There is visible support for misogynists, racists, predators of all kinds. One of the greatest feelings of disillusionment is realizing that a person you know, who cares for you, exercises their democratic privilege by electing into power entities that actively harm great numbers of people. And this is an experience that vast swathes of people have had in recent times. But take heart: there are always rivers beneath rivers. Find them. Find succor in them.”

On this note, she goes on to tell us again that there is a reason forgotten characters find a place in her prose – someone like Andal, “because she is a good example of all the above, her elevation to ‘goddesshood’ goes hand in hand with the erasure of her poetry. Her legend, even when retold with love, is almost always prized above her literature. I see The Queen of Jasmine Country as a book that goes a small way – a smaller way than her modern translators and the ancient orators who kept her work alive through recitation, but still (I hope) a meaningful one – in bringing her poetry to a wider audience.”

If you are keen to read about a woman who broke the stereotypes of womanhood silently, persistently, way before they started to come on roads for that, buy your copy of Andal and revel in the magic that is Sharanya’s prose, the depth and magnanimity of which shall remain etched in your mind giving you tremendous hope and solace.

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Book cover via Amazon

Image source: Sharanya Manivannan, pic credit Catriona Mitchell

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