One of my favourite Tamil words is pasalai, for which I have unsuccessfully tried to find an equivalent English word. The proficiency of an adopted tongue failed me and fell short of the wisdom of my mother tongue. An Old Tamil word I discovered by chance, it encompasses within its three syllables the longing of a woman waiting for her lover. It is the heart-ache that manifests itself physically, robbing her of her luminosity and rendering her listless. I have pined, and I have cried, and while reading parts of The High Priestess Never Marries, I was reminded of this word. This collection of short stories by Sharanya Manivannan claims to set forth stories of love and consequence. To agree with her would be unfair, for her stories are so much more. They are my secrets and desires in written form, picked unknowingly from my body and mind, given back to me in a manner so exquisite that is almost painful to contemplate.
These are stories about Chennai, or Madras, as I knew it when I was a child. This is the city with the longest beach and a thousand watchful eyes, gendered upbringing and insufficient interaction between the sexes, unreasonable curfews, inquisitive family members, oppressive heat, unimaginable filth, but at times, great beauty. In Corvus, she writes of the city thus: “..all kissing on rooftops and curfews and the way P. Susheela’s voice rose with unhindered clarity from the watchman’s mini-radio downstairs during the scheduled power cuts.” This is the city I recognize. In these stories, I find the city I cannot wait to leave behind, and the city I know I can never escape from. In Nine Postcards From The Pondicherry Border, she clarifies this sentiment: “There are parts of the world that imprint themselves on our souls, and we carry them with us ever after.” Later she adds, “…a city I constantly attempt to abandon, but cannot, wilting there like a plant that cannot tolerate new soil.” She has distilled for me in elegant prose the conflicting feelings that continue to invade me. I put down roots here in my teenage years, living with relatives and attending high school with my cousins. The rules of language and behaviour were new, I felt lonely in a crowd and content when left alone. And sometimes, desperation seemed to pull me in many directions, frustrating and crushing me in turns. It is this time in life I recall when I read Afternoon Sex, as she mentions Spencer’s Plaza and bus routes, and a seventeen year old who starts going out with a boy. She reminds me of my lapses in judgment, the girl I was a long time ago, the sum of whose mistakes makes the woman I am today.
These are stories about the nuances of love – passion, affection, heartbreak, adoration, unconditional, mutual or not. And numerous kinds of love – love that leaves scars, love that heals, love that is magic, love that is painful, love that has been felt from the depths of one’s being. While the stories may be written in English, they transform and breathe, in both Tamil and English, without need for translation. The bits of dialogue in Tamil are hidden treasures; the ease with which she traverses the chasm between English literature and double entendre in Tamil is clever while remaining rooted (there is a delightfully dirty line in Gigolo Maami). These are stories of people who are ignored or forgotten: the slum-dwellers with their gay rituals of death, the fish-sellers who pray to the sea, the Narikuravars who eke out their living in this most inhospitable of lands. These are stories of women, who live by their own moral and ethical codes, who take pride in the principles they have fashioned, who are unlike each other, yet similar in the way that they lead their lives with grace and demand your respect, if not your acquiescence for their choices.
I have been a fan of the author for a long time now. I read her essays and stories, often agreeing, mostly busy marvelling at a turn of phrase or a word I hadn’t encountered before. And then one day I watched a video in which she recounted how she was allowed to accompany a group of Irulas on a honey gathering expedition. (This story finds its place in the book too, titled Sweetness, Wildness, Greed.) I find I don’t want to hear writers talk, it seems to take away from the image I had of them in my mind. They sound like nothing I’d want to hear. Not her – her voice was the honey she had watched being collected. Soft, warm and sensuous, and if sound had a colour, her voice would be golden brown. I was smitten, a little bit. I imagined meeting her and asking her to narrate stories from her life, thinking her time was mine for the taking. I wondered what words she’d use to bring these stories to life. I want to ask her about the intersection of femininity, feminism, and spirituality; and what the moon means to her. I would like to know which of the women in her book she relates to the most, which of them reflect her experiences, like light through a prism, brilliant for having been broken. I would ask her why the stories vary so much in length, from half a page to over forty pages. I don’t really want to meet her though; I’d be at a loss for words.
This book then, is the perfect dessert, the flavours and textures coming together to stimulate your palate. It is sweet, bitter and salty; like honey, wine and caramel with sea salt. It is the dessert I ate too fast, in my hurry to devour it all. It is the dessert I shall eat again when the moment is just right, this time slowly, because I know it is to be savoured. It is alive. It is vital. It is nourishing and ravishing in different ways at different times. Its taste will forever be on my tongue. It is also a beautiful book to hold – red swirls, whorls and petals on a hard cover, a companion that is both vulnerable and strong. It is a book to cherish.
The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence is a collection of short stories by Sharanya Manivannan.
An edited version of this review (if I may be so bold to call it that) appeared in the October 2016 edition of The Madras Mag.