SHARANYA MANIVANNAN – Interviewed by Tanuj Solanki

by TBLM

Barring a couple of stories, the protagonists in your stories can be said to be in stasis. They end where they begin; or if there is a change, it serves only to make them more conscious of their conflicts, paradoxes. Thought of from a technical viewpoint, stasis is the enemy of plot. What are your views on this thing called plot? How comfortable are you with it, and will we ever see you write a traditionally—for want of a better word—plotted work?

We’re taught that stories have beginnings, middles and ends, and that’s where this entire idea of stasis being the enemy of plot emerges. But as the protagonist says in the story “Conchology”, “[we] never have the whole story. We are reincarnated in the midst of narratives, making reparations for the sins of stories past.” This is how life is, and even anecdotes change based on the season of their telling. So there’s something about the artifice of the traditional plotline that doesn’t always appeal to me, as a reader or a writer. I’m challenging myself with bigger fiction projects that demand traditional plotlines, but I’m drawn to storytelling that is impressionistic in nature. That captures moments and moods, without necessarily resolving conflicts or paradoxes. There are different functions of art, and I don’t aspire to be able to achieve all of them.

As a reader, I’d much rather take believable stasis than an unbelievable deus ex machina. But I’ll go further and say: is it really stasis? If a character goes from, say, being shattered to learning to let the light to shine through the cracks (thank you, Cohen), has nothing happened?

At the level of the sentence, your writing is lush, with mesmerizing juxtapositions and turns of phrases. On the other hand, you sometimes use words that force the reader to fetch the dictionary. [Some examples: guñelve, catenary, acroamatically]. What image of the reader do you construct in your mind, if any at all? And how do you deal with the awareness that you may be using expressions that challenge his or her concentration?

I love beautiful words. I’m a poet, and I carry this sensibility into my prose without apology. At the same time, I’m also a reader – first and foremost. And reading books that expand my vocabulary has been a pleasure since childhood; my constant companion at around age 8 was an Oxford Thesaurus for children. I used it in lieu of a dictionary, which in my opinion supplied explanations. But a thesaurus offered meanings, comparative meanings in fact. So I could weigh what “spotless” felt like against “clean”, for instance. And understand it in relation to words that conveyed the same thing, but somehow, differently. Variances in emotional registers, suggestion. Tricks like onomatopoeia. The simple pleasure of voice, the word spoken. I studied and intuited all of these from a young age, and I remain steadfastly devoted to and drunk on beauty.

So unusual words don’t just adorn, they clarify. The word “guñelve”, for instance, which appears in the story “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed” to describe the white sun in the summer sky. Can it do what a word like “shining” can do? My argument is that it can do more. A sun that shines is one that’s taken for granted. The word “guñelve” however… and I feel like I’m standing amongst those tea bushes again, craning my neck toward the sun. Take the word “craning” that I’ve used there, which is so simply understood because it’s in common usage. Its function is what we consider now, not its probable origin, its suggestion of a bird with a long throat. “To crane your neck”. Once upon a time, that must have been a fantastic juxtaposition too. The currency of words changes, constantly. Cuss words lose their impact upon repetition. Propaganda manipulates the meanings of words. New words are created; words grow old and are forgotten. If emojis can have a place in the dictionary, why can’t beauty have a place in fiction?

I read an interview of yours in which you normalized your usage of Tamil words (if there was any other language also involved, please grant my pardon) by invoking the Junot Diaz example. I felt a dissonance, something that I wasn’t able to articulate immediately. Later, I did. Diaz’s use of Spanish in his English writing is charged with the fact that both languages use the same script, and in so far as the two share Latin roots, the reader has a chance (even if minuscule) to understand what is being said. Tamil and English use different scripts, and the non-Tamil reader has perhaps an even thinner chance to get at the meanings. Perhaps the Diaz example doesn’t apply, I thought.

To add to my confusion, I attended an Amitava Ghosh talk, in which he spoke of how incomprehension while reading should be alright, for it mimics our experience in a multilingual world more closely. He speaks, of course, in the wake of the Ibis novels, a salient feature of which was the wordplay and innovativeness in the writing [tootsweet (from the French tout de suite) for immediately; totticonnah (from Hindi) for a lavatory; dumbcowing (from Hindi) for the act of admonishing; et al]. Since this sort of wordplay isn’t central to your work, the Ghosh argument for free innovation and concomitant incomprehension might not apply in your case either.

The third way to look at it is to simply say that this is how people think / talk in a given part of the world. This argument is of course complicated for Asian and African writers, for most of their characters are anyway conducting their business in their mother tongues, and the act of writing in English is simultaneously an act in translation. So then, which words are to be provided in the original language, and which ones are to be translated to English? As editor of this magazine, I have on numerous occasions found young writers deficient in precisely this decision-making.

What’s your take on the three strands of this argument? We would love a lengthy answer to this lengthy question? 

I have not yet seen the film Arrival, but I read an interesting piece today about linguistic theory, its major plotline. From what I understand, the film is about a researcher studying an alien language with an unusual concept of time, and she finds that her own perception of time shifts. I quote from that article on The Smithsonian website: “an intimate relationship exists between the language you speak and the way you perceive the world.” The article goes on to talk about a controversial theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is based on the idea that language and environment mutually influence one another, just as thought and language mutually influence one another. The premise makes sense to me at the outset, but as I haven’t researched the hypothesis, let me now take a subjective approach.

There’s Tamil sprinkled all over the book, and it vexes some and it thrills some, but I was adamant about its being there. It feels a little exhausting to still be saying that this is how people think and speak in the so-called post-colonial world (even colonisation has hierarchies of importance, which I’ll ponder a bit later). Of course it is. We know that already. It shouldn’t be this big a deal. I shouldn’t have to talk about it so much. But we haven’t gotten to that stage yet, we haven’t shaken off our historical insecurities and hangovers, we aren’t done shaming people for having accents, we are still labouring under delusions that identity politics exist without Othering. And so a book like mine, that outright refuses italics or a glossary, is still a novelty. I’m not sure I agree that the wordplay isn’t central to the work, because I really don’t think, for example, that “headwriting” could have been “fate” instead. She’d say “headwriting” (a word I basically think either I or one of my friends invented) or she’d say “thalaiezhuthu” (literally: head + writing, or to say it more poetically, destiny written on the forehead as per Hindu philosophy). And so she does.

When I am very, very angry – and only then – I swear in Tamil. So am I speaking Tamil then? Or am I still speaking English? I tell you – it’s the latter. I’m speaking the only English I know, the most expressive and excellent words I have in my armoury, and they happen to sound like Tamil.

I am hyperfluent in English but not so in Tamil, which I now speak two dialects of: a functional Tamil I learnt since moving to Chennai, which in actuality is rendered in an accent I fake. But not convincingly enough, because my other dialect, my true tongue – which is Sri Lankan Tamil – is a subterranean river that gives itself away. Tamil is my mother tongue but English is my first language.

So here’s a secret: maybe my Madras Tamil is so convincing, in the book and elsewhere, that the reason the language is there in the first place – the deep diasporic loss of being Sri Lankan Tamil – is concealed. It happened even in the book. In the story “Gigolo Maami”, I had written the word “thosai”. My wonderful publisher, Manasi Subramaniam, is from Chennai, and in the proofs she sent me, the word was marked as “dosai”. And I went, “that’s right, that’s what it’s called here – and this protagonist would say and think just that”, and I changed it. (Shortly after, I saw the word “thosai” in a Nayomi Munaweera novel set partly in Sri Lanka and smiled, remembering my practical decision). [A later note: I read over this paragraph and see I’ve mentioned both “Chennai” and “Madras”. You see what I mean? There’s this great meme that says “Chennai is a place, Madras is an emotion” or something to that effect. In a funny way, it encapsulates the difference between a thosai and a dosai to me, too].

So I posit another theory: resistance against loss. Is Tamil, even mainland Indian Tamil, going to survive Hindi imposition, attractive second language choices in schools, the pressure to know English or Mandarin best? Let’s give it a couple of centuries and see (if humanity is still around then, to tell its own tales). I’m already a part of that first generation of linguistic loss. If I cannot have this language whole, I will have it in sweet, small pieces. It’s the same thing my protagonists do in The High Priestess Never Marries: the love they cannot have completely, they accept in tesserae and make mosaics of.

There’s also a difference between translation and connotation. I’ll give you two instances. In the first, a Tamil line is first spoken, then translated wholesale: “Come home, woman, and we can even boil the milk”. In the second, a character expresses something in English that might be indecipherable even so: “That bitch speaks as though she has seven-and-a-half sitting on her tongue.” In both these cases, the connotation is simply not given. Would all readers know about the romantic double entendre to the sexual first line: that he’s asked her to move into a house with him, where they will perform the cultural ritual of boiling the first pot of milk and letting it overflow? Would all readers know that seven-and-a-half refers to the period of time in which the cosmic taskmaster, Shani/Saturn, is said to dole out his troubles? No, not unless they are aware of a particular context. You need a lot more than Google translate for that. Is this a risky choice? Yes. Is it worth the risk, for the deep double-recognition that can take place? Yes. I’ve never been to America and I read books set there all the time. If their cultural references make sense to me over time, indeed augment what I know of the world and how I engage with it, mine can too, to someone anywhere but here.

I mention Junot Diaz often because people seem to accept translingualism better coming from a name they recognise who is lauded by the establishment (and I’m biting my tongue about gender… and not quite succeeding), but the true influence for me (and in fact, for Diaz, as he says in interviews) was Sandra Cisneros. Her Spanglish is at once flamboyant performance and intuitive evocation. It’s that love of language, you know? The perfect word, in any language. But I adore Diaz for one particular thing he said, rather than wrote: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.” What’s a little Tamil now and then, in a book where you say some of the English isn’t even immediately understandable?

Thanks for the above answer. Moving on, there is another thing that attracts attention in your stories—the dialogues. On numerous occasions, your characters utter something mystical, something that fits the tone of the overall story, yet retains an improbability with regards to what persons may utter in ‘ordinary’ life.

[Consider this from the story titled ‘Sky Clad’. The man and woman are having sex. The man says: “The first known maps were of the heavens.” A paragraph later, the woman replies: “Forget everything if you must. Even the perigee moon. Forget it. But don’t forget that there are things beyond our seeing. Beyond these projected spaces are depths that you will never comprehend. Run, if you’d rather. But know that even a planet of your consequence is tethered by the trajectory of its fated orbit.”

The dialogue fits. But if one stops to bother, it’s also strange]

Is that deliberate? If so, why?

There are words that are spoken and there are words that are thought, and almost invariably the latter tend to be more eloquent. I mean in the world outside of books, of course, the “ordinary life” as you call it. But the restraint isn’t because of a lack of vocabulary, just the choice to filter expression. Restraint is a personality trait, in words as in other things.

If we were having this conversation over the phone, you would hear me pause, stumble, my accent, you’d hear me laugh and you’d hear my irritation. But I’d still say all the things I’ve been saying so far.

So if a character has a colourful lexicon at her disposal, and I think we’ve already established that I’ve given all my women this, she’s damn well going to use it. I know I do.

How can one love language and not love to be seduced by it, to spar with it?

Meaning: if the lexicon is real, then it makes no sense to have one flow of words in her head and a comprehensibility filter through which she speaks. Restraint certainly isn’t among my characters’ virtues, after all.

My favourite illustration of this is from the title story. The High Priestess looks stunned at the Lucky Bastard, who has just used a term of endearment on her. She thinks: “I have waited my whole fucking life for someone to call me Kannamma”. And then, immediately, she says this to him, verbatim.

And the Lucky Bastard himself, he of the “nefarious intentions and the devastating lines”? Let me confess I plagiarised some of his choicest bon mots from my adventures in “ordinary life”.

Now to the themes. In fiction, inasmuch as a writer takes as setting the patriarchal world around them, any active feminism may seem a subversive act. You destroy that notion, as feminism is the natural state in your stories. I found your women to be incredibly powerful. They find beauty even in the raw aftermath of their mistakes, so much so that we are forced to acknowledge that the value of existence is this freedom itself—the freedom to make sexual choices, the freedom to regret, the freedom to create a story out of one’s lust. In literature, this sort of freedom has been the domain of men. And it is in cognizance of this fact that one ought to refer to your work as both necessary and bold, something long due and revelatory. What is your sense of duty, if there is any, as a writer? What have been your inspirations? Is there an ideology behind the High Priestess? We would love to have you ramble on these questions.

Thank you. I’m moved by your reading of the book in this way, because you seem to have grasped what I intended.

The book is subtitled “Stories of Love and Consequence”, and I think one of consequences of love and lust for women in heterosexual contexts is that unless they get extremely lucky, they’ve pretty much just got loneliness or conformity for choices. Love and marriage are where they get tripped up, no matter how independent they are. I’ve spoken extensively in other places about marriage as an inherently patriarchal institution, and I’ll take for granted that your readers are familiar with such perspectives, even if they are new to my work.

The two longest stories in the book, “Afternoon Sex” and “Cyclone Crossing” feature married women whom I intended to be antithetical in several ways, despite a few similarities. I didn’t find “Cyclone Crossing” easy to write because it was the story in which I pushed myself to consider the perspective of someone whom in real life, I may judge. She has such a sanitary life: so privileged, very fortunate in terms of her partner and family, able to entertain bourgeois whims like growing mangoes on inherited land. The social legitimacy of marriage is a part of the package, and she even meets her husband in that quintessential “tricked into going to a wedding to meet someone in the extended circle” way. On the other hand, the fiery, fragile woman in “Afternoon Sex” truly believes that marriage – not the institution, but her marriage – will protect her and save her life. She is the one who chooses to also have a lover, unlike her prudish counterpart who enjoys exerting power over her former lover but will not give in to her desires.

The mistress trope is one I barely explore at all, except very lightly suggested perhaps in “Corvus”. She’s all over literature already, isn’t she? The adultress, or the woman who would be an adultress if she wasn’t afraid, intrigued me more.

But these married women are only necessary foils for the characters whose stories are about the primary preoccupation of the book: partnership and solitude when the basic choice is to not marry. I.e. not give in to societal pressure, and not chart one’s journey according to sanctioned milestones.

So to go back to what I said earlier about the consequences of heterosexuality, love and marriage are feminist issues. I want for this book to complicate the ways in which we discuss the two. Because you can be feminist as fuck and also lonely as fuck, like I am. Even when I wanted to bend or break to fit a mould, when I thought someone I loved was worth that loss, my core nature prevented the same (what you said earlier about feminism as a natural state perhaps?). And there’s a political frustration that arises alongside the heartbreak, which is the question of why does it have to be this way for women like me? And so I wrote for us, and to shatter the notion that romantic stories have fixed endings. Because some of us are brave enough to not need them, even if we want them.

And if I felt a sense of duty, if any – it was to those women, the ones brave enough to be alone. I have been companioned by books, sometimes exclusively, at many times in my life. And I wanted The High Priestess Never Marries to be among such beloved companions, for other women like me. And for women who are younger than I am, for whom the temptations and the terrors of the establishment still hold a great sway. To tell them, listen sweet one, there’s another way they haven’t told you about…

What should we feel towards the men in your stories? I could notice two broad types—the sentient husband, who understands the woman who is in daily contact with him; and the wild lover, who carries a cyclonic intensity that often leaves the woman clutching the ground beneath her feet. Is that correct? And is the lover getting too much attention / power? Is he a chink in the aforesaid freedom?

I’d like to think that some of the men in my book act out roles which are archetypally female. The husband in “Cyclone Crossing” and the boyfriend in “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed”, for example – these lovely, understanding, gentle men who don’t patronisingly “give” a woman a freedom so much as accept that she intrinsically has it – seem to me to be in the supportive role traditionally expected of the female spouse or partner. And of course, the eponymous “Boyfriend Like A Banyan Tree”. Because frankly, I’m bored by the militant picturisation of the shitty male because of whom a strong woman forges herself. There’s gallons of truth in it, but we need to look farther. It’s not called a women’s movement for nothing. We have to move forward. Where are the partners who make this move alongside the women? I want to see more of them in the world, and so I wrote them into being in my book.

And then, of course, there are the men who wreak damage. Because we usually find the protagonists in a post-heartbreak scenario, I have to wonder whether the intensity is actually self-generated, rather than because the man who broke their hearts is really that intense. In “Conchology”, she describes him, mythologises him, but we never hear from him. She says he said certain things, but perhaps she only understood what he said a certain way. In “Take The Weather With You”, the incompatibility is clear. She’s wild and passionate, he’s calm and cold. All the intensity in the romance comes only from her. Even in “Sky Clad”, where the storminess begins in a pretty balanced way, the end (which shocked me when I wrote it) occurs as it does because the ardour is sustained only on one side. The women who find their perfect equals tend to find them in the divine, as in “Ancestress” and “Consort”.

But I also made sure that the women get snagged in their own conditioning a bit. In “Menagerie” and in the two long stories I’ve mentioned repeatedly, as well as in other places, the protagonist is made to choose between the wild lover and the anchoring one. And she’s not so much polyamorous as she is greedy, so she wants both. In this way, she plays out an archetypally male role. The Casanova – except that she’s female and stuck in a society that punishes sexuality. I recently watched the utterly stunning “Chokher Bali” storyline in Netflix’s Stories From Tagore series and I was completely captivated. That play of power and passion within constraints was deeply recognisable, even today. The constraints most especially. The choices, compromises and moral corruptions that occur within them.

Is the man a chink in the freedom? Of course, as discussed in the earlier question. But as I said, I needed to provide for the possibility that he doesn’t have to be. I wrote The High Priestess Never Marries in the second half of my 20s, and a large part of me hoped to have a favourable answer to the question of whether a woman can have both love and freedom by the time I finished it. I found that answer in my life in a very surprising way. And the last story in the book, “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed”, affirms that answer. The love is within. It’s just the scaffolding one has to do without.

I’d like to speak about queerness, which finds rather little space in the book. There is a gay male friend in “Greed and The Gandhi Quartet”, whose love life and obsessions closely mirror the straight female protagonist’s. There is another queer friend in the vignette “Stone”, who offers a word that changes the narrator’s understanding of someone who damaged her. I wrote that piece when exactly that had happened to me: I had been struggling with a lover’s rejection of himself and by extension me, and my friend told me about a book she was reading by Leslie Feinberg on a particular orientation within the “butch” spectrum. It allowed me to suddenly have compassion for a straight, cisgender man who was playing out his wounded masculinity by hurting me and demanding my obeisance to his desirability without affirming my own, which he did by offering pleasure but not partaking in it. In “Afternoon Sex” there’s a very minor reference to a female lover of Antara’s, mentioned in passing as is that character’s wont. Only “The Huluppu-Tree” is strictly queer, and even then the characters are from mythology, free of the societal bondage of this world. I care about LGBT issues in a personal capacity, and often mulled about whether the overt heteroromanticism of the book belied my solidarity. Ultimately, I made peace with the fact that I could not overlay a political bent out of guilt, as that would be both ethically and artistically detrimental. My core fascination was the power play between men and women, and it felt intellectually dishonest to profess otherwise.

What is your stance on the Chetan Bhagat event in Indian publishing? Which is also to ask: do you think that a majority of Indian readership is dismissive of intelligent fiction? Why would that be?

I was so amused to find out that Chetan Bhagat was releasing a book (One Indian Girl) with, very simplistically speaking, the same premise as The High Priestess Never Marries in the same month. I have not read his, and am not likely to, and I do not think he has read mine or will be likely to. I like the term you’ve used: “the Chetan Bhagat event”, because in many ways he is just a symbol of a much deeper concern, which is the current Indian attitude toward literature. I don’t know why reading for pleasure and to self-educate are relegated as only pursuits of the much-maligned intellectual category. We know this wasn’t always the case. A personal library, of whatever size, used to be a fixture in homes. Where did things go wrong?

By contrast, the last big literary “event” was probably The God of Small Things, a completely opposite kind of book. Gorgeously written, highly political, and sometimes needing those dictionary checks we talked about earlier. So what happened between millions of copies of literary fiction being sold and millions of copies of lousy fiction being sold? I’m not able to understand where the backlash began, or why it persists.

I keep very little store by the likes of those bestselling authors who proudly say they never read a book before writing theirs. What genuinely pains me though are the next generation of social media savvy writers who don’t really read either, for whom the desired outcome of a selfie post and a haiku post are the same. If all you’ve read are other Instapoets (and a big dollop of bite-sized Rumi, bless him), would you know what poetry is before you post a few lines online and call yourself a maker of it?

This question is related to the previous one. The readerships I talk of are the tiny ones interested in serious works. Do you think that unlike American readership, Indian readership is attuned more towards the older, safer, award-vetted works, and, by default, ignores the contemporary, especially in fiction? Shouldn’t sentient readers realize that they hold the fate of contemporary Indian writing in their hands? I have some friends, for example, who are good readers but who aren’t much interested in the contemporary Indian scene. How do I tell them that a lot of good writing is taking place in this country, right now? I guess my question is also: what happens to a contemporary novel or collection in India that isn’t a bestseller and doesn’t win any notable award?

The statistics are there for all to see: only commercial fiction and non-fiction sell well, and subsequently books like yours or mine that find that their footholds in the publishing market are getting smaller and smaller.

What baffles me above all else is the typical reader, who will read only a Bhagat novel, a Meluha one and a Potter one. So that old consolation line that at least people are picking up books falls flat, because these ones turn out to not be a gateway drug at all. They don’t lead to these readers getting hooked on to the hobby or becoming interested in literature itself. They don’t move on to reading other authors, classic or contemporary, who aren’t in that immediate genre. Many don’t move on to reading other authors at all.

But you’ve asked also about the atypical reader, who will read foreign lit-fic. Who presumably has a stack of Ferrantes but is missing an Ambai, a Perumal Murugan, a Mahasweta Devi among them. It may be true that contemporary Indian literary fiction, especially in English and in English translation, has a visibility problem, but anyone who loves books seeks out what they want to read anyway. The problem then isn’t in marketing budgets or the publishing industry, but readers themselves. So we go back to the embrace and promotion of mediocrity by the typical reader, and the rejection of homespun quality by the atypical reader. I’d venture to say that both may be rooted in the same thing. Some deeper insecurity – could it also be related to why we make such poor political choices too? What if all of it is tied up: self-loathing and unthinking structure-upholding, envy and encouraging the disappearance of excellence?

What do you make of statements like the tv series is the defining art form of our age, or, the novel is dead, or, it is likely, in the future, to have machine-written fiction?

Let’s be realistic. Books of literary fiction, or sonatas or kalaripayat or wayang kulit for that matter, are no more than small acts of resistance. The world will move forward with or without these. The most we can do is to keep doing what we do anyway. Who can predict what will outlast all else?