The Establishment: Love can be subversive: an interview with Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan says she doesn’t belong anywhere. She is a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in Malaysia, and has now been living in South India for nearly a decade. At 31, she’s published a book of poetry, a children’s book on loss and hope, and has a long-standing column in The New Indian Express newspaper, a platform that she uses “to move people and make people think.”

Her newest offering to the world is The High Priestess Never Marries, a collection of short stories on love and its consequences, which she describes as “a work of feminist spirituality.” The book has been over five years in the making.

The High Priestess Never Marries is a tour de force of language, desire, and ancestral heartbeats. It is both very South Asian and totally not in its scope: a text that constantly floats, almost putting down roots, but like the stories’ women narrators, never quite staying put. The pulse that runs through Sharanya’s writing is a roadmap for a visceral, felt feminism; one of compassion, vulnerability, and spirituality, which will appeal to readers across the globe.

Themes of love, loss, nature, mythology, and sexuality run through Sharanya’s work. Her upcoming projects include a book of poetry, a graphic novel, and a novella. The Establishment caught up with the author to discuss love, goddesses, and whether feminists can ever truly be in love.

Richa Kaul Padte: Love is the undercurrent that runs through your work: as a pulsating heartbeat in The High Priestess (“I do love you, I love you, I do”) and as a recurrent theme in your wider body of work. Why?

Sharanya Manivannan: Love is the undercurrent that runs through my life. There is never a day when I don’t express it or don’t lament that I can’t express it. Ancestral love, agape love, filial love, amiable love, sexual love, fleeting love, forever love. Love that breaks, love that remakes. Love that was a mistake, love that simply had to be made. Love that exists not unless you give it away.

In absence or presence, love causes us the greatest pain and inspires in us the greatest joy. And it inspires in me all I make, and all I aspire to.

Richa: Love, for me, has always been a difficult emotion to reconcile or articulate — particularly romantic love. And I wonder if its something that as feminists, we are encouraged to stay silent on, or even to slightly look down upon as being entangled in the patriarchal trappings of marriage, or as signaling a loss of freedom? How do we reconcile this? Is there even anything at odds to reconcile?

Sharanya: To me, the challenge of feminism is to dismantle, or to restructure, the institution of marriage as it exists now. Only in the West is this institution connected with love. In India, one only needs to look at the statistics that show how few people (5%) marry outside of their caste to know that love might be the last thing associated with it in practice (although not in performance — the “arranged-cum-love” marriage, a bizarre PR gloss on the custom, is a big thing in urban centers).

Marital rape is legal in India: The Supreme Court just declared that a Hindu man can divorce his wife if she refuses to live with his parents. Indian Islamic law still allows for polygamy and triple talaq divorce. [Editor’s note: a man can say “I divorce you” three times to dissolve a marriage quickly.] Love therefore can be subversive, but the institution of marriage is not.

Richa: Speaking of marriage, in many ways The High Priestess is about the consequences of being unmarried, particularly in a socio-cultural context within which, as you write, “to be married is to be above reproach.” In other places, you’ve spoken about these consequences in your own life. Can you talk a little about this?

Sharanya: To be single to me is to often be lonely, but ultimately lucky. To reject the social legitimacy that marriage provides puts one in a difficult position. It means it’s not easy to find homes to rent alone, it means travel agents may ask you for a letter of consent from your father if you wish to go abroad. It means countless micro-aggressions and moments of outright discrimination. And your own fury. But it also means freedom. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Richa: What’s really interesting to me in relation to marriage are the widows in your stories. Widows occupy this very uncanny liminal space, possibly everywhere, but particularly in the Indian subcontinent. And then of course there is “The Black Widow” story, in which the creature known for its venom is both glorious and gloriously lonely. What drew you to the subject of widowhood, be it spiders or women?

Sharanya: I was thinking last night about Antara in the story “Afternoon Sex,” who is married to a man 20 years her senior. And of the traditional Hindu wedding rituals, which involve a heterosexual couple circling a holy fire, the man in front, until the last circle, where they change places, so as to indicate that she should die before him — because widows are considered inauspicious in Hindu culture. So I was thinking of Antara and whether she would have walked the last round behind him, too. Because she knows he will die before her; she regards it as a privilege to be his widow.

A woman who has outlived her man, who is not hierarchically under anyone’s control — what a dangerous thing to a fragile ego-ecosystem! I read something the other day, but I just can’t remember where, about a woman being “liberated into widowhood.” I think it was tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a dark truth to it in some marriages.

Richa: I want to talk about goddesses! They spill out of your texts, marrying mortal women, shape-shifting, getting their hearts broken. In Indian Hindu society, goddess-mythology runs deep. It is also often tied to a goddess-whore dichotomy, or the idea that a woman must be one or the other. I read The High Priestess as rewriting these myths: both for women and for the goddesses of mythology themselves. What are goddesses, to you?

Sharanya: I absolutely see The High Priestess Never Marries as a work of feminist spirituality. As a practicing Hindu in an increasingly fundamentalist country, I believe all our discourses around legal frameworks, human rights and ethics must, if we continue to be religious, also be matched by a commitment to interrogate our systems of belief and see what remains standing.

The goddess has sung to me and in me for a long time, and I hope she always will.

Richa: Something that strikes me deeply about your feminist (writing) practice — both in this text but also in your newspaper column, “The Venus Flytrap” — is your willingness to be openly vulnerable. “Conchology” talks about “tenderness as a way of being in the world.” Can you talk about what it means to be tender, both in a harsh world, but also within the feminist articulation of women’s strength?

Sharanya: If one has loved and lost deeply, only two choices remain: to calcify from the damage, or to make a beautiful mosaic from the tesserae of the heart. To choose to be tender is to choose the second, and it is an act of courage and an act of faith.

I am of the belief that the most radical politics comes from a place of compassion. I am of the belief that a feminism based on empathy, inquiry, and kindness is one that naturally lends itself to intersectionality, long-term impact, and lived practice.

Richa: The High Priestess chronicles love and its consequences, which seem to me as a reader, often to be loss. Yet, the stories you conclude with are hopeful. What does survival mean to you?

Sharanya: The book gets sweeter as it ends, because lightness and hope were necessary counterbalances to the vastness of heartbreak. A deep love is a lifetime in itself, and between the brackets of physical birth and death we each live so many lives. To survive is to keep the story going.

Richa: I know I’ve gotten so very much, but what do you hope readers will get, or take away, from this book?

Sharanya: There has always been a lot of solitude in my life, and I found succor in books ever since I was a child. I still read that way as an adult. And certain books are rose tea and Cesaria Evora’s saudades, certain books are perfumed pulse points and a precious crystal in the pocket. That’s what I’d like The High Priestess Never Marries to be for its readers. That type of comfort. That type of companion.

This piece was first published in The Establishment on 22 October 2016

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