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October 26, 2018

A New Novel, The Queen Of Jasmine Country, Brings To Life One Of The India’s Earliest And Most Celebrated Female Poets

As told to Shreya Ila Anasuya

Sharanya Manivannan, author and poet, and poet-saint Andal are separated by hundreds of years. And yet, Manivannan reimagines Andal’s childhood in a debut novel that feels as fresh and relevant to our times as it is to the ninth century

Verses composed by the medieval Tamil poet Andal are still recited in Tamil Nadu, but relatively little is known about the poet herself, the only woman counted among the twelve alvars, poet-saints remembered for their passionate devotion to Vishnu, or Krishna. We do know that in her own lifetime, Andal was named Kodhai. And it is Kodhai that poet and author Sharanya Manivannan recreates in her remarkable debut novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country. Told in Kodhai’s voice, the novel traces the inner and outer journeys that Manivannan imagines Kodhai would have taken in order to embody the powerful voice that still resonates in our world today – a torch song of both love, and freedom.

Of the many things your first novel could have been about, it is an imagination of what young Kodhai’s life was like. What prompted this choice?

Queenwasn’t meant to be my first novel. I’ve been trying to write another one set in Eastern Sri Lanka, called Constellation of Scars, since I was 19 years old. In fact, I was just getting ready to re-immerse myself in that book and another Lankan work, after three trips to the island within a year, when Kodhai came into my life like the fragrance before a storm. I wrote Queenin six weeks.

Was it a difficult task – building a world that is so much older than the world we’re in today and keeping the narrative fresh and as relevant to today’s women as it was to the women of the ninth century, when Kodhai was alive?

There’s a scene in the book in which Kodhai describes encountering the love poems of the Kuruntokai, which preceded her by centuries. That is the same sensational experience that I had, even more centuries later, and surely the same one evoked in those who first listened to those words, perhaps 2000 years ago. Something about human experience, or more accurately human emotion, remains fundamentally unchanged.

The loneliness of a loveless person, be they in the 9thcentury or the 21st, is at its core the same. I wrote Kodhai as a wilful woman, who wants to coax the universe to fulfil her desires – and also one who takes umbrage with the injustice of her society, however helpless she may feel. These traits are in her poems. Anyone built this way, through time, shares a heart with all her sistren before and after her.

What were some of the most unexpected – or memorable – things about Andal that you discovered in the course of your research?

Before I started writing her, there was an unilluminated lacuna for me: the shift in tone between the girlish, jubilant Tiruppavaiand the darker, sensual Nachiar Tirumoli. Dennis Hudson’s paper “Tantric Rites in Antal’s Poetry” helped me see Kodhai completely, addressing this shift and giving me a sense of chronology. The grandeur of her poetry is self-evident, but what I wanted was her interior life, the smallness and secretness of her nights and days, what drew her, what drove her.

Throughout your work, particularly in your last two books of short stories and poems (The High Priestess Never Marries and The Altar Of The Only World) you’ve explored a few enduring themes – women yearning for freedom even as they yearn for love, creativity, spirituality, myth, love and heartbreak. What did the writing of The Queen of Jasmine Country teach you anew about some of these things?

I feel my protagonists – and myself – have freedom but yearn for love more often than the other way around. Kodhai, however, lacks and longs for both equally. There was a lot of sadness in my time with Kodhai, because in certain ways her hagiography is an erasure of her writing and selfhood. It’s funny how working with one of the most celebrated women of classical literature only took me deeper into my lifelong engagement with silences, suppressions and elisions.

What are you working on now?

I have some four or five manuscripts simmering, as I always do. The ones I think of the most are the big novel I mentioned earlier, and a graphic novel which I’m also illustrating. Both are about the disappearing matrilineal, matrilocal culture of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, which is where my roots are.

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