A Lantern in My Hand

“How do I tell you, except by telling you —

How because of longing I almost died.

How because of language I lived.”

The Altar of The Only World by Sharanya Manivannan

I am not going to tell you about the verses and the metaphors. Not about the themes and the imagery. But I want to tell you about how I received Sharanya Manivannan’s The Altar of The Only World and how I feel after reading her poems.

The book reached me on the day when my breath was uneven and when I could feel something throbbing in my throat. Anxiety. An unexpected guest. A painful one at that. It was hard to do anything on that kind of a day. I only wanted to wait for the nightfall and answer the call of darkness.

But against the beam of light that escaped the orange curtains in my bedroom, the cover glittered. Gold and black. It drank the evening light. Its thirst was not greedy, but graceful like a cat’s. When I held the book, it looked like a lantern in my hand. I read a poem randomly and it called me a light-bearer. Love.

I began from the beginning, picked up a pen, and started having a conversation with the poems. I wrote in the sides, over the words, beneath the poems:

DQg0hP1VoAUcEeuThat aches!

Where are these goddesses?

You are not alone.

I hear your lament.

Drink that ocean.

Make me a fire-eater.

I hear your music.

Give me those flowers.

Pure pleasure.

Oh! Dear Venus!

Delirious. Delirious. Delirious

My father would have held my hand and saved the book from the assault. But some books have to be read that way. I need to talk, tell the book that it’s causing a maelstrom, and still surrender to it. Love.

I intend to read The Altar of The Only World in other ways too — I want to read it to a friend who is nursing a broken heart, send it to a friend who wants to crawl out of an abyss, leave it in a temple, hide it in a chest, and read it along with a friend who wouldn’t cure my feverish love with cynicism.

Above all, I wish to treat the book like it’s a soothsayer. I want to walk to my bookshelf, pick up the book, open a page, and receive my word. Bibliomancy.

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The Immortal Music of The Mortals

Dearest reader, this post contains spoilers. Please forgive me. I have SO much to tell you about the book, and I didn’t want a boundary. Thank you!

6624257Neelaranjani — the warrior princess, as our heroine Janaki calls her — is a tribal gypsy. She is dying of thirst, so she enters Janaki’s backyard, seeking water. How can she enter an agraharam! What a blasphemy! But Janaki, although scared that her gossip-hungry orthodox neighbours might witness her clandestine act, allows Neelaranjani, and her son to shower in her backyard, and offers a portion of her breakfast. Before leaving, Neelaranjani holds Janaki’s hands, and utters a prophecy. Janaki should not quit practising veena, for only she can bring a silent raga to life.

The phrase — silent raga— keeps appearing over and over again, as though it is an underlying current that connects every character in the book.

Everybody has a silent raga playing in their lives.

Janaki, who is coerced into looking after her family after her mother’s untimely demise, has a loud silent raga. She wants to continue sharing her soul with veena, the heavenly instrument. But how can she, when she is expected to labour from dawn to dusk, for her family who fails to appreciate all that she does for them?

Mallika, Janaki’s younger sister, has a silent raga. Her mother might have died. But she has Janaki. Her everything. Will she have Janaki with her forever?

Venkatakrishnan, Janaki’s father, has a silent raga. A note that is unkind, immoral, and out of place. Who can fix the notes?

Gayatri Chitti, Janaki’s aunt, has a silent raga. With her face caked with inches and inches of talcum powder, with her head filled with lust, and in the later part of the book, with her body filled with pain, she is unapologetically herself. Her raga fills me with rage. But that woman is something.

I can’t hate anybody in Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga. Every character is extraordinary in their own ways. Sometimes magical. Sometimes painful. Extraordinary all the same.

This incredibly atmospheric novel is set in a small, sleepy, judgemental town called Sripuram. Unlike other Brahmin families, Venkatakrishnan’s is aloof. Besides her two close friends, and her music teacher, Janaki is not allowed to talk to anybody. Even if she tried to befriend her neighbours, she would only be judged more because it’s that kind of a community.

Merchant observes that the walls don’t speak if the people behind them don’t. Sripuram’s walls are replete with stories. And even the trees have many tales, because girls hang themselves from them.

10 years after giving her heart and soul for her father and sister, Janaki escapes from the clutches of Sripuram. She marries a Bollywood actor, who is a Muslim. Venkatakrishnan becomes more insane. Mallika feels abandoned. How could Janaki do such a thing? Deserting her family for a Muslim man?

Mallika, and Venkatakrishnan move to Madras, because Sripuram would never allow Janaki’s story to be buried, when it has reached national dailies, and tabloids.

In a decade, after Janaki’s abrupt exit from Sripuram, life only becomes bleaker for Mallika, and her father. He becomes delusional, and he is sent to the Institute of Mental Health. He loses all orientation. He cannot remember Janaki’s ‘betrayal’. He cannot remember all the carnal pleasure he shared with Gayatri chitti. He cannot remember that Mallika is now left alone. He is completely functional in his own world.

Maybe, Mallika would have preferred that to the lonely life she is made to lead. Despite a great job, and kind colleagues, she has no respite from her bitter past. And to add insult to the injury, Janaki returns after 10 years.

How will the sisters reestablish the bond that was deemed to be killed? How will the sisters bring themselves to forgive their father? How will the sisters see each other for who they are? How will they make peace with the past? How will they give second chance to their future?

Ameen Merchant weaves a tale of a dark sky that is adequately embellished with stars. He hands us myriad notes to compose our own silent raga.

Women. Ah the women in The Silent Raga. There is a Brahmin woman, who is suppressed, and who breaks free to present her talent to the world, and to marry a Muslim man. There is a Muslim woman, who offers golden philosophy, as a cigarette dangles in between her lips. (Zubeida, I love you.) There is a Bengali woman, who doesn’t want her daughter to be in an abusive relationship. There is a Brahmin widow, who shares the secrets to bargaining, with a 13-year-old girl — dress well, and go to the stores which are run by men. There is a Brahmin young girl, who kills herself, after her bridegroom walks out of the wedding hall, because the dowry was five thousand rupees short of what he was promised. There is a music teacher, who prays to her saki, who also took her own life. And there is this warrior princess, who can see beyond.

Women. They are all perfect. Imperfect. Conservatives. Rebels. Ugly. Beautiful.

They fight. They lose. They win.

I heart them.

There are some things about your life you learn not to share. Not with anyone. Like the answers to questions you never summoned the courage to ask, or the inner voice no one else hears.

Memory is binary. The moment, and the feeling in the moment.

If hopes and dreams and wishes all could be reduced to one single essence, one otherwordly scent, that would be attar.

In the darkness of my head, I saw the notes rise slowly, glowing like flames on a copper tray. And then the raga spoke. It was my voice, through my fingers. Lord Shankara closed his eyes.

It’s been 12 hours since I finished reading the book, I am still in a trance. It’s the sort of trance that I don’t want to break. It’s the sort of trance I wish I could return to whenever I want to. It’s the sort of trance that makes reality an illusion. It’s the sort of trance that makes illusion real. It’s the sort of trance that sends melancholy to the dark chambers of my heart. It’s the sort of trance that lights up the very chambers with hope, and redemption.

(Archived from my deceased website. Some posts had to be exhumed. They were way too close to me.)

For Once, I Loved Bitter Gourd

All alone on a night like this — quite as confession and blackwidow blue. Oh what she would give, tonight or any night, for a lover’s mouth, for a lullaby, for a moon so low it could snag in the conspiracy of branches. And she sits there in the darkness and watches the silhouettes of trees against the city sky blanched with artificial effulgence, and admires the silver rings on her toes, and thinks of how a good reading can unbraid everything. She blows a smokey cloudkiss to the Venus flytrap in the corner and even the Venus flytrap doesn’t bite back.

The High Priestess Never MarriesSometimes, I want stories to be closer to me. I want the characters to drive on the roads I take. I want them to speak my tongue. I want them to know my gods and goddesses. I want them to lose themselves in the ocean where I seek solace.

Sharanya Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries is close to my bosom for the said reasons.

I read the book this February. As I finished every short story and postcard fiction, I kept asking myself, “Between prose and poetry, where does this writing lie?” I released the question religiously, only to realise that it was an exercise in futility.

Because the stories were just there.

Feral. Timid. Pregnant. Empty. Loud. Silent. Intimidating. Comforting.

The stories were just there.

If Haruki Murakami’s heroes kept making spaghetti in his books, Sharanya Manivannan’s characters were fond of bitter gourd. More specifically, bitter gourd tossed with jaggery.

Dark, bitter, and yet sweet. Quite like her stories.

Bitter gourd that tastes of love and all its consequences. It is my simplest, most sincere dish: my heart on a platter.

‘This is an epiphany,’ she grins, her nose running, her back resting against the spice cabinet. I watch her for a few moments before reaching to serve myself.

With her clean hand, she grabs mine. ‘Thank you!’

‘Anytime, my love.’ I squeeze her hand, drop the spoon I reached for, and decided to wait. What a pleasure it is to give.

Sometimes a meal is a psalm. Sometimes it is a code, a consolation, a sense of an unbroken coast in a season of ravages. Always, it is an offering. Always, it is an embrace.

The other motifs created the feminine, divine, resplendent atmosphere too. Toe rings. Mangoes. Neem trees. The colour red. Celestial beings. And of course… sea, sand, soil, and shores. There were myriad omens which made me feel feverish.

I love Sharanya Manivannan’s women. They did not demand my sympathy. They did not offer condescension either. They were beautifully vulnerable, incredibly human. They related their stories in a tone that was free of apologies. Their voices were laden with regrets, melancholy, and pain. But there was no pretense.

I love her women more because those are the ones who can listen to my story without judging me. Those are the ones who can say, “You fucked up? It’s fine. Let’s clear the mess together.” Those are the women who won’t ask me to stay strong. Those are the ones who would say, “Weep. Weep. Weep. It’s okay to be broken.” Those are the ones who understand the need to feel belonged, the need to love, and the need to be loved and cherished.

Those are the women who know what it is like to be a woman.

I wanted to unleash my love on two women particularly — Sarala Kali and Antara. (Oh! The names! There was a man called Mazhai.) Both the women taught me something that I have been meditating for a long while — allowing myself to feel.

I am tired of hearing phrases like, ‘You have always been brave. Continue to be brave.’ Or a patronising one like, ‘Snap out of that depression.’ Or a reduction like, ‘What you are feeling is a mere disappointment.’ So when I met Sarala Kali and Antara, I naturally warmed up to them more for they didn’t wage war against their emotions. They walked into the eye of the storms. They swayed to the tunes of gusty winds. They destroyed themselves. They re-birthed themselves. And when the cyclone had crossed, they were brave and authentic in the way they embraced their sentiments. How can I not love them!

It’s been a long while since I finished the book. But I can’t capture one word as such and pin it down to explain how I feel about it. There is a lump in my throat. I want to hug somebody and cry for a little while. I want to take deep breaths. I want to reread some stories from the book. I am giving myself to the quicksand of thoughts. I am throwing a courageous glance at the bright clarity that has surfaced. I feel everything. I feel nothing. I am melancholic. I am content.

Maybe, I am one of them. Maybe, we all are…