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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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…