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…

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