Guardians of the subconscious

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 10, 2018

Love blooms: “I want a boyfriend like a banyan tree. A man who’s a forest untohimself, with conspiracies of birds, and secret blossoms, and shaded places”Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The High Priestess Never Marries: Sharanya Manivannan, Fiction, HarperCollins India, ₹399


Sharanya Manivannan’s consistently surprising turns of phrase and the ability to mould her language according to the story’s thematic concerns set her apart

In ‘Cyclone Crossing’, the longest story in Sharanya Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries, the narrator sees her husband and her ex-lover greet each other on the eve of a mighty cyclone. The air inside is fraught with premonition and the air outside is full of thunder and lightning. With just a few skilful paragraphs, the author provides us all the flashback we need.

“‘There she is,’ he points to the sky. ‘Gathering her skirts for a good piss.’ He and Shravan pat each other’s shoulders in what men who aren’t brothers call a brotherly embrace. I stand there smiling, at a slight distance, and catalogue what is immediately visible of what has changed of him since we last met: the greater grey in his hair and sideburns, the diamond in one earlobe, and above his dense eyebrows, deeper creases.”

Note that while the narrator is perceptive about her husband Shravan’s forced politeness (ergo the spectacle of a ‘brotherly embrace’), she’s ambivalent about the effect this man, Guruguhan, is having on her: she stands at a careful distance while he makes a risqué joke, observing him closely nonetheless. Presently we find out that while the narrator calls him Guru, Shravan addresses him by the more formal ‘Guhan’. “This is how we know him — by two names, as though who he is is bisected by the facts of one life and the accident of another.”

In this collection, there are several such startling, carefully crafted tableaux, where nature, circumstance and the vagaries of the heart converge in constantly surprising ways. The narrator of ‘Scheherazade on the Shore’ is telling an unnamed man a most curious story, about a bunch of wild giraffes who adapt to life in a city after their necks get entangled in a bunch of electric wires. The trauma teaches them how to stay alive. And as the narrator explains the giraffe’s survival, she reveals a bit about her own defence mechanism — the act of storytelling, the same as Scheherazade.

“(…) But perhaps I told you this story so that I could be prudent with the ones I didn’t tell, the ones that would take more. (…) You were right: I had done this before. Not everyone was worth the trust. Not everyone survived the tellings.”

There are several stories here that are no more than a page or two in length, interludes in the overall symphony of the collection. My favourite among Manivannan’s short shorts, ‘Boyfriend Like a Banyan Tree’, is an incandescent piece of writing. Consider its opening salvo: “I want a boyfriend like a banyan tree. A man who’s a forest unto himself, with conspiracies of birds, and secret blossoms, and shaded places; a matrix generous enough for the world. And into this forest I will wander, a beloved of the world, and walk beneath the aegis of his boughs knowing that the same love that roots them raises me.”

The vision of the boyfriend as a nurturing, ‘generous’ forest plays well with the rest of this book, where women are planting saplings, wearing flowers in their hair or “lassoing moons”. Quite a few of Manivannan’s women — and some men, like the hypothetical banyan-boyfriend — can be read as nature deities walking the otherwise realistic realms these stories are set in: The roads of Chennai, the idyllic getaways of Pondicherry, amidst the honey-gathering tribes of the Western Ghats. Indeed, there are stories involving actual deities and romantic entanglements.

Modernity pressed home its dominance via the wondrous capabilities of science: machines, medicines and so on. But it wasn’t enough that science was keeping out nature (sometimes literally so; raincoats, automobiles, heaters). The idea of nature had to be changed: From the nurturing Mother Earth stereotype, we shifted to the mechanical model, wherein the world was one big machine. We could borrow, steal or tear out its spare parts — all in the name of science and progress, of course.

Manivannan’s women are not really into angry outbursts or existential ennui. What’s really at play is the tension between two ways of life: Are you used to hurriedly compiled meals or do you luxuriate in cooking? Are you as attuned to the ways of soil and shoot as you are to the rhythms of your electricity meter? Are you, in fact, a motorbike or a banyan tree?

In the tarot deck, the High Priestess is the card that denotes the guardian of the unconscious. Manivannan’s narrators are in similar territory; they are women who’ve learnt to trust their instincts the hard way. Loss has changed them in some cases, but the change never erases their almost-divinity, their preternatural connection with their subconscious (manifested often as a connection with nature). This is a formidable debut, an immersive short story cycle that commands undivided attention.

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Published on January 06, 2017
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