Prayer for the light-bearers

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 09, 2018
Ways of verse: ‘I’m astonished by how many new poems came out of me,’ says Sharanya Manivannan

Ways of verse: ‘I’m astonished by how many new poems came out of me,’ says Sharanya Manivannan

The Altar of the Only World; Sharanya Manivannan; Harper Collins; Poetry; ₹350

The Altar of the Only World; Sharanya Manivannan; Harper Collins; Poetry; ₹350

Sita, Lucifer and Inanna come together in Sharanya Manivannan’s latest book of poems to give new dimensions to hope, exile and redemption

Sharanya Manivannan’s second book of poems comes nine years after her first, Witchcraft, was published to critical acclaim. The Altar of the Only World explores the desires, failings and redemptive qualities of three characters borrowed from diverse systems of belief. Sita, Lucifer and the Sumerian goddess Inanna form an unlikely triumvirate whose commonalities and differences reveal much about exile and hope, and the multitudes contained within each of us. Excerpts from an email interview.

How old are the oldest poems in Altar?

I began to write this book in January of 2009, and completed it in August this year.

A quarter of the poems were written in the last few months. Talk a little about that experience?

There were several times when I thought this book was done with me. I thought my writing career was over by 2013, and did not expect to publish books again. I’d decided to release it as a chapbook when Manasi Subramaniam, an editor at HarperCollins India, emailed asking if I had a book of poems for her. One doesn’t shrug at an offer like that. I sent her the half-book and told her (and myself) that I would try again. Almost a year passed without a single new poem. Then, Veenapani Chawla passed away in November 2014. I had begun to write the book at Adishakti, her theatre campus in Puducherry. Her passing shook me, and when I found myself in a creative revival a few months later, I returned to this manuscript, as well as a book of stories I hadn’t completed. I signed the contract for The Altar of the Only World and, a couple of months later, for the book of stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, which was published first. As Altar was being prepared for publication, I was asked to look at the manuscript and make changes, if any. I don’t think either I or my publishers (and my brilliant editor, Sohini Basak) anticipated the extent of expansion and revision I undertook. In retrospect, I’m astonished by how many new poems came out of me (I also took out some). In two marvellous torrents: once, when I felt compelled to illuminate some of the motifs more clearly, and again when I was asked to increase the page count.

The words ‘light’ and ‘sun’ return time and again. Why choose these words as a thread?

The book was born in the chthonic, and in the search for light in all its meanings — as illumination, as blitheness, as clarity. Lucifer, whose name means light-bearer, brought the light, as did Inanna, who went to the underworld to confront her shadow. What I discovered was that these were not contradictions. Stars fill this book. The sun is among them, and the one Sita thinks of often, having married into, and been banished from its dynasty. Fire, too, is a repeated motif. We have walked through fire, and the myths help us live with trauma, to accept the knowledge of how we became salamandrine.

Some poems read like incantations or prayers. What about that form is meaningful to you?

I’m fascinated by rituals of devotion, which are quite different from rituals of religion. Practice, the gestural, is not by default faith or belief. All survival is a form of prayer, articulated in words or otherwise. All survival is a form of belief.

The manuscript started out exploring Sita and Lucifer as two characters in exile. When did it expand to include Inanna?

It began with Sita alone, weeping in the forest. I cannot recall exactly when the other two characters entered the manuscript, but I know they did separately, Lucifer certainly within a year or two. What Joseph Campbell said about the Persian Lucifer came back to me, and I was struck by how similar the core emotion of both tales was: both Sita and Lucifer are so loyal to their divine beloved that they choose exile over the compromise of that loyalty. Lucifer opened up so much — if Sita was the earth and the trees, Lucifer was the heavens. My research expanded to include astronomy. Lucifer is the morning-star, Venus, who was known in another tradition as Inanna. The Sumerian story of Inanna entering the underworld tied the other two mythic figures with a golden thread for me. I was no longer writing only a book of poems about exile and impossible love, but a meta-narrative with a certain arc, about resurrection. The arc may not be clear to everyone. I’m aware the book is esoteric in many ways.

The Altar of the Only World is an intriguing title. Is it the world where Sita, Lucifer and Inanna wander? How did you come upon the title?

For several years, the working title was Bulletproof Offering, the last line of the ‘Hanuman’ poem. But when I returned to writing in 2015, I knew another title would manifest, and it did. The title comes from the poem ‘Nightblindness’. The precise verse reads: “I have stepped into the void, virgin one. / It gave me what it knew, and I carried / its teachings through into / the altar of the / only world.” If you have survived, if you have come back from the dead in any way, you cherish the world you’ve returned to. You understand its transience. You also understand it is not the only world, but the only one you grip so tightly. Now that you know.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet based in Delhi

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Published on December 08, 2017
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