The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence by Sharanya Manivanna, publisher - Harper Collins, November 7, 2016
In 'Scheherazade on the Shore', one of the short stories in The High Priestess Never Marries, the unnamed narrator tells her lover a fable about a group of red giraffes who come to live in the city.
Unfortunately, the giraffes kept getting their beautiful necks entangled in the electric wires that criss-cross overhead until, finally, "like all beautiful things in this city, the red giraffes too learnt to keep their heads down."
Sometimes, she concludes, "they turned their still graceful necks to gaze out of windows and caught themselves wondering, struggling to remember what they had once known to call the sky."
In some ways, the giraffes resemble the women one encounters in Sharanya Manivannan's debut work of fiction. The women in the Chennai-based poet's stories are similarly marked by their encounters with the world and, more specifically, the men they fall in love with.
They armour themselves with betrayals before anyone can hurt them and struggle to come to terms with the fact that for many of their lovers, they become, as one character memorably explains, "the object of desire, the souvenir, the receptacle of memories of wildness, a parenthesis in their experience of an unexceptional world".
And yet, these women, unlike the red giraffes, won't compromise on what they demand from life and love. They won't settle down, head bent, elbows and knees jutting out awkwardly, in a space that is too circumscribed.
Even as they look for love, they won't be bound by matrimony or be hindered by abandonment and betrayal because they are each, above all, sviya, a Sanskrit word that, as explained in the book, means "she who is her own wife". They are, first and foremost, married to themselves, and, therefore, are true to themselves.
This is by no means a conventional book of short stories. Some of them, such as the 'High Priestess Never Marries', 'Greed and the Gandhi Quartet' and 'Cyclone Crossing', have discernible plots, while others, such as 'Stone', 'Mango Wood Drum' and 'Boyfriend Like a Banyan Tree', are more like prose poems.
Manivannan, a well-regarded poet, brings her penchant for deft encapsulations to her fiction. For example, in 'Corvus', the narrator comments on the nostalgic weight of certain places by observing, "Emotional geography collects like plaque: a little carelessness and it's there before you know it".
Another highlight is how Manivannan deploys Chennai - or Madras, as she calls it - as the backdrop for her book. The city, signposted by the stories, comes alive with love, lust, heartbreak and betrayal.
The stories are about love and its consequences, and there is something very comforting about how vulnerable Manivannan's women characters allow themselves to become. As they pursue their vision of life, slowed but not hindered by heartbreak, their stories can seem almost mythical, but in their very woundedness, they remind us of ourselves.
The reviewer is a principal correspondent working with The Indian Express
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