Sharanya Manivannan's debut novel The Queen of Jasmine Country is a classic, often mystic, occasionally brooding and introspective story of a 9th century girl, born under the boughs of Tulsi leaves who would go on to embody a sense of love few can ever imagine.
An immersive read, Manivannan says that while she has always loved Andal as a listener and a reader, she never thought the historical figure would become a character in her won writing. However, all of that changed when the author had two dreams in 2014.
In conversation with this correspondent, the author shares more about the riveting manuscript, the historical figure of Andal, and the mysteries and romance that surround her.
What made your write The Queen of Jasmine Country? What was the inspiration behind it?
I had loved Andal as a reader and a listener for a long time, and did not think she would become a character in my own writing, ever. Then in 2014, I had two dreams about her. In one of them, she discouraged me from praying to get married given that I had such unscintillating options around me (praying to get married is a theme of the book, and the fact that my own such prayers spectacularly failed certainly gave me an insight into how my protagonist felt!). In the other dream, she said I should write a novel about her. I made a note of this, wrote the prologue the following year without any sense of the plot to come, and did not imagine even as late as last year that this novel would manifest so quickly.
It’s so strange for me to ponder my inspiration for my book now that it is in the world and out of my hands, and the more that people ask me about this the stranger it becomes – my initial admiration as a reader, then my later surrender to her as muse. It was like a thunderstorm of a love affair that leaves no scar yet lingers forever in who you become because of it. She swept in, and filled me – filled my eyes with tears, my heart with love, and my pages with words – and here we are.
What was the kind of background research that you did for the character of Andal?
Very little is known about the historical figure who wrote the two works credited to Andal, the Tiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumoli. It’s important to add that the name Andal is an epithet, meaning “she who rules”. Her given name, and the only name my protagonist knows herself by, was Kodhai.
I was very clear about the distinction between the two: girl and goddess. So while I read widely on and around the goddess, historically speaking I was preoccupied only with the girl. What made situating her chronologically easier for me was that the hagiography of her father, Vishnuchittan or Periyalvar, involves the 9th century king Srimara Srivallabha, and there is astrological evidence of the positions of Jupiter and Venus as she describes them in her poems in the year 851 CE or so.
Although we do not know what people’s quotidian lives were like, Tamil civilisation and literature were quite advanced by this time. So on this foundation, I filled in the details.
I didn’t ask myself questions like, “Would a goddess weep as she fought with the mortal who raised her?” Instead I asked myself, for instance, “Take a teenager from a provincial town and put her in a big city like Madurai during a festival – how would she react?”
Reading on and around Andal was very important for me, and I found that academic interlocutors were the most interesting sources of learning for me.
In terms of hagiography, I relied on oral hagiography most of all, as well as academic papers on the same. Among the most vital ones was Dennis Hudson’s work called “Tantric Rites in Antal’s Poetry”, which solved an important mystery for me, as to why the voices in the Tiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumoli are so varied, even though they appear to be located close together in time.
In my book, Kodhai undertakes the pavai nombu with her friends, praying to find a good husband. When she realises the vow has failed, she then embarks on secret and solitary rites to Kamadeva, the god of carnal love. Hudson’s paper enabled me to imagine this, and gave me precedence and evidence for this possibility.
I used the Tamil texts in my rudimentary way, as well as listened to recordings, but relied heavily on the work of translators (Archana Venkatesan’s The Secret Garland in particular). In recent times, I have personally encountered people who say they are devotees of Andal but seem unfamiliar with her literature (they may recite the Tiruppavai through the month of Margazhi, and sing the verse entitled “Vaaranam Aayiram” during weddings, but only as rote engagement).
So it was very important for me to sew her poems into my prose as much as possible, to provide a speculative response to the way in which her experiences could have been distilled into writing. This is a part of the writing process that is often a little mystical for writers ourselves – what turns a moment into a series of images, for instance? It was a pleasure for me to explore that process through imagining Kodhai-Andal’s, which in turn was a reflection on my own.
How did you delve into the psyche of the 9th century poet?
There is a scene early in the book in which Kodhai talks about how she discovers the Kuruntokai, an anthology of Tamil poetry that was ancient even in her time. And it electrifies her, just as those poems electrified me in the 21st century. There is something common at the core of every human heart, through millennia, and this is what I held steadfast to as I wrote.
I did not spend that much time thinking about what she did not have or could not have known in her time. Instead, I pondered only how the feeling of loneliness is the same, the feeling of lust is the same, the feeling of abandonment is the same, the feeling of guilt is the same. You can situate a person in any time, fill their environment with any number of variables, but the core is the core. Human nature is human nature. As a writer of historical fiction, I had to be careful about anachronisms, but that was all. I do not think someone in a distant century loved or longed in so drastically different a way than one does still.
What was the hardest part in a) imagining b) writing the novel?
Once I began to write, everything simply flowed. Every hesitation and doubt I had, about my limited knowledge of medieval history and classical Tamil, about whether I should embark on this project, about all the usual artistic insecurities, fell away. I wrote a draft of Queen over just six weeks, but if I had paused even once to consider the possible repercussions of writing about a character whom misogynists and casteists claim as solely their own, I would not have been able to continue.
Even after I signed my publishing contract, I felt a lot of angst personally. I do believe in mysterious things, and I was both grateful and bewildered to have been chosen for this work. And at times a bit resentful about what it cost me. I had already fallen out with friends who refused to confront their privilege, for example. And I had and have no desire to grapple with bigots, but we live in times when hatred and fundamentalism are so mainstream.
Why do you think Andal had a parentage shrouded in mystery?
There are numerous characters from world mythologies who have an origin shrouded in mystery, or which is complicated in some way.
I think there are various reasons for this, including: imbuing the character with some remove from the material world, which then enables them to seek transcendence; as a plot point for eventual pathos, such as in Karna’s story in which he is betrayed by his birth mother at the bitter end; and of course, discomfort with sexuality, as in all virgin birth stories.
Most hagiographic tellings of Kodhai-Andal’s life say she was discovered in a tulasi grove as a baby and raised by a bachelor, the poet Vishnuchittan-Periyalvar.
I chose to give her a mother for many reasons. One of them was sheer love: I wanted for her to have less of the loneliness that pervades her life. It was only after I’d finished my manuscript that I heard that even in Srivilliputtur, in the very garden in which she is believed to have discovered, it is not unheard of for religious women to tell versions of the story in which Vishnuchittan has a wife.
This is something that I have tried to affirm over and over in all my books: there are many ways to tell the same story. Sometimes the most radical subversion is in the subtlest element, in the most familiar place.
What has the experience been like, writing Jasmine Country?
I wrote my book in such a short time that I knew even as I was writing that I would miss her so much, my teenage protagonist, and the milieu she lived in, the small world I built with research and imagination.
But there was no way to ration out my time with her, for she simply flowed in and from me in torrents. As a poet and a writer of short fiction, I’d experienced that kind of inspired deluge many times, finishing sequences and stories at lightning speed in a kind of intoxication.
But a novel? I couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t imagine, in fact. When I finished my first draft, I went away to the hills to read over it, still thinking it was a novella. Some time later, my publishers informed me it was a novel, that “novella” is a nebulous category.
I had written a novel, something I had aspired to my whole life, without even knowing it! It was an immersive, sublime experience. I neither hope nor expect to repeat it. Neither do I prize it above the ways in which my other books have been written. Each has its own passage, calls for its own approach.
One thing I learned, which I am grateful for, was the experience of writing in near-secrecy. Part of the secrecy was necessitated by knowing that my protagonist is controversial, and part of it was just natural, since I wrote the book in such a short period that I did not need to talk to that many people in that time.
I spent most of my 20s, as all early career writers should, chasing magazine and journal publications – continually sending off submissions, waiting on rejections and acceptances, eager to push my work into the world a poem or a vignette at a time.
Then, the past two years (since the publication of my story collection The High Priestess Never Marries, which has since been followed by three books) have been about watching my work move into the world, watching in the way one watches kites, aware that one has no control of what will coast or crash but trying to enjoy that vicarious flight (the one on the ground, the holder of the anchor, does not fly; the interior world and daily reality do not drastically change).
Now, I would like to return to a place of a little more quietude and uncertainty, to the womb-dark of creation rather than the blinding spotlight of production. I hope to take what I learned from writing in near-secrecy into my new projects, which require great meandering and silence in order to do them justice. And time, I think. A lot more time.
Myth/ history tells us of Andal merging into her beloved Vishnu, your interpretation… What prompted you to write it in that manner?
Without giving away any plot details, if you’re familiar with the hagiography of Andal in a religious or semi-religious context, you’ll be able to see the subversions sown in throughout the work. Yet none is such that it seems glaring, unless your empathy is truly very limited.
There are other writers out there who feel radically deconstructing stories is the best way of dismantling the way these stories are misused structurally. I’m not one for blowing up the idol (I am one for blowing up the structural edifice, though – I am completely for #SmashBrahminicalPatriarchy, and I see Queen as a feminist work that is in tandem with this movement).
I like to show you the palimpsest, the hidden rivers, the silenced whispers. The merging of Andal into Vishnu thus takes on the same qualities of all my work with mythology. In my version, my deeply human Kodhai has complete agency, plausibility and philosophical leverage.
Is Jasmine Country the story of Andal, or can it be the story of any girl over millennia?
It is the story of any person who has known that kind of longing, for a love that will unshackle them. It’s also the story of any person who has felt those shackles, and recognised that they are indeed not free.
Then, there are specificities which narrow down the comparison, such as the fact that Kodhai as an unmarried, literate and highly gifted teenage girl in 9th century Puduvai is a statistical improbability. Imagine the loneliness of being so different. No matter how cherished you may be, you would also be isolated in so many ways.
My book is a story about anyone who has felt isolated by the weight of experiences which find no reflection among their peers or in their milieu.
What next for you?
Don’t expect anything else from me too soon. I have five manuscripts simmering: a long novel, a short novel, a graphic novel, a short story collection and a collection of poems. And many people have asked me about whether I will write another children’s book.
I don’t have a clue which will next compel me to complete it, or how long it will take. What I do know is that my heart needs a little tending to, and that will be my priority. If art arises from it, so be it.
All good things take time to grow, and I need to tend to my roots now, not just the blooms....