The Hindu Prize 2019 Shortlist Authors

‘Andal appeared in a dream and told me to write a novel about her’: Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan  

In her lyrical novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan imagines the transformation of a young Kodhai into the Tamil poet-goddess Andal. In an email interview, Manivannan speaks of the challenges in writing about the only female Alwar, the research she did for the book, and why she combined prose with poetry:

How did you choose Andal (or Kodhai) as the subject of your book?


As a reader, I’d cherished Andal for a long time before Kodhai came to me. I would have been too intimidated by the grandiosity of the hagiographic figure to have chosen her as a subject, let alone a protagonist. But, quite literally, she asked. She appeared in a dream and told me to write a novel about her, and I did.

You have imagined the story of the only female Alwar. When you select such a revered figure, a goddess, to write about, how do you maintain the fine balance between the human and the sacred? Was this difficult and did you have any apprehensions about how it would be received?

I did have apprehensions about how the book would be received, particularly as there had been a misogynistic and casteist controversy over Andal around the time I was working on my novel, and I was writing through the heartbreak of a close friendship dissolving over similar views expressed. But I had to honour the voice that was coursing through me, compelling me not to stop. The fact that the epithet ‘Andal’ was given to her centuries after her life helped: it allowed me to focus exclusively on my protagonist’s humanity.

‘Andal appeared in a dream and told me to write a novel about her’: Sharanya Manivannan

She has no idea that her poems will become eternal. They only express her loneliness and her hopes, reflecting the vows she has undertaken to bring love into her life. I’m not interested in either unthinking glorification or in lazy iconoclasm. This meant offering empathy even for parts of the character that made me uncomfortable (an example: the choice to not make her dream of her wedding, based on the “Vaaranam Aayiram” poem, an inclusive or subversive one). At the same time, lacing my novel with subtle subversions was important to me. Authors who work with mythology must consider socio-political realities, modern and otherwise, while doing so.

What did your research entail?

Queen is really a book about writing, about what is between the lines in a writer’s life. I was interested above all in the quotidian: how ordinary people in medieval Tamilagam lived, and what the inner landscape of a lonely, gifted young woman in that time would have been like.

Historicisation and humanisation were both important. I located the story in the mid-9th century during the reign of Raja Srimara Srivallabha, who plays a role in the hagiography of Kodhai’s father, Vishnuchittan (Periyalvar), a timing correlated by an astronomical detail in her poetry.

The plotline of the novel closely follows the Tiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumoli, narrativising the writing of the pasurams themselves. I relied on the original texts, recitations, and Archana Venkatesan’s translation, The Secret Garland.

The shift in tone between the two works is explained thus: the pavai nombu Kodhai observes fails to bring her a husband, and embittered, she undertakes secret rites to Kamadeva (as expounded by Vaishnavism scholar Dennis Hudson).

I thought deeply about how Kodhai came to be literate (both unmarried and literate, unusually), how and when she found time to write, what she encountered as a reader, and who and what inspired her. An obsessive reader falls into text after text and conjures them up in her own, sometimes without being able to trace each imprint — for instance, a lifetime of loving poems, goddess mythologies and feminist literature went into Nappinnai-Radha appearing in my novel as the cowherd Matatilli.

The book is lyrical. Was this deliberate, as Andal was a poet, or did your own poetic sensibilities naturally dictate your prose?

The lyricism was deliberate, especially as the narrative is in the first person, but was equally informed by my own natural prose style.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 8:23:24 AM |

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