Mythological fiction Reviews

‘The Queen of Jasmine Country’ review: the poetry of pining

In The Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan takes up a formidable challenge: she re-imagines how Kodhai becomes Andal, the only woman among the twelve Alvars, or devotional poets who sang hymns in praise of Vishnu. While Andal “belongs to a pantheon from which she will never be shaken”, Manivannan envisions how an imperfect young woman, yearning for love and burning with desire, transcends human adoration and disappointment to become one with Vishnu. This is a story about many intangibles — love, devotion and reverence — but packed with the beauty of the ordinary — the smell of flowers and camphor, the taste of milk and ghee, the sight of the colours of Madurai, and the feel of the dampness of the tulsi grove.

The story is set in Tamil Nadu in the ninth century. Kodhai, a baby abandoned in a tulsi grove, is found and adopted by a Brahmin couple. Her father Vishnuchittan weaves garlands of tulsi and jasmine for the deity and sings his praises. When a young Kodhai is caught one day wearing the garland that is meant for the deity, she is rebuked by a horrified Vishnuchittan. But when Vishnu himself refuses to wear the garland unless she wears it first, Kodhai becomes his consort. But Kodhai is a lonely young woman and craves a man comparable to her god. In the hope of finding him, she observes the pavai nombu vow in the month of Margazhi, the rituals of which are described in the 30 verses of the Tiruppavai. Her prayers go unanswered and her desires slowly give way to frustration. It is a difficult personality arc to draw, but Manivannan is thoughtful and careful with her craft.

Manivannan soaks the story of Kodhai in descriptive prose. While the poetry-as-prose style that is her trademark pulls the reader deep into her world, it stalls the flow of the story in several parts. But the depth in research is evident and Manivannan packs into less than 150 pages a difficult story narrated in her quintessential rich style.

The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan. HarperCollins, ₹319

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in


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