'I Painted the Universal,' Writer and Poet Sharanya Manivannan on Her Latest Book of Poetry

The Altar of the Only World follows the journeys of three mythological characters through heartbreak, separation, and ultimately, a quest for the self.

Even in prose, Sharanya Manivannan’s writing never loses its lyricism, and never lets you forget that she is an accomplished poet. In her second book of poems, The Altar of the Only World, she wields this lyricism to trace the journeys of three mythological characters – Sita, Lucifer, Inanna – and through them, the defining experience of finding one’s way back to oneself, back to life, after heartbreak.

These are no ordinary characters, and this is no ordinary heartbreak; like Inanna’s journey into the underworld, like Sita’s embrace of the Earth, and like Lucifer’s fall from the heavens, this journey is transformational.

The beloved here in almost incidental. It is the experience of love, and through that, the mystical and sacred experience of knowing one’s own soul, one’s own capacity for love and wisdom, that is central. The writer and poet spoke to The Wire about the process of writing this collection. Edited excerpts from the interview:

You have dedicated this book to Veenapani Chawla. Can you tell us more about your relationship with her and how she impacted your work?

Veenapani was a visionary theatre artist who founded the Adishakti campus outside Pondicherry. She passed away in 2014. When I first visited Adishakti, I was 23 years old and freshly grieving the loss of my grandmother, and it was a time of a lot of tumult in my life. Being in that strange, forest-like campus for a month had a transformative effect on me – both curative and devastating.

To begin with, the power of nature was so profoundly tangible there. I would literally weep into Earth. I also developed an admiration for what she had created artistically. Adishakti’s pedagogy is legendary, and Veenapani created it through intense study. Meeting her, being there, completely changed the trajectory of my life. I saw what was possible: devotion to art, nature and divinity. And the concept of absolute sovereignty. That you did not have to be shorn of love, desire or companionship just because you rejected the paradigms of a conventional life. Or had that conventional life reject you. And her generosity – my goodness.

Like so many iconoclastic women, she was the subject of intense jealousy both during her life and posthumously. She was a powerhouse. She was gentle, she was sweet, she was childlike too. And I think I was very childlike around her, for I often fell silent in admiration. But she knew my poems. She wore Fabindia shirts in a men’s size 36, and I would bring her one as a gift each time. One night, I saw her refuse to take a knife from someone’s hand and I adopted the superstition immediately.

The last time I saw her, I was wearing a blue tank top and she was walking out for her morning swim. And she called out to me, “Hello, blue girl”. The day she died, I was in Chennai and a blue butterfly came into my room and sat on my head. I did not go to her funeral. But I think I was forgiven.

I suppose all of this is really to say: I cannot separate the influence on my work from the influence on my life.

You have said that this book is about the afterlife of love. I would like to ask a series of questions around this theme. So many of the poems portray the wisdom that is gained from loss, particularly loss of love, but the healing in them is not linear. Instead, great pain and immense generosity exist side by side. Can you talk about the messiness of emerging from heartbreak? It’s a shift in paradigm, isn’t it – if the heartbreak is acute enough?

Sharanya Manivannan 
The Altar of the Only World
HarperCollins, 2017

Absolutely. There is a kind of heartbreak that changes your life because it kills you, and you’re reborn. That will seem hyperbolic only to those who haven’t experienced it. And there are other kinds: heartbreaks that teach, heartbreaks that mislead and manipulate, heartbreaks that deepen one’s sensory understanding of the world, heartbreaks that deepen one’s political understanding of the world, heartbreaks that deepen one’s capacity to love the world.

There are so many kinds, and unless one operates consistently from a place of fear and barricades (and actually, sometimes all the more if so), one experiences so many variations.

Heartbreak is also a palimpsest. Each time afterwards, one retraces that journey. It’s a shadow under the fresh pain. It doesn’t always sting or throb, but it’s there.

There is also often a lot of compassion for the limitations of the lover, and many things to be gained from the loss of the lover. Could you elaborate on this?

It’s ultimately this: who the lover was, what they did to you, what they could not or cruelly refused to do, doesn’t matter. It matters only at the burning start of the heartache, but ultimately the journey is made only by you, and the projection, shadow or echo you choose to have accompany you. I say choice as though one has control over it, but one doesn’t. You have to walk far way into that journey before choices really come to you.

You feel love only as deeply as your heart has the capacity to bear. How you love speaks only for who you are. Not for who you love, not for who receives or refuses it.

Let me put this another way in less esoteric terms. I have no feeling, no sentiment, for the one who broke my heart when I first started to write this book. I forgive the last one who broke my heart because I know he made the best choices for himself, but it was wrong of him to not have asked for my forgiveness before I gave it to him. My pain burned like camphor, burned and burned until it evaporated.

But who are these people? It doesn’t matter. There are these poems. There is my life. And there are other people, other lovers, that someone who reads this book will see in its pages. Their own projections, shadows, echoes – and reflections. Who is more important then, tell me – the lover, or the one left behind?

Often the love in the poems appears to be a kind of perfected love, not in its reality, but certainly in its intensity, and the rawness with which the protagonists feel it. This is a life-changing love. What happens after such a love ends?

It dies in fits and starts. It dies a little when they show you their true face. It dies a little when they push you away. It dies a little when they do something irrevocable. And still it thrums in you, in you alone, even when it dies in the most painful place of all: your imagination, your heart. So there is that aftermath, first of all. The aftermath of separating from the beloved, and gasping for air as you struggle to believe and accept there are no more memories to be made, no more love to be lived. And the aftermath itself is long. Which I suppose is where the question of intensity vs reality comes into play. It’s gone, it’s impossible, it can never be – so why does it still fill your being?

That’s really where the psychic landscape of the book is. And one can wander in that place for a long time. Some loves let you go with an eventual, unexpected gentleness. Others wake you in the night with dreams you should not still be having years after. What part of you wandered back through time and space to spend the night in that old hunting ground? I think Cher asked the right question. “Do you believe in life after love?” I do. Oh, I do. And I also believe in love. Eternal and otherwise.

Someone asked me a beautiful question after I read from the book at a college last month. They wanted to know who the beloved in the final poems is. This was astute, as I thought I had concealed this well, a little balm after the harrowing journey. There is someone who comes, “breeze-like,/ infusing these quiet afternoons/ with your susurrus”, who the narrator names as “precious one” in the last poem.

This was something I wanted to keep just as open-ended as who the betrayer addressed in most of the book is (is it Ravana, Rama, Hanuman? The poems deliberately confuse). But there is someone ultimately, a companion if not a lover, an animal if not a nature spirit if not a human being, and I believe this to be true of life as well. It’s a mistake to primarily seek lover after lover, partner after partner, because to do so allows one to live only in one element, one role. There are other modes of loving and being. There are ways of knowing oneself that don’t require from you the self-destruction, the effacement, of those devastating loves and seductions.

This book shares lot of the concerns (love and consequence) and approaches (the use of mythology) of your last book, TheHigh Priestess Never Marries. Do you think they can be read as companions?

Perhaps. I wrote The High Priestess Never Marries in five years, contained within the nine years in which I wrote The Altar of the Only World. Any work of art contains its maker’s experiences and preoccupations. To my mind they are very distinct works. I think Altar has a darkness that Priestess circumvents. But a reader may certainly see the overlap.

To return to my answer to your prior question, the way both books end is certainly in simpatico. The privileging of romantic love, sexual partnership or the contract of marriage over all other bonds is something I reject. So Shyama, the protagonist of the last story in Priestess, “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed”, speaks of how her friends were her significant others through a decade of unpartneredness.

And our Sita-Lucifer-Inanna composite speaks to a precious someone who walks alongside her in the sanctuary she has built fertilised by the ashes of who she once was. I wrote the poems ‘After Everything’ and ‘Gathering’ with two particular friends of mine in mind, loves of my life.

Sharanya Manivannan. Credit: Anjan-Kumar

Some of the poems centre dance/theatre/performance in their tellings – could you share what these arts mean to you and why they’re important to your poetry?

I just love art in all its forms, and although literature is my abode, I feel the way we perceive artistic canons is all wrong. Among the Ramayanas I studied, what moved me most were what exist in folksongs and little known variations. Which is why Sita in Altar experiences déjà vu as she flies over Lanka for the first time, in the poem ‘Daughter By Blood And By Way Of Sea And Sky’. Her origin story, to me, is the one in which Mandodari, Ravana’s wife, consumes a grail of blood kept for a sacrifice and becomes pregnant. She then sets the baby into the sea in a basket, like Moses or Karna (my first mythological love, who featured heavily in my first book of poems, Witchcraft).

This story is also what allows Draupadi to enter the book and speak to Sita in the poem ‘Fire-Forged, Blood-Born’, for Draupadi too was born of similar dark magic. That to me was the singular link between these two epic heroines, who otherwise are very dissimilar. This is my Sita. Not a docile goddess born ayonija – miraculously, literally “in the absence of a cunt”. The traditional, monolithic understanding of Sita cannot, in my view, be rehabilitated to fit modern feminist expectations without essentially having her be written into a new character. But freeing her from the bonds of the canonical complicates her enough for us to see ourselves in her, and therefore have empathy for ourselves.

These stories come to us as oral renderings, and therefore as performances. One doesn’t have to look far to find the non-canonical. Tamil Nadu, where I live, has long had a tradition of sympathy if not a feeling of glory for Ravana. The cover of Altar was inspired by shadow puppetry, and in Kerala, these performances present the Tamil Kambaramayanam alongside Malayalam commentary. So for instance, in the Surpanakha sequence, there is room for her side of the story. She can discourse on desire. She can discourse on consent. She can perhaps even discourse on assault. I have heard of a Wayanad Ramayana in which Sita returns to her natal home in Mithila. There’s a Bhojpuri folksong in which she rejects the engagement. When we say subversion, we only mean subverting the sanctioned.

The truest tellings of these tales sprout from the heart, from the hearth and from labour. How fortunate we are that some of them are preserved, even if only in the form of rumours and excerpts. May they prosper. May they multiply.

There is also the major theme of art itself bringing the protagonists back to themselves, no matter what heartache they have to endure. How does the process of creating and communing with art figure in this journey?

Perhaps this is a mirror-within-mirror optical illusion. Art allowed – allows – me to endure. If I couldn’t make it, I could consume it. And in the case of the Inanna poems, it is incantation that allows survival and escape from death. Language is intent. She intends to live. Her words allow passage back into the world.

The poems are quite often literally cosmic in nature – love and its consequences play out in the stars, as stardust, in the constellations, as the sun and the moon. You are working closely with the stories of three mythological characters – Sita, Inanna and Lucifer – so it isn’t surprising that the relationships in the poems seem archetypal in nature – but could you expand on the cosmic scale of these tellings?

If Sita was Earth and the forest and the element of fire, Lucifer opened up the heavens to me. The word ‘Lucifer’ is Latin for light-bearer, and he is associated with Venus as the morning star (which was what led me to Inanna, who is the same). It was easy then to understand Lucifer’s exile on cosmic terms, if not on a cosmic scale: a literal casting from heaven, the burning out of a star, the sorrowful hum of a pulsar as it implodes.

I see the three mythic figures as well as the composite character that emerges in the book as absolutely archetypal, yes. For the experience of heartbreak is universal. The Jungian possibilities of mythology are very interesting to me, because I believe much of the key to healing lies within stories and how we tell them.

So for instance, why did a character like Sita, which feminism cannot really rehabilitate, appeal to me? I think it’s because I didn’t see the context or the trappings when that appeal first occurred. I didn’t see the crown, or the consort, or the signet ring or the kidnapping or even the trials by fire. I saw only the interior emotion: abandonment, rejection, unrequited love. So Sita could be anyone. Sita is everyone. On the canvas of her story and through the vocabulary of her motifs, I painted the universal.

Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. She is the managing editor of Skin Stories at Point of View, and is working on her first book.