#ReadWomen: The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan

Now, I move constantly under cover of darkness and commit acts of subterfuge like the daughter of a thief. I surrender to the carnal like the daughter of a dancer. I scatter enigmas like the daughter of a shell-reader. I swallow the ocean in my dreams like the daughter of a diver.

And still, I smell of wild jasmine and tender basil like the daughter of a gardener, my fingertips tinged with turmeric like the daughter of a woman whose world is the hearth – and this is who I am.

In the year following the night when I was discovered in the grove, our king would annex the north of the island shaped like a mango. On my first birthday, my father would allow me to taste jaggery, which sweetened the offering at his favourite temple. The harvest would be rich that year, and for the sake of their child, my parents would replace the blue cactus on the periphery of the fields with thickets of sugarcane. Everywhere, a sweetness. My mother’s songs as dense as honey, my father’s poems as translucent. In the far north-east of the world, honey mixed with saltpetre, realgar and sulphur created a smoking powder that could burn a house down – but it was not, as the alchemists desired, the elixir of life. In the far north-west of the world, a ship made of oak was buried with the remains of two women – a queen and her daughter, or a shaman and her handmaiden, or some other configuration of loyalty or love that will come to be forgotten – and with them were placed tapestries, enamelled objects, and several animals that drew their last breaths inside that ark. And in this small new town under the flag of the double fish, in the deep south of a bejewelled peninsula, Arali and her husband, Vishnuchittan, found themselves sometimes forgetting all else that they were before they became the guardians of a baby girl found amongst leaves still glossy with recent rain.

Sixteen-and-a-half years have passed in the embrace of this garden. My father can no longer lift me onto his shoulders so that I can see above any crowd, but I hold what he showed me just as true as I hold the stars I first saw on my back that long-ago night. I raised, and raise still, my gaze beyond the certain to see through all of time, past the delusion of bondage, into the truth of all things.

And this is why, on some mornings after I have lost count of the hours as they betrayed me, he does not ask me where I have spent the night. I catch him looking into the distance as though the first birdsong has something to teach him. And if he catches me, breathlessly making my way back through the bramble that protects the grove, he neither speaks nor sways. But still I blush like the sky as it dawns. For my father is always listening.

I grew along with the fence of sugarcane. My teeth, when they came in, grew strong on the flesh of those stalks. I never wondered why my parents did not protect me with a deceit of love, for it was very little time before I became incapable of accepting a lie. And besides, that memory never left me, of those two bright stars above me in the night. The scent of recent rain still calls to that place in me that knows it was abandonment that brought me a home.

‘Kodhai,’ my father would say as I worked alongside him in his garden, learning how to turn decay into nourishment and to recognize not-yet-bloomed flowering plants by their leaves. ‘Whoever brought you to me had no fear of being refused. This is why I sometimes think an emissary of Raja Srimara Srivallabha must have been the one. The king knew that there was no child in our house. After all, the first time I was in his court, he had promised me a life of fullness for as long as he or his descendants remain on the throne.’

My grandmother, Padmamma, was more imaginative. ‘You must have been the child of a buffalo!’ she would groan, pulling my frizzy curls into plaits, or pouring a vessel of water over my head as I ran naked from her slippery grip, or forcing balls of food into my mouth. ‘A buffalo and a woman who wandered singing, clad only by the sky,’ she would mutter in resignation, wiping coconut oil, or water, or spilt food from her hands.

For as long as he lived, my grandfather, Mukunda Acharya, believed I did not have human lineage. He was convinced that I had manifested birthless amongst the tulasi in the absence of womb sac or womanly labour. His theory was taken very lightly in our home, even if nothing was ever said to his face. If I fidgeted in a queue at a temple, my mother would pinch me and hiss, ‘Do you see anyone offering you flowers or chanting your name? Do you see anyone asking you for a boon? You’re a little girl misbehaving, nothing more.’ But Mukunda Acharya traced his devotion, or at least its erudition, back six generations. And because that made me the eighth in his lineage, even if I was a girl, he told me each day about the eighth incarnation of his supreme lord, Maha Vishnu – the tricky and iridescent Krishna, who wears a peacock feather tucked into his crown. And even if they had wanted to, nothing my parents or grandmother could say would refute the spell these stories held me under. I woke with a name of Vishnu on my breath; when I chewed, a name of Vishnu was in my saliva; and now, sometimes in the garden at midnight it is a name of Vishnu that escapes my lips in bliss. And so that I could speak this name aloud as often as I could, Vishnuchittan permitted me to call him by his name, and not as Appa or Iyah as was correct.

My mother, Arali, refused such impudence. She who fed me with cow’s milk, envying the creature that could give me what she could not, would only be Amma.

It was Amma’s tale that I loved the most. ‘Because my belly could not hold a baby, the garden absorbed my tears. The garden is my heart. That’s where you were born.’ And then, when I started to cry, moved by what she said even though I could not completely understand it, she would laugh and say, ‘I bought you from a trader of pearls from Korkai. I had only a bagful of tamarind to exchange with, because your ruthless father had already replaced all the crops with tulasi. If I had had two bags, I would have been able to get a pearl instead. And instead of your arms around my neck, I’d wear a thread with that pearl!’

‘You would never.’

‘I would!’

‘No!’

One day I went too far. Unable to bear this play, I shouted, ‘Then give me back to my real mother!’ And Amma’s face shrivelled like stroked mimosa leaves. I fled into the grove and waited there until Padmamma found me, crying over the bodies of vermillion ladybugs I had squashed in my rage.

Now, in the long nights, I sometimes find them crawling on my body. And I wonder what it would be like to paint my lips with their colour, like the troupe of dancers who passed through Puduvai one Pongal when I was a child, who threw and caught each other in impossible leaps and contortions. But mostly I just watch them as they run over my skin, their tiny feet grazing my goosebumps. They are not what a lover’s fingers must be like… But when will I know?

 

About the book:

Myths, dreams, desires, the timeless reality of the body and soul – in the midst of nature’s bounty – that is the essence of The Queen of Jasmine Country. It is an astounding work of fiction. Volga Tonight, under this arena of starlight, I take up my stylus and press it by the glow of a clay lantern into dry palmyra leaves. It is on this night that I dedicate myself – to my self, to who I truly am, to what is invincible and without bondage of time, that predates me, that will outlive me.

Ninth century. In Puduvai, a small town in what we now know as Tamil Nadu, young Kodhai is taught to read and to write by her adoptive father, a garland-weaving poet. As she discovers the power of words, she also realizes that the undying longing for a great love that she has been nursing within her – one that does not suppress her desire for freedom – is likely to remain unfulfilled. Then, she hears of a vow that she can undertake that might summon it to her. In deepest winter, the sixteen-year-old begins praying for a divinely sensual love – not knowing that her words will themselves become prayers, and echo through the centuries to come. Rich with the echoes of classical poetry, in The Queen of Jasmine Country, Sharanya Manivannan imagines the life of the devotional poet Andal, whose sublime and erotic verses remain beloved and controversial to this day.

 

About the author:

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of the short-story collection The High Priestess Never Marries, which won the 2015-16 South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity (Best Book – Fiction) and was shortlisted for the TATA Lit Live! First Book Award (Fiction) and long-listed for the Atta Galatta – Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize. She is also the author of two books of poetry, Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World, and a picture book for children, The Ammuchi Puchi. The Queen of Jasmine Country is her first novel.

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