The Queen Of Jasmine Country: Sharanya Manivannan
Books that have to do with retellings of things religious or mythological find me resisting them, or reading them with a critical and vary eye. Even if sometimes a book holds my interest initially, it is hardly ever able to retain it for long. But The Queen of Jasmine Country is not quite myth, and it is not quite religious retelling. It is steeped in the religious, and the mythological, but it is also beyond the familiar treatment of myth and religion. It is a book like no other – a book I won’t forget, and one that is far more than a book for me.
I came to know of Andal and her work through the author’s social media posts, and while I was not too interested in a saint-poet of the 9th Century, I was very interested in the way Sharanya wrote abut her, and about the dream that had made the author write a biographical novel about her.
By the time the book came out, I had read and re-read the author’s refreshingly different The High- Priestess Never Marries, and found it to be one of the best lessons in self-reflection. It is also a deep -dive into in surreal, lyrical, magical prose. So it didn’t matter what the story of the new book was, and who it was about, anymore. I simply had to read more of this writer’s work. And I was amply rewarded for my faith.
Written in the first person, The Queen…tells the story of a teenager who, after a mysterious birth and adoption, lives as the beloved daughter of a poet-priest, and is a great devotee of Vishnu, and finally gives up earthly form and life to merge into the deity she adores.
What happens between the beginning and the end of the story, and how the author imagines it to have happened, and how she tells the story to the readers, is what makes the book remarkable. The author makes Andal or Kodhai come alive as everywoman, with wishes and dreams of her own. At the same time, there is something about her that is way more than what the limits and norms of her situation, as framed and decided by others, will allow.
From praying for a good match in marriage, to rejecting marriage to any mortal man, to surrendering completely to the longing for the Supreme Lord, as a carnal, erotic and sensual need, this Kodhai is Meera and Radha to my north Indian mind, but only more real, more relatable and more clear.
The setting, the people, the kings and court, and markets and temples, the rituals and the farms and the towns and the cowherds and the seasons are all there in rich flavors, holding the story, as it moves. I feel Kodhai’s heartbeat in the words of the author, and know her desires, her frustrations. The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading. Even though it is a very slim book, I took my time reading and re-reading the lyrical prose, letting it change the texture of those moments for me.
That a young woman so long ago owned her voice and wrote her heart out when it was not the norm for her to be even literate, was surely the gift of divine grace. And it is divine grace that has brought the story to us. Do yourself a favor and allow this beautiful gift to touch you, to seep into your heart.