The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan
Published by: Harper Collins India
Fiction, 138 pages
Rating: 4/5 stars
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 a writer, dancer, painter, journalist and activist. She has published two books of poetry and a picture book for children. Her short story collection ‘The High Priestess Never Marries’ won the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity in Best Book Fiction category (2015-16) and was longlisted for the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize.
*Thank you Harper Collins India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
A 138 page book! What a breezy ride it will be! That would be the first impression when you see this slim book by Sharanya Manivannan but you cannot be more wrong. I found myself immersed in the feel of the words: there is so much power and depth in the words strung together, like a garland, each word chosen with care and which are full of depth and rich meaning. Soaking in the words and feel of the emotions of the book, I found that I wanted to linger on with the pages and not rush in…
It is centered on the fictional life and times of a young girl Kodhai whose lineage is unknown but who grows with much love and affection in the family of Vishnuchittan a court poet and a devotee of Lord Vishnu. This book follows her journey from Kodhai as a growing up girl who questions the world around her and seeks a place for herself to becoming Andal whose compositions to Lord Vishnu are sung to this day. She is the only female ‘Alvar’ or poet saints of South India (‘Alvars’ wrote songs of devotion to Lord Vishnu and believed him to be the ‘supreme being’).
Told in Kodhai’s words, The Queen of Jasmine Country is half fable and parts myth and fiction. Kodhai herself is impetuous, independent and very aware of the place of women: she sees in in the situation of her mother (of whom we don’t get to know more) and the fates of the friends around her.
Till the time I had the book in my hands, I had no idea about Andal and her work but I couldn’t help feeling that there is so much about the cosmos of Hinduism that I don’t know of. I loved the way Kodhai/Andal hides her period when she is being taken to her marriage with Lord Vishnu and couldn’t help but smile part in delight and part ruefully that centuries hence, women have to be under disguise and escorted to even seek divine blessings (Yes, Sabarimala). In her words:
‘How little they will ever know, those who only see what they want to see, who raise armies for what keeps them safe, but who do not see that these are the same things that keep them unable to be free.’
I am so glad that this book has been written. It made me immediately tie Andal with Meera whose devotion to Lord Krishna and whose devotional writings bordered on physical desire and ecstasy. There is so much love and longing in the way the author has written Andal/Kodai’s words that make ‘The Queen of Jasmine Country’ throb with passion. This is certainly a book that I will surely revisit time and again.
You can read up about this book at the Harper Collins India page