Book Review

The High Priestess Never Marries: Sharanya Manivannan

-- Suneetha Balakrishnan

Publisher: HarperCollins 

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 296pp

Price: Rs 399

It’s just love all the way, evolving into longing sometimes, slipping into lust – and then life and loss. Yet, desire is the thread that holds together all the 283 pages of Sharanya Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries.

This is short fiction in a pint-sized book, flowing from one story to another rather like a stream on its way down a mountain. There are unplanned pauses in the narrative: sometimes a quick dive into a woman’s tale, concluding it in as little as a page; others linger on lazily, but they never stop flowing.

The first-person narration initially makes the reader believe the entire text to be the story of one woman, but it is not. The women in the book are many and are anything from ‘lovers to vixens to wives to themselves’. That last is a Sanskrit word, ‘sviya’.

There is this rather rapturous mood that the stories portray all through. The women in them never really succumb to Destiny. They script their lives themselves rather than act out what’s already been scripted for them. For the same reason they are convincing equals of or at times superior to the men in the book. One immediately thinks of Maya Angelou and sings ‘Phenomenal Woman’ to each of the protagonists that narrates her life. For e.g., the woman who had ‘waited for weeks for The Meteorologist to find a place’ for her ‘in his almanac’ is the one who parachutes out of the window ostensibly in search of a silver lining.

Sharanya has titled her book, ‘Stories of Love and Consequence’. For women to love and live with its consequences they cannot be ‘mere women’ but goddesses or at least high priestesses. The women in this book are certainly are. They make tough choices and survive them in glorious celebration. And it’s all set in the familiar milieu of Chennai: laidback, conservative yet daring, with the fragrance of ocean breeze and filter coffee in the background.

The titles of the stories are something that needs to be mentioned as an artifact.  Each title places the theme of the story just right, leading you into the narration in a smooth stroke. Take a look at some of them: ‘Gigolo Maami’, ‘The High Priestess Never Marries’, ‘Boyfriend like a Banyan Tree’, etc.

Sharanya’s previous book was a volume of poetry, Witchcraft, so it’s no surprise that her prose also waxes lyrical, even when it deals with the steamiest of scenes. It is very sensual and employs no subtleties, often surprising the reader with a light turn of phrase that can cut right into their emotions: ‘We never considered there was another way to live, yet here we are: light years between everything we were and everything we have become.’ (‘Afternoon Sex’) Or consider: ‘The labyrinth in my being turned into the gossamer in which I ensnared it all.’ (‘Take the Weather with You’)

One should read The High Priestess Never Marries for its surprises and poetry.


Suneetha Balakrishnan