Excerpts From ‘The High Priestess Never Marries’
The Establishment is sharing non-sequential excerpts from Sharanya Manivannan’s The High Priestess Never Marries, a collection of short stories on love and its consequences. Read an interview with Manivannan here.
Sarala Kali and I would sit in the water and talk. We would wander down serried in the early dusk and settle by the sea, draw a circle in the sand and step into it. We would let our feet be licked by its tongues in the pink of evening, and then as the height of the surges rose we would not move inland. The sea would swirl around us, our hands bangle-deep in the sand. Like this we would stay, cold and warm at once, until in the night’s ink I could almost not see her any more. And then we would be all teeth and sclera and the glitter of zircon in our nostrils, earthbound by our ocean-drenched weights.
Some nights we would even lie supine, and somehow I could still hear her through the deluge of waves in my ears. My tears would fall off the sides of my face and into the sea I lay in. My hair would become a bushel of salt.
And her laughter, it would shake the moon.
I went to Paris in a pre-apocalyptic summer. I took a room in Montmartre across from the Abbesses métro station with a window that looked on to a ficus-gilded wall. From here, I set out on my daily jaunts. Paris was the gift I gave myself when nobody would have me. In the Latin Quarter, I chanced on a singing woman with a marvelous mnemonic, an enormous cobalt parrot by her side; the next day they appeared right beside my hotel. One afternoon, I burst into tears in the Tuileries, unable to believe that in so vanquished a life I had bought myself this armistice of beauty. And then I crossed a bridge across the Seine and a Slavic woman stopped me in the street and told me I had dropped a gold ring. I had not, but it was mine from then on, at no cost but the sentimentality I had attached to it.
In Paris, I learnt that the words for ‘fishers’ and ‘sinners’ were the same, especially on my unnuanced tongue. I wrote them down in my notebook to share with Sarala Kali. Pécheur. Pêcheur. I wondered what she would say, and the wondering itself made me smile.
Sarala Kali spoke Tamil, English, Vagriboli and Telugu. She sang in the first, flirted in the second, traded in the third and swore in the last. Once, heavily drunk on sarayam, she told me she was the goddess of the spoken word and that she would bless me with a honeyed tongue. She was completely illiterate. My eyes were always full of tears.
The first time Sarala Kali and I spoke properly, I had just been chased out of the partly senile but completely disarming Arcot Vanita’s house, accused variously and in great aphoristic detail of stealing chickens, seducing her daughter-in-law and even driving a noisy used car. In truth, I had been there to give her prints of photographs taken at her great-great-grandson’s ear-piercing ceremony the previous week. Sarala Kali was playing a mancala game on Arcot Vanita’s neighbor’s front porch, among a small crowd of women and children. ‘What did she say to you?’ she asked me. I told her. Sarala Kali nodded calmly.
‘That bitch,’ she said crisply in English, ‘speaks as though she has seven-and-a-half sitting on her tongue.’
And I burst into laughter that drew sharp glances and mutters around us. Sarala Kali was smiling. I wanted to throw my arms around her.
‘My name is Sarala Kali,’ she told me. ‘The next time you come, you will photograph me.’
From then on, I began to visit her in particular. I had first come to Ayodhyakuppam on a work assignment — a tedious one, which had required several visits. But it had ensnared me: I found it impossible to have looked upon so much grief and fortitude and then look away.
Even after the oppari singers had gotten to know me well, I could interact mostly only with women. Some lines cannot be crossed. Each woman I met was invariably the holder of some bereavement. A son who disappeared in the tsunami of 2004. A husband who killed himself because he could not bear that loss. A daughter who was burnt alive in the kitchen because she did not bring a dowry. Like menhirs outside of history, expected to outlast every event in their line of sight, they kept standing.
Sarala Kali was younger than the others, but as battle-broken. There were things that gave her away as an outsider — her facility for tongues, her uncanny self-possession, even her bluish skin that did not respond to turmeric, and those salamandrine eyes. Yet she belonged here, had staked the slum for her own and settled here. She carried a strange authority — I would see her selling fish and beating wet laundry like everyone else, but I would also see her being approached for loans, and I would see prepubescent boys run to the TASMAC to buy her liquor with notes she fished out of her blouse. From where she accrued this authority I do not know. There were pockets of her life into which she did not allow me.
The photographs were a ruse: they cost me nothing to shoot and were cheap to produce, and in this way I could keep returning to the kuppam, which gave me more than I was comfortable conceding. I wore my camera like a talisman, like I told a friend once. ‘No, you wear it like a thaali,’ she had said then. ‘And this is your cardinal error.’
Oppari [A folk song from South India]
Widowhood is the first prerequisite. There are others: need, the strongest of them all. Nobody dares to profit from death unless she has truly lost everything. ‘Of course my breasts hurt when I strike them,’ one of the oppari singers told me once. ‘But my belly hurts when I don’t feed it.’ In theory, that is all: to perform oppari you need only to be a widow who must make her living. It is inauspicious to say further, but it’s impossible not to see the rest. Pathos and artistry. Passion and compassion.
Twice a month perhaps, news of a man’s death. They would congregate immediately by the bridge by the Tiruvallikeni train station and make their way to the house of the bereaved. Krishna, Kodai, Siddhi and Sarala Kali.
The other three were elderly: a crone and two grandmothers. Only Sarala Kali seemed ageless, but there was something there I was not allowed to see. I would never learn the codes, but I could recognize their existence.
Something had shifted in my consciousness the first time I watched them singing. In a room of mourning women, the widow was being stripped of her ornaments, and they sang as they broke her bangles, they sang as they unpinned the flowers from her hair and wiped the scarlet from her forehead, they sang of the beautiful yellow face she could no longer raise in public. And when they removed her nuptial chain, they wailed so wretchedly that it was as though every heartache that had rapiered through every life in history had awoken again as a single node of suffering. As they led her to the threshold of her door and she stepped across it, they handed a pall-bearer a clay pot of her ornaments. He would release them into the sea.
Sarala Kali never told me the story of her widowing, but it was in the crescents that glinted in her eyes under streetlights sometimes, and in the words she used to love the dogs and cats that seemed to surround her at all times. It was in the timbre not of her oppari voice, but the one in which she sang thalattu. Lullabies. It was in the way her hands rested when empty, and in the hollow at her throat. Most of all, it was in the lies she told, the beautiful fictions, all the mythoi she channelled that could sound like they belonged to everyone. But those stories sprouted from her navel, and she tore them out like a lotus stalk so that she could feed the world in the myriad ways it came to her.
Once, I heard a historian remark at a conference that what set apart the Greek epics from the South Asian ones was their immutability. The Odyssey could take place only as was written. But sung and improvised and appropriated and forgotten, there were hundreds of Ramayanas. How I told the story of us varied based on whether I was under siege, under a spell, or under a heartbreak of a harvest moon.
For a rondure of seasons, you were the only thing I talked about.
‘If he liked it, he should have put a lakshman-rekha around it,’ shrugged Sarala Kali one night in Ayodhyakuppam, watching me pour more vodka into a plastic bottle of lime soda. I was sobbing, moving around her kitchen while somewhere in the near distance firecrackers — a wake? a cricket match? — were going off like drunken punctuations.
‘Really? Is it that simple?’
‘It is that simple. You wanted him to set the parameters. What broke you is that he refused to concede they existed, and then punished you for stepping across them.’
‘He — ’
‘No. You. You.’ She pointed at me. ‘He may have pushed your finger into the earth, he may have pushed you bodily even, but it was you who drew the line. Be brave. A day will come when you will not look back. Until then, keep walking.’
‘And what do I do? What do I do as I keep walking?’
‘This. This will do.’