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Interview: Sharanya Manivannan

A photograph of Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of the novel The Queen of Jasmine Country, short story collection, The High Priestess Never Marries, two books of poetry, Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World, and a picture book for children The Ammuchi Puchi. In 2021, she makes her debut as an illustrator with the linked picture book Mermaids In The Moonlight and graphic novel Incantations Over Water. Sharanya grew up in Sri Lanka and in Malaysia, and has lived in India since 2007. Speaking with Shikha Aleya about Singlehood and Sexuality, Sharanya says, “For me, it’s all about: How can I hold my vulnerability without defensiveness, and let my longings speak even as I carve out a life that is politically and practically anchored in my own sovereignty? It’s an ongoing process.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Sharanya, a warm thank you for this interview.  On the theme of singlehood and sexuality, we tend to see singlehood through the lens of marriage and partnership, concepts that people keep as primary. But is singlehood in some way independent of these juxtapositions and contrasts? What does the concept of singlehood mean to you and how has it evolved for you?

Sharanya (SM): Thank you for having this conversation with me. I think we can be honest and say that at least in certain societies, including the one I inhabit in India, it isn’t yet possible to fully locate singlehood without its counter. In experience, this also means that shaking off a sense of failure becomes a routine personal wellness exercise. For me, it’s all about: How can I hold my vulnerability without defensiveness, and let my longings speak even as I carve out a life that is politically and practically anchored in my own sovereignty? It’s an ongoing process.

SA: In a 2018 interview, you have said that the institution of marriage must be interrogated. What would a starting point for such an exercise be, for an individual at a personal level, when considering their own life options and choices? In another article, you put forward this question: “Why should the natural state of the adult human being be partnership?” Can you share your personal insights from conversations you have had and your own experiences? 

SM: I have very deep friendships. In them, we often have themes we return continuously to over the years. So these personal insights are myriad, and I could go on and on and on about how much pain is caused on individual and generational levels through the privileging of structures like marriage, family, caste, religion and so on. Perhaps that’s exactly where the starting point should be: in your own constellation of known people, how much sadness have you seen because of these institutions? How much joy could there be if there was more room to breathe? It’s important to bring feminist and all sociopolitical concepts into known contexts. Only then can they exist and evolve beyond the page.

SA: Thank you! In the same 2018 interview referred to, you described a way of being, of engaging and transacting in our relationships, saying: “It’s such a beautiful thing, when love is not so unimaginatively goal-oriented.” This is a fascinating thought, and gives one reason to pause. Is it not frightening at some level to have to redefine goals out of the unknown? Elsewhere, you have said, “I think love is a feminist project.” What goals, or, un-goals (let’s think of them as ways of being as opposed to goals) might a single person identify for love, particularly romantic love, with its trappings of related concepts? 

SM: It’s incredibly frightening, not least because these are never one-off decisions after which you’re set. If you are true to yourself, and attuned to your emotions and needs, you’ll invariably find that even a core belief (such as: not believing in the institution of marriage) is complicated by what the lived experience of that means (not only discriminatory experiences, but also intimate ones). Your goals and un-goals must evolve as you do. This entails having to process disappointments which are off the grid of what is acceptable, by which I mean, people will be more sympathetic towards a divorce occurring than towards an adult who is betrayed by a sibling, parent, friend, or professional associate. People, not hypothetical people but ones we know, will simply not place these events on the scale they truly occur on, because they’re outside the realm of sanction. In the first couple of years of my 30s, I had some goals and un-goals that were not contingent on partnership, and I was still devastated. Love is love and not-love is not-love, no matter what their manifestations. Now, I’m 35 and setting new parameters for what I want my life to be like, and I’ve learned that it’s best to break goals up into manageable increments. The pandemic actually taught me this. Especially in the early stages of the lockdown, I was having a harrowing time and would get through by making detailed lists of what I needed to do over a few days, weeks or months at a time. This is why I hesitate to offer a prescription about how to set goals – they are deeply subjective, deeply contextual. Now, my goals basically cover the rest of my 30s. How unimaginative I would be if I thought I could account for even a decade at a time! Leaving room for life and change, in ways that are neither fearful nor overly optimistic but just open and receptive, is important as we make our goals and un-goals. 

SA: Last year, in the context of lockdown, memories, and relationships, you wrote, “Someone I haven’t touched in years emerged again in the shape of words.” As a writer, you have a gift, this ability to process and give tangible, communicable form to thought and feeling. Please articulate your understanding of a single person’s experience of relationships and sexuality, during Covid-19. Have you come across what may be considered relationship myths and assumptions, the words and concepts that challenge these assumptions, specific to the 2020 experience?

SM: Thank you. That was written back in April 2020, in my column “The Venus Flytrap” in The New Indian Express. By and large, I don’t think people’s approaches to sex have necessarily changed during the pandemic. I was fascinated by Richa Kaul Padte’s reportage in Vogue India  about how people were navigating sex during COVID-19. While my experience was and is isolated in numerous ways, I do know from my own friends and extended circles that many people have continued to date, including meeting strangers through apps. To be honest, I think we’re looking at the wrong aspect of relationships when we only talk about sex during the pandemic. The real challenges have come from being trapped in unhappy homes, having the cracks in certain relationships ruptured wide open due to financial and other pressures, finding out who finds you unworthy of engagement when conversation rather than activity is the mode, and so on. These have affected all kinds of relationships: marriages, families, friendships, professional associations, and more.

SA: Thank you for everything Sharanya! At TARSHI, we focus on facilitating the building of safe spaces that are inclusive and sexuality-affirming, across diverse aspects of life experience, including the physical, social, occupational, emotional, and psychosocial. What elements would you want to see out there, that to you would indicate a safe space, a space which is inclusive and sexuality-affirming?

SM: Thank you so much. It’s been great to talk to you! I dream of a world in which infrastructures themselves are less hostile, and thus, there is less of a need for safe spaces within them. Until then, here are a few things I would love to see: firstly, more initiatives inspired by the crowd-sourced safe gynaecologists list that’s available online. This would include safe landlords, safe pharmacies, safe therapists, safe travel agents, and so on. We should also list the unsafe ones in all the above categories, not to shame them but so that more people (especially single women, queer people and others who are structurally disadvantaged in any way) can avoid having unpleasant or even traumatic experiences with them. Secondly, our politics need to be informed by our interpersonal experiences and vice versa. Too much liberal discourse is theoretical, and this is why it can not only be reductive but is also ineffective at stopping the spread of illiberal events (the vast tide of online opinion, and how it doesn’t seem to change lived landscapes for the better, indicates this). Thirdly, and this is also difficult to execute, is creating more, and innovative, forms of accessible support for people who do not fit into societally accepted niches. This could mean everything from child-raising support for single parents, to support for people leaving toxic families and abusive partnerships, to support for those who are coming out or transitioning. I would also love to see more changes on a bureaucratic scale that go hand-in-hand with a more democratic society in general. That India now has laws criminalising interfaith love and marriage says a lot about how far things have regressed, and how much harder the fight for fundamental freedoms is becoming. We must not lose ground even in the so-called “little things”, the things we (to use a very Indian word) “adjust” to accommodate. Movements are made up of the little things.

Cover Image: Shared with permission

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