RAISED in Kuala Lumpur, author Sharanya Manivannan never knew where life would take her until she got a break as a stringer at the New Straits Times (NST) YouthQuake desk in 2002 at the tender age of 16.
“My family moved to Malaysia from Sri Lanka when I was almost 5, and I grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. I was a quiet girl who loved books, and I went to several different schools and would spend all my breaks and lunch times in the library.
“I rarely had friends, so I was so fortunate that my favourite hobby (reading) kept me company,” she said in an interview with the New Sunday Times.
“There was also a lot of stress in my family, and books assuaged my loneliness in so many ways. I started to write when I was 7 by keeping a notebook of poems.
“Until then, I was just a dreamy kid who wanted to breathe and eat art. It was at NST that I learnt that my talent was also a practical skill and could eventually put food on the table.”
Growing up loving books even before she could read, Sharanya recalls the “a-ha!” moment that would change her life forever.
“I had loved books before I could read by myself, so when I learned how to write sentences in school, just the empowerment of being able to feel or think something and write it down was all the ‘a-ha!’ I needed to start this journey.”
At 22, Sharanya moved to Chennai. Although she had to make major life changes, she was undeterred. She set out on a journey to become an internationally acclaimed writer.
Her book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, was recently awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity — Best Book (Fiction) category.
“The book is a collection of 26 stories about women who seek love and partnership while struggling against social conformity and a standard patriarchal trajectory of what a woman’s life is supposed to be,” said Sharanya.
“I’m grateful the feminism in the book has been recognised. This book was not made to pass the ‘Bechdel Test’, which requires that two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man.”
She admitted to being a self-professed feminist and was thrilled when this book won the award, not because it’s a literary award, but a feminist one, adding that she wrote this book for other women like her — soft-strong, tender-tough women who forge their own paths.
What are some of her favourite excerpts from the book?
“I love the entire book, but mainly the story Conchology, which brings together Tamil women’s mourning songs called oppari, the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, who is the keeper of the Holy Grail, Sri Lankan folklore and other disparate elements.
“Another favourite is the story Sweetness, Wildness, Greed, which is about ancient honey-gathering tribal traditions, and a woman who goes into the forest to learn more about them.
“Afternoon Sex, which is about that simmering tension between inner wildness and the outer restraint of being a woman in a city like Chennai, is another favourite.”
The author, who is in her early 30s, never put pen to paper to gain popularity or fame.
“The frustration of being a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of city led me to write this book. Writing was a way to keep alive my own flame.
“I believe fame is a question of optics. I began publishing and performing at a young age, and I’ve worked for a long time at what I do, so acclaim is not one of the ways in which I measure or understand my own life.
“Nothing changes about the fact of who I am, what my struggles are, or what gives me joy.”
Currently based in Chennai, Sharanya said there were differences in gender roles between women in Malaysia and Chennai, India.
“While Malaysia is patriarchal as many Asian societies are, Chennai has a deeper misogyny at its heart. It is a less diverse city in many ways, and a lack of diversity invariably leads to more social rigidity.
“From anthropological and analytical perspectives, I’ve really had some interesting things to chew on in every place I’ve lived in, but from a personal perspective, it can really wear you down,” she commented.
Although she has not been back to Malaysia since 2007, Sharanya has not gotten over the heartbreak of leaving the shores she once called “home”, and still craved our local delicacies.
“Life is full of twists, and maybe it will lead me back. Malaysian food is a craving that’s never gone away.
“I was in a small town in Australia last year and found Ayam Brand pastes in a supermarket and instead of buying what I needed to eat during my stay, I bought stuff to bring back instead.
“Also, as a young adult, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom living in Kuala Lumpur, a kind of freedom that I don’t enjoy in Chennai even as a woman in my early 30s. I think of that freedom very often.”