Publisher’s note: It’s a challenge to describe “The High Priestess Never Marries”—there are simply too many quotable lines. Suffice it to say that the narrator introduces herself as “a woman who wears altogether too much metal, on the interior as much as on the outside. I jangle like a poltergeist.” Here the author, Sharanya Manivannan, celebrates Chennai/Madras, the setting of and inspiration behind the story (also included in our anthology The Female Complaint).
Allow me to introduce you to the city in which I live. You’ll know of it as (a likely mispronounced) Chennai. “Chen-naai” is what you may have heard, but unfortunately, “naai” in Tamil means “dog”—and may be used in a pejorative and not puppylicious sense. The airport code is MAA, which sounds like a grown man whining to his mother—an abbreviation for the city’s prettier, older name: Madras. Madras as in Madras checks, the handwoven plaid that takes its name from the area in which it was first produced. The textile is also known as “bleeding Madras,” for its unruly dyes despite its neat checks—which sounds a bit like another pejorative, the kind that’s bled its way into standard Indian English (which is to say, a post-colonial relic).
This is the city in which “The High Priestess Never Marries” is set, and this is also the language in which it is written. English and Tamil mixed in unequal but sensible proportions, like a nice cocktail. Except that the protagonist prefers her drinks straight. As she says in my favourite line—a line I loved so much that it’s in the blurb of my new book, which shares its title with this story—“I like my fights dirty, my vodka neat and my romance anachronistic.”
This is the city in which the young woman protagonist of “The High Priestess Never Marries” can, in the same day: pretend to be married in an elaborate favour while also pretending not to care about the reward, be chastised by a random older woman invading her privacy, get deliciously drunk and ride a bike side-saddle in a saree—and ultimately still make the choice that, despite the society she lives in, she’d rather be silly and free than safe and suffocated.
The man—known only as the Lucky Bastard—who was her lover and seems to have come back for an encore is so very lucky to have known her.
Sharanya Manivannan‘s new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016), has been described in The Establishment as “a tour de force of language, desire, and ancestral heartbeats.”