The Queen of Jasmine Country brings to us a unique experience of sensuality and spirituality coursing through Kodhai, as she stands delicately poised on the cusp of womanhood. It is an old story made new in retelling, poetic in expression, languorous with longing.
Simple, unassuming Vishnuchittan does not hold with the dogmas of his priest-father. He chooses the path of bhakti instead to worship his lord. His marriage is childless, but one morning he finds a baby girl in his tulasi grove. Surrounded by love, Kodhai grows up in an atmosphere redolent of Krishna. She is nourished on His stories. Her father weaves garlands of fresh flowers from his grove for Lord Vadabhadrasayi. Is it simply a child’s playfulness or an ancient knowledge that makes Kodhai lift and wear the heavy garland, saying the powerful words, ‘Krishna, I have married you, I have made you mine’, thus binding Him to herself. This is her wont, and she does this stealthily day after day, until a telltale hair gives her away. Vishnuchittan is deeply pained by this sacrilege until the Lord appears in his dream and demands that His garland always be worn first by Kodhai. Initiated by Vishnuchittan into reading and writing, Kodhai quickly understands the power of words ‘to know them and myself through them’. As womanhood fills her with sweetness and her urge for fulfilment grows stronger, the clamour in her gets louder. She yearns for the bridal night of ‘a little pain and then the universe’ and decides to observe ‘pavai nombu’, a month long abstinence and austerity to appease goddess Katyayani, to gift her with her heart’s desire. Abstinence makes the mind clearer, the voice sharper, and each day after the ritual bath, Kodhai makes space for restless words to tumble out of her, poems that would one day canonize her.
Both Vishnuchittan and Kodhai traverse the secular and the sacred worlds. The lord appears in dreams and visions to Vishnuchittan and gives him precise instructions. With Kodhai He is teasing. He locks eyes with her in a crowded street making her swoon, appears in her dream and promises her marriage. Vishnuchittan is able to keep the two worlds apart: ‘You live here in this world. Be a part of it my child’ he advises Kodhai. But Kodhai has stepped beyond. She is distraught and languishes when His promise is not kept.
Kodhai is an amazing child-woman. She claims freedom for herself, refusing to be ‘a caged parrot with clipped feathers’. She longs for the blue black one and her longing is visceral. That is at the centre of all her desire, ‘If I pray for rain, it is for womanly wetness.’ She coaxes and pleads and entices the lord, promising Him ‘one hundred thousand pots’ of rice and butter and her ‘tender, stiff nipples like jasmine buds’ if He married her. Who (even be it god) can resist such an offer?
This is a beautifully crafted work where again and again, prose lapses into poetry. What is puzzling however, is the use of obscure words sometimes that mar the effect. More careful editing was called for.
Sumitra Kannan, a freelance reviewer, has published in the Deccan Herald.