Ila, a mermaid, speaks—a review of ‘Incantations Over Water’
‘Incantations Over Water’ demonstrates not only the literary excellence but also the genius of Sharanya Manivannan as an illustrator.
Title: Incantations Over Water
Author: Sharanya Manivannan
Publisher: Context, an imprint of Westland
Batticaloa (Mattakalappu), Sri Lanka, is the author and poet Sharanya Manivannan’s hometown, which she first visited at the age of 27.
As an adult visiting her hometown, seeing mermaid figures all around, she was reminded of her mother telling her about a mermaid in the Kallady Lagoon in Batticaloa. On full-moon nights, one could even hear strange sounds emanating from the lagoon. Manivannan has herself heard them.
While each nook and cranny of her hometown in the island country bore witness to mermaids’ presence, Manivannan was surprised that lore around them was absent. To fill this folkloric void, she wrote the Ila in the Kallady Lagoon duology.
With the first, a children’s book, Mermaids in the Moonlight (Red Panda, an imprint of Westland), Manivannan debuted as an illustrator. And the second part, Incantations Over Water (Context, an imprint of Westland), billed as a graphic novel for adults, is a sea of mermaid stories narrated by Ila — the mermaid who bears half the name of the island Ilankai.
The stories in this book weave mythology and history, oral tradition, and whatever little is documented that the author found in her research. The book’s visual grammar triumphs its poetic-prose, which is a reminiscence of a disturbing and lost time — the three-decades-long Sri Lankan Civil War.
Manivannan notes that the mermaids stopped singing after the war. Perhaps they were overwhelmed seeing the chaos that still percolates the region.
Ila’s first-person narration of stories of grief-stricken and forlorn people, who decided to bury “the bodies and ashes of others in the earth and the water,” of people who waited for a reconciliation that never happened, and of grandmothers who desired to sit on the porches of their homes one last time before their end neared, just like the author’s, but could never do that, help marry the mythic prose with its magical illustrations.
For example, Manivannan shares a mermaid’s version of the making of the setu, a bridge that was built by the vaanar sena led by Hanuman to reach Lanka, Ravana’s palace where Sita was taken after being kidnapped.
In this narrative, the vaanar army builds the bridge throughout the day only to find mermaids “removing the boulders” by the night on the order of Suvaranmachha, a mermaid with whom Hanuman fell in love. When Suvaranmachha revokes her order, the bridge gets completed.
Though over a thousand versions of Ramayana exist in the subcontinent, this mermaid version is rarely mentioned. In this manner, the book punctuates the fact that stories have multiple origins and that their diversity never threatens or “diminishes” the truth of any of these stories. What it does, in fact, is that it enhances and solidifies the belief that we need stories to make sense of ourselves.
Another such is the Greek folk legend of Alexander the Great and her mermaid sister, Thessaloniki. The lore has it that the immortal mermaid would ask sailors if her brother is alive. Upon hearing a positive response, she’ll let the vessel pass; however, the negative reply would result in the sinking of the ship, followed by a sea storm of tears.
Compared to its light-hearted predecessor, Mermaids, Incantations is darker — a sensation that the mention of the war and its sharp illustrations heighten. It’s more personal, too — as the author supplies several autobiographical strands and chronicles the history of her hometown. The stories flow as fluidly as the waters that the mermaids inhabit. Be it the deft use of onomatopoeic words or its invigorating visuals, everything in this book helps the reader to have an otherworldly experience, making it a narrative that exists in more language than humans can decipher.
Correction note: In the quoted text in this review, I, Saurabh Sharma, who runs this publication/website, incorrectly mentioned Sri Lanka as a country “whose emblem is a merlion.” I am informed that the writer meant Singapore, whose emblem is a merlion, while Sri Lanka’s is a lion. I am ashamed of the mistake. If there are any other mistakes/misinterpretations in the review, I will be happy to correct them and issue an apology. Thank you. And I deeply regret this misinterpretation.