Sharanya Manivannan writes, “In any endeavour — in any pilgrimage, in any undertaking of the heart — always leave a votive for the ones who left no trace.” This is what Sharanya does in her book 'Incantations over water'. She acknowledges that this book is a votive for all her lost kin and for a history much less known.
At one point in our lives, all of us believed in mermaids, but we never got the chance to explore these beliefs beyond a few movies we saw on TV, the few drawings we saw and the few books we read; the questions we had got pushed to the back of our minds, waiting to be answered. Sharanya re-opens these questions and answers them in the book. The book is about a mermaid, Ila, on the coast of Mattakalappu, Ilankai (Tamil word for Sri Lanka), singing to us of stories past and tales forgotten. But Ila does not do just this. She also tells us the stories of her people and stories that are not limited to the meeting of her and our kind.
Sharanya Manivannan is a Sri Lankan Tamil, a people who withstood genocide and civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. In her book, she questions, as with any war, does it really end with a number? Stories and people’s histories run deeper and farther than mere statistics.
Ila, the sea mermaid, recollects time and again the stories of Ilankai. What we cannot see in a lifetime, Ila records and tells us. She brings us stories from the ocean’s depths, the surface waters, bridges, islands and the people. She brings us closer to Ilankai and its history that's grossly overlooked.
Sharanya’s book is sorted into chapters, with each chapter focusing on a new aspect of mermaids. Once it might be about the biology of mermaids, another time it might be a mythological uncovering, and another might be of the magic that resides in them, and more. There is no single narrative that runs through the book, but multiple stories run beside each other and weave into each other.
She begins the story with a bit of the history of the island Ilankai, its many names and meanings and then dwells on the magic of the place. She focuses on this place called Mattakalappu which she interchanges with Batticaloa, which are multiple names for the same land but in different eras of inhabitation.
Multiple stories carry within them multiple themes. There are stories about longing, love, and returning to the homeland. There are stories of love, magic, and myth. She writes of history within these stories, the history of Tamilians in Sri Lanka and their diaspora, and she writes them very poetically. Though there is no single narrative running through the book, there are recurring themes of longing, history and love all through.
Sharanya includes many myths, from the Ramayana to stories of mermaids simply swimming to the surface. She traces stories of mermaids not only in Mattakalappu but also in Singapore (the legend of Sang Nila Utama), South Korea (Hawng-ok’s story), and Europe (the legend of Melusine).
The writing is poetic and lyrical. The book is both illustrated and written by her and the overall effect is magical with the illustrations being equally musical. To classify this as Sri Lankan literature would be limiting. Sharanya displays an extensive vocabulary but this also makes the book a little less accessible. Nevertheless, 'Incantations Over Water' is a great book to pick up for anyone interested in mermaids, myths, Sri Lanka, and poetry.
A note on the paperback: the pages on the book being slightly shiny and reflective, I often found myself tilting and turning the book to look at the images and texts. I would advise you to not sit under direct light while reading this book.