CHENNAI: What remains after a war? When the ironically-named peace keeping forces have packed up and left, and trauma is measured in one too many numbers — of lives lost, property destroyed, wings singed, memories buried, and words forsaken — will we know to look for magic in the weary remains? Will magic, knowing far better, let us find it? In the waters of the Kallady lagoon on the gentle curve of the tear drop island, where magic takes the form of the mermaid Ila, there’s no room for speculation, only surrender. ‘You called to me, and I came.’ So begins Sharanya Manivannan’s graphic novel Incantations Over Water; an ephemeral exploration into the depths of history, of stories forgotten, myths passed on across generations and above all, mermaid magic.
Tales of a war
Taking off from the joyfully light pages of Mermaids in the Moonlight, Incantations offers a closer look into Ila’s world. Her silence through the 30 years of the civil war that lay waste to the country that bears her name within it (or was it that no one was listening?), her encounters with heartbreak, and the stories she stands witness to — Sharanya weaves them all with slices of history, of truth and longing, offering a representation of the displaced Eelam diaspora and the many shades of grief it bears.
“When you are someone with a first-hand experience of war — it could mean that you lived in the conflicted territory or your family left because of the territory, watching a war unfold is a completely different experience. It’s incredibly nuanced and heavy. At the same time, it’s not all that is your life. It could have so many other things — beautiful things or painful things that may not have anything to do with the war. Life goes on. For 30 years is a really long time and a lot happens in that time. So, to bring in history and magic, mystery, different kinds of comprehension is natural because I cannot have a reductionist view of the war,” she shares.
A member of the vast diaspora herself, Sharanya brings in the inside perspective. A traumatised community that is not without joy, desire or pleasure but on the flipside feels the guilt of not having been there at the worst of times. Sharanya herself had moved — first from Batticaloa to Colombo and then, abroad. ‘...while you, somewhere beyond the island, safe in survivor’s guilt, never knew what was happening to them. Until years later, elbow-deep in the comprehension of what happened to your people (oh, but if you had been here all along, would they have been ‘your people’ even so?), the compass rose of your heart set you on a collision course that made you weep out loud at the thought of it — the thought that numbered among the unnumbered was another trajectory of life altogether. Yours.’
Of magic and mystery
All this is brought alive through the whimsical exploration of the possibility of mermaids — whose form you’ll find strewn across the island nation in symbol and statement. It was this that struck her when she eventually made her way back to Batticaloa at the age of 27. “Everybody has a different response to that (returning home). I know from other people who performed this kind of journey that it can break you. I didn’t know whether I could navigate that journey. But what allowed me to go back to Batticaloa was this quest to find out about the mermaid. The mermaids were everywhere on public facade; I was really taken by that.
Then, I gave myself the creative endeavour of trying to find out where are the stories, why are there no stories about them. Using that protection (in hindsight), I was able to go to Batticaloa with a mission rather than it being a visit to a place I couldn’t go to or some of my loved ones died without being able to see,” she narrates. And there, hunting for stories of this mythical fish-women, Sharanya found herself in the company of people who were generous with retellings of the place, its culture and customs, and the many intricacies that came with it. And through this — rather extraordinarily — a way back to her roots.
Ila, in the illustrations beautifully rendered by Sharanya, is curiously fashioned in her likeness — her big fish-like eyes and the conch in the place of a flower on her hair make it apparent to any ardent reader. But, perhaps there is more of the author in Ila, especially when she says, ‘For Ila: only the eloquence of her own heart.’ But perhaps, there is a little bit of the author in the listener who finds herself drawn to Ila too; she too is fashioned after Sharanya but with her signature pottu. For we find Ila, perhaps echoing the sentiments of the people who stayed, telling the listener, ‘It’s a special thing for you to be here on this isthmus. So many among your kin never came. Back, or ever.’ I’d like to imagine that the listener is Amma from Mermaids from when she was younger (though the timelines make it clear otherwise). Incantations offers what you desire to draw from it and then some.
It is in this manner that it adds to the stories we were introduced to in Mermaids. From Suvarnamaccha (her dalliance with Hanuman and her baby Macchanu, born with his father’s torso and mother’s tail) to Melusine of Europe. We get newer stories too — like the Little Mermaid’s original fate and Matsya’s warning. All of them made more mature, to suit a likewise audience. The colour palette having moved from the delightful burst of brightness in Mermaids to a sombre marriage of blues and white with a splash of blood red, though more out of convenience than construct, perfectly keeps in step with the mood of the book. One that moves between the states of magic, mystery, loneliness and grief like water, like tapestry. After all, this is a story of love — or rather Ila’s lovelessness, says Sharanya. But it is Ila’s wisdom I fall back on. ‘Those whom the promise of love has failed will seek and find the rendering that speaks to them. We do indeed always arrive at what we are meant for. No matter our promises, no matter our disappointments.’