Book review | The story of a mermaid told in poetic prose, with eye-catching illustrations

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Incantations on Water, a graphic novel for adults, by Sharanya Manivannan, is the sequel, you can even call it a sequel to her wonderful children’s picture book, Mermaids in the Moonlight. While the picture book was published by Red Panda, the graphic novel is published by Context (both are Westland Imprints). Let me not limit the scope of these books to adults or children. The books are for any reader who wants to immerse themselves in the world created by the words of the writer.

For centuries, mermaids have fascinated humans. Shrouded in curtains of secrecy, there are enough legends and myths surrounding these aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female and the tail of a fish. Mermaids were known to lure lovers to the depths, men ensnared by their magical beauty would follow them underwater.

The story is told from the point of view of Ila, half-woman, half-mermaid. She lives in or near Kallady Lagoon in Mattakalappu, Ilankai (Batticaloa, Sri Lanka). The lagoon is a place full of curses and charms (both of which are incantations on the water.) The writing literally takes the reader into Kallady’s lagoon on a boat on a moonlit night, “whispers, echoing from deep within, caressed the skin of the water. You dipped a wooden oar inside and held its dry end to your ear, and you thought you could hear it. My voice .”

The story begins with a man diving underwater in search of pearls. From there it traces the stories of mermaids also known as meen magal (fish girl), kadal kanni (sea girl) and samudra rani (sea queen).

The mermaid Ila tells how she was silent during the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka, this is mentioned more than once. Even the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami is mentioned, where Ila talks about water being stripped like linen, to reveal its bed and creatures never before seen in the story.

There is also the story of Matsya, the fish that saved the world and all its creatures from the great flood. One of my favorite parts was about Suvarnamaccha and his gang of mermaids dismantling the bridge Hanuman had built for Lord Rama to allow him to reach Sri Lanka. I didn’t know about this particular story. For me, that was the highlight of the book.

There are stories about Sirena of the Hagatna River, Aycayia of the Taino Archipelago, Liengu la Mwanja, Mermaid Feeje, the story of the sea goddess Manimegala, the healer Anaimudi Chittar, interspersed with stories of Dongbaek and Hwang-ok.

Filled with merfolk legends and stories, some known and many unknown, which Manivannan unearthed due to his familiarity with the area. Divided into 12 chapters, the book is a visual delight due to its wonderful illustrations, (Manivannan’s pen brought all the sea creatures to life, especially the mermaids) as well as a delight to read, due to its handwriting poetic.

The book is a perfect blend of words and images. Where Manivannan’s words end, his illustrations move the story forward. The book makes a wonderful addition to a bibliophile’s private collection. My only complaint is the high price of the book which may put some readers off.

Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru-based children’s author and freelance writer.

Water Incantations

Sharanya Manivannan

Westland background

p.p. 174, Rs.799

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