Sharanya Manivannan’s graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, is set near Kallady lagoon in Mattakalappu, Ilankai (Batticaloa, Sri Lanka). But the story stretches beyond the common concepts of place and time. In its structure and theme, it exemplifies multiplicity — of name, place, ways of being.
The story is narrated by Ila, a fiercely independent half-woman, half-mermaid, labelled as the sort of woman who lures lovers into the deep. Ila goes by many names: meen magal , fish daughter; kadal kanni , sea maiden; mermaid; samudra rani , queen of the oceans. And she lists other names of the island in other tongues — Serendib, Tamrapani, Celião, Nagadipa, Palaisimondou and Ilankai, the last meaning ‘glittering’. Referring to our constant need to fix names, Ila reflects: “But you don’t have to know a thing by name to feel it, to know it, even to call it.”
Structured into 12 parts, the novel is a tapestry of multiple narratives, heard and unheard folklores, with a generous splattering of tantalising visual imagery. Nymphs, goddesses and sea creatures are rendered as magically as the coastal landscapes,
suggestive of grief, longing and memories. Manivannan’s familiarity with the terrain helps her uncover hidden stories of hidden beings under the sea, taking the reader back to an ancient oral tradition of storytelling. There are tales of the duyong princess, Mathabu’l-Bahri of Dika; Melusine, the ancestress of Europe; Nimue, the Lady of the Lake; Aycayia of Taíno archipelago and many other mermaids who are lured, prized and eventually slip away.
Incantations is also a postcolonial record of the island, which has, over the centuries, borne witness to the arrival of Portuguese colonisers, decades-long ethnic conflicts, and the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, which in some parts of the coast swallowed up more women than men.
But in spite of these stories of political and ecological disasters, the novel refuses to be categorised simply as a post-apocalyptic narrative. The legends, folktales, poetry and fiction that buttress it rather insist that lives go on both beneath and beyond the sea.
The play with words and the use of the Tamil script without conscious translation make the book all the more important as a postcolonial unpacking of history. In her poem, ‘The First Water is the Body’, the Indigenous American poet, Natalie Diaz, using the Mojave word for tears, questions whom we translate for and whether others grieve for losses made in our efforts to translate across languages. This theme of what can be told and what must necessarily remain untold is the fulcrum of Incantations too.
Fighting against fixities, the novel urges us to consider points-of-view other than human. For instance, just as an octopus thinks with its tentacles, Ila thinks her cognition could lie within her tail. The decentering of anthropomorphism helps foreground a non-human intelligence and another, perhaps more enriched, way of life.
Incantations puts forth a knowledge that doesn’t have to be translated or, rather, can’t be translated — which is an act of intimacy telling us to know a people instead of simply extracting their wisdom. Diving beyond Western concepts of capturing and documenting information for posterity, it takes us to the deepest corners of the ocean of knowledge, where each story can have several meanings, making the whole beautiful and wondrous. In Ila’s words, “All is love, all is longing.”
Incantations Over Water; Sharanya Manivannan, Context, ₹799
The reviewer is Associate Professor, Jindal Global University, and Director, Environment, Technology and Community Health Consultancy.