Writer Sharanya Manivannan discusses her children’s book Mermaids In The Moonlight

Book cover   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

With Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids In The Moonlight (published by Red Panda), a faction of bibliophiles can make a strong case for their fondness for printed books over their electronic cousins. Apart from the delight of holding a book, you will also miss Sharanya’s dreamlike illustrations if you are merely listening to its text via an audiobook, they would say. Even on an ebook, the colourful artworks appear less striking than they would in print.

Sharanya, however, does not make a big deal of this. She offers a pragmatic explanation. “Different kinds of creative products are meant for different audiences. They create different experiences,” she says, “I wanted Mermaids In The Moonlight to be a picturebook for children. I wanted them to hold it and turn its pages. But this need not be the case with all kinds of books.”

Mermaids In The Moonlight is Sharanya’s second children’s picturebook after The Ammuchi Puchi. But it is the first that features her illustrations. The book is about a conversation between a mother (who is called Amma) and her daughter (Nilavoli) during a night boat ride at the Kallady lagoon in Mattakalappu (also known as Batticaloa), Sri Lanka.

Amma tells Nilavoli she can hear mysterious sounds from the lagoon if she puts her ear close to the oar dipped in the water. The sounds, according to Amma, are of mermaids. This fascinates young Nilavoli, who asks her mother more questions. The conversation on that full-moonlit night wanders through different cultures and fables about mermaids.

Despite the fairy-tale feel, evoked by the fables and the artwork, the book is not removed from the world we inhabit. It even feels autobiographical after learning that Sharanya’s mother is from Mattakalappu. “My mother would tell me as a kid that there was a mermaid in her hometown,” she says, “I didn’t give this a lot of thought until I visited the place in 2012 when I was 27.”

Everywhere she looked, there were depictions of mermaids, which in the region are called meenmagal. “They were on the arch at the town’s entrance, on towers, on roofs of shrines... They were everywhere. But there was no mermaid-folklore, which was unusual. So, I went looking for it. I spoke to the people of Batticaloa, some writers, the fishing community and even the scientific community because the sounds from the water were real.”

“The answer was more mysterious than I expected. The place itself seemed magical where a lot of strange things happened. So, to have a mermaid in a lagoon seemed apt. But I don’t try to fill this void for folklore with stories of my own making for the meenmagal. I see this void as something that contains multiple possibilities.”

Mermaids In The Moonlight is not the only story born out of her visit to Mattakalappu. The short story, ‘Conchology’ from her book The High Priestess Never Marries also features mermaids. She is also working on a graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, which will feature Ila, the mermaid from Mermaids In the Moonlight. “But it is a different book and deal with darker themes,” she adds.

Writing for children, Sharanya says, is a task that requires a lot of care. “Adults enter a piece of art — a book or music or a film — with preconceived notions. Children are more open-minded, more curious. It’s also easier to lose a child reader. Because they can sense if you are trying to infantilise them or patronise them.”

The Ammuchi Puchi, which is about the death of a grandparent, dealt with grief. Even Mermaids In The Moonlight features topics like Tsunami and the Civil War. “Within fables, there are layers of human darkness. I believe children are intuitive, intelligent, curious... When I write for them, I keep in mind that we should never talk down to them.”

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 12:39:03 AM |

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