Ila, The Mermaid Of Batticaloa

by Sharanya Manivannan


When I was a child growing up in Colombo and Kuala Lumpur, my mother sometimes mentioned how, on full moon nights, a mermaid could be heard singing in a lagoon in her hometown of Batticaloa. She stated this as fact, not legend, because of which neither she nor I remember me asking for stories about this mermaid (and like most children who grow up to make books, I asked for stories as often as I asked for sugar). Later on, I presumed that this was just something she had said because of Disney’s The Little Mermaid film, which came out around the time that we left Sri Lanka. Decades later, visiting Batticaloa for the first time in my mid-20s, I was captivated by how prolific the mermaid motif was there. At the entrance to the town, three mermaids who held their palms together in the vanakkam gesture of welcome were perched on a gold-painted arch. There were mermaids on clock towers, decorative pillars, memorial plaques, company logos – in short, everywhere.

Except, once again, in stories.

Intrigued by this absence, and haunted by this question – “How can there be a mythic figure without myths surrounding her?” – I began to conduct informal research in Batticaloa a few years later. When I first returned, it was armed with some hypotheses: that the stories were retained in orality but not transcribed, or that the stories were among the many expunged or disappeared losses of the civil war. I did not realise till later that the quest for mermaids was itself a kind of armour: as a member of the traumatised Tamil diaspora from the island, giving myself permission to return to my family’s native place was a heavy, frightening contemplation. Giving myself permission to return to quench my creative inquisitiveness was far easier.

I learned very quickly that both my hypotheses were wrong, but before we get to what I learned instead, let me begin with what is, incontrovertibly, true: on full moon nights, if you enter the Kallady lagoon in a boat, place a wooden paddle into the water and hold its dry end to your ear, you will hear mysterious sounds from the deep. I know this is true because I have heard these sounds myself. They are like frog croaks, pulsar blips, electronic musical stylings – but by no means are they like a human woman’s voice. This phenomenon is what gave Batticaloa the epithet “the land of the singing fish”. No one knows with certainty what the sounds are.

My informal research consisted of speaking to everyone I met on a few trips over the next couple of years, with and without appointment. Professors told me about Batticaloa’s erstwhile matrilineal and matrilocal dominant culture. Science enthusiasts told me about tritonia arborescens and cerithium palustre, likely to be the marine organisms that produce this distinct night music. Fisherpeople told me about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and about how the rainy season brought them limited income. I was taught folktales about fish, that the nature of water is called “neerkunam” and is a language in itself, and that the term “oorie coolooroo cradoo” that the BBC claimed is the local name for the shells that may create the sound is not in common parlance after all. I made new friends with whom I could converse in my native dialect, which was otherwise limited to my family. I created an entirely personal relationship with the place itself – that elusive love that most diasporics and exiles long for. But nobody had a mermaid story to share. I took the stray rumour or two about how “someone” (never someone who was around, or could be reached) had mentioned having seen a mermaid in the lagoon once with the pinch of sea-salt that all of us Batticaloa folk carry around, metaphorically if not actually. Partly because we’re a little notorious for being shifty with the truth. Partly because salt is curative, protecting against bad magic, another thing the region is known for.

So much flooded into the void where the mermaid stories weren’t, filling parts of my heart that had longed for connection, answering mysteries pertaining to family history, explaining me to myself in a whole new way. This is what gave me the courage to do what I did next: honour that void, but also make up the tales that I had wanted so much to hear.

I named the mermaid of Kallady lagoon Ila, her name derived from the Tamil word for Sri Lanka: Ilankai. Around her, I literally drew legends from the waters of the world: first, a picture book entitled Mermaids In The Moonlight (Red Panda/Westland, February 2021) and then a graphic novel entitled Incantations Over Water (Context/Westland, December 2021). In the picture book, in which a Tamil mother and child visit the lagoon and listen to the underwater sounds together for the first time, Ila remains a mystery. In the graphic novel, she is its protagonist and storyteller.One who lures a diasporic Tamil woman like me with her lore. One who has borne witness to centuries of Batticaloa life and loss, and whose deepest longing is to also be seen.

What a gift it is, what a miracle: to seek fables, to find an abundance of facts and other fictions that replenish one’s roots, and then to have enough in one’s hands and one’s heart to give back in the form of art. It’s a circle as full as the moon beneath which the mysteries of the waters of my ancestral homeland sing.


© Copyright Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan writes and illustrates fiction, poetry, children’s literature and non-fiction. Her books include The High Priestess Never Marries and The Queen of Jasmine Country. Her work has won a South Asia Laadli Award, and been nominated for The Hindu Prize, The JCB Prize, The Neev Book Award and other honours. She grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and lives in India. You can find more about her work at www.sharanyamanivannan.in


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