Join Susan Mathews every fortnight for weird and wonderful conversations, narrated essays and poems that dwell on the evolving contingencies of life.
THE SUBVERSE SEASON 2, EPISODE 4
A story made of water: of incantations, mermaids, and moonlight
In this episode, we talk to Sharanya Manivannan, who writes and illustrates fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for children and adults. She is the author of seven books, and her work has won a South Asia Laadli Award, and has been nominated for The Hindu Prize, The JCB Prize, The Neev Book Award and other honours. Her two most recent books are the graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, and the picture book, Mermaids In The Moonlight. Sharanya grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and currently lives in India.
Ila is the mermaid protagonist in her two recent books, and the stories are set in Mattakalappu (Batticaloa), on the northeastern shore of Sri Lanka. We are introduced to a lagoon teeming with magic. For those who live there, the idea of fish-tailed women is not out of the realm of possibility. And yet, while these mermaids appear as motifs throughout the lagoon, their stories have been erased. In these books, Sharanya breathes new life into these tales and other accounts of mermaids from all over the world, challenging the often eurocentric focus of these myths.
Ila’s journey extends through the war on the island and the silence of those years, and the tsunami of 2004, when “the water stripped back like linen to reveal its bed and afterwards, beings that would resist record lay stranded briefly.”
It is the capaciousness of water, and the hybrid and fluid body of the mermaid that really offers us a beautiful escape in these books. It gives us a whole new world, a whole subverse for us to partake in.
There is also joy and grief in equal parts. As we have learnt from myths and folklore, loving and living between worlds is a tenuous, precarious thing. With mermaids forfeiting their fishy limbs for a mortal existence, and the existence of curses, black magic, trickery, blood betrayals, bewitchery, and broken covenants.
Unfortunately, there is a twist in this tale. Incantations over Water, which was published in December 2021 is now out of print, and so is Mermaids In The Moonlight. Westland, the publisher that released both books was closed by Amazon earlier this year. So, for now, we will have to wait with the patience of Ila, for this book to return to us. Some magic conjured up by the sea we hope will do the trick.
More about the guest
THE SUBVERSE SEASON 2, EPISODE 3
A River Dammed: Oral Histories from the Narmada River Valley
In this episode, we talk to Nandini Oza about archiving oral histories around the struggles against dam projects in the Narmada River valley. The former President of Oral History Association of India (2020-22), Nandini is a researcher, writer, chronicler, and an archivist.
For over a decade, she was an activist with the powerful people’s movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). In 2004, Nandini began recording the oral histories of prominent leaders and activists of the NBA—both local and from outside the Narmada valley—and of impacted women and men belonging to adivasi, farming, and other natural resource-dependent communities.
The Narmada is India’s longest west-flowing river, and it makes its way through the three western states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is the terminal dam on the river in Gujarat, and is part of the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP) which includes 30 big, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams on the river and its tributaries. In an article published in The Hindu in 2016, Shiv Viswanathan wrote, “To me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam. The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. It demands a different kind of storytelling. This struggle is about a collective history of a people challenging the official history of a nation state.”
For Nandini, oral history is people’s history—the history of the marginalised and exploited, narrated in their own voice, which is often actively suppressed by mainstream history. Even in people’s movements, when history is written, it often focuses on the key issues, programs and strategies, or on known faces, and the people who form the backbone of the resistance and their battles do not find a place of prominence. These interviews also help us understand how turning a free-flowing river into a reservoir of stagnant water by building a mega dam destroys the very way of life of people who belong to one of the oldest river valley civilizations.
More about the guest
Further reading and links
We play some compelling clips, and invite listeners to hear the clips and see the translations as follows:
- Short clip of Pervi – Oral History Narmada (time 0:01:30)
- Short clip of Rehmat
- Short clip of Champaben Tadvi
- Short Clip of Sitarambhai Patidar
The oral history archive can be found at: www.oralhistorynarmada.in
To buy The Struggle for Narmada: An Oral History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan by Adivasi Leaders Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave, Nandini Oza, Translated from the original Marathi by Suhas Paranjape and Swatija Manorama, With a Foreword by Indira Chowdhury
THE SUBVERSE SEASON 2, EPISODE 2
From the stars to the tidepool: water as the matrix of life
In this episode, we talk about the molecule of life, the matrix of the world, cosmic juice — water.
As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “It is the gold standard of biological currency.” She says, “Water is life, it’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive. It makes up two-thirds of our bodies, just like the map of the world; our vital fluids are saline, like the ocean. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
This episode is part tribute, part meditation on the journey of water from the stars to the tide pool. John Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez about how all things are one thing and that one thing is all things — plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. He advises us to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.
For the remainder of this podcast season, we will cover various dimensions of water — from history to folklore, to the impact of big dams, to the challenges of providing drinking water and sanitation, and more. This episode is also an introduction to the remainder of the season and how we can speak of our current crises in view of the space of water as an urgent territory of engagement.
From the stars to the tide pool is a tale of magic, of diving into a wreck, of embracing differences, articulating agency and accounting for our water wounds. It is a journey from the outer to the inner space of water, to coming to terms with our fishy beginnings, and our watery selves and learning to swim towards unknowable futures.
Credits for the Rig Veda quote and Paracelsus quote: H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000
Special thanks to Tushar Das, who added the wonderful effects and sound designed the episode.
Further reading and links
In preparing this episode, there are lots of wonderful works we relied on, but a few sources really propelled and added richness and depth to this monologue. See below the following:
- H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000
- Water, A Biography, Guilio Boccaletti, 2021
- Bodies of Water, Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Astrida Neimanis, 2017
- Fresh Water, Barbara Kingsolver, National Geographic, April 2010
- What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, Jamie Linton, 2010
- Diving into a Wreck, poem by Adrienne Rich
THE SUBVERSE SEASON 2, EPISODE 1
Art as resistance: the future of activism in a changing climate
In this episode, we talk about art and activism with Kumi Naidoo, a seasoned activist in South Africa during its struggle against apartheid who is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for human rights, gender equity, economic justice and environmental justice. He headed Civicus, Greenpeace and Amnesty International and continues to serve in an honorary capacity as Global Ambassador for the Pan-African civil society movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.He is presently a fellow at the Robert Bosch academy in Berlin, Germany.
Having been on the frontlines of social and environmental justice for decades, Kumi spoke of the aftermath of the Conference of Parties 26 (COP 26) in Glasgow which was the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the over-representation of the fossil fuel industry and how close we are to the cliff on climate change action, Recent IPCC reports speak of the dire situation we face and the shrinking window of action, something referred to in this conversation. While in Glasgow, he had a discussion with Olafur Eliasson, an artist based in Berlin, on how art and activism can learn from each other. Art is a way of making visible that which is invisible or maybe even rendered invisible and activism can learn much from art. James Baldwin once wrote, “the artist must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” We need to move beyond the limitations and entanglements of political activism as it stands now, and the hierarchies and intrinsic hegemonies built into our institutions and our norms. Art, fiction activate our imaginations and are important forms through which we can imagine other forms of human existence and other futures.
Kumi spoke compellingly of the need for youth to take the reins of leadership and not wait for it to be handed over, along with continuing to celebrate life, to love, laugh, embrace joy, to go down fighting, see these fights as marathons not as sprints and ensure accountability and justice in the process.
More about the guest
Further reading and links
Read the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report which assesses the impacts of climate change, looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels.