“Enda peyr Nilavoli,” opens Nilavoliyil Meenmathar, Ponni Arasu’s Tamil translation of my picture book Mermaids In The Moonlight, originally created in English and published by Westland in February 2021. The Tamil edition was released in January 2024 by Ethir Veliyeedu, an independent press based in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu.

From its first word, Nilavoliyil Meenmathar asserts language as an identifier: in Sri Lankan / Ilankai / Eelam Tamil, the word for “mine” is “enda”. In Indian Tamil, it is “yen”. The book has been rendered in dialect, and this to me is a triumph. Of course, I am romanising all these words here for ease of understanding.

Mermaids In The Moonlight is set in the Kallady lagoon in Mattakalappu, where on full moon nights, strange sounds emerge from within the water – a natural phenomenon that some attribute to molluscs or tidal movements. An unnamed mother, known only as Amma, and her daughter Nilavoli – named for the moonlight – sit inside a boat and listen to the lagoon’s music, and talk about mermaid stories from around the world. They are from the Tamil diaspora that was created as a result of ethnic conflict. The mother, having left the island as a child, brings her child to it for the first time. Their evening on the lagoon is a loving transfer of inheritance in the form of stories and mysteries. I too am from this diaspora, and as a writer and illustrator, I made this book with the love and the sorrow that are my own inheritances.

Preserved in translation

Ponni Arasu, the book’s Tamil translator, first read the original while sitting close to that very lagoon, and then she translated it there as well. She is Indian, but has lived in Sri Lanka off and on for many years, and has a long and meaningful engagement with the island. When she contacted me and told me where she lived, and about how she wanted to bring my book into Tamil for the children of the communities there – to bring it to the book’s location, which is my ancestral hometown and her chosen home – the serendipities were irresistible. Ponni’s mother, the Chennai-based theatre maker and writer Mangai Arasu, who has engaged with Batticaloa’s arts scene for decades, would offer creative and publishing guidance.

I can’t resist sharing a joke here: “Mangai” is a pseudonym that also means “woman”, and when I told translator and writer Krupa Ge about Nilavoliyil Meenmathar, when the translation was ready, she giggled and said, “How come it isn’t ‘meenmangai’?”

Ponni chose to use the word “meenmathar”, which means “fish-woman” in the book. In Batticaloa, the word that is usually used to indicate a mermaid is “meenmagal”, which means “fish-daughter”. While I have a sentimental attachment to the latter word, having heard it growing up, the feminist subtext in Ponni’s coinage is compelling. Among readers who engage with not only literature but with all aspects of their lives largely or entirely in Tamil, a word that situates a woman – or indeed, a mermaid – as her own person, rather than as someone’s, is imbued with power.

Ponni’s first draft incorporated the Batticaloa dialect, which Mangai advised against, probably for reasons it being published in India and because the use of all dialects may be unusual in books. But when the manuscript came to me for review, I requested the use of my dialect – and was heartened to know that that had been the original intention. Ponni and Mangai brought the dialect back into the characters’ dialogues, where it would be most natural. I read the Tamil translation at my reading proficiency, which is at a primary school level – perfect for this work.

My proficiency is a consequence of certain intergenerational traumas, and being diasporic is only one of them. Even if I had been completely raised and educated on the island, there would only have been sentimental, not practical, reasons to teach me more Tamil. I was born exactly two years after the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, during which fluency in Sinhala allowed some to escape arbitrary persecution by mobs. Administratively as well, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 ensured that my native language was scraped from official usages, amended in 1958 (but not brought into practice properly until much later) to allow its formal use only in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Even today, impositions on both terrain and culture shrink the need to know Tamil well. To teach one’s children this language is not a necessity even on the island, which is to say that systemically rendering it a “choice” insidiously contributes to its loss.

Much is lost, and while some things may be lost in translation, this experience of being translated into my mother tongue makes me believe that more things are preserved and made possible in such a process instead.

There is one word that is rendered in Tamil in Mermaids In The Moonlight that could not be used verbatim in Nilavoliyil Meenmathar. Amma addresses Nilavoli as “kunju”, the sweetest term of endearment in Sri Lankan dialects (and subdialects). Its literal meaning is “chick”, but in Indian Tamil, it also means “penis”. As a book published in India, and with an Indian Tamil immediate market, it was inappropriate to use it.

Ponni suggested “chellam”, but that felt wrong to me – that word wasn’t a part of the dialect I was raised in. However, Ponni pointed out that it has become part of the parlance in Batticaloa now, probably because of greater exposure to Indian-made films and television series. We settled on “magal”, “daughter” – used affectionately, as is “mahan” for “son” – because the mother in the book would be of my generation, and a diasporic too (the “g” I have used in the romanisation of “magal” falls in between the “ka” sound in written Tamil and the “ha” sound of the Batticaloa dialect). Language and culture evolve or remain static at the source and in the diasporas in different ways.

Several months later, Brigitte Foray – a Paris-based theatremaker and writer who has translated Mermaids In The Moonlight into French and is making valiant efforts to publish it in an industry that is resistant to diversity – visited me. We spent one afternoon clarifying a list of queries she had about her manuscript. Again, I enjoyed being able to see the interplay of languages – one I speak and one I don’t – and to give her input when asked, and in this process, a beautiful moment emerged. Without knowing its literal meaning, but recognising it as an endearment, Brigitte had translated “kunju” as “mon poussin”. She explained it to me: “Like the hen’s baby”. Which is exactly what it means in the only Tamil I feel in, even though it is not the only Tamil I understand or speak.

The French “mon” in that Tamil, my Tamil, would be “enda”, of course, never “yen”. Which brings us back to the first word of Nilavoliyil Meenmathar. I would like for this to let you glimpse into my life, as an Ilankai Tamil now domiciled for over a decade and a half in Tamil Nadu, where I have learnt painfully how it is better, even safer, not to speak Tamil as I truly know it. It is a place in which the most intimately personal of words – “mine”, “my”, and of course, “my little one” – must be elided in order to be understood, to not be ridiculed or fetishised, and to pass – to pass in the mainstream, when one is from farther waters.

The politics of translation

Tamils from the island and in its diaspora may identify themselves as Sri Lankan Tamil, Ilankai Tamil (Ilankai is the Tamil word for the whole island), Eelam Tamil (Eelam is only certain Tamil-majority regions, and its use may be but is not always linked to separatist movements) or a hyphenated identity, such as Tamil-Canadian, which indicates nationality as well as heritage without tying that heritage to a geographical location. In Moonlight, the mother and child use the terms Ilankai, and Mattakalappu (the Tamil word for Batticaloa).

All of this matters, and knowledge of these terms and their multivalences cannot be assumed. There is, for instance, a Tamil novel by a Batticaloa writer that was rendered in English in 2018 by an Indian Tamil translator, who glibly stated in its introduction that they had not known that Mattakalappu, clearly only familiar to them through text, is also known as Batticaloa. Quite widely across Tamil Nadu, a callous distancing from reality despite a fascination with Eelam as an abstract, even when not malicious, is common.

Over decades, many Indian Tamil professionals in the public eye – writers, translators, academics, filmmakers and politicians, most visibly – have used Sri Lankan and/or Eelam Tamil lives, deaths and stories in order to gain career mileage for themselves. This results not only in misappropriation but also in a general public misconstruing of what Tamilness in and of the island actually is, as well as a cultural monolithising that is dangerous because it erases diversity. I have written at length in the past and will continue to, about why. For the purposes of this piece of writing, suffice to say: I was not going to let just anyone take this book into Tamil.

For peoples decimated by genocide, scattered into diasporas, shaped by war on the island and transfigured by existence away from it, cultural loss is a constant. Attempts to acknowledge this spectrum of loss necessarily must acknowledge that Indian Tamilness (itself not monolithic) is different. The Tamils and the Tamilnesses of the island are myriad, too. Even the international NGO Minority Rights Group flattens us in its description on its website – “Sri Lankan Tamils (also known as ‘Ceylon’ or ‘Jaffna’ Tamils)” – using a colonial term and then naming one geographical region in the north of the island, which has long professed cultural superiority over the rest of us. What happens to us Tamils from the east of the island then, who have also been deliberately erased by the Tamils of the north in global and local narratives?

Nilavoliyil Meenmathar is thus a document that deepens the heartbreakingly faint imprint of a Batticaloa-centric Tamilness on the public consciousness as its own unique, self-assertive identity. The English original did this or tried to do this, on the turf of that tongue. The Tamil edition goes a step further, expanding the literature on what at best is understood as a minor subculture. Perhaps this picturebook, which is from my inner world but carries stories from around the world, has further still to travel. For now, it is available in two languages, and one of them is highly conscious and respectful of my native dialect is a kind of miracle to me. Ponni Arasu’s lived experience of Batticaloa and multilingual talents, and Mangai Arasu and Ethir Veliyeedu’s support, made this possible. That and the magic of the lagoon, which sings in its own language, always.