Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reflections: Mermaids

Certain predilections and characteristics of mine are so innate, that I can't trace back to their roots and figure out the reasons for them. One such predilection (which hovers in the territory of obsession) is my fascination with fish and most (pleasant) things that live in water. Curiously enough, my name's literal translation is - "that which grows in water", usually interpreted as a lotus. I am told that one of the first things I ever drew as a child learning to write, was a fish, but not the regular oblong one. It was something like a flat puffer fish, despite me never having seen an aquarium then, nor any fancy pictures of different varieties of fish. I used to fill pages and pages with this curious fish, spluttered with scores of bubbles, big and small. Next followed my love for bubbles. Even today, much to the amusement of many, I buy those huge Gazillion bubble bottles and love to blow bubbles, delighting in the hundreds of colorful balls dancing in the air.

Right from the dreamy child who would be rapt with awe just by looking at a painting of a fish, to the "grown up" person I am today with Goldfish and Danios as pets, my affinity towards fish has been steadily growing. The first time I ever set foot in an aquarium was when I was around seven years old, years after the birth of my intriguing attraction. Suffice to say, I was glued to the glass walls of the muddy tanks at Marina beach, mesmerized by the shimmering grace and colors, until I was peeled away from the place. It quite logically follows that a young girl who was so wildly enamored by fish, would soon use her imagination, and dream of herself as being a "fish-girl"; one who would get to swim to the bottom of the sea with her exotic fish friends and discover a whole new fantasy world of bubbles, treasures and other creatures. I loved this little imaginary world of mine, and secretly wished that I be turned into a fish-girl; little was I aware of who or what mermaids were. Imagine my thrill and delight when I first watched Disney's Little Mermaid. I believed it was a movie made exclusively for me, and since then started holding Disney in very high esteem. Besides, what a wonderful reassurance that smart people believed in fish-girls too! My fantasy world under the sea had come alive, and I wished ever more fervently to be a mermaid.

The sea, the mermaids and her fish, enthrall me as much as my reason tries to dismiss them all away. I'm aware most of it is just myth, but I can't seem to shake off the enchantment. I'm always happy to slip off into their fantasy world, enjoy and then return safely to reality. And thanks to friends like her, I am pampered to no end with such books.

Mermaids is an anthology of fantasy and science-fiction short stories revolving around the myth of mermaids and other sea creatures prominent in Irish and Scottish folklore. The book begins with a general, objective discussion on the myth of mermaids, their supposed sightings in the context of mythological references and folk-tales around the world, and tries to mesh together a partially coherent explanation (if any). Mermaid sightings have been mostly supposed as sailors' drunken interpretation of sea mammals such as manatees and dugongs. This explanation first felt absolutely ludicrous. A huge, bald, shapeless manatee with whiskers being compared to a nymph-like maiden with porpoise-like fins? Well. However, a couple of hundred years back, sailors spent years together at sea, fighting against the waves, starved of land, home and the company of women. It doesn't seem terribly unlikely for drunken sailors hallucinating in the sea-sicknesses to mistake a manatee or dugong surfacing miles away from the ship, for a partially clothed maiden. Dugongs apparently nurse their young above the surface of the water, by holding them to their chest (pectoral glands). Such a scene, seen at a distance by lonely sailors, through mists and sea-sprays, could very well have been interpreted as a mystical maiden nursing her child. Although this greatly amused me, I can well understand the sailors need for spicing their monotonous journeys with such beliefs and supposed sights. Still, the myth is not entirely struck off. The stories in the book draw on the many inexplicable sightings and beliefs, and end with a strange, haunting touch.

The book contains 18 stories, all of which are shrouded in the mysteries of the deep seas. I expected all of the tales to be adaptations of folklore, based entirely in fantastical places and mythical eras, but most of the stories are based in this generation of science and growth. There are thought-provoking stories on the future of bioengineering, the speculation of mutating humans to live under the seas when the dry lands brim with population and pollution, and on marine biologists who encounter curious species that boggle their understanding of evolution. Some stories are whimsical - such as a man trying to enter a mermaid in a swimming contest, and a vain man who discovers that the mermaid of his dreams is a middle-aged unattractive pseudo-fish. The stories thus break stereotypes of how a mermaid is claimed to look or behave. However, the stories are woven around one stereotype though -  mermaids and mermen are always shown from a seductive, romantic angle.

The stories also explore the myths of other sea-creatures, such as the silchies (seals with human form), and subtly hint at the need for conserving marine creatures. Reckless treatment of the ocean and exploitation of the life it holds, affect us bitterly. The common folk-wisdom is: the ocean pays back what we give. Poseidon, the God of Sea, and his numerous mer-children are believed to avenge the ill-treatment of their creatures. The stories are well-written and completely waft the reader to sandy beaches permeating salty breezes, seaweed aroma, and the majestic roar of the sea.

The oceans are so vast and deep, scientists are yet to document and comprehend all the wondrous species it embraces. Maybe one day we will truly unravel the mystery of mer-folks, or creatures which display striking characteristics borrowed from fish and humans. Till then, my indulgence in this fantasy will continue.

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