Shalini Srinivasan: Why Cephalopods are the Best

Shalini Srinivasan is the author of Vanamala and the Cephalopod, published recently by Duckbill.

A few years ago, I had a draft of Vanamala and the Cephalopod ready, and I was handing it out to friends to pick holes in, and mentally preparing myself to edit it to shreds to get draft 2. It was all very nice. And then, China Mieville came to Bangalore. Naturally, I was thrilled, and went to go hear him read out whatever it is he was going to read.

It turned out to be from his new book, a book called Kraken, which, if one is a person writing in English for adults, is about as close as you can get to writing a book called Vanamala and the Cephalopod, while not actually writing a book called Vanamala and the Cephalopod. I was horrified. Not by the book, which is lovely, but the sheer existence of a book with a giant tentacled sea creature, a book whose author boomed “I love cephalopods” at the audience. “That’s how I feel!” I wanted to shout. But I just worried inwardly. Should I turn my cephalopod into another creature I wondered? A giant whale? A shark the size of a space station? A coral reef with a vendetta? The problem with all these creatures – excellent as they are – was that they weren’t cephalopods.

Cephalopods are fascinatingly weird. They have huge body cavities and long clever sensitive tentacles. They are small and massive, and every size in between. They are ferociously intelligent, and the larger ones can kill you in about 3 seconds, while still looking goofy and endearing. Coral reefs are not known for their alien sneakiness and their long-term planning. No shark has ever been able to delicately open itself a bottle of something nice to drink. Not without smashing it first, because sharks have no delicacy. Giant whales are simply not very good at sitting on thrones and being all kingly. An overgrown seahorse could be scary, but could it be suitably enigmatic? Unlikely. Narwhals are lovely to look at, but I cannot imagine they are smart enough to use the twelfth dimension when they want to. Sea serpents are almost perfect, but they tend not to make jokes. A really giant turtle could be wise, but could it be properly petty? I thought not.

Plus nothing else sounded so good. I love the word cephalopod. It bounces off your tongue in a light joyful way that ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ and ‘coral reef’ simply can’t. It rhymes with such hilarious terms as ‘squalled’, ‘plod’, ‘trod’, ‘clawed’, ‘hemmed and hawed’, ‘bawled’ and – one of my all-time favourite words – ‘fraud’. No other word has so much character, except maybe diplodocus, and they aren’t very bright at all.

It was no use. The ocean has a bajillion million creatures we will never hear about. But of all the ones I had heard about it was clear to me that only one entire order was mysterious, peculiar, amusing and astoundingly clever enough usurp a throne and then to kidnap little children for fun. So I kept the Cephalopod, and gave it a capital c for a touch of dignity.

ETA: Cephalopods are an order, not a phylum.

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5 comments

  1. Okay. I haven’t read the book yet, but I am total fan already. Please also write about elasmobranchs, nudibranchs and stomatopods. The first include sharks, but there are also RAYS! The second are seductively pretty. And the third can never be accused of lacking cunning.
    We shall be awaiting with one nos. bated breath.

  2. Oooh, these are good animals! Thank you for introducing me to stomatopoda! They look whiskery *and* they have names like ‘platysquilla’. It’s perfect.

    Unrelatedly, I worry that elasmobranchs and nudibranchs are secretly called elasmobranches and nudibranches. What d’you think?

  3. Elasmo hung back and tried to not to be seen. He was tired of having his last name mispronounced by the teacher from Land. ‘Brankkkk,’ he wanted to yell sometimes. ‘Like Frank, Blank and Crank!” But it was no use. She also called Anemone ‘Any Moan’ and all the Chiton felt so bad about how she said their name that they went and hid under a rock.

    —–

    I share your delight with platysquilla. Please also look up Maxillopoda, which sounds like a rude instruction in some languages. About your question: I somehow doubt sea creatures with wings would secretly name themselves after body parts of rooted land things. Don’t you?

    And yes! Stomatopods are an unprecedented kind of awesome (in the proper dictionary sense of ‘inspiring respect mixed with fear’). Have you seen this: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp ?

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