The Devourers by Indra Das

Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Penguin India (April 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Chiki Sarkar

“The strangest, most original novel I’ve read in the last year.” —Chiki Sarkar

In present-day Kolkata, a college professor, Alok Mukherjee, meets a man who claims to be a werewolf. Alone and estranged after a divorce, Alok is drawn to the stranger’s hypnotic allure, unable to tell delusion from truth, trickery from magic. In a dusty caravanserai in 17th-century Mumtazabad, Cyrah, a young wanderer, meets a man who says he is a monster. Their encounter fills her with revulsion and dread, yet changes her forever. A former protégé of George R. R. Martin, Indra Das has transposed the werewolf into the wilds of India, setting his vivid and haunting debut novel across five centuries of Indian history.

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To set the stage, I must tell you where I was, he says.

It is very dark. I listen.

Think of a field. A swamp, rather. This is a long time ago. Kolkata. Calcutta, or what will be Calcutta. Maybe it is this very field, this very ground. It is different then, overgrown and marshy, the hum and tickle of insects like a grainy blanket over this winter night. It is cloudy, the moonlight diffuse as it sparkles on the stretches of water hiding under the reeds. The darkness is oppressive. There is no blush of electricity on the horizon, no vast cities for the sky to reflect. Somewhere beyond the dark, there are three villages: Kalikata, Sutanati, Gobindapur. They belong to the British East India Company. They are building a fort known as William.1 Things are changing, a new century nears. It will be the 18th, by the Christian calendar.

The campfire is an oasis of light. The bauls gather2 around, flames glistening on their dark swamp-damp skins, twinkling in their beards. They sing to ward off the encroaching darkness, their words lifting with the wood sparks towards the stars. They sing, unheeding of signatures on paper, of land exchanges and politics, of the white traders and their tensions with the Nawab and the Mughal Empire. Here in the firelight, they make music and tell stories to each other. To the land. To Bengal. To Hindustan, which does not belong to them, nor to the British, nor the Mughals. They know there are things in the wilderness that neither Mughal nor white man has in his documents of ownership. Things to be found in stories. But then again, they also claim to be mad. 

I watch the bauls. I can see the others in the gloom, crouched amidst the reeds, circling slowly. More approach from afar, their claws sinking into the mud. I can hear them, though. The rustle of their spined fur, the twisting of rushes against their backs. 

A howl slices the dark. The bauls falter but continue singing, holding tight to their instruments and gnarled staves. I can hear the mosquitoes whining around them, alighting on knuckles popping against skin, gorging, dying in the heat of the fire. There is a young woman amidst this group of travelling bauls. She looks out into the darkness, the words of their song dissolving on her tongue. Her hair is so black it melts into the night. I remember the taste of her lips, moist but cool from the night air. She keeps her eyes beyond the borders of the fire, searching a wilderness stirred into sentience by the noises of insect and animal, cricket and cockroach, moth and mosquito, snake and mongoose, fox and field rat, jackal and wildcat. Her bright patchwork cloak is wrapped tight around her body, marking her out. She is tired, short and unarmed, and stands no chance of surviving the attack. Not that the others do either. I can smell her terror like sweat against the gritty spice of woodsmoke. The wet soil of the marsh is cold between my toes. The insects catch in my fur, wrestling it, tickling like the reeds and plants around me. 

The woman knows we are here, beyond their firelight. She knows because I told her myself, as a young man with long hair and kind eyes, tiger pelt on my back. Your party will never reach Sutanati and the banks of the river. You are being hunted. You have a day to run away, for we are patient, and draw out the hunt for pleasure and sport, I said to her in her sleep, while my own kin were unaware.

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[1] Fort William was first built in 1696. In 1756, the Nawab of Bengal captured the fort and imprisoned about 150 British soldiers in the dungeon, of whom about 120 or so were alleged to have suffocated. It became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. 
[2] Bauls are mystics and minstrels who combine songs with religious tradition.

  • The Devourers