Indra Das’ first novel, The Devourers, is one told in layers. It is a stranger’s story as told to Alok, a lonely college professor whom he meets one night, outside a performance by Bengali minstrels in Kolkata. The stranger is a hypnotic storyteller, who says he is half-werewolf and captivates Alok. “I am going to tell you a story, and it is true’, says the stranger, hypnotising Alok with his words and manner, ‘…his voice, soothing, guiding [him] as the dark becomes deeper.’ But is also the story Alok transcribes for the stranger, who becomes a friend of sorts, drifting in and out of Alok’s life until the words on the scrolls he gives him are typed up and preserved for the modern age. And it is also the story of an older, much more frightening and hypnotic shapeshifter called Fenrir and a woman called Cyrah.
The narrative switches between Mughal India and modern day Kolkata, with the shape shifter’s life extending much beyond those of human ones, though we encounter him during the time he encounters Cyrah, a young woman entirely alone, trying to get by whatever way she can during the reign of Shah Jahan.
The stranger who starts this story with his own isn’t what we would conventionally expect from a werewolf. ‘Now, I wish I could tell you the man looks wolfish, that he has a hint of green glinting in his eyes, that his eyebrows meet right above his nose, that his palms have a scattering of hair that tickles my own palms as we shake hands, that sideburns are thick and shaggy and silvered as the bark of a snow-dusted birch at grew dawn. But I’m not here to make things up’, says Alok, our anchor for this sprawling tale of love and lust and folk history. Das plays along with contemporary werewolf tropes easily, sarcastically. Alok is savvy to them, not taking the stranger seriously at first, when he says he’s half-werewolf. ‘Let me guess,’ retorts Alok with open disregard, ‘I’ve had the blood of the wolf within me all along. You’ve come to initiate me in to the ways of our tribe, to run with my brothers and sisters to the lunar ebb and flow. I’m the chosen one. The saviour of our people. And the time of our uprising has come. We’re going to rule the world.’ The Devourers couldn’t be further from those tropes, and Das even plays with the idea of all werewolf fantasies being set in the west, irreverently having Alok say ‘You’re the first Indian werewolf I’ve ever heard of.’
To make this complicated though, the original shapeshifter in The Devourers isn’t Indian; Das traces the shapeshifter—werewolf in this case—back to Norse mythology because he is Fenrir, the monstrous wolf meant to kill Odin at Ragnarok. How does Fenrir show up in Mughal India? What is his relationship to the stranger Alok meets? Fenrir’s connection to Cyrah is at the heart of this novel, because it is his desire for Cyrah that violently rends him away from his pack, and pushes her to join forces with another of them, Gévaudan. Fenrir’s desire for a human woman and his desire to procreate as humans do is considered unnatural, deviant by those of his kind, but this not his undoing—not right away. The act of violence that causes the rift in the pack is what forces Cyrah towards the ancient creatures, unwilling as she is to play the silent victim.
Cyrah, when faced with Gévaudan in his ancient form, offers some insight into the bestial nature of the shapeshifters, of their belonging to a primeval form of being. ‘I have touched wolves and tigers cautiously, through the bars of caravan cages, and their heat was nothing compared with what I felt when I touched this beast’, she says. ‘It felt like desert earth rumbling, warming my cold palms. I ran my hands across it, feeling its vibrations hum in my own flesh. My fingers caught on the bone trinkets sewn deep into the skin, a constant between the two shapes of human and beast. The beast rose and fell, and I wondered if I was touching its chest. I felt sweat roll down my face as it breathed its hot, rank life into me.’ What these creatures are, is not just what we know of as werewolves. They are ancient, powerful beings, albeit ones that fall prey to the most human of weaknesses: love, and the need to be remembered.
This is a story about telling stories, about our need to live on through the narratives we create, we write, we speak. The stranger needs Alok to transcribe his stories—the stories of who he is and how he came to be who he is. He hands Alok scrolls to transcribe, the narratives of Cyrah and Fenrir, of their strange, terrible interaction and the outcome of it. The stranger himself is a mystery story, his connection with Alok building slowly as he tells his tale and reveals to Alok the different points of view that make it up; ‘Sometimes intimacy is the only way real magic works’. The Devourers asks complicated questions about what it mans to be human. To desire and create, to have control over our bestial selves, to do the ‘right’ thing? How do we find our true identities, and what propels us towards them?
Das’ language can be stunning. It is lush, rich with imagery and poetic beauty. The visceral blood lust of the demons, their monstrousness, their sheer physical power and appeal is incredibly evocative throughout the novel. Fenrir’s narrative, in particular is bursting with gorgeous, haunting images:
‘The first kill is silent as our running, a glistening whisper of crimson in the air. The last is louder than the baying of a wolf, and rings like the bauls’ mad song across the marches of what is not yet Kolkata. I can hear the howl as I run with this human in my arms, into the darkness, away from the shadows of slaughter. The howl curdles into a roar, enveloping the scream of the last dying minstrel.’
The Devourers is beautiful. It is brutal. It is violent and vicious and deeply unsettling for a number of reasons. But it is also showcases Das’ incredible prowess with language and rhythm, and his ability to weave folklore and ancient legend with modern day loneliness. “Are you a hypnotist?” Alok asks the stranger, caught up in his intoxicating tale. “I happen to be a good storyteller”, he replies. As is Das, there is no doubt.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.