Book Review: The Devourers by Indra Das
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Four hundred years ago, three European werewolves ambled into Shah Jahan’s empire, fleeing persecution in their homelands. They stumbled into Mumtazabad, a temporary city housing the workers building the Taj Mahal. They weren’t just any old werewolves, but characters out of myth and legend: the Nordic Fenrir, devourer of worlds, the French Gévaudan, the medieval terror of the eponymous city, and the mighty Greek father of demons, Makedon. Fenrir’s eyes fall on a girl, Cyrah. He feels what he believes is love, and going against the tenets of shape-shifters, he rapes her.
This act of misplaced love of a demon for his prey, a khrissal, forms the cornerstone of Indra Das’ ambitious debut novel. It spans two different times—Mughal India and contemporary Kolkata and the Sunderbans—and Das uses the point of view of three narrators to tell his story. The framing is quite ingenious. A lonely, introvert professor of history, Alok, is accosted by an enigmatic young man who claims to be a werewolf. He doesn’t want to eat the confused Alok, just wants him to transcribe the written histories of Fenrir and Cyrah.
The plot is a good one, and the narrators—Alok, Fenrir and Cyrah—have distinct voices, and believable ones. But Das struggles to inhabit all three voices equally. Alok’s character is the most convincingly three-dimensional, as he flits between all those markers of a south Kolkata life—the Baul fair of Shaktigarh, the South City mall, the Dhakuria lake, Oly Pub, Prinsep Ghat—in the company of the mysterious stranger, who poses him riddles, gives him visions and introduces him to a parallel universe of existence that overwhelms his normal, human life. As Alok reorients himself to this new reality, he begins to reveal complexities of his own, ones that come to a head, literally, in the tiger-haunted phantasmagoria of the Sunderbans.
Fenrir comes close. His blundering attempts to woo Cyrah, his joyless rape of her and his subsequent shame and guilt and rage are convincing, if a tad melodramatic. Cyrah, the fierce, independent soul who overcomes her fear and revulsion to hunt Fenrir down, is the most under-represented. Although she’s a crucial link between the two worlds, it often seems like she’s wandered into a male fantasy of shape-shifting demons and their lustful world—for human meat, for blood, for a life unconstrained by any human morality.
One thing that Das gets absolutely right is the profusion of bodily fluids that drench the story, and the unapologetic way that this and other forms of pure physicality just jump off the page. Bones crack, blood flows freely, carrion flesh is eaten raw, and the dank scent of stale sweat covers everything. A life of a demon is sensuality taken beyond all limits, and this comes across strongly in the book. And despite the occasional rambling digressions into the lore of shape-shifting, Das manages to portray both the horror and wonder of shape-shifters and their primal magic. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of this in the novel.
The denouement, too, is rushed. After building up the rich inner life of Alok and his palpable fear and fascination with the lore, things start to fall in place in all too pat a manner, probably with the view to quickly tie up all the loose ends. Sadly, by this time, there aren’t too many of those left, as much before the ending, the reader can see what’s coming, and that’s not a good way to end a book at all.
It’s clear that Das has what it takes to be a consistently good storyteller. But there is some way to go before he learns to craft a lean, mean and riveting story.
Bibek Bhattacharya is senior editor, Outlook Traveller.