“Think of a field. A swamp, rather. This is a long time ago. Kolkata. Calcutta, or what will be Calcutta.” (p. 9)
That sets the tone for the rest of The Devourers. Indra Das’s debut novel takes us to an alternate, fantastic past of India—invaded by the Raj, infected by foreign myths and demons, werewolves and weretigers. A string of beautiful passages evokes sadness and longing—a desire to be human, to be loved by men and women. It is a provocative work of speculative fiction about identity, gender, and the little places we occupy in time.
The Devourers is a tragic love story between two werewolves, Fenrir and Gévaudan—a gay couple—and their human consort, a young Muslim woman called Cyrah. Alok Mukherjee, the narrator of the novel, is a Bengali professor of history, who is still recovering from a broken engagement—the result of his own illicit affairs with men.
In order to truly appreciate The Devourers, we need to understand the world Das’s characters inhabit—the India of 2015 with a British-era law from 1860 which makes homosexuality a crime. Manil Suri, an acclaimed queer novelist of Indian origin, writes about the underground gay culture of India, and why he chose self-exile to the US, in his short essay for Granta, “How to Be Gay and Indian.” It is a confession worth reading. At the time of his writing, Suri was optimistic that the Supreme Court would uphold a high court decision to scrap the colonial-era law. But the hope of LGBT community was misplaced. In a 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to strike it down.
Gays in India still find many reasons—familial approval, job security, internalized shame—to remain closeted. There are no gay icons, no major Bollywood stars who have come out, no influential CEOs who have made their orientation public. The vast majority of gay men still get married (70 per cent in Mumbai, 82 per cent in smaller cities, according to a 2009 survey by the Humsafar Trust).
One Bollywood star director who has kept his sexual orientation shrouded in mystery is Karan Johar. In a famous talk show interview, Simi Garewal asked Johar, “Wouldn’t you ever like to give respect to who you are and your identity and come out and talk about it?”
“Why should I tell them I’m straight? Or I’m bisexual or homosexual or trisexual?” Johar says. “Nobody knows what I stand for in terms of my personal life and I’d like to keep it that way.”
The vexed and tortured status of public sexuality is also a hallmark of Alok Mukherjee in The Devourers. He wears a façade in his public life, concealing his true sexual preference. For men like Mukherjee, this is the gay experience in India, a strong undercurrent running in the background of The Devourers. Indra Das’s protagonists must find the courage to reconcile their private selves with their social identities. They are shape-shifters living in the margins of society, their hearts and minds filled with doubt, turmoil, and rage against those who wouldn’t truly accept or understand them: “I asked your mother whether she would like to change anything in you,” Garewal tells Johar, before playing another clip from the video.
“I wish he got married. I wish there were grandchildren,” his mother says, “I wish all those things, but then if it’s not to be then I would have to accept it.”
This maternal desire for grandchildren is often painted across the experience of Indian men of many stripes. In his intimate essay, Suri writes about his mother’s wishes, which are not so different from those of Johar’s mother. It is plausible, then, Alok’s mother is similar—the reason he got engaged to a woman, Shayani, and then tried hard to make the relationship work. (“I leave lipstick traces on Shayani’s mouth as I kiss her, and know that she’s only pretending to be comfortable” [p. 341].)
This desire for grandchildren to continue their lineage is not unique to mothers in India. In John Chu’s Hugo-winning Chinese-American queer fiction, The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere (Tor), the protagonist Matt’s mother expresses the typical desire for grandchildren. Fortunately, Matt’s mother doesn’t have a problem accepting Gus, her son’s partner. But there is a price, a condition. Matt and Gus must find a way to carry on the bloodline of her husband and not let it die: “You’re a biotech researcher. Can you give me a grandson? One with genes from both of you?” John Chu expresses Matt's suppressed anger at such a conservative expectation in a terse, sarcastic tone: “And I need to win a Nobel Prize if she’s dead set on a grandson with both our genes. Parents.”
That single word—"parents"—tells us all we need to know about a son’s perceived responsibility to pass on his genes and bear children in Asian culture. The dilemma of Das’s Bengali professor, Alok Mukherjee, is similar. Izrail, the “androgynous beauty” who claims to be half-werewolf and later becomes Alok’s lover, understands this limitation very well. Izrail’s father, Fenrir, was also haunted by this compulsive desire to create—to reproduce a human child, which is forbidden for his tribe, even if it’s through rape:
Fenrir pounded the bubbling ground around him in fury, bellowing: I Created, like the gods of humankind!
I Created, like the lowliest khrissal can, and we cannot. (p. 233)
Izrail gives Alok two scrolls to translate from Pashto into English. These scrolls take us to Mumtazabad, “placing the time of these events anywhere between AD 1632 and 1653” as Alok explains in his footnote (p. 53). At Mumtazabad, Fenrir sees Cyrah and chooses her to be the mother of his child, while the emperor Shah Jahan waits for “his miracle, to be born.” A construction “pit holds an unfinished palace,” the Taj Mahal (p. 54).
Apparently, Fenrir doesn’t hold Shah Jahan in high regard: “Perhaps he lets tears of shame slip down his cheeks, thinking of the many hands that build his dead wife’s tomb, none of them his own” (p. 54). He doesn’t seem to care about love either. He rejects Gévaudan, because he can’t bear him a child. Gévaudan wants to turn into Cyrah, by stealing her form through the ritual of ekh’du—which could be read analogously as genital reconstruction surgery. But Fenrir tells him that even if he goes through a sex change, he may still have to find a woman to reproduce:
You want to be her, so that I might love you back. You wanted to give Cyrah to me, in you, so that I might love her, and you . . . But you wouldn’t have held a child for me. You wouldn’t have sacrificed your second self for nine months. And that alone would reveal the falsity of your new flesh. Even if it looked like Cyrah, it wouldn’t have been. (p. 232)
Much of the conflict in The Devourers comes from Alok, Fenrir, and Gévaudan’s guilt and inability to reproduce among their own kind, and Cyrah’s struggle to come to terms with the werewolves’ identity and sexuality. Ultimately, she refuses to become either the faithful wife or a nurturing mother, leaving her newborn baby in the care of the tribal people of the Sunderbans: “I will not be your human idol, your little goddess of suffering” (p. 257).
Their son, Izrail, doesn’t seem to have a problem with his identity or sexuality. He is like Fenrir, who believes in the power of writing, and recognizes the need to embrace and speak the tongue of one’s lovers, without any fear of judgment or inhibition—even if the language is not their own; even if they are outsiders, foreigners. The act of writing and storytelling in The Devourers, then, becomes the act of giving birth. This is Fenrir and Izrail’s way to ensure that they live on through stories “beyond their bodies” (p. 58). And Alok’s translation of the scrolls becomes a key to their survival in a rapidly changing world:
We have many names, or none, sometimes. This body, this face; it’s the one I was born with, the one that Cyrah and Fenrir gave me. But I can change it, if I will it, though after so long it would be difficult. But I can. Just like I can change my second self as well, if the circumstances are right. Identity doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it does to you. Names are arbitrary in such an existence. (p. 287)
Throughout the novel, Izrail insists that he is not a human. What he actually means is that he is neither a man nor a woman. He is both. The word "khrissal," which the werewolves use to denote "man," could also be read as a word for a heterosexual man or woman. Alok and Izrail clearly don’t belong in this straight category. They have a fluid gender: werewolf, gay. Through Izrail and his stories—whether real or imaginary—Alok finally comes to terms with his own gender and identity. Izrail’s second self—a werewolf, a rakshasa—also stands for Alok’s private, second self—which is revealed to us towards the end of the novel in an unforgettable, beautiful passage. Fantasy then becomes a door to freedom, a means of escape from the bondage of harsh reality for both of them.
Das is a prophet of the new Indian speculative fiction—a writer who is bold enough to resist the ghosts of Sanskrit, and carve a new imaginative territory for himself and his audience. He gives us the names and stories of a tribal goddess—Banbibi, Bandevi, or Bandurga—but doesn’t consider Hindu goddess Durga or the shape-shifter Vetala worth exploring, as it could destroy the realism he is trying to achieve. There is also a danger of censorship and failure in taking religious or mythical creatures from a conservative country and using them to express a new thought, a whole new language of queer fiction. It is not possible, a fact Izrail recognizes: "When I left the Sunderbans, I thought of myself as more werewolf than a rakshasa, though I didn’t know the word then” (p. 288).
Traders from the British East India Company give Izrail the word he is searching for. But the influence is one-sided. The Europeans come to explore India and inhabit it, but they refuse to convert to the land, its religions and customs. They bring their own myths—werewolves and demons. It’s this mindset The Devourers attempts to break. In one of the memorable passages, Cyrah describes Gévaudan as “shaken” by the “lack of superstition” in the Christian worldview of one such trader, Edward Courten, in which there is no place for the "other":
He’s arrogant. He believes I’m a man, and nothing more. He believes in his one Christian god, and no other. He believes in his empire and its ways, and no other. (p. 219)
By borrowing mythological characters from Europe to write a novel set in India, Das is hinting at the legacy of the British occupation and how he came to inherit the English language, and the modern, scientific worldview. By eschewing religious and mythological characters from India’s rich past and its predominantly Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist literature, Das is showing us the influence of a more western—rigorous and scientific—mindset in his upbringing and worldview. It is also true, perhaps, for the young, digital generation of India.
The Devourers contains a fragment from William Blake's poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"; Das has said in a piece at Bangalore Mirror that Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), meanwhile, served as a model for his book. The choice of the novel’s female protagonist, Cyrah of Kandahar, a young Muslim prostitute, also gives us a clue to Das’s real ambition: he wants to write a truly progressive, crossover novel, representing historically marginalized communities and groups from across the world:
There are stories of our tribes in many forms. In Europe we are oft made wolves, the devil’s children, but in the arid lands between the Bosporus and the Indus, where you came from, the tribes of our kind take the name of djinn, from stories the Khorassians wove of beings who can change shape, created by your Allah from a smokeless fire. In the African plains, perhaps our unknown kinsmen take the second selves of great hyenas laughing under a blood red moon, slack-tongued lions stalking the savannah. In the flesh of sailors who hailed from beyond the Red Sea, I’ve tasted rumours of jackal-jawed cenobites of Anapa roaming the dead cities of the pharaohs. And what are we here, in Hindustan? Perhaps here our other selves are chimerical tigers burning bright in the Asiatic jungle, not so far from here. (p. 81)
Far-flung locales are nothing new to Das. In “Kolkata Sea,” one of his earliest stories, the former capital of colonial India lies underwater. It is a poignant, powerful story set in the real world of the author’s childhood. On the other hand, his much-celebrated, fantastic tales—including “muo-ka’s Child” (Clarkesworld), “Weep For Day” (Clarkesworld), and “A Moon for The Unborn” (Strange Horizons)—are set in a world often foreign and strange, well-crafted but still alien. But the world of “Kolkata Sea” is one I have often visited, a feeling that I know well. It’s vivid, unforgettable.
There is a palpable difference between building and carrying a new world inside your head, and actually living in one, experiencing it through all your senses—even if it’s in fiction and speculation. The Devourers likewise feels real, but there is nothing in it as striking as the corpse of a city buried under the sea. The pace suffers slightly from “the bane of SF”: repetition and info-dumps. The Devourers is also “not a page-turner book; it is a turn-page-back book,” like Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. (See this excellent review by Dan Hartland.)
The world of Indra Das’s The Devourers is intimate and accessible, then, but the novel is occasionally impaled by the scale of its omnicultural ambition. What sets Das’s work apart from his South Asian peers is his resistance to India’s mythical past and creatures, and yet his keen understanding of the essence of its geography and setting. The Devourers captures the beauty of living in a shared world of fantasy, and the desire to be human and to love in beautiful, haunting prose. The novel, however, is scattered, like the modern great Indian experience—the ruins of its civilizations on the verge of collapse and disintegration—in a homogenizing, twenty-first century. Nevertheless, it results in a magnificent tale.