TITLE: The Devourers
AUTHOR: Indra Das
GENRE: Fantasy | Historical
PUBLISHED: July 12, 2016
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Lately, it has been rather tough to find a story that can properly be called a “dark fairytale”, mostly because the market is saturated with a version of the sub-genre that’s not so much dark as it is a vehicle for thinly-veiled erotica featuring fairy-tale characters. As someone whose idea of a proper dark fairytale is something along the lines of Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples", or Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, finding something that can satisfy that particular craving has been irritatingly difficult as of late.
That craving was finally satisfied when I read The Devourers by Indra Das. Set mostly in Kolkata, India, it tells the story of a young man named Alok, who meets a stranger who claims he is half-werewolf. Drawn in by the stranger’s mystique, Alok soon finds himself tangled in the stranger’s story: a story of blood and violence, of gods and mortals - and, at the heart of it all, a woman who defies all such categories to become a thing unto herself.
The first thing the reader will notice about this book is the beauty of its language. Part of the charm and beauty of fairy-tales is often down to the storyteller: the better the storyteller, the more likely the story is to stick around in a person’s memory, or perhaps to take root deeply enough to become a part of that person’s very self. That is why the Disney versions of fairy-tales have such a hold on popular culture: the minds behind Disney are, if nothing else, master storytellers.
The same can be said of Das, because his writing possesses the same hypnotic cadence the reader might expect of a born storyteller, married to the artistic sensibilities of a poet. Take the following excerpt for example, which comes from the novel’s first chapter:
My part in this story began the winter before winters started getting warmer, on a full-moon night so bright you could see your own shadow on an unlit rooftop. It was under that moon—slightly smudged by December mist clinging to the streets of Kolkata—that I met a man who told me he was half werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different from being half Bengali, half Punjabi, half Parsi. Half werewolf under the full moon. Not the most subtle kind of irony, but a necessary one, if I’m to value the veracity of my recollections.
To set the stage, I must tell you where I was.
Think of a field breathing the cool of nighttime into the soles of your shoes. A large tent in front of you—cloth, canvas, and bamboo—lit from within. Electric lamps surrounding a wooden stage under the bare feet of bright-robed minstrels. This tent is where the rural bards of Bengal, the bauls, gather every winter to make music for city people. It’s raw music, at times both shrill and hoarse, stained with hashish smoke and the self-proclaimed madness of their sect. A celebration of what’s been lost, under the vigil of orange-eyed streetlights.
I am there, that night.
It is not quite the traditional “Once upon a time” of the standard fairy-tale, but it certainly gets the reader into a similar, appropriate mindset. To be sure, Kolkata is very much a real place, but given the way Das describes it in that very first paragraph, the reader can easily imagine it as the enchanted land “far, far away” that so often follows “Once upon a time.” And this beauty is threaded throughout the story, sometimes achingly beautiful, other times utterly sensual:
He walks to me. His body is bronzed in water, long hair clinging in sinuous tattoos to his shoulders and neck.
However, unlike in fairy-tales, where the beauty hides the ugliness or eliminates it completely, Das uses the beauty of his language to reveal the ugliness that lies just beneath the surface. If, at first, he paints Kolkata as a dream in moonlight, he later shows what is hidden by the shadows and the smoke and the storyteller’s craft:
I keep to the footpath, avoid the streaks of odorous water and garbage clotting the gutters. Steamy food-shacks offer passing clouds of warmth from winter’s chill, the heat of open-air cooking trapped under the blue plastic tarpaulins stretched over the sidewalks to shelter their customers. I pass hawkers selling snacks, sachets of supari, cigarettes, perfumes and colognes, pirated movies, discounted books and magazines, condoms both imported and not—all operating right beside less ephemeral retail outlets and eateries with glass walls that look into different worlds.
The imagery is no less vivid than the first description of Kolkata by moonlight, but this is certainly a far less savoury image than the first one. Still, it is a true image, just as much as the first, and by using the same quality of language in both instances, Das shows that both visions of Kolkata - the beautiful, fairytale image silvered under moonlight, and the grimier, dirtier image - actually coexist, and cannot be separated from the other.
This beautiful writing is also applied to the violence in this book. In fact, this is something some readers found off-putting the further they got into the story: there are quite a few violent and bloody scenes in this novel, a lot more than they were initially led to expect. Though the phrase “dark fairytale” is often considered an indicator that the story has some rather unsavoury content, I do not think the phrase does a very good job of conveying just how unsavoury that content can be in this novel. Here is an example:
Not a league from the child’s killing we found his mother lying on the ground, clothed in flies. There was a newborn babe clutched in her arms snaked in purple umbilicus. The woman’s thighs were scabbed in the sun-dried crust of the infant’s birth, her stomach still flaccid from its expelled weight. The babe sucked at her cold nipple. …
Makedon dashed that cherub’s head with a rock. A small mercy he did not play with it. …
This excerpt comes in fairly early in the novel, and might be a nasty shock to some readers who are not expecting it. Yet it is not the only scene of blood and violence in this story: there are plenty more similar scenes, plus rape. Some readers have found so much violence off-putting, and I completely understand the reaction - I, too, feel that there need not have been so many graphic scenes in this story, and rather feel that Das may have overdone it a touch by including as many as he has in this novel.
And yet, I understand why such scenes make an appearance - especially in a story like the kind Das tells. At its core, The Devourers is a story about the liminal spaces between places, genders, identities, beliefs - and the transition between them. It is, therefore, a story about transformations, and as everyone knows, transforming oneself is not an easy process, not is it painless - only recall the period known as puberty, when a person transitions from childhood into adulthood. I doubt there is a person out there who can truthfully say that puberty was an easy time for them, and anyone who says otherwise is either preternaturally lucky (highly unlikely, but still in the realm of possibility) or lying (far more likely and also entirely possible).
Fairy-tales, too, are about transformations: Cinderella transforms from maid to princess, the Little Mermaid from mermaid to human (per Disney’s version) or from mermaid to human to sea foam (per the original Hans Christian Andersen version). In dark fairytales, that transformation is generally portrayed as painful and difficult. Das is following in the latter tradition, albeit in a more graphic, visceral manner. While I find the amount of graphic violence to be somewhat questionable, there is no denying the punch-to-the-gut power that Das’ story has. Stories have the power to create change, to force transformations. Just as fairytales have the power to shape us as children, and therefore shape who we become, Das’ story has a similar power to shape the reader, no matter how briefly.
Overall, The Devourers is the very best kind of fairy-tale: beautifully told, with a language that resonates in the reader’s head long after he or she has put the book down. However, for all the beauty of its language, it is still a very dark tale, and while graphic scenes of violence are not altogether unexpected in any kind of story, especially if they serve a specific purpose, the novel does seem to have a mite too many such scenes than are strictly necessary for the story. Underneath all that violence, though, is a heartrending tale about the beauty - and the pain - of change and transformation.