Indra Das’ remarkable debut, The Devourers, opens on a conversation between two nocturnal wanderers at a concert in Kolkata. The narrator, a mild-mannered historian named Alok Mukherjee, meets a stranger who claims to be “half werewolf” and who tells Alok a true story, unlike any he’s ever heard, about a tribe of shape shifters who have lived in Kolkata for centuries. Entranced by the stranger’s story, Alok agrees to transcribe a set of manuscripts, which as the stranger tells him, were originally written in human skin by a European shapeshifter who passed through Mughal India in Shah Jahan’s time. A secondary narrative then comprises most of the book in the form of Alok’s annotated transcriptions of the stranger’s manuscripts. This story tells of a young Muslim woman named Cyrah in India and her encounters with two shapeshifters, Fenrir and Gevaudan, who have fled east from Europe to escape persecution from fanatics. Fenrir is the narrator of one of the manuscripts, and Cyrah of the other. Both stories span centuries, in a narrative at times horrific and beautiful, entangling the fates of all the characters.
Interestingly, Alok refers to the stranger and the various shapeshifter tribes present through the narrative with the cultural shorthand of werewolf, a term that’s so common in the lexicon that it has all but lost any particular meaning. However, the Devourers presents multiple origins of the shapeshifter myth, meaning that based on the geographical origins of their tribes and the resulting stories told by humans, the shapeshifters’ “second selves” take on the forms of djinns, ghuls, and rakshasa among others. It’s the contrast between the mythic and the historical that I found the most fascinating because Alok, while trying to remain skeptical and objective, has to reckon with the possibility that these creatures of myth could still exist.
Where another story might lead to the protagonist’s inevitable confrontation and vanquishing of the monster, or even push the existence of the monster from the real to the liminal, the Devourers asks what would happen if they were forgotten altogether, erased from history; a far more universal theme not just for these living myths, but many ordinary people living in the world.
In an early passage from Fenrir’s story, one of the shapeshifters boasts of how easy it would be to consume the life of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor, thereby stripping him of his power and any personal legacy. It’s interesting that the shapeshifters’ power to devour, to take the memories and shape of their victims, from the lowest to the high, becomes their fear as well; for all that they prey on society, they are not part of it, and the stories told of the individual shapeshifters to their own kind will eventually fade away over time until all that remains is myth. For Fenrir, the internal struggle between the entropic need to devour, and the opposing want to create, to transcribe, and to not be forgotten, leads him to commit horrific crimes, one of which becomes the catalyst for much of the second narrative.
In contrast, the humans in the story, Cyrah and Alok suffer the consequences of living in a society and being trapped by its norms and social constructs, unable to undergo the radical changes that the shapeshifters can emanate. Cyrah’s personal journey begins with anger, to confront Fenrir for his crime; but by the end, transformed by her encounters with the shapeshifter Gevaudan, she is unable to return to the mundane human world. Alok is similarly transformed by bearing witness to the events of centuries ago, and through his growing relationship and conversations with the stranger, is able to make some degree of peace with himself.
While considering the monstrous aspect of the shapeshifters, the story also avoids romanticizing their savagery and violence, and as one character finds, they can’t turn into smoke and be trapped inside a lamp; this is not that type of story. However, the story of transformation and change through the numinous and fantastic is painfully well realized for both the humans and shapeshifters in the story, and Das’ true success lies in weaving the strands of mythic and the personal as one, drawing together singularly poignant experiences from the pages of history. I can’t wait to read what he does next.
Arun Jiwa is a speculative fiction writer with work in The Drabblecast, Easy Street Magazine, and Tesseracts 19. Arun is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop, and an associate editor for podcastle.org. Arun currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and you can find him online at: www.arunjiwa.com and on Twitter: @arunjiwa.