My review of Indra Das’s debut novel, ‘The Devourers,’ is now up at Strange Horizons.
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.
You can read the complete review here in Strange Horizons.