The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.