Red, Brown, and Yellow in Tooth and Claw: a Review of Indra Das’ The Devourers

The Devourers (2016) by Indra Das

I can’t remember it’s provenance, but I once heard someone joked that Tolkien characters don’t exist from the waist down. No one fucks, shits or pisses in Middle-earth. Now, it is generally true in fiction that bodily functions are never mentioned unless they are relevant to the story, something that Mitchell and Webb made fun of in one of their sketches,

Well, I feel that films — the modern film industry — has increasingly failed to reflect reality as people live it. No one goes for a piss in Star Wars, you can watch the whole of Ghostbusters and no one brushes their teeth, and in Lost in Translation, nothing happens. At all.

And then there’s Indra Das’ The Devourers.

The Devourers is, as described its author, “a hallucinatory dark fantasy about shapeshifters in Mughal and contemporary India”. I guess you can say this book is about werewolves, but like the smelliest, most un-sexy werewolves ever put to the page. It’s like Twilight if Jacob needs to piss and shit himself every time he transforms. Seriously, it felt as if all the pee pee and poo poo that is missing from all of fiction all this time was concentrated in this one book. I lost count of all the time the author describe excrement, their stains and stenches; how urine hits the ground and mixes with dirt, or how poop falls from between a character’s legs during an epic battle,

They were caught in a fierce embrace, their massive claws swiping bloody swaths through each other’s flesh. Steam robed them as hot piss and blood fell down their legs and pooled in their deep footprints, and clumps of shit fell from between their rippling legs, containing what decayed matter of human souls I don’t know.

Add these to the reams of text the author devoted to describing how grimy and smelly the characters are, how caked and unwashed their clothes appear, I swear I could almost smell the book. I’ll give the author this: He really knows how to imbue his story with texture.

Beneath this patina of ordure is an expansive mythology spanning continents and cultures on the commonality of shapeshifting beasts—how European werewolves, Islamic djinns and ifreets, Christian devils, and Indian rakshasas are just different tribes of the same creature which prey on human beings. The unpleasantness that the author is committed to showing us is not limited to body waste and discharges, but also violence, gore, cruelty, and rape. There is undeniable artistry in Mr Indra Das’ novel, in how deftly he compares the predatory practices of monsters to the predatory practices of monstrous humans, and in how he describes the fluid nature of identities and gender using his devourers’ protean forms. This book captures the ugly reality of how isolating being different can be, and the dissonance of loving and wanting to be part of a society that hates oneself.

This is a very uncomfortable read (in so very many ways), but I feel there is a deeper purpose to the discomfort that the author wants us to feel. I think it is most obvious in a scene where our protagonist, Alok, and his allegedly half-werewolf companion were harassed by a group of besotted men who pissed at their feet. And instead of exacting retribution by savaging these louts, the half-werewolf merely ran his hand through the wet dirt where they urinated, before smelling and, ew, licking his fingers. Alok spoke my mind aloud at this point,

“Are you kidding me?” I ask the stranger. “You…I still don’t even know your name, and I’m sitting here with you in the fucking dark in the middle of the night, and we’re nearly fucking beaten up by three drunk assholes and you run your hand through some dirty piss on the ground and I’m supposed to be impressed? I’m supposed to be hypnotized into your magical world and think, what, that you’re going to remember their scent and hunt them down and kill them very impressively and very conveniently when I’m not around? No. Sorry. That’s just fucking disgusting, that’s not magical, that’s not inspiring. That you just did that in front of me is disgusting.”

This is simply not that kind of fantasy, the novel tells you. This is not diverting or escapist. Instead, it traps you in the reality of humanity’s ugliness and forces you to contend with how closely we still relate to the beasts we supposedly evolved from in how we eat and sweat, how we shit and piss, how we fuck, and how we prey on one another. It argues a convincing case for why some people would want nothing to do with the hypocrisy of civilisation and the pantomime of morality.

While I absolutely admire the ambition this novel aspires to, I feel there are definitely instances in which the author’s skill fail to live up to his aspirations. I often find profound insights saddled with clumsy chunks of overly descriptive purple prose. In fact, for half the book, I teetered on the edge of abandoning it before it picked up in the second half. I think it has an ending worth working our way to, but there is seriously a lot of actual shit we have to wade through to get there.

Rating: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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