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 than being half-Bengali, half-Punjabi, half-Parsi. Half-werewolf under a 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 night time 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 that creaks 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 street lights.
I am there, that night.
Outside in the cold, in Shaktigarh Math, a city park. I watch the bauls and their audience through the fabric of the tent. Shadows flit across as they clap and cheer. The crowd extends outside, faces lit by cigarettes and spliffs. Hand-rolled cigarette between my fingers, grass under my shoes. A stranger walks up and stands beside me. The street dogs are gathering by the field, their eyes hungry. It’s one in the morning.
“Afraid to go inside?” the stranger asks. “They may be mad, but they won’t bite.”
He’s talking about the bauls. I laugh dutifully. I’m afraid he wants a smoke, having seen my tin of cigarettes. I don’t want to share, having rolled them very carefully. I tell him I prefer the night air to the tent, not thinking to bring up the fact that there’s no smoking allowed within. I ask what he’s doing outside.
“The music’s a little too shrill for my ears. I can appreciate it just fine from here.” His voice is gentle, his words unhurried.
He takes out his own hash joint. I glance sideways at him as he lights up. The flame illuminates a slender face, its glow running along hairless skin and brushing against the lines of shadow that hug his high cheekbones. I’m disarmed by his androgynous beauty before he even tells his secret.
“I’m a werewolf,” he says. Smoke flares out of his mouth in curls that wreath his long black hair, giving him silver-blue locks for a passing second. I don’t see him throw away the match, but his foot moves to rub it into the soil. He’s wearing wicker sandals. Dark flecks of dirt hide under unclipped nails on the ends of his long toes. Apparently the cold doesn’t bother him enough for socks or shoes.
Now I wish I could tell you this man looks wolfish, that he has a hint of green glinting in his eyes, that his eyebrows meet right above his nose, that his palms have a scattering of hair that tickles my own palms as we shake hands, that his sideburns are thick and shaggy and silvered as the bark of a snow-dusted birch at grey dawn. But I’m not here to make things up.
“Need a light?” he asks, and I’m startled to find a new flame between his fingers, the hiss of the struck match reaching my ears like an afterthought. Afraid that I’ve been caught staring at his dirty toes and beautiful face, I nod, even though there’s a lighter in my breast pocket. He touches the flame to my cigarette.
“You heard right,” he says, tossing the match. “Well, I’m actually half-werewolf. But you heard right.”
“I didn’t ask if I’d heard right.”
“You were thinking it, though,” he says with a smile.
“I wasn’t, actually. I can hear just fine,” I assure him. He keeps smiling. I get embarrassed.
“Thanks for the light,” I say with a cough. My lungs burn from too enthusiastic a first drag. “I suppose I shouldn’t be boasting about my hearing. Wolves have great hearing, right?”
“I’m not a wolf. And yes, they do.”
“There aren’t any wolves near Kolkata. Are there? They’re probably extinct in India.”
“Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there,” he says. I observe that his fingernails are as long as his toenails, and as dirty. Little black sickles hiding under them. I nod, light-headed from the nicotine rush.
“I’ve seen jackals in the golf greens at Tolly Club.”
He doesn’t say anything. I feel compelled to keep talking.
“My parents have a house. Like a weekend getaway. Outside the city, in Baniban. The caretakers there used to scare me when I was a boy, with stories about wildcats from the woods stealing their chickens. Now that you mention it, there might have been a wolf visit. I never really believed any of those stories. They scared me, though. I never even saw any of those animals. Except a snake, once.” A true story. I still remember the serpent’s grey coils lying there by the flowerpots, beaten to death by the help. They said it was venomous, though I certainly couldn’t tell.
“You’re not afraid of talking to strangers. I like that,” he says, swaying slightly now to the rising call of the bauls’ voices.
I feel shy now, which is absurd. “What’s your other half, then? Human? Aren’t all werewolves half-human?” I ask him.
He picks a bit of tobacco out of his teeth, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smoker actually do. Spittle clicks between his fingertips and his tongue. ‘Family history can be a tedious business. Though family isn’t quite the right word.’
And that’s all he says. For someone who clearly wants to talk to me, he says very little.
“When did you find out you were a . . . a half-werewolf ?”
He shrugs. “I’ve been one all my life. Before we were called werewolves, really.”
“What’s it like?” I ask, the questions flowing from my smoke- soured mouth. I can’t think of anything more awkward at this moment than to stand beside this man and not respond to what he’s just said to me.
“You’ve seen the movies. I am master of my fortune. The moon is my mistress.”
“And cliché is your cabaret?” I ask. Intoxicated disbelief dulls me into self-deprecation. I analyze my words, which seem nonsensical. I look around, checking to make sure the others standing around us in the field are still there, to run my eyes over the streaks of their shadows. The rhythm of the music snarls to the throb of light and shadow behind the walls of the tent.
He doesn’t growl at me. “Are you an English professor, by any chance?”
“No. But close. I am a professor. Of history, actually. Started teaching a couple of years ago.”
His shapely eyebrows rise. “History? Tales. The weaving of words. A favorite discipline of mine. I congratulate you on your choice of profession, young though you seem for such an endeavor. To tell stories of the past to children who walk into the future is a task both noble and taxing.” I feel a mix of resentment and pleasure from being called young by someone who looks younger than me.
“Well, they’re not exactly children, they’re college students—”
“If only we had better storytellers, perhaps they would learn more willingly from the past,” he says.
“Am I speaking in clichés again, professor?”
A white kitten, its wide eyes rimmed with rheum, looks up at me as it crawls around us. It starts at the violent sound of sticks shattering against each other. I see children mock-fighting with surprising malice nearby, their screams jarring and bodies lithe against the mist. The kitten stumbles and uses my ankle as cover. The street dogs skirt the edges of the field, pack instinct glittering in their eyes as they surround us. Muzzles peel back in tentative grimaces. Their teeth look yellow under the street lights. They watch the kitten.
“You like cats?” the stranger asks, looking at the kitten, which gingerly licks my fingers with a dry and scratchy tongue as I pick it up. Its little heart putters against my palm. I can feel its warm body shaking.
Ash flutters from my cigarette as I tap it, brief lives twinkling and fading to grey by our feet. I take care not to burn the kitten.
“Let me guess,” I say. “I’ve had the blood of the wolf within me all along. You’ve come to initiate me into the ways of our tribe, to run with my brothers and sisters to the lunar ebb and flow. I’m the chosen one. The savior of our people. And the time of our uprising has come. We’re going to rule the world,” I say, my sarcasm blunted by how serious I sound. I surprise myself with the eagerness with which I tell this story of possibilities to the stranger. The dogs have come closer, ignoring even the threat of so many humans to get closer to the kitten in my hands.
The stranger grins at me. It’s the first time he seems animalistic.
“I want to tell you a story. Let’s go inside.”
“Won’t it hurt your ears?”
He takes one deep drag before licking the burnt-out roach and making it disappear into one of his pockets. I realize that my cigarette has whittled away to the end, its heat tickling my cold fingers.
The stranger strides towards the tent, through the scattered people smoking, past the food stalls with their cheaply wired fluorescents ticking to the patter of night insects. The sizzle of batter in oil and babble of voices only aggravates the sense that I am treading on the tune the bauls are playing—everything here seems to be part of their music, as if the field itself were one stage, and all of us musicians. I toss the cigarette butt and follow the stranger. The dogs begin to follow as well, but stop. I can see more of them running around the field. Repositioning. I hold the kitten close to my chest and go inside.
The tent is a different universe. The hot smell of electric lamps tempered by the chill, the sweaty damp of the crowd, the claustrophobic buzz of being inside an enclosed fire hazard. Minstrels’ feet thump on the stage like drumbeats, twins to the sharper pulse of their dugi drums and tremulous drone of the one- stringed ektara. Their saffron robes are ribbons of sound, twirling around their bark burned bodies as they dance, their madness set aflame by their own music.
My ears itch. Their voices are very loud. The stranger doesn’t even grimace. Some of the spectators squat on the ground, some sit on folding chairs set in haphazard rows. We sit at the back of the tent. I can feel the cold metal of the chair through my pants.
The kitten compresses itself into a ball in my lap, its trembling eased somewhat. Its head darts to and fro. The stranger is looking at the bauls, swaying his head, tapping his feet, curling his toes.
“The story?” I ask.
“Listen. Don’t say anything. I’m going to tell you a story.”
“I know, I just said—”
He hisses, startling me into silence. The kitten almost leaps out of my lap. I clench my fingers around it, stroking its fur.
“Listen,” he repeats. He is not looking at me. “I am going to tell you a story, and it is true. To set the stage, I must tell you where I was,” he says, his words winding their way through the overwhelming sound of the music, which seems to rise with each passing second. The light inside the tent is gauzy. The interior moves in slow arcs as dizziness sets in. I close my eyes. Darkness, touched with blossoms of light beyond my eyelids. His voice, soothing, guiding me as the dark becomes deeper.
The kitten is purring, vibrating against my hands. I can hear the scrabble of swift paws outside the tent, the anxious snarls of the dogs.
It is very dark, as the stranger tells the story.
To set the stage, I must tell you where I was, he says.
It is very dark. I listen.
Think of a field. A swamp, rather. This is a long time ago. Kolkata. Calcutta, or what will be Calcutta. Maybe it is this very field, this very ground. It is different then, overgrown and marshy, the hum and tickle of insects like a grainy blanket over this winter night. It is cloudy, the moonlight diffuse as it sparkles on the stretches of water hiding under the reeds. The darkness is oppressive. There is no blush of electricity on the horizon, no vast cities for the sky to reflect. Somewhere beyond the dark, there are three villages: Kalikata, Sutanati, Gobindapur. They belong to the British East India Company. They are building a fort known as William. Things are changing, a new century nears. It will be the eighteenth, by the Christian calendar.
The campfire is an oasis of light. The bauls gather around, flames glistening on their dark swamp-damp skins, twinkling in their beards. They sing to ward off the encroaching darkness, their words lifting with the wood sparks towards the stars. They sing, unheeding of signatures on paper, of land exchanges and politics, of the white traders and their tensions with the Nawab and the Mughal Empire. Here in the firelight, they make music and tell stories to each other. To the land. To Bengal. To Hindustan, which does not belong to them, nor to the British, nor the Mughals. They know there are things in the wilderness that neither Mughal nor white man has in his documents of ownership. Things to be found in stories. But then again, they also claim to be mad.
I watch the bauls. I can see the others in the gloom, crouched amidst the reeds, circling slowly. More approach from afar, their claws sinking into the mud. I can hear them, though. The rustle of their spined fur, the twisting of rushes against their backs.
A howl slices the dark. The bauls falter but continue singing, holding tight to their instruments and gnarled staves. I can hear the mosquitoes whining around them, alighting on knuckles popping against skin, gorging, dying in the heat of the fire. There is a young woman amidst this group of travelling bauls. She looks out into the darkness, the words of their song dissolving on her tongue. Her hair is so black it melts into the night. I remember the taste of her lips, moist but cool from the night air. She keeps her eyes beyond the borders of the fire, searching a wilderness stirred into sentience by the noises of insect and animal, cricket and cockroach, moth and mosquito, snake and mongoose, fox and field rat, jackal and wildcat. Her bright patchwork cloak is wrapped tight around her body, marking her out. She is tired, short and unarmed, and stands no chance of surviving the attack. Not that the others do either. I can smell her terror like sweat against the gritty spice of woodsmoke. The wet soil of the marsh is cold between my toes. The insects catch in my fur, wrestling it, tickling like the reeds and plants around me.
The woman knows we are here, beyond their firelight. She knows because I told her myself, as a young man with long hair and kind eyes, tiger pelt on my back. Your party will never reach Sutanati and the banks of the river. You are being hunted. You have a day to run away, for we are patient, and draw out the hunt for pleasure and sport, I said to her in her sleep, while my own kin were unaware. I am a shape-shifter, after all, and not without my abilities.
She heard me, and saw me, though she slept while I whispered in her ear. She smelled my musk of swamp and blood, shit and piss and rank fur, hair and smooth human skin. She saw the lamps of my green eyes, and the pools of my brown eyes. I saw her face twitch as I spoke. She smelled of the stale sweat of travel, of the rich green of sleeping on grass, of the slick of oil on her lips from the roti and sabzi she had eaten before sleeping. I kissed her once. A chill ran across my neck as I did, because she reminds me so much of someone gone.
I look in the stranger’s eyes to see if they are still brown. ‘I don’t feel well,’ I say. Shhhh. The susurrus of reeds in the breeze. The music of the bauls is unearthly now, their howls and shrieks like banshee wails. The lights are swaying, cutting white trails in the air. The kitten is coiled in my lap. The scrabble of paws, outside.
The stranger shakes his head. You don’t interrupt the storyteller, he says with a gentle smile. I can feel the swamp outside, the city gone, the beasts gathering for the hunt in the misty wilderness. My fingers tighten around the kitten. The tent is an oasis of light, hot smell of electric lamps. Woodsmoke. Wilderness encroaches.
Close your eyes.
She heard me in her sleep, this baul woman with dirt in her hair, her lips sticky with just a little oil. It is clear that she remembers my warning, but she has not run away. Perhaps one of the bauls is her father, or mother, or sibling, or friend, or lover. It does not matter. She will not leave them behind. She begins to sing with them now, her scared voice strained. She remembers my smell, senses it now beyond the fire, in the tangle of the dark.
More of us come from the horizons. The scent of cow’s blood, a slaughter on their muzzles. They have eaten. But their hunt is not over. Their eyes weave trails as they run, leaping fireflies tracking their loping gait. They flank the group of humans, cutting off escape.
The full moon watches through the clouds, eager for massacre. With a bark of exhaled air, the clatter of tusk on fang, we spring. The bauls’ song is loud, and beautiful in its imperfection. It is their last. I run with my pack. My tribe. The bauls are surrounded. They sing till the very last moment.
The first kill is silent as our running, a glistening whisper of crimson in the air. The last is louder than the baying of a wolf, and rings like the bauls’ mad song across the marshes of what is not yet Kolkata. I can hear the howl as I run with this human in my arms, into the darkness, away from the shadows of slaughter. The howl curdles into a roar, enveloping the scream of the last dying minstrel.
But she is alive, against me, shivering against my dew-dappled fur. She is alive.
I open my eyes. The tent is still here. The city is outside. Mosquitoes feast on my neck and arms, leaving welts.
“You can guess the rest, I’m sure,” he says.
I wipe a sheen of sweat from my neck, shaking my head. “I think I got a bit much of your smoke,” I mumble. But I know whatever just happened wasn’t me getting a second-hand high. I feel like I’ve just woken from the most vivid dream I’ve ever had. “Don’t tell me, you run away with this baul girl and live happily ever after. Never mind that you kidnapped her, and got her family and friends killed in front of her.”
“Happily ever after,” he says. “Isn’t that ironic, considering I’m sitting right here, right now.”
“Immortality is a side-effect of lycanthropy, is it?” I ask. Remembering the kitten, I give it some more attention. It mewls, eyes narrowing to sleepy slits.
“Please, professor. A lycanthrope is a person who mistakenly believes they can turn into a wolf. I’m not a person, I don’t turn into a wolf, and I’m not ill. What I am has no basis in science or medicine.”
“My mistake. You didn’t answer my question, though. Are you saying you’re immortal?”
His shoulders twitch. A silent laugh, perhaps. “Take what you will from my story. I never said that I was the hunter in the tale. It could have been one of my ancestors. A story passed down.”
“I closed my eyes and I saw it. I smelled it. I don’t even believe you, and I felt it. I felt it,” I shake my head. “Are you a hypnotist?”
“I happen to be a good storyteller.”
“Modest,” I mutter, and shake my head. “So you’re rationalizing after telling me you’re a werewolf.”
“Half-werewolf. And professor, I am merely showing you the benefits of rationalizing a story. There are none. Stories are fiction. Made up.”
“You told me that story was true,” I remark, feeling smug.
Even as he says this, I see the look in his eyes and know that his heart has been broken by someone with dark black hair that melted into night, someone whose crippling revulsion of him, whose grease-stained kiss, still linger in his mind. I give him a moment of silence, surprised by this realization, as mundane as it is. After all, whose heart hasn’t been broken by someone? He seems suddenly too old to look so young, with his smooth face and lush, long hair (touched though it is by the occasional strand of grey). We share a long silence for the first time. It disturbs me, the ease with which I feel sad for him, after he’s told me a story steeped in carnage, not to mention a rather romantic outlook on kissing people in their sleep.
“What happens afterwards?” I venture, too curious not to ask.
“You’re not a professor of literature, but you are a professor of history. History has all the stories. Make it up. Guess. A variation of the tragedy, I suppose. The woman is neither immortal, nor willing to forgive her kidnapper, this rakshasa, this monster. He leaves her in the village of Kalikata, or at the banks of the Hooghly at Sutanati, where her fellow travellers were bound.” He pauses, taking a deep breath. He continues.
“Or even if he charms her with a shape-shifter’s magic and they wander off and get married, she dies and he lives on to survive and tell his story to a random wayfarer centuries later. Either way, he is alone. His pack is not forgiving of intermingling with humans, nor sabotaging a hunt, making him an exile from his own kind. They can smell his betrayal from a mile away.”
“This isn’t too far from a story about a chosen one rising to lead his tribe to salvation, is it? Lone exile, wandering into the future, unable to die, shifting between shapes, all that.”
He nods. “I’m just giving you some options. But I knew you had it in you, professor. You can tell someone the rest of the story. Or tell it to yourself. Romance, fantasy, horror, realism, moralistic fable, history, lies, truth. It’s all there for you. Pick and choose, my friend.”
“You’re the first Indian werewolf I’ve ever heard of.”
“Werewolf is one word. A European one. We’ve been called many, many things. You can call me anything you like. The shape- shifter is a common thing in the end, and our stories are told here as everywhere else.”
“And yet, you used the European word,” I say.
He nods. “You’ve got me there.” I see him shift a bit in his chair, and wonder if I’ve made him uncomfortable.
“So, if shape-shifters are so common how come nobody knows about you?” I ask.
“Everybody knows about us. Most of them just don’t believe that we’re real any more.”
“Why don’t you tell them you are?”
“Maybe in this day and age we just want to be left alone.”
“And occasionally tell a story to a random wayfarer?”
The kitten squeals and leaps out of my lap. The stranger has caught the animal before I can even react.
“Once everyone leaves, the dogs outside will chase this kitten down and tear it to pieces. For sport,” he says, running his long fingers through the little creature’s dirty fur. “And humans have the arrogance to say they’re the only animals capable of cruelty.”
“Humans?” I try to laugh. “You’re generalizing just a bit.”
“Apologies.” He looks at me. The crowd bursts into applause as the bauls finish. Chairs clatter against each other as several spectators stand, some drunk. I didn’t even notice that the song had ended. The stranger speaks despite the cacophony, and his voice is clear enough that I can hear him. “You know what distinguishes us from the dogs out there?” he asks me. I nod, despite myself. I want to give him a laundry list of things, but I don’t.
“We can tell stories,” I say instead.
“Well done, professor. Perhaps my story did not fall on deaf ears after all.” I say nothing. He gets up, surprising me. “Wait.” I raise my voice. “Where are you going?” I ask.
“I’m going to walk away with this kitten, of course. The dogs won’t come near me. I like dogs, myself, but they can be a tad cruel sometimes. So can cats. So can we all. Anyway, that ragtag pack outside won’t come near me. I’ll feed this little thing till it has the strength to survive, and I’ll let it come and go as it pleases after that.”
“Ever the compassionate werewolf, are you?”
He shrugs, looking weary. “Come now. A moment of compassion every two centuries hardly makes one compassionate, does it? You don’t want to hear about the things I’ve done in your and other lifetimes. But there it is. Just today, I saw two dogs—they were licking each other, lapping at each other’s muzzles as if they loved each other with every cell in their bodies. Did they? Or was it just two animals sniffing out compatible genes? When two humans kiss, isn’t it the same thing, deep down? I don’t know. It was a moment I found worthy of keeping in my memory, and telling someone. I have done so. I thank you for lending a willing ear. I’m going now, professor.”
I don’t know what to say. He gets up to leave. “Walk with me, if you like,” he adds.
As if this has been his plan all along, or mine, I get up and follow him. So we leave, together. The dogs trail us at the edges of my vision, eager for the fragile prey curled up in the stranger’s arms.
The Devourers is now available at Amazon India, Amazon – US / Barnes & Noble.
Excerpted from The Devourers by Indra Das. Copyright © 2015 by Indrapramit Das. Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.