I can see more of them running around the field. 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. 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.
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 Devourers: Reviews - Indrapramit Das
The stranger is looking at the bauls, swaying his head, tapping his feet, curling his toes. He hisses, startling me into silence. The kitten almost leaps out of my lap.
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I clench my fingers around it, stroking its fur. He is not looking at me. 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. Think of a field.
A swamp, rather. This is a long time ago. 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.
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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.
Review: The Devourers by Indra Das
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.
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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.
Book Club Discussion Post: The Devourers
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.
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