Queer Moon Rising: Shape-Shifting Sideways in The Devourers by Indra Das
Across India, in Kolkata and in quiet hinterlands, werewolves roam. And they are taking notes. In Indra Das’s debut novel The Devourers (2015), professor of history Alok Mukherjee encounters a stranger who declares himself half-werewolf. The stranger tasks him with transcribing a series of handwritten manuscripts dating back to the eighteenth-century that tell the story of the stranger’s parentage. As the novel dips into the framework of stories within Alok’s larger narrative, a strange and brutal—and sometimes beautiful—history emerges of magical shape-shifters. When the novel comes up for air in modern India, it is a stunning queer romance and treatise on loneliness and identity.
“Across India, in Kolkata and in quiet hinterlands, werewolves roam. And they are taking notes“
Last month, under Halloween’s full moon, I argued that werewolf stories relay non-binary desires and embodiments. Werewolves are, in short, allegories of ineffable queerness. The Devourers, as the first text I turn to in this series, could not be more demonstrative of this sentiment.
In their first meeting, the stranger immediately debunks Alok’s (and the reader’s) traditional understanding of werewolves as half human, half wolf. The stranger tells Alok, “I’m not a person. I don’t turn into a wolf.” Though convenient, the term “werewolf,” as the novel and its characters are both aware, is too limiting. Never described with total clarification, The Devourers’s werewolves are indefinitely bestial. They are able to change at will. Essentially immortal, their lives are extended by the human prey they eat, an act that heavily colors their existence; by devouring humans, their lives are remembered and perhaps even lived through the werewolves. Already, identity destabilizes and multiplies. The mythos surrounding their embodiments furthermore offers insight into the novel’s dominant exploration of gender and desire. Werewolves, though born human, become new beings distinct from their birth selves. With souls “cleaved in two,” the first self presents as human and the second as the sacred beast. Das’s werewolves are also “hermaphroditic,” though when they mate amongst themselves in their second self, “no offspring is born.” It is from this impotence that the narrative develops. We learn, as Alok does, of the stranger’s violent conception by the werewolf Fenrir and the human woman Cryah who each narrate a manuscript.
A remarkable book, The Devourers is unlike any other werewolf story. It is elegant in a manner werewolves are rarely depicted without losing their requisite ferocity. Das’s decadent language mirrors the dream-like dizziness that characterizes Alok’s relationship with the stranger. Exhaustively researched, The Devourers also attends to lycanthropic mythology across nations. Reworking the familiar werewolves of lore such as Fenrir and Lycaon, Das threads three European werewolves’ arrival in Mumtazabad with pre- and post-colonial India. The British Empire haunts the narrative, though never overtakes it. Though aware of its evils, the werewolves’ longevity illustrates the precariousness of empire as well as its obstinate epistemology. Das writes, “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.” In their critique of empire, Das also manages an ode to storytelling that feels neither heavy-handed nor irrelevant to the narrative.
As Alok transcribes the stranger’s history, the two become increasingly endeared to one another. Although Alok is always aware of the stranger’s potential threat to his life, they develop a comradeship as exiles from their own communities. Whereas the stranger is an outcast, Alok is similarly ostracized from his family after his engagement falls apart. Partially a seduction, the stranger’s interactions with Alok widen his life not only through the newfound knowledge of werewolves, but more significantly through his relationship to gender and sexuality. The Devourers figures werewolves as uninhibited beings that allow Alok to explore himself. Between his transcription of Cyrah’s manuscript, the longest portion of the novel, and his attraction to the androgynous stranger, Alok begins to untangle himself from gendered constraints. In the midst of his work, Alok notes, “My dreams, ever faithful, are filled with terrible monsters and skewed, magic-haunted worlds from the past. In them, I often find that I’m a woman.”
The central dichotomy between devourers and creators that respectively defines werewolves and humans intentionally misleads the reader. Throughout their novel, Das cleverly muddles these boundaries and the very meaning of creation. In the aftermath of his seduction, Alok wakes alone and is unsurprised. The novel concludes as the stranger disappears. Perhaps to return. Perhaps to return in a different form. Or, simply, gone forever. The most wondrous transformation, however, is not the stranger’s magical shape-shifting abilities or even Cyrah’s potential rebirth that is revealed in the novel’s climax. Rather, it is Alok’s. In their final days together, the stranger clarifies the malleability of identity, remarking that werewolves do not conform to rigid human identities. Though Alok relearns a mundane existence in the months that follow, he emerges loosened from human notions of identity. He reaches out to a fellow isolated professor and begins the slow shedding of his loneliness. He stands in front of a mirror in women’s clothing. He draws on lipstick. He becomes something more than he was before he encountered the stranger: “I see man and woman both, I see a being so human that it becomes inhuman, an animal perfection.”
“ The complexity of identity and its malleability is not a question to be solved, contained, or even understood. The Devourers demonstrates, through its allegorical use of werewolves, human potentiality to expand outward and inward. We create ourselves.“
The Devourer’s masterstroke is that its most significant shape-shifting is entirely human. The stranger’s story of souls cleaved in two, of living as an exile in both human and bestial communities, and immortality—these are all in service of Das’s exploration of human self-creation. Even at the conclusion, we must question whether Alok is truly himself: Did the stranger devour him and he now lives through him? Did Alok somehow absorb the stranger? Was the stranger’s tale even true? These questions and their inclusiveness are precisely the point. The complexity of identity and its malleability is not a question to be solved, contained, or even understood. The Devourers demonstrates, through its allegorical use of werewolves, human potentiality to expand outward and inward. We create ourselves. Unlike cisheteronormative conceptions of progress, queer creation moves sideways, backwards, and in loops. Birth—and rebirth—is not straightforward. As The Devourers suggests, we are forever, blissfully unstable.
Join me for the next installment of Queer Moon Rising to look back at the cinematic werewolf classic An American Werewolf in London (1981), a film that proves queerness emerges in the most unlikely of texts.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.