Losing a parent at any stage in your life is a momentous, heartbreaking, and permanent event. There is no escaping it and perhaps, if you are lucky, you get to stall it till a time when you are old (and sensible) enough to process death as a natural occurrence, something that comes for us all. But what happens when a child loses a parent – or parents – before they even get to know one another properly, or walk together through the “natural” steps of lives, and delight in each other’s joys and accept the disappointments that inevitably creep into this fragile relationship? It’s a long and essential association with more than a fair share of disagreements. But what happens when a child is denied the fullness of knowing their parents?

Bikram Sharma’s debut novel, The Colony of Shadows, longlisted for the 2023 JCB Prize for Literature asks these very questions. After the sudden death of his parents – a car crash, while he was waiting for them to return from a dinner party – nine-year-old Varun is uprooted from Delhi and taken to Bangalore to live with his blind aunt and bedridden grandmother. And the geriatric family dog, Poppy. Cut off from his (now dead) parents, friends, and familiar surroundings, the child struggles to adjust to a new life in a new city.

Stepping into the past

As it often happens in such circumstances, Varun all but loses his childish enthusiasm overnight. Though still mostly obedient, he becomes sullen and silent. Losing his parents is irreversible and the additional losses of familiar surroundings and faces have isolated him. His aunt is kind and his grandmother is concerned, the dog cares for him too but it is not enough to make up for the loss of a primordial relationship. Varun spends his days in the company of his memories and imagination. Until one day he climbs through a hole in the wall of their back garden and discovers a mysterious colony hidden in the trees, and shadows.

It appears familiar and the deeper he ventures into the colony, the more life-like the images of his Delhi home and parents become. They are alive in this dimension – they talk to Varun, joke with each other, and make plans for the future. But this is a shadow realm and familiarity is deceptive. As Varun finds himself increasingly embroiled in this alternate world, the malevolent forces in the shadows engulf his aunt, grandmother, Poppy, and whatever semblance of normalcy he was returning to.

Through magical realism, Sharma presents us with a chance to go back to a time when life was seemingly perfect. What would happen if we let our sense of loss overpower us and find a way to literally step into the past? It’s a tempting idea and sometimes it might seem the only way out of misery but temptation can often be life-threatening. But it’s not just Varun whose loss is so significant and recent. Jyoti has lost her sister and Usha, her daughter. While Usha and Varun are allowed to wallow and lash out, Jyoti – the primary caregiver – is not accorded the same privileges. She has to look after her bedridden mother and suddenly there’s a child to rear, and her own gradual loss of eyesight has made her extra wary of the world around her.

A woman is often a solitary figure when she holds the family together, and Jyoti is more visibly so. Her mother’s stubbornness and her childhood friend’s capriciousness keep her on the edge – she does not know when to expect a sudden outburst of love, or hostility.

As Varun tries to make sense of the death of his parents, Jyoti wonders about her mother’s overprotective and obstinate behaviour. Interestingly, in the colony of shadows, Varun’s parents aren’t exactly who he remembers either – his father is prone to making off-handed comments about Jyoti’s disability and emotionally manipulating his son. It made me think about whether this is how Varun’s relationship with his father would turn out to be – still loving but with Varun no longer unaware of his father’s prejudices. And the veiled (or not) cruelness of a parent. Especially, when hidden under the veneer of protectiveness and “tough love”.

Sharma adopts the voice of people (and a dog) who are very unlike him. At least vis-a-vis what meets the eye. If the child’s voice is convincing, equally convincing are the voices of a middle-aged blind woman and an elderly, ill woman. While he avoids going deep into the recesses of the feminine identity, his observations on mother-daughter relationships are astute and persuasive – the dead daughter, the disabled daughter, and a mother who is becoming more and more redundant.

The Colony of Shadows is propped up by a strong story and an even stronger cast of characters. The book might even make it easier for parents to talk about death with their children and in that sense, it is quite appropriate for middle-grade students and above. There are plenty of books about the unique grief of death and many of them attempt to understand it by reflecting on the memories of the past – including Harry Potter! The elements of magical realism are innovative though not entirely new. But what makes Bikram Sharma’s novel memorable, in my opinion, is how he writes about the many facets of grief – encountering it, denying it, hurting from it, and eventually, letting loved ones in, and letting the grief go.

The Colony of Shadows, Bikram Sharma, Hachette India.