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, 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.

Excerpted with permission from The Devourers, Indra Das, Penguin Books.