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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 from 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 nighttime 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 streetlights.
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; I 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 wreathe 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 gray 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 gray coils of the serpent lying there by the flowerpots; it had been 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 standing beside this man and not responding 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 streetlights. 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 gray 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 toward 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-burnt 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.” His words wind 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 toward 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 one another. 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. Then again, they also claim to be mad.