Dust jacket illustration by Tran Nguyen.
Ru is a boy from nowhere. Though he lives somewhere—the city of Calcutta—his classmates in school remind him he doesn’t look like them, and must come from somewhere else. When Ru asks his parents, they tell him they are descended from nomads. But even nomads must come from somewhere. The question, forever on the mind of the boy from nowhere, is where.
Ru dreams things that wouldn’t seem out of place in the fantasy novels his father read to him when young. Fragments of a culture that doesn’t exist in this world, but might in another, where sky and sea are one, and humans sail this eternal ocean on the backs of divine beasts.
Ru dreams of dragons, of serpents impossible. Perhaps Ru remembers dragons.
Alone in a city that’s home but doesn’t feel like it, Ru befriends Alice, his neighbor from the nearby Chinatown. As they grow with their friendship, Ru finds that Calcutta may yet be a home for him. But with his best friend starting to realize that Ru’s house and family hide a myriad of secrets, the question haunts him still—where is his family from? Are they truly from nowhere, migrants to this reality? And if so, what strange wings brought them across the vast reaches of impossibility to here—and what is their purpose?
Limited: 1000 signed numbered hardcover copies
From Locus Magazine:
“Indra Das’s The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar is a gorgeously written novella which is part coming-of-age tale, part love letter to fantasy, part family mystery, and part elegantly understated fable of identity… It’s also a fine example of what novellas do best: invoking the magic, but keeping a clear focus on the story while leaving a fair amount of the detail up to us.”
The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar
I have a memory of my grandmother showing me the strange flowers of a tree quite unlike anything I’d known to be real. We were standing in a garden—a cloak of chill mist thrown over it and embroidered in the gold of the dawn sun. The tree—or bush—was quite small, low to the ground, and looked like it was dying in an autumnal wilt, its thin, curling branches bare except for desiccated brown seed pods that hung heavy in the hazy air. My grandmother gestured for me to come closer, to see how the trunk and branches were covered in a fine fur. In her soiled hand, unwrinkled by the later toll of time, she took one of the dried brown seed pods—or flowers, or fruit—hanging above me and gently lowered it so I could see.
It wasn’t a seed pod at all. With practiced care she nudged open the curled, broad leaves, unwrapping it to reveal what was inside.
The broad petals of the pod were the brown wings of a creature that fit gently in the pink cradle of my grandmother’s palm like a bat. Its tail was the thin stem that connected it to the branches of the tree. And curled inside the embrace of its own wings was the contracted body of the beast, its six limbs clutched to its torso in insectile fragility, its sharp and thorny head like a flower’s pistil, the curled neck covered in a dew-dusted mane of white fur like the delicate filaments of a dandelion seed. The gems of its eyes were left to my imagination, because they were closed in whatever deep sleep it was in.
“It’s a dragon,” I said, to encase the moment in the amber of reality.
“Yes, it is,” said my grandmother with a proud smile. Whether this was pride at me or the little dragon whose papery brown wings she was touching, or both, I can’t say. “Here, we call it the winged rose of Bengal.”
It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life. I remember the immensity of the happiness I felt, looking at this flower-like fetus of a dragon growing off a tree tended to by my grandmother, knowing that dragons were actually real and grew on trees, wondering if people knew.
I couldn’t really believe it, which is why the memory became a dream. I convinced myself it wasn’t a true memory, because dragons don’t exist.
Why didn’t I ask my grandmother later? My family? I did, of course, and they said: “Dragons aren’t real, you had a dream.” If the dragon tree was a real thing, and my family had the privilege of caring for such a marvel, why would they only show it to me once, when I was young, just old enough to know about dragons from books and cartoons and movies on pirated VHS tapes?
Dragons aren’t real. I told myself I’d made them real in this dream because my father had written about them in his short career as an author (I was too young to read his novel The Dragoner’s Daughter at the time, but he’d still read me a few passages), and because I had read his time-yellowed copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit many times and imagined Smaug in the sky-stretched shadows of monsoon clouds. The dragons I saw hanging from those trees were nothing like what I had imagined, though.
I know now that forgetting and remembering was a cycle I have relived many times, a snake eating its tail.
An Interview with Indra Das
To celebrate our first project with Indra, we asked Arley Sorg to interview him about the novella and his career.
Without further ado...
Indra Das (who also writes as Indrapramit Das) is a writer and editor from Kolkata, India. He broke in with the 2010 story “Kolkata Sea” in Flash Fiction Online and went on to publish stories with a number of notable markets, including Apex, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Slate, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and more. His debut novel, The Devourers, came out in 2015 with Penguin India and in 2016 with Del Rey in the US. His latest is novella The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar from Subterranean Press.
Sorg: For me, one of the first things that stands out about The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar is the prose. Immediately striking, often quite beautiful, the prose enables the story to delve into introspection, world building, and more, delivering exquisite (and sometimes perfectly subtle) emotionality along with vibrant imagery. Craft-wise, what is your approach for prose, voice, style – do you focus on sentences? Is it developed over drafts? Does it flow naturally, unconsciously; or is your approach something entirely different than these?
Das: I don’t think I ever have a standardised approach to anything craft-wise, but I do tinker a lot with the first line and paragraphs to establish an aesthetic baseline for myself, to make sure the sentences have a shape that I like, a DNA that I can replicate through the rest of the piece. After that, it flows quite naturally. I’ve always been drawn to ornate and poetic prose as a writer, perhaps because I’m a very sensory person, a stimulation seeker.
Sorg: The next thing that stands out is the intersectionality: layered, complex identity, embodied in protagonist Reuel, who is very specifically similar in ways to, but importantly different from, everyone Reuel encounters. Even within Reuel’s close-knit family there are generational differences, secrets, separations by virtue of personal histories, and more. Identity is reframed again through various characters, more closely through Alice, who has some striking similarities and differences with Reuel; both of them feeling out of place in the larger community, and dealing with that feeling in their own ways. What were your intentions or hopes, if any, in terms of the thematic elements of identity?
Das: I prefer not to be too prescriptive when it comes to theme and subtext in my work—I would want to the story to speak to each reader, and explain itself (or not). But I do hope people notice that it deals with identity along several axes—including gender, in a way that is probably unlike what Western readers are used to. Queer people in India are often a lot less open about their own gender and sexual identity, because our society tends to be even more puritanical and socially judgmental about breaking ‘traditional’ gender and sexual norms (despite the existence of gender-nonconforming or ‘third gender’ subcultures like hijras, who are often social outcasts). I try in this book to convey queerness in a way that isn’t unrealistic for young Indians in the ‘90s and ‘00s, who largely didn’t have any of the easily recognizable, globalized but Western language of social justice Anglophone queer people in India have broadly embraced.
I very much wanted to write a story that underlines the multiculturalism and ethnic and religious diversity of India, which is imperiled by the majoritarian hatreds spawned by nation states and the tyranny of borders, and by the fascism currently resurgent in India.
Sorg: What was the initial inspiration for Dragoners, and how did the book change over drafts and development?
Das: I dreamed, in perfect clarity, the opening image of the book. It was a stunningly beautiful dream, and when I woke up I found myself with an acute sense of loss, because in the dream I remember thinking and feeling with my whole heart: I have just witnessed that dragons are real. Then years later, I took that seed, planted it on the page, and grew it.
Another key inspiration was the tone of mundanity and magic coexisting that is found in a lot of anime films like Makoto Shinkai’s and Studio Ghibli’s body of work. But I wanted it to feel real—I wanted the reader to feel what I felt in that dream. That dragons are real, and they exist in the real world, our world.
When first submitting the manuscript to my editor Navah, I described it as being ‘like Normal People or My Brilliant Friend in India, with dragons’; make of that what you will. Comps are silly, after all.
Sorg: You’ve been publishing since at least 2010 and many readers will remember your novel, The Devourers. For you, how does Dragoners fit in or relate to your larger body of work? Is it similar to other works in important ways, are there significant differences from what you’ve done before?
Das: To be very reductive; in The Devourers I put ‘werewolves’ in India. In Dragoners I put dragons in India. In my Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novelette ‘Breaking Water’ I put zombies in India. To seque to your next question, I do seem to enjoy putting ‘big’ mainstream pop cultural tropes into stories that are not mainstream and are intimate and not easily categorisable in the way those tropes often are by genre.
Sorg: Dragons in general are one of genre’s most revisited tropes. Here you not only succeed in doing fresh things with dragons, you also present multiple kinds of narratives around dragons, as well as utilizing the idea of dragons in multifaceted and various ways. What are your thoughts on writing genre tropes in general? Are there advantages, are there pitfalls?
Das: I am fascinated by the idea that the broadest pop cultural trope or element (like dragons, or werewolves) has an incredibly complicated history that branches into multiple cultures and mythologies going back hundreds or thousands of years, and that these elements repeat across the world. So when I include a trope that’s associated with the popular ur-culture decided by the Western capitalist mode of production, I like to break it down and interrogate how such a thing could exist in a world as complicated as ours. If ‘dragons’ are real in my story, what cultural form do they take—which culture’s mythology was ‘correct’ about them (even that is a trick question, because mythic creatures and archetypes have multiple forms even within specific cultures)? If these dragons don’t ‘belong’ to any one culture—then you show them as a kind of being or animal that would easily shapeshift according to who forms a kinship with them. They’re symbiotic.
Sorg: One of the ongoing conversations around storytelling within the writing community is about the idea of an “active protagonist,” with some folks declaring that a protagonist has to be “active” in order for the story to be interesting, and other folks challenging this notion, or even challenging the way “active” is defined. What are your thoughts on this concept, and how does Reuel fit into or defy traditional ideas of an active protagonist?
Das: I don’t think protagonists who don’t go on quests or get into action scenes are ‘inactive’. There is a great richness to be found in the activity of living mundane life, which is full of conflicts small and large. That’s what a lot of realist fiction is about, of course. Ru is a realist protagonist stuck between the real world and a fantasy world.
Sorg: Dragoners does many, many things – and does them well. Among these is an almost playful portrayal of characters who have longstanding and heartfelt relationships with science fiction and fantasy as genres. The nuances of the differences in various characters’ relationship to genre lend this narrative element even more depth. What were your goals for this facet of the book? What has your relationship to genre fiction been like?
Das: A lot of Western stories do the whole ‘nostalgic’ coming-of-age with pop culture of past eras—most famously Stranger Things, which helped along the whole retrowave craving for an idealized 80s. I grew up, in India, with a lot of the same culture mentioned in these nostalgic fictions, for complex historical reasons (a lot of them terrible). Demographically speaking—most of India did not and does not grow up with international pop culture referents, but I and my friends did, because of the circumstances of an economically liberalizing India in that era. The first movies I watched in a theatre were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Return of the Jedi. I grew up on Stephen King novels and LOTR and The X-Files and Doom etc., alongside much else. I wanted to honestly portray that experience, which is a shared one for a lot of Anglophone Indians, and a strange and conflicted one.
Obviously, my relationship with science fiction and fantasy and pop culture as a whole, with its Western center and colonialist legacy, is complicated. I could write a whole essay about it, and once did (https://www.tor.com/2016/02/19/writing-global-sci-fi-white-bread-brown-toast/), though it feels naïve now in its soft treatment of the corporate capture of geek/nerd culture into the mainstream, and the detrimental effects of IP fandom pandering on art in the coming future. But in this book, I didn’t want to impose my 21st century viewpoints on these young characters. I wanted to observe their interaction with this lopsided international syncretism, and weave it alongside the syncretism of the more ancient stories that Ru’s family has grabbed on to anchor their own impossible heritage if displacement.
Sorg: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this book, your work, or you in general?
Das: Supply chain problems have caused big delays to the shipping of the limited hardcover—but please don’t let that stop from getting the ebook, which is also much cheaper of course. Other than that, I just hope you all enjoy the book! I also have a very different debut novel, The Devourers, that’s available everywhere, and is a dark mythic fantasy about shapeshifters in Mughal and modern India. And a lot of short fiction in various places.
Sorg: Thank you for your time, and for a truly wonderful story!
Das: Thank you for your thoughtful questions, and for reading!
- Indra Das
- Tran Nguyen
- 120 pages