A thoughtful meditation on memory, identity, and coming of age, which does not quite deliver on the promised dragons
|Cover illustration by Tran Nguyen
With novellas, there simply isn’t enough space to do everything. A novella is not a short novel. It is fundamentally a different thing. It can do one thing well. There isn’t space for info-dumps about the history of Olde Kingdom if you also want to fit in the characterization; and if you give the characterization due weight, then you’re not going to be able to complete your quest for the MacGuffin of Keyboard’Smash in your allotted forty thousand words. Novellas must focus.
With his novella The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar, Indra Das shows that he understands this assignment. There is very little plot, and the world-building underlying its premise is hinted at in the corners rather than developed in any depth. Indeed, Das makes a virtue of necessity, because in his tale the vagueness of the magical backstory is part of the point. It centers around the coming-of-age of a boy, Reuel, whose family keeps him fully in the dark about who they are or where they come from. Or rather, they tell him, but they do not let him remember. His daily routine is punctuated by regular doses of a tea that makes him forget what he has learned: That his family grow dragon eggs in the backyard; that they use kerosene to breathe fire, soothing the infant dragons by mimicking the behaviour of dragon parents to soothe the infants. That they fly, the sky above them and the sky below them, on the backs of dragons. That they eat dragon flesh.1 And then Reuel drinks his tea, and he forgets.
The narrative intersperses memories of Reuel’s family’s draconic nature with fumbling interactions between Reuel and others outside his family. As a child he goes to public school, and the boys of his class demand to know who he is, keenly aware of ethnic divisions in Kolkata: are you Bengali, Anglo-Indian, Marwari, Naga? Are you Chinese? Are you Christian? He can’t answer their questions, and so they call him the boy from nowhere—which turns out to be more accurate than they could know. Indeed, Reuel’s lingering ability to retrieve the core of those suppressed memories also turns out to be more accurate than his family could wish. In an attempt to defend himself from the accusations of being from nowhere, he makes up stories—or thinks he makes them
up—which make their way back to his parents. Uneasy, they pull him out of school, completing the isolation that his uncertain ethnic identity had already put in place. He grows up with no peers, only one friend (the daughter of some neighbours), and a misty, incomplete sense of identity.
Das chooses to focus his novella on this question of identity—not my own personal favourite type of story, but a perfectly valid narrative decision. The book follows a character arc as old as time: Reuel’s coming of age; how he grows and learns to be a person in his family, despite the isolation, despite the withholding of culture and history. For all his driving desire to learn about his family’s history, the book is not about that, per se. We do not get plot, except in throw-away references, of the historical world-wrenching upheaval that led his clan to flee their world of origin. We do not get worldbuilding, except in breaths and oblique images, of the place they left behind. There’s not room for that in a novella. So instead we focus just on Reuel: his growth and development as a person within such a family, and his eventual assumption of the role he must take to preserve his family’s heritage.
This last is no easy task, given how hard Reuel’s family worked to isolate him from that heritage. There are reasons for it, of course, and this decision is presented quite sympathetically, acknowledging the harmful consequences. Yet I couldn’t help but think how, despite the sympathy, this upbringing is fundamentally cruel. It’s not that his family keep secrets from him or isolate him. It’s that they share secrets, and then take away the knowledge, over and over and over again. It is sad if a child never has a birthday celebration; but suppose a child does have such a celebration, is showered with gifts of magic and wonder and dragons, only to be forced to give them all back? The isolation, too, is not in itself a cruelty; but it becomes so much worse when his family gives him nothing to satisfy an existance that he might otherwise have filled with friends and belonging.
This story's relation to its title mirrors Reuel's relation to his identity. Who are the Dragoners? What are their dragons? Where is Bowbazar? Why are they the last? None of these questions are ever really answered. But in the voids, the absences, the missing knowledge, there is a different story to be told. Like a lake in a volcano's caldera, this tale shaped by what is missing, but it has a life of its own all the same.
Nerd coefficient: 7/10, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws
- Light-touch, low-calorie world-building
- The memory of dragons
- The psychology of coming-of-age
- Navel-gazing and identity
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.
Das, Indra. The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar [Subterranean Press, 2023].