Of Impossible Dragons and Slipstream of Realities – a Review of The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

Indra Das’s fantasy novella The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar is many things, all at once. It’s a coming-of-age tale about Ru, a boy who grows up in Calcutta, India in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a story about Ru’s family—his parents and his grandmother—and about the gap between those who have left their old world behind and the child that knows no other home than the world where they chose to settle. It’s a story that contains within it the shards of another story, a story about another universe, somewhere, where nomads travel the slipstream of realities. And it is, very much, a story about dragons.

The book begins with dragons. In an unforgettable scene, Ru, the story’s narrator, remembers how his grandmother showed him what was hidden in the seed pod of the tree growing in their backyard:

“…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.

Later in his life, Ru will remember this moment and doubt its veracity, as he remembers and doubts many things that happened when he was a child. “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.”

Ru’s life, the labyrinthine house where he grows up, the stories his parents tell him (and the stories they withhold)—are full of impossibilities, of memories that become dreams. His parents certainly love Ru, but they won’t tell him where they came from, or who they were before they arrived in Calcutta. And if they do tell him, if they do show him glimpses of the truth, they make him drink the Tea of Forgetfulness: “forgetting and remembering was a cycle I have relived many times, a snake eating its tail.”

Perhaps it’s only in the fantasy novel his father writes (a book that is published but only sells 52 copies) that a young Ru catches a glimpse of what his parents left behind, a war-torn world where nomadic dragon riders live in a place where “there was no ground, only an eternal ocean of storms and gaseous seas.”

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    The reader glimpses this dizzying other reality the way Ru glimpses it: in titillating bits and pieces, in scintillating fragments, enough to make Ru, and the reader, feel the weight of the loss his parents carry after leaving that world, that life, that culture, behind.

    Ru’s childhood and youth are spent precariously trying, mostly failing, to fit into school and Indian society. His best friend is Alice, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who run The Crystal Dragon restaurant near Ru’s home. Alice and Ru bond over fantasy books and movies, videogames and music, playing Mortal Kombat and discussing Lord of the Rings. Eventually, Alice leaves Calcutta for university in the US, but Ru remains in his parents’ house where so many secrets and impossibilities are hidden: tapestries showing other solar systems and celestial spheres, curved daggers of bone, glittering teeth and claws and scales.

    The impossible reality of dragons is an ever-present constant in Ru’s home and life. There’s the dragon tooth his grandmother gives him which he later gives to Alice. There’s his memory of a night when he, as a small child, rode a dragon through Calcutta’s night sky, strapped to his mother’s back: “Calcutta like a smoky mirror reflecting the stars, streetlights and windows and cars drawing a luminous map across the Earth.” There are the drakes kept in the aquariums in his family’s garage, immature dragons that are cooked and eaten with great reverence and ceremony.

    One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when a young Ru and two of his friends from school share a meal of drake meat, the flesh “cloud-white and wet, veined with thread-fine capillaries of lightning.” Ru’s father tells them, “You will dream for weeks of worlds unseen, of serpents in sky and sea.”

    Das paints a tender and incisive portrait of both Ru and his family, infusing this strikingly original tale of a clan of refugees from an impossible reality with luminescent wonder and magic, as well as a piercing sense of sadness and loss. That sense of sadness and loss runs through Ru’s life, and through the lives of his parents and grandmother. Since he was born, Ru’s family has tried to keep him safe and rooted in the world where they sought refuge, keeping any deeper knowledge about their past from him in an effort to make it easier for him to fit in: “We thought we could give you a life here, in this crowded world, keep you from the impossibility of who we are.” In spite of their efforts, Ru remains perched between worlds, not belonging fully to the mundane reality of Calcutta, or to the slipstream of realities his parents left behind

    (Maybe it’s partly because of my own experience, of leaving one country to settle in another (though the place I left had no dragons), and because my kids have grown up in that new country, away from the culture and reality that shaped me, that the immigrant themes of The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar cut so deep.)

    Before Alice leaves Calcutta for university, she asks Ru what he is going to do with his life, worried that he’ll “sit in that house forever, doing nothing.” Ru spends years trying to figure out what to do, and maybe, impossibly, he might find the answers he has always sought hidden in plain sight, beneath veils of magic and illusion, right in his own home.

    The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar is a compelling and dizzying book filled with Das’s gleaming prose and luminous imagination. It resonates with the importance of the stories we tell ourselves and others, and how those stories, told and untold, shape who we become. There is much magic hidden beneath the surface of this book, so many impossible things—winged and scaled—waiting to be seen and revealed, by Ru, and by the reader, just like when Ru’s grandmother nudges open the seed pod from the tree, revealing the sleeping dragon inside.

    The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar is available now from Subterranean Press, including in a signed, limited edition.