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The Hundred Names of Darkness

Nilanjana Roy

Aleph

Pages: 313 Rs. 495

A spectacular second coming for the Nizamuddin clan

Nilanjana Roy’s superb follow-up to her 2012 novel The Wildings is massively entertaining, and at times reminiscent of the best of Neil Gaiman, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  14th Dec 2013

A Prabha Mallya illustration from The Hundred Names of Darkness

s is often the case with sequels, after one finishes Nilanjana Roy's The Hundred Names of Darkness, one remembers the beginning of the first book, The Wildings. It began with an epigram from A Dream of a Thousand Cats, one of the most acclaimed issues of Neil Gaiman's awe-inspiring Sandman comics.

"Dream the world the way it truly is. A world in which all cats are queens and kings of creation."

A Dream of a Thousand Cats — true to the epigram quoted — places a neat about-turn in the readers' path. In a Swift-like reversal, we see giant cats keeping cat-sized humans as pets, hunting them for food or sport, keeping them under their thumb as it were. This would only be possible if a sufficient number of cats dreamt it, correct to the last vividly drawn detail. It's no coincidence that Roy chose to introduce her feline creations using Gaiman's story. With The Wildings and now The Hundred Names of Darkness, Roy has crafted a world that is as believable and every bit as lovingly rendered as Gaiman's. Like Sandman, the real world (in Roy's case, the world peopled by 'Bigfeet') is often no more than an SOS away, and yet this does not impede the 'dreamscape' where the real action is taking place.

For instance, The Hundred Names of Darkness begins four seasons after The Wildings's climactic battle between the Nizamuddin clan and the ferals led by Datura. The Wildings are unable to enjoy the peace and quiet that they've earned at a terrible cost — in fact, the animals of Nizamuddin are having a hard time in general. The reason is not difficult to guess; no self-respecting aunty-ji in my neighbourhood would let the smell of rotting animal corpses persist. I imagine it is much the same for Nizamuddin. No doubt the affluent Bigfeet of the region called up the police station, gave the local thanedaar a piece of their minds and let s*** roll down the hierarchical hill from there on. Moreover, as is the case with most up-and-coming pockets of influence in Delhi, there's the stifling smell of ivory towers in the air.

"For many moons after the battle, the dogcatchers' vans had patrolled Nizamuddin, forcing the stray cats and the stray dogs into hiding. It sometimes seemed to Katar that he and the Nizamuddin wildings had paid in their own blood and freedom for Datura's dark war; not just the cats, but all the strays, the birds and the smaller animals as well. There had been hope in the air in summer, when many of the Bigfeet had forgotten the battle and its aftermath, the pathetic corpses strewn across the ground of the Shuttered House, the killing that Datura and his ferals had conducted. But then the old houses had started coming down, and the Bigfeet who lived in the towering new buildings had no liking at all for cats, and dogs and small creatures."

With The Wildings and now The Hundred Names of Darkness, Roy has crafted a world that is as believable and every bit as lovingly rendered as Gaiman’s. Like Sandman, the real world (in Roy’s case, the world peopled by ‘Bigfeet’) is often no more than an SOS away, and yet this does not impede the ‘dreamscape’ where the real action is taking place.

That last line is a near-perfect example of Roy's adroit handling of her 'dreamscape' and how it is and isn't the real world. A lesser writer could have introduced (or hinted at) some of the ivory tower Bigfeet using popular tropes, like the bored-to-death, nihilistic yuppie, or the loud, obnoxious, physically repellant Delhi businessman. There could have been hints at violence perpetrated by and against Bigfeet. But all Roy does is inform us that the ivory towers were no place for animals, a case of apathy becoming endemic (note the usage of 'small creatures'). Within these chowkidaar-ed gates shall humanity curl up and die a lonely death.

Several memorable animals, familiar and new, light up the pages of The Hundred Names of Darkness. (Prabha Mallya, who also worked on The Wildings, does an excellent job with the illustrations again.) There's the faux-ferocious canine Doginder Singh, who'll remind you of every Punjabi friend you have; loyal, garrulous and utterly adorable. There's the delightfully- named mouse Jethro Tail, a peacock called Thomas Mor and Ozzy (short for Ozymandias) the short-tempered tiger from The Wildings. And in the thick of things, of course, is Mara, she of the 'monsoon-green' eyes and whiskers more powerful than that of any other cat in Delhi. The orange kitten's speech patterns are a little more grown-up, as they should be. Her Sending (signal transmission through whiskers) remains erratic, although increased in strength. It's up to Mara and her motley crew to find a new safe haven for the Wildings, which makes The Hundred Names of Darkness a sort of Noah's Ark story minus Noah, that notorious Bigfoot.

When you start reading The Wildings, it seems convenient to spot allegories everywhere, simply because of the profusion of fantasy novels going down that road, only to lose their way. But Roy's books are, in fact, an equal and opposite argument — Mara and her clan are best read on their own feline terms. Characters and sentences and deaths in a novel can be symbols, sure. But any power that they exert over the reader is only palpable once they've drawn you into their world, their dreamscapes. Gaiman's A Dream of a Thousand Cats ends with a pair of humans looking down lovingly at their cat, who's paddling in her sleep, dreaming of a world where cats own humans. It is an immensely powerful moment because it is suspended at the cusp of two worlds, one real and the other, a dreamscape.

The Hundred Names of Darkness similarly suspends the enthralled reader between two worlds. By the time you finish the book, the boundaries between these worlds seem porous like never before. It is an astounding achievement — that rare book which marries high art with what is already becoming a feverish, cult-like following.

 
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