Longlisted for the JCB Prize for Fiction 2023, Bikram Sharma’s The Colony of Shadows is a poignant story of grief. It begins with Varun, a nine-year-old boy waiting for his parents to return from a party as he makes his way through the family’s gramophone. The story shifts from Delhi to Bengaluru after the prologue where Varun is now living with his mother’s sister, Jyoti Aunty, grandmother Usha, and their adopted dog, Poppy. He begins navigating life in the alien house missing his home in Delhi, his parents and his pal. He reads the book from where his father had left off or goes out wandering in the grove at the back of the house. In one of these explorative walks, he discovers a crack in the wall wide enough to fit him in. He takes the plunge to find himself in a dilapidated colony— a rehash of the neighbourhood he lived in Delhi.
Sharma writes with sensitivity. Varun is not a character constructed to serve as a superhero role model. He is a child who is grieving as children are prone to when they don’t know how to process the loss of parents. From the time Varun realises he has left everything in Delhi and come all the way to Bengaluru to the scenes where he hides himself from his aunt and grandmother, his grief follows him. The grief portrayed is not a grief similar to that of an adult. Here, as in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls where a child talks to a monster while his mother copes with a terminal illness, we find grief that is specific to childhood. Unlike his aunt’s or grandmother’s grief, which is laced with bittersweet memories and duties, Varun’s grief is centred more on the childhood ideas of promises, of need, a protection he feels suddenly deprived of. Sharma’s careful treatment of this grief is what keeps the reader hooked to the story.
Sharma’s debut is charming in the way he manages to pivot his story through a variety of perspectives. We have Jyoti, who lost sight when she was a child but now manages to get through her day despite other people’s constant patronising attitude. She senses the hurt in Varun and tries her best to be the calm, reassuring figure of authority for him while being badgered by a truckload of responsibilities. Next, there is Usha, who is perpetually annoyed with everything around her and often rebukes Jyoti for not listening to her. She cries at the mention of the dead daughter but seeks solace in her dog, Poppy. Surprisingly, there are chapters narrated from Poppy’s point of view, where the dog can sniff Varun ‘ripe with grief’. Poppy follows Varun in the colony through the crack and yelps for help when he finds a shadow issuing a threat to him. Like the cancerous crow speaking like death in Madie Mortimer’s Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies, the shadows in the colony attach themselves to the bodies of each of the family members.
The aspect of horror that drives Sharma’s novel is nail-biting. The world across is not the only one that is grief-stricken. The bungalow outside the colony of shadows is in equal disrepair as sounds of construction are heard from a neighbouring site. The water leaking from the ceiling in Usha’s bathroom, the paint peeling off in several corners, the darkness the house gets shrouded in due to unprecedented load shedding, and the silence lurking uncomfortably is the horror that unravels in a house death has breathed into. Throughout the story, as strange things happen to the family members, the reader is reminded of the emotionally debilitating experience of death that is woven with sadness and anger at the same time. When Usha and Jyoti enter into a remorseless argument, the grief and anger emitting from the conversation becomes the pinnacle of the novel’s success. It renders the story its gothic nature and aptly portrays the confusion and exhaustion that family can cause to an individual.
Jyoti’s reminiscences of her childhood with her sister (Varun’s mother) keep the reader wanting more. They come by as fragmentary mentions, or narrated to Varun in snippets but a detailed flashback in itself would have added the required intensity to understand the family’s present condition. Nonetheless, Sharma’s evocatively precise, well-researched writing makes up for any qualms the reader may garner.
(Published 02 December 2023, 17:16 IST)