“The Colony of Shadows”: Bikram Sharma’s debut novel presents an emotionally rich tale about loss, grief, and hope, and the lengths we go to for the people we love
The book “The Colony of Shadows” by Bikram Sharma is a literary fiction.
After the untimely death of his parents, nine-year-old Varun struggles to adjust to his new life in Bangalore with his perceptive aunt and bedridden grandmother. When he climbs through a hole in the wall of their back garden, he discovers a mysterious colony that lies abandoned and in ruins. It’s strangely familiar, and the more he explores it, the more it resembles his old home in Delhi.
But the comfort of familiarity is deceptive, for something dangerous lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike – and wreak havoc. Will Varun survive this threat? Or will he vanish from the world, swallowed alive by the colony of shadows?
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Zarina’s berry pulao was perfection. Varun asked for seconds, Mama couldn’t fault it, and, alone in the kitchen, Jyoti licked clean her plate. She loosened her salwar’s drawstrings. She wanted to collapse into bed and catch the news over the radio when she heard Poppy pawing the back door. ‘And where have you been, madam?’ she asked, letting her in. Poppy brushed past her shins. Her claws clicked against the stone floor as she crossed the hallway and nosed open a door to be greeted by a series of pleasant exclamations from Mama. Jyoti shook her head.
She went to check on Varun. ‘Are you in bed?’ she asked, knocking on his door.
A cool breeze flitted through his room. She sat on his bed and found he was already under the blanket.
‘How’s your knee? Does it hurt?’
‘Good. Make sure you keep the bandage dry. And you brushed your teeth?’
He sounded tired, the poor thing. She smoothed the blanket and tried to remember when she last had it washed. And what about the mattress? It had been years since they dusted it in the sun.
‘Can I read tonight? Just for ten minutes?’
‘What are you reading?’
He climbed out of bed. She heard him rummaging through the stuff on his desk before returning and placing a book on her thigh. She picked it up. The spine was cracked and rough against her thumb. It carried a wonderful smell of road-side bookstores.
‘Where did you find this?’
‘I didn’t find it,’ he said, a note of playfulness creeping into his voice. ‘It’s mine.’
‘Then why is this the first time I’m hearing about it?’
‘Because, Jyoti Aunty, it was in one of the boxes, which I unpacked all by myself before dinner, even though you were supposed to help me but you were too busy talking to that uncle!’
Jyoti smiled. ‘My goodness! Well, that was very bad of me but very good of you.’
‘I put away everything from one box. It’s completely empty.’
‘That’s great. Thank you. So, what’s the name of this book?’
He told her.
‘What’s it about?’
‘You’ve never read it?’ he asked, sitting up.
She tried not to laugh at his incredulity. ‘It’s good, then?’
‘Good? Oh, Jyoti Aunty, it’s so good, it’s… it’s the best story Pa and I have ever read in our entire lives! And we’re only halfway through.’
‘Wow. So… you both used to read this in the night?’
‘And is this where you are right now?’
The book had opened to a page with its top corner folded in.
Tracing the fold, she realized it must have been some precious few weeks ago that Alok had stopped reading aloud to Varun and marked this page. This fold was a tangible memory of his past actions, which was a thought he would’ve highly approved of as a historian and cultural conservationist.
Varun lifted the book out of her hands. ‘We’re right now at the part with the black rabbit.’
‘The black rabbit?’
‘He’s everlasting darkness.’
‘What does that mean?’
She thought about losing her vision. She thought about nights spent weeping into her pillow till Anu consoled her. But Varun launched into an excited yet disordered summary of the book’s characters and their journey to find a new home.
‘You really need to read it, Jyoti Aunty! You… oh.’ He went silent.
She traced his cheek. Such a sweet boy. ‘I can read braille, but I don’t think this book will be available in that format in India. I’ll check. It sounds really interesting. You go ahead and read. But only for ten minutes, okay? Then bed.’
‘Is… is it hard to read braille?’
‘It takes practice. I had a good teacher, but I used to get very impatient and cross. Some people can zoom across a page. Not me. There’s a stencil in my bedroom with all of the letters, if you want to try it.’
‘Okay. Goodnight, Jyoti Aunty.’
She made sure all the switches in the house were off and the windows and doors bolted shut. The living room still carried the scent of aftershave. Grinning like a fool, she made her way to her bedroom. It was nice of Praveen to visit. A distance had threatened to grow between them after Anu had passed, but he’d made all the effort to keep in touch. And despite his gruff exterior, he was so reassuring. He was right, children do scrape themselves while playing. They grow up learning to keep secrets. She and Anu had done the same. She recalled the day before she was going to start college when Anu had locked their bedroom door and given her a frank yet detailed lesson on sex, one that was more useful than any of the shame-filled, laughter-interrupted talks at school. The lesson did prompt her to ask about Anu’s sources of information.
She sent a message to Zarina, thanking her for the food, then fired up her laptop, and searched online for an audio version of the book Varun was reading. Thankfully, it existed. She paid for it, downloaded it to her phone, and clicked play.
The narrator spoke with a very British accent that reminded her of Papa’s collection of leather-bound classics in the living room. The narrator read out the epigraph.
Chorus: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
Cassandra: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
Chorus: How so? ’Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
Cassandra: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
She paused it. What on earth was this? Surely it was too dark for Varun? She double-checked her purchase. It was the same book he was reading. And Alok had been reading it aloud to him, enjoying it with him, so obviously this had not been an issue. She tried to remember the books she’d been allowed to read at Varun’s age, but could only recall stories by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and other curiously British authors.
She clicked play, and though initially unsettled was soon lost in the world of the book, listening to chapter after chapter before realizing with a start that it was nearly midnight. Putting away her things, she thought about catching up to where Varun was in the book. Maybe he would like to listen to the audio version as well, and if not, they could always discuss the story. She crawled under her blanket and tried to sleep, her mind filled with images of bandages, books, and burrows.
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