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SpellcastersRajat Chaudhuri

Rajat Chaudhuri
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Rajat Chaudhuri’s novel is about how individual and planetary madness mirror one another. Part psychological thriller, part climate adventure with a twist of the occult, Spellcasters – from which the following extract is taken – is a story about dreams, desires and rough weather, and the long shadows that they cast across lives.


The wind roars through the dark alleys — smelling of fish curry — and howls along the avenues, reeking of diesel death, screaming through every broken door it can find. Buffeting people with its heavy hands, it commands them in its thundering voice to cower in fear or sing its praise. That voice calling for sacrifice. That’s how a storm speaks. The wind will blow hard again very soon.

Evenings empty like gutted animals. Shadows creeping out of pools of darkness, congealed around the sodium lights of Anantanagar. The world caving in and consuming us.

The wind piercing my eardrums. The maw of mother Earth wide open. Gaia’s hungry flames flickering with animal heat. Shipwrecks galore. Plunging into a dominion under the thrall of an endless night.

In this darkness, there’s only the tick-tocking of time.

The clocks.

They’re all still here, one-eyed monsters with the ashen face of grave-diggers, bored looks of body-snatchers, bleary-eyed like morgue attendants — ticking away the wretched moments.

They’re everywhere in the house. ‘Get to know them as you grow up,’ father had said gravely one day. Ancient grandfathers, stately and self-important, hoary timepieces with rotten teeth in their ivory casings — ticking for a century or more, and watches from a more familiar past. Our house, a museum of time. A museum of living time, hungry time with a scratchy, rasping breath, time frothing with bile juices and bubbling with sulphuric acid. Time dripping aqua regia.

But museums house the dead. The clocks knew. So they were preparing. Deep in their murky mechanical bowels, coded in the chatter of their well-greased gear trains, they were planning it out.

How could I know what was on their minds? From the days of the water clocks in Egypt on to the metronomic rhythm of atomic time, somewhere in between, the keepers of the hours had developed sense organs. A taste for rust-salt, red-brown, IV lines. Metallic black in the dark, metal taste, metal flash.

The Goth.

The Goth. Tallest of the seven grandfathers towering over us in the rooms and passages of our old house. I never asked father why it was named after a Germanic tribe. After mom left, back in my school days, the clocks crept in and filled up all corners of Mitra House, where the sunbeams didn’t dare. Father, my military engineer dad, collected them from the British auction-houses with intimidating names — meant to throw off scum like us — loaned some from friends, and scoured the old bazaar with its warren of alleys at the end of which sat dreadful beings twisting time in their gnarled hands, so pale they looked like dead maidens. Near the police headquarters it still stands, the biggest clock market in our world where he bargained assiduously with dead shop-owners, still sprawled over the cobwebs of four dimensions; often, they took him along… and he remained unseen for days in his horological quests.

When the municipal corporation of this city came up with the gamble to set up an old steam clock, mostly to divert attention from a kidney harvesting racket, he was excited to no end. But the engineer in him would be chuffed when clocks didn’t work, for in restoring the heartbeat into their mechanical madness, he perhaps discovered connections with some bigger contraption that invisibly bred chaos in our lives.


The Goth’s been running slow by several hours. It’s his new game. Imposing in its giant oakwood frame of ten-and-half feet, burnished black on the inside, its pendulum chamber double the volume of a striptease booth on the street of pleasure.

Father fighting a losing battle with the old master of the hours — rude, curmudgeonly, vicious-faced — tolling at its own sweet will. Sometimes when we sit down for lunch, it announces with authority that it’s the hour of breakfast; or when, in the middle of the night, I turn from side to side in my bed, dreaming of my dead mom — who resembled that famous queen of Bhaskarnagar — The Goth tolls the hour for vespers. But the idiosyncrasies of the machine only strengthens his resolve to twist it back into shape, and in fact when all the timekeepers and gadgets in the house — the dusty theodolites of Alderworth, the Kodak Brownies, the Wurlitzers, the noisy valve radio sets — are performing flawlessly, I see a shade of black on his sunburnt face. As if he’s always expecting them to break down, and awaiting the serotonin bath of accomplishment in putting them right.


Ruthless summer day. April, I suppose.

Father poring over The Goth’s metal innards for the last forty-eight hours; the tomb of power behind the dial with the moon wheel and the engraved map of the known world, 1654. Hidden by the etched bronze dial, the mammoth gears

with their sharp three-inch teeth and witch-like grimaces, the wheels, the barrels, the anchor escapement swaying to the beat of seconds and the two tightly coiled steel springs — each big as a cartwheel — delivering torque in Newton metres to the heavy lyre pendulum, the brass bell and the Scythian dagger hands pointing out time.

It’s dark inside The Goth and he is wearing a coal miner’s helmet with a headlamp. There, he sits on the edge of the metal frame of the clock movement.

Sometime in the afternoon.

I step out for a walk to the riverside. A lowering sky and the evening sun lost in a mile-high cumulonimbus. Crowds on the strand this day, watching dead fish in the water from a toxic spill. An east-Asian vessel still disgorging its poison into the river. A beggar on the bank, with polio-deformed feet. Akbar… I know him well. Every month, I get him some provisions from a shop nearby. He salaams seeing me, and I ask him how he is.

Mast,’ he replies.

I return at the stroke of five. The house consumed by silence. Back in my room reading the papers and hearing Dad mutter as he speaks with The Goth, and there is this sound of the lyre pendulum: tick-tock… then silence; tick-tock again, and more words and interjections. I cannot discern whether they issue from a human mouth. A regular conversation he is having with The Goth, God knows for how long. The light is quickly falling outside.

I had dozed off. A metal wrench clatters to the floor, waking me up. I can still hear him as I fold the newspaper and put it away. More sounds from that room. Then the click of a lever, and the purr of the gear, louder like a growl this time. Now one long throaty growl—teeth-gnashing, snarling, wild.

Really loud!

An ear-splitting cry of steel, a scream beyond any sounds on this side of the forest—cold, blood-curdling scream of metal lashing against woodwork, the wood splintering like a burst casket releasing the spirit, torque unleashing an iron horse, lash of metal on curd-soft human flesh, knife-like teeth, the teeth that is the blade and the knife digging deep, piercing soft muscle tissue, slicing open a ventricle, disconnecting arteries and snapping bone like safety matches.

No sounds from that room anymore.

The storm howling overhead, lashing Anantanagar with fury, spraying chilling rain through the windows of Mitra House, whipping Four Horse Street mercilessly and drowning the city in a dungeon of darkness, as the electricity department switches off supply for fear of short circuits.

In this darkest of evenings, between booming thunder like the muffled howl from a torturer’s pit, between streaks of lightning blinding a city homebound — though home doesn’t remain a home anymore when everyone you knew to be your own has conspired against you or left — there are three sharp taps at the front door.

My heart’s racing. Fast, run fast. But why should I run? Run away? The rain is heavier outside. But I am at the front door. Curtains billowing. The rain gushing in through twenty windows and flooding this dead soldier’s house.

The shape of a stranger through the curtains of rain. Muscles stiffening, nerves taut — I dither.

‘Who is it in this deluge?’ I call out at the storm.

‘I come from another world, let me in,’ thunders the voice. I unlatch the door and step aside, holding the flickering candle high. He walks in, the rain glistening on his battle-hardened face, gleaming in a wreath of crystal fires on his shoulder-length hair. Raincoat flapping like a cape, wellingtons squelching on the wet floor now reddening with a trickle of blood. On a leash held in his hand, a giant king crab walking in now, making circles in the water flooding the veranda.

‘Major Gupta,’ the tall stranger proffered a strong hand, ‘you don’t know me. Rabi was my friend. We fought many battles together. He had saved my life.’

I flinch from his piercing stare. We shake hands as a chill runs down my spine. How does he know about the dead? Perhaps he doesn’t? I try to get a better look at the face, speckled with shadows of the dark house dimly lit by the shortening candle, and the breath of the freshly departed on my back.

Who is this stranger whose forehead furrows with a hundred lines that writhed like water-snakes while he spoke? A powerful jaw shaded by grey stubble, a weather-worn face with the unmistakable marks of aristocracy intact and an inward gaze.

‘I see it in your eyes but how did it happen?’ he asks.

How do I even explain it to a stranger. So I tell him; and listening to me, he falls silent. He drifts away but still watches me from the corner of his eyes. ‘Shouldn’t we close those windows first?’ he says at last. The windows are closed, and he says he is a doctor of some sort.

He takes charge, he takes care of everything.

So smooth that we are back in the house after midnight. Whatever had to be done for the dead, we have done.


The house after midnight.

Mitra House with the great clocks. The rain pummeling the city again. Rivers of rainwater everywhere, and the lights still out.

All through the night, we are talking.

Watched by the great clocks, we whisper into the night. The clocks watch us, and they see him leave when the sky begins to turn red in patches.

Like wounds freshly opened.


  • An extract from Spellcasters. Copyright: Rajat Chaudhuri Published by Olive Turtle (Niyogi), December 2023.


The writer-activist Rajat Chaudhuri’s works include story collections, translations, and novels including The Butterfly Effect, listed by Book Riot (US) as one of the `Fifty must read eco-disasters in fiction.’ His short fiction has appeared in the internationally acclaimed climate fiction video game, Survive the Century.

Rajat Chaudhuri lives and writes in Calcutta. and X @rajatchaudhuri



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