By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
3:33 PM AKST, February 1, 2013
In one way or another, Manil Suri has spent his entire life charting what happens when polar opposites are brought together in unexpected and at times startling juxtapositions.
Suri, 53, is an acclaimed novelist, and a career mathematician who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He spent the first two decades of his life in India and the past three in the United States. Though all his books to date have been set in Mumbai, they are written in English.
Suri's debut novel, "The Death of Vishnu," set off a bidding war between 11 publishing houses in 2001. It was described as the first installment of what would be three linked books centering on the gods in the Hindu trinity.
"The Age of Shiva" followed in 2008. On Monday, the loose trilogy will be completed with the release of a futuristic thriller called "The City of Devi."
The novel is set in an India on the verge of nuclear annihilation. In the midst of the disintegrating country, Sarita, a young wife, searches for her scientist husband, who vanished while attending a conference. Sarita is assisted by Jaz, a handsome young Muslim acquaintance who has his own reasons to find the missing Karun.
"I look at problems mathematically," Suri says, "and I sometimes use mathematics to visualize relationships between characters and to unify plot strands."
To the love triangle at the story's center Suri adds gun-toting enforcers, divine visitations and extravagant plot twists that would put a Bollywood musical to shame.
Suri, who lives in Silver Spring, discussed his influences and inspirations a few days before beginning his U.S. book tour, which starts Wednesday in Baltimore.
You've said for years that the third part of the trilogy would be called "The Birth of Brahma" and would focus on the Hindu god known as the creator. Why instead is your third book about Devi, the feminine aspect of divinity?
When I first started thinking about the trilogy, I always had an arc in my mind of the past, the present and the future. I wrote the book set in the present first ["The Death of Vishnu"]. My novel about Shiva begins in 1955 in post-partition India.
But my book about the future was an evolution. It took me 12 years to write. Even when I got to the midpoint, I didn't know if it was going to be about Brahma or about Devi. Every story needs a creator. As the most well-known, Brahma was the most logical face to put there.
But when you dig deeper, the true Hindu trinity really is Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, who represent the three different strands of Hinduism. Brahma was a later addition. He came in during the post-Vedic period, when people tried to tie those strands together.
Because Devi has nine incarnations, she can be anything: the destroyer, the creator and the symbol of art. But, Brahma's mythology is such that he doesn't get activated until you're at the end of a cycle. If I had been writing a post-apocalyptic novel, he might have been the right person.
Are your three main characters, Jaz, Karun and Sarita, stand-ins for Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, respectively?
It's not a 100 percent correspondence. Certainly, Jaz has all the energy of Vishnu, and Karun is withdrawn and ascetic like Shiva. But, there is another Devi character in the book.
I like to think of the book as several trinities. Jaz, Karun and Sarita form one trinity. India, Pakistan and China form another. And there are three generations of quarks that make up all matter.
Each of your books seems to take on the character of the god at the center. "The Death of Vishnu" is a comedy of manners. "The Age of Shiva" is realistic and introspective. And "The City of Devi" is larger than life, running the gamut from dystopia to Bollywood.
The Bollywood motif is drawn from two real-life events: "Jai Santoshi Maa" was a mythological Bollywood movie made in the 1970s about the previously unknown goddess Santoshi Maa that took the country by storm. Suddenly, people were fasting to Santoshi Maa and building temples to her. There was mass hysteria.
And then, when the epic "Ramayana" was shown on Indian television in the 1980s, people started performing all the rituals they normally would in a temple. They would leave offerings in front of their TV sets. The series lasted for a whole year, and people point to that as the moment when there was a resurgence of religious identification. It was at the time that a more Hindu-identified political party came into power. There was actually a huge political movement in India that can be traced to television.
All three of your novels are concerned with the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India.
Part of that arises from the circumstances under which I grew up. The schisms between Hindus and Muslims really affected our lives.
My parents were living in Pakistan when the country was divided along religious lines between Pakistan and India. My parents had just gotten married. They had to flee, and they lost everything. They actually left unopened wedding presents laying on the table.
I was born in 1959, and when I was growing up, we lived in a one-room flat in Mumbai. The other three rooms were occupied by Muslims. We were the only Hindu family in the building, which is the exact reverse of their respective proportions in the Indian population. Relations were definitely strained at times. Once, I heard the neighbors refer to us "kafirs" or nonbelievers. But the neighbors who were also our landlords had a son who was the same age as I, and we were very good friends.
"The City of Devi" also is the first novel in which you're writing about a same-sex love relationship. [The book is dedicated to the author's longtime partner, Larry Cole.] As a gay man, was that significant for you?
Bringing this subject into the open was significant for me, not only as a gay man but also as an Indian. I left India when I was 20. Though I pretty much knew then that I was gay, it was more of an abstract theoretical suspicion than anything based on experience. Homosexuality was completely invisible, and this was in the 1960s and 1970s. The whole 20 years I was in India, I saw just one article about homosexuality.
The decision I had to make was how honest to be about Jaz. I decided, "OK. One has to push the envelope." He's really out there. He has a very strong sexuality, and I decided to write about it.
I just got back from my book tour of India. The question came up: "Would I be reading out loud any of the gay scenes?" I decided that I would make it a point to read from them. People were like, "Oh my god, Calcutta is so conservative, what's going to happen?" The city seems to have survived, thankfully. And during the time I was in Mumbai, "Time Out Mumbai" had a whole issue devoted to gay life in the city.
India is a very funny country in that way. People aren't necessarily outspoken, but they're perfectly willing to embrace things in quiet. They just take it in their stride, say, "OK, fine,' and get on with their lives.
If you go
Manil Suri will read from his book, "The City of Devi" at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, 1000 Hilltop Road, Catonsville. He will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Both readings are free. Visit artscalendar.umbc.edu or theivybookshop.com.
About the book
"The City of Devi" by Manil Suri will be published Monday by W.W. Norton & Company. 384 pages, $26.95.