Photo by Nina Subin
Manil Suri: "The City of Devi" refers to Mumbai, which at first was called Bombay before. The new name Mumbai actually derives from mumba and ai, which both mean "mother" in Marathi. So it's really talking about the mother goddess. And Mumba Devi is an actual goddess who's the patron goddess of the city. If you actually go to Mumbai, you'll see all these areas that are named after the mother goddess. And so in that sense it is the city of Devi.
Jo Reed: That was mathematician and novelist, Manil Suri, talking about his recent novel, The City of Devi.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Manil Suri teaches mathematics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and he is the author of three bestselling novels, The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shivaand, now, The City of Devi.
The City of Devi is a dazzling novel, as rich in Hindu myth and as it is in Bollywood lore. Set in the near-future, the book opens with India and Pakistan in a count-down to nuclear war, internally India is reeling from Muslim/Hindu violence, people are fleeing a rubble-filled Mumbai, while dirty bombs explode around the country. In the midst of this chaos, Sarita looks for her husband Karun who mysteriously vanished before the craziness began. She's joined in her wanderings by Jaz, a flamboyantly gay nominal Muslim, who's also searching for his lover. Together, they narrate the roller coaster ride that they take as the world goes careening to its end.
That's the bare bones of the multi-layered plot of The City of Devi, which is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Here's author Manil Suri to fill in the rest.
Manil Suri: So the plot is one where, as you said, there is this threat of nuclear annihilation, and that might happen four days from now. And Sarita has to search for her husband. I mean, her life might end in a few days, so she's ready to risk everything to go through the city that has been divided into Hindu and Muslim areas. She has to fight these gangs and somehow find her husband, who's been missing for maybe two and a half weeks, but has really been missing in several ways throughout her marriage. And so this is someone she loves and she wants to get to the bottom of what is going on.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about who she is. She's a statistician. She got married to her husband. She was in her early thirties, perhaps?
Manil Suri: Right.
Jo Reed: Tell us a little bit more about her.
Manil Suri: Sarita has had several attempts that have failed in terms of getting her married. She is attractive, but she's not very sure about her own attractiveness. She's a statistician, so she's very smart. She's used to working with herself. And because of her insecurity in terms of her looks when she actually meets Karun and falls in love with him, she's really very invested in that relationship. I mean, this is the only kind of love that she's known. And when she decides to set out on this journey, it is with the expectation that she will find him and maybe also find out about her marriage. One thing I should add is that since she's a statistician, I had to put in some little tidbits about what a statistician would do. So at one point, while she's trying to consummate her wedding with Karun, she actually develops this elaborate star system to mark how successful she's being with her sexual advances and she does things like calculate the standard deviation and the mean and so on, what a statistician would do.
Jo Reed: It was also amazingly moving. On her journey to search for her husband, she meets a man named Jaz who accompanies her. Tell us about him.
Manil Suri: Jaz is probably, I would have to say, my most favorite character that I've ever written. He is gay. He is Muslim. He's lived around the world. His parents have been Islamic scholars and have taken him from one country to another. And this has really caused him to have sort of a breakdown in some sense. And that's when he discovers that the real problem is that he's just been homosexual. And once he discovers this, he just bursts into full bloom in some sense. He discovers men, he discovers sex, and he has a lot of it and he's completely honest about it. He's very irreverent towards everything. He's really wisecracking all the time. And he looks at the city more as a playground to find action. And he's also looking for his own lover. He's had several sexual encounters, but he's never really found true love. When he does find it, he lets it go and then again, like Sarita, he has to look for this person that he's let go before the world comes to an end.
Jo Reed: I agree. Jaz is an amazingly interesting character who becomes more real to me as the book continues on, if that makes sense to you. In the beginning, I thought his voice seemed kind of stilted, and by the end I was completely on board and all for him.
Manil Suri: I think in the beginning you just see one facet of Jaz, and that's the facet that he shows to the outside world. I mean, remember, this is someone who has been through a lot when he was growing up. And he's almost using sex as a way of getting past that, past the insecurities that he has. And so you just see that. And then gradually you start seeing that this is someone who has been affected by love, who has felt the loss of that. And little by little he kind of shows us his true feelings. And so by the end you really get to know him a lot better.
Jo Reed: This book deals a lot with triangles, from being the third book. We visited with Vishnu and then Shiva and now Devi. There's the Pakistan, India, China triangle, and then there are three main characters, Sarita, Jaz and Karun.
Manil Suri: Strangely enough this triangle motif did not occur to me until I was sort of past the midway point of this book. In fact, it was at a point where I'd almost given up on the book. I said, "Okay. This book cannot be written." And then this fact that I'm writing a trilogy, the fact that I have three main characters, two men and a woman, and I have three deities, you know, Vishnu, Shiva, and the female Devi, that all came together. I realized that these characters were a metaphor for the trinity that I'm talking about. Not a one-to-one correspondence, but also another triangle that is formed. And that was another kind of key observation. Karun himself, I should just point out, is a physicist, and he's been researching quarks and it turns out quarks come in exactly three generations and all matter is made up of these three generations of quarks. So there's that magical number three that keeps recurring in all these different realms.
Jo Reed: This book also has more than a touch of Bollywood to it. I can't exactly see it as a Bollywood film, but that's another motif that just seems to be streaming through the book. Talk about your interest in Bollywood.
Manil Suri: I've been interested in Bollywood since I was a kid. My father actually was an assistant music director for Bollywood films, so we grew up seeing a lot of previews and so on. And so when it came time to writing this book and finding a reason why the world is going to come to an end, naturally my answer was Bollywood. It has to be a Bollywood film that creates our last kind of voyage into destruction. And so what happens in the book is there's a Bollywood movie called Super Devi, and this was sort of 50 percent Slumdog Millionaire, 50 percent Superman. It's about this girl from the Bombay slums who takes on different avatars of Devi to fight crime, and it's an enormous hit throughout the world. But it's also something that in the rural areas, villagers are actually thinking of this larger than life figure as an actual goddess. So they're offering things to this goddess. And politicians, right-wing politicians, are using this to spread the message that the Super Devi really wants to rid the country of all minorities. That's what actually causes the split into Hindu and Muslim areas. That's what causes the big nuclear standoff with Pakistan. And that's what eventually will lead to the end of the world. It's all due to Bollywood
Jo Reed: You know, in all your books you look at complicated issues. You look at socioeconomic barriers, you look at the Hindu-Muslim divide, you look at the oppression of women. And in this one, you explore the oppression and repression of gay men.
Manil Suri: Right. I think in this book, I figured, okay. With this character Jaz, the question was "How far to go with him?" Should I keep him a little under wraps just as homosexuality has always been sort of not really talked about in India? Certainly when I was growing up, I did not hear about it the whole time I was in India. I left when I was 20, and that was in 1979. So as a gay person, I just did not know anyone else who was gay while I was in India. And so when I started writing about Jaz, I said, "Okay. I'm going to make him as out there as possible," because it's important to have these things out in the open, out in terms of discussion. And the reaction to it has been quite heartening. I first released the book in India and while I was there, I made it a point at every reading to talk about Jaz. Not only that, but to read out one of the funnier and I would say raunchier sex scenes to these unsuspecting audiences. And you know what? No one fainted. No one ran out of the room. And Calcutta, which is supposed to be a big conservative city, and that seems to have survived. So I think things are changing. I think Indian culture is such that it's quite possible that the country will say, "Okay. That's fine," give a kind of collective shrug and then move on and just accommodate gay people like they've accommodated so many differences.
Jo Reed: When did you understand that you were actually putting together a trilogy? And then why the decision not to include Brahma, who is actually the traditional third deity of the trinity along with Shiva and Vishnu?
Manil Suri: I think the trilogy really developed after the first book when I just very casually talked to myself. I've written a book on Vishnu and there's also Shiva and Brahma in the traditional Hindu trinity or Trimurti, as it's called. So why don't I write a book on each one of them? And pretty soon it became something that I was unable to extricate myself from. So after the first book I had a single word, Shiva, and it was like a homework assignment, "Go write a book on this." And I had no idea what to write about. So it took me seven long years to really put that together. And then after that when I started, I mean, I'd actually started this book about the same time that I started the Shiva one.
Jo Reed: Wow.
Manil Suri: But then once I started concentrating on the third part, it was really a question of how these three books are going to fit together. And certainly they're not the kind of trilogy that you have to read one to understand the other. The characters are not connected. But I did want it to be about the three panels representing the past and the present and the future. So when I started writing this book in the beginning I did think it was going to be Brahma. I knew that there was going to be a sort of deity that maybe comes to life in some form and promises to save the city from nuclear destruction. It soon became clear that Brahma was not quite up to the task, because he's really the creator. And you really need someone like the mother goddess who can also threaten that, "Okay. If things don't work out, I'm also the destroyer." So the mother goddess comes in different forms, including Kali, where she destroys everything. So she was the true third part of the trinity, at least in terms of my novels. Also, she is the true third part of the trinity in terms of the deities actually worshiped in Hinduism. Brahma has only one major temple in all of India to him. Devi or the mother goddess has many of them. And the three real strands of Hinduism that were put together were worship of Vishnu, worship of Shiva, and worship of the mother goddess.
Jo Reed: Well, Bombay actually is the big link between these three books.
Manil Suri: It's I think the only real link, because there are no common characters. So the city itself and the country by extension is the common character that links these books. The first one, The Death of Vishnu, was really a snapshot of the city and the country in contemporary times, and then the second one, The Age of Shiva, looked at the past. And this one, The City of Devi, actually goes into the future, what might happen tomorrow.
Jo Reed: We talked about Bombay as being the connecting thread between all three books. You were born there, in Mumbai.
Manil Suri: Yes, I was.
Jo Reed: Do you call it Mumbai or Bombay?
Manil Suri: I call it both. I like both names. And often in a single sentence I'll use both of them.
Jo Reed: Clearly you still feel very connected to Bombay-slash-Mumbai even though you haven't lived there, in a very long time. Can you talk about that connection?
Manil Suri: People often ask me, "Well, how come you don't write about the Washington-Baltimore area?" I've been living there for 30 years. So I only lived in Bombay for 20 years. But I think what happens is if you grow up in a city, especially one as multicultural, as diverse, as full of drama as Bombay, it sort of stays within you. So any time I have to reach for something dramatic, something that's narratively interesting, Bombay's the first place that occurs to me. In the last few years I've been going back two or even three times a year, and that's really kept the connection with the city fresh in my mind. I think for this book in particular I had a lot of fun, because there's a kind of path that the characters trace out from south to north. And I actually walked most of that myself just looking for places and sites and so on to use in the book. And finally, when I had all this material together it was like this big city that I'd constructed, and then it was like a kid saying, "Okay. I'm going to blow this up now." So I was able to destroy or actually make a near destruction all of these things that I'd seen and that was very entertaining.
Jo Reed: The City of Devi strikes me as a very complicated book to write. You have a dual narrative running throughout the book. It's narrated by Sarita and Jaz. And as we talked about, it definitely has a Bollywood flair to it. But it also has the element of a thriller, and it's neither of those two things. It really is a story about people. Talk about the challenges of writing, particularly a dual narrative, writing in two voices.
Manil Suri: So this was definitely the most challenging book I've written. I actually started it in September of 2000, and that was actually before 9/11. But the reason some of the complexities in writing it were, first of all I had to give you, give the reader, a lot of background. Like, "Why is the world in the condition it is?" "Why is Sarita searching for her husband?" You know, there's a lot of whys and hows. And one can spend pages explaining this, but I didn't have that luxury. I wanted to make sure that the reader kept going. I wanted to really concentrate on pacing in this book. So that's why I had to really just give little flashes of everything. And luckily the way that I put it together seems to have worked in the sense that I have Sarita in the present explaining what's going on and then also in the past telling you what happened with her husband. And I have a similar kind of duality with Jaz and throughout you get little more pieces of information about what's happening in the rest of the world. And then there's the last part of the book, which is entirely in the present, and that's where I really got stuck. That's where all these plot threads that I had kind of started strangling me. I couldn't put them together. And at one point I even thought, "Okay. I've gone through all possible plot outlines," just like you would in a chess game, and I found that all of these lead to very unsatisfactory conclusions, "so this book cannot be written." I really thought I'd proved it mathematically. And that's why I actually started a different book. And that's when that metaphor of the three came up. And with that, I realized that the three main strands have to be put together, literally so. And once I had that goal, I could actually figure out, again, step by step, how to sort of put these things together. So I think my lesson from this book is that a long time ago I took a writing class and I was told that for literary fiction all you need to do is worry about the characters and the plot will take care of itself. Well, that just doesn't happen. The plot will never take care of itself. So I have a new respect for plot-driven fiction now, in addition to just character-driven fiction.
Jo Reed: You mention mathematics, and you are a mathematician. That, in fact, is your day job. But at the same time, you have written these three spectacular novels. How do you juggle these two things?
Manil Suri: For much of the time, very poorly, I think. It's like I wish I could be more invested in the writing when the math sort of takes over. And sometimes it's the other way around. So I think striking the balance, it works best when I'm at a stage in a book when I've got the first draft done, because then it's a question of honing in, editing, and I can do that much more successfully while I'm doing the math as well. In recent years, I've actually become a lot better at it. And the reason for that is that I've decided that I'm going to try and, again, you know, it's this idea of convergence, of these different strands. I'm going to try and put them together. So what I've been doing is doing a lot of math outreach. And I've been actually using a little bit of fiction, a little bit of storytelling, a little bit of writing, trying to combine these two activities. So one of the things I'm playing with now is a sort of math novel that would actually make mathematics accessible to non-mathematicians, and to use all the narrative tricks that I've sort of been experimenting with, maybe even add little bits of video that would be animated. Images that would explain some of the math. But still to have a storyline that would be a real fiction, plot-driven story that hopefully audiences will respond to.
Jo Reed: And on the other hand, I know you've been giving talks called "The Mathematics of Fiction."
Manil Suri: Yes. And that's a very interesting topic, because people ask me all the time, "Well, does one inform the other? Does one activity inform the other?" And on the surface it's very hard to pinpoint how these two mesh with each other. But if you dig down a little deeper, we're all human beings and we have a limited amount of tools at our disposal. And I think our minds probably use the same kinds of techniques to solve problems, whether they're narrative problems or mathematical problems.
Jo Reed: Well, math has gotten such a bad rap.
Manil Suri: Oh, it's got an awful rap. I think we might be the next hated profession after dentists.
Jo Reed: I think lawyers and politicians have you beat.
Manil Suri: Okay. Maybe. Yes, that's probably true. But at parties, people come up to me and say, you know, it's usually that, "Oh, I was always so terrible at math," and it's like they're giving me their confession. And I kind of absolve them and say, "Go in peace, my child."
Manil Suri: So that's the kind of thing that I'm trying to work beyond, work through. I think there's a lot of math that is very accessible, that is very exciting, that is very interesting. Unfortunately, you don't really get to that stage just because so much of math teaching is based upon calculation, actual computation. And if you don't get those things right, then you quickly lose interest. There are a lot of other ideas in math which don't require calculation, which are just ideas that we can all absorb if they're presented differently. So I think that's towards what I'm trying to work.
Jo Reed: Now, you teach math.
Manil Suri: That's right.
Jo Reed: Do you ever teach writing?
Manil Suri: I taught writing once at American University. A friend of mine invited me to take his class, which was a graduate course in creative writing. And we had to workshop a couple of stories. And I realized that that was the last time I was going to do it. For one very simple reason. When you're teaching math, there is only one correct answer. And you as the professor generally have it. And so if anyone comes up with a different answer, you can just say, "Well, this is wrong. And I'm sorry, but you got a zero out of ten." Well, in writing, you have to worry about the other person's feelings, there's never any right answer. You have to say, "On the one hand, this story isn't very convincing. On the other hand, you've used punctuation really fantastically." So there's this kind of ambivalence or it's a very different kind of teaching. And I'm not entirely comfortable with it, so I don't think I'm going to do it.
Jo Reed: Well, aside from writing wonderful novels and teaching math, you also, I've seen it on the internet, a video of you at the Brooklyn [Book] Festival.
Manil Suri: Oh. You're going to bring that up. Okay.
Jo Reed: I have to bring it up. It's fantastic.
Manil Suri: Okay.
Jo Reed: Are you kidding?
Manil Suri: Well, what this is is a Bollywood dance that I've done and the Brooklyn Book Festival actually had an event where you would only be allowed to read if you did something new and untried and hopefully embarrassing in public. And so I actually went back to one of my favorite films as a kid, something that I saw in previews because my father was involved in the production, a film called Caravan, which had a dance by this danseuse Helen, who used to come in a whole bunch of Bollywood films, come, give her dance and go away. And I decided I'm going to repeat this. So I actually went to India, got a whole dress and everything, shopped for a bra and everything in Colaba, and then came back and actually took a couple of lessons even from a dance professor at my university and then went up and did it onstage. And I was of course terrified. I was hoping it would rain so I wouldn't have to go through with this. My partner was scandalized as well. But once I started, it was amazing. It was just completely liberating, and I think in some ways it gave me the courage to then go ahead and write the character of Jaz. After the dance, I actually decided that before putting it on YouTube I better check with my university. So I showed it to my president and all he could say is, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I don't believe this." And then he managed to muster some sort of positive things like, I think he said something like, "I'm constantly amazed by your ability to think outside the box," something like that. So I took it as a green light to go ahead and put it on YouTube, so that's where it is now.
Jo Reed: That is so funny. It's absolutely wonderful, and everybody should see it. You're done with your trilogy. What is next?
Manil Suri: Well, there is that math novel, but then I have another idea as well. And that is that I feel very guilty about Brahma. I've left him bookless. I've stolen his book from him. And so one of the ideas that I'm playing with is to actually tie these three books together with a fourth novel, and that would have Brahma in it. And I have a sort of idea of the plot, but I definitely have the title. The title is The Trinity Quartet.That's the title just waiting to have a book attached to it. And interestingly enough, whether I write a book on it or not, I actually have a mathematical paper on this, which I presented last year at a conference that looks at art and mathematics and literature and mathematics. And the idea is if you have three distinct plots, what are different geometrical ways of tying them together? And so that actually showed me a way of joining these three novels, which is a little different from what I thought before.
Jo Reed: That was mathematician and novelist, Manil Suri. His book is The City of Devi
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Next week, author Andre DuBus III explores his troubled relationship with his father in the memoir, Townie
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The City of Devi, an apocalyptic sex comedy and love story, is the third book in Manil Suri’s trilogy centered on Mumbai. [26:08]