Writing literary fiction while teaching applied mathematics may seem like an incongruent equation, but Professor Manil Suri from the University Of Maryland, Baltimore Country, pulls it with panache. His latest book, City of Devi, touted as a sex comedy with the thrill of Bollywood and the pull of a thriller, is set in a Mumbai reeling under the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Citizens flee, police officers and gangs run riot as the city awaits doom. In this chaos, Sarita goes in search of her missing husband, the physicist Karun, and encounters Jaz who is linked to Karun’s past. Together Sarita and Jaz are drawn into the manic whirlpool that is City of Devi, while elsewhere, the patron Goddess has revealed herself. City of Devi completes the trilogy which Suri began with The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. More recently, Suri wrote a widely-read personal essay on being gay in India in the ’70s, and also an op-ed in The New York Times on the global message of the US Supreme Court’s historic decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and same-sex unions. He talks to
SUNDAY MiD DAY about all this and much more.
Mumbai is the connecting factor in your trilogy. Can you tell us about your early years in the metropolis?
We lived in a very old building near Kemps Corner as paying guests. It was part of a big flat and we shared it with three other families. As it was just one room, there was very little privacy since I shared it with my parents. There was also diversity because the other three families were Muslims and we were Hindus. I went to Campion School at Colaba, where most students hailed from wealthy families. All these factors influenced my personality in some way.
What drew you to the idea of the goddess for the novel?
Mumbai derives its name from the mother goddess Mumbadevi. It’s also interesting how many parts of the city are also named after goddesses such as Kalbadevi, Prabhadevi and Mahalakshmi. The goddess in Hindu mythology has diverse forms and denotes many things -- art, beauty, destruction, creation -- qualities that you can associate with Mumbai, too. It has obviously had a very lasting impression on me. I’ve written three books set in the city and it’s been good to have them deal with the past, present and future of the metropolis.
In City of Devi, sex, violence, politics and religion collide in a city that is on the brink of apocalypse. This is a departure from your previous novels…
The first two books of the trilogy are also distinct from each other. In this case, since it is about the future, the rules are different. When you are writing speculative fiction, you have to let go of your preconceptions of adhering to strict reality and try to imagine what would happen when the world would come to an end. At that moment, things really come into focus and you realise what is most important. Violence, sex and religion acquire a different sheen when you are desperate. I was trying to create the feeling of us really hurtling towards this unknown future.
Bollywood also plays a part in your novel. Do you see anyone playing those roles?
Dev Patel would be good as Karun. I think Hrithik Roshan will be good as Jaz. Someone suggested Rani Mukherjee would be suitable for Sarita’s role. But it’s hard to say if the characters will be portrayed on big screen exactly the way I have penned them in my book. The danger is that some of these roles might be essayed in a stereotypical way, and that would be a shame. The other problem I foresee is that a lot of the book is satirical and I have included Bollywood largely to point out its absurdity. I don’t know if it is possible for the Hindi film industry to make fun of itself.
Apparently, your ‘mathematician tag’ got in the way of penning this novel…
I was stuck at a point in the novel -- I couldn’t figure out how to get the different strands of the plot to come together. So I started doing something very mathematical and came up with plot trees. They’re different outcomes or plot possibilities that are similar to a series of chess moves. You go through all these possibilities and try to figure out which one of them makes the most sense. When I drew these trees, none of these possibilities made sense. At some point I realised that I had proved mathematically that this novel could not be written! I could now claim that I had done my job but had to put it aside. I actually started writing a new novel at that point. But my agent didn’t appreciate this ‘mathematical’ proof and pushed me to finish the novel.
Your recent article in Granta magazine was a very personal and honest account about growing up gay in India in the ’70s. What do you recall about those times? Do you think the situation has changed today in India?
At that time, the lack of a support system was the biggest issue. I couldn’t share my emotions with anyone. And this is what happens with a lot of people who are gay. As a result, there is a high incidence of suicide among gay people that has been documented in several parts of the world. Personally, I was in a state of despair. It was one of the reasons I decided to move to the US and discover myself. But I think things are changing now. I have certainly met a lot of younger gay people in India, some of who are even in long-term relationships. There is more of a web presence now along with organisations that get gay people together in non-sexual settings. And this will keep increasing because people are going to realise that it is not unnatural, but just a variation in human sexuality -- one that’s been well-documented and well-understood. Once people accept that, the changes will take place soon. What’s specifically encouraging is that as India is a diverse society, differences have to be accepted for it to function effectively. Moreover, the dominant religion of Hinduism has no specific ‘thou shalt not’ prohibitions in general, so there’s no scriptural bias against homosexuality, no history of persecuting gays, like in some other cultures and religions. The only reason Section 377 exists is because we inherited it from the British.
Can popular culture play a part in starting the conversation about gay rights in India, the way it has happened in the US?
Yes, that can be done. I remember years ago, when Dynasty was popular in India, there was a gay character Steven on that show and everyone in Mumbai was talking about him. At least you started hearing that word being used in day-to-day conversations. I think TV or Bollywood should create some gay characters devoid of stereotypes. They should be normal and down-to-earth -- not the I’m-gay-so-I-have-to- be-flamboyant caricatures. Once you have some ordinary characters, for instance, Karun from my book, then you would really start reaching out to more people. In City of Devi, there’s a section in which Jaz has a relationship with a man in Delhi. They’re doing daily chores such as laundry, cooking food, shopping for vegetables and everyone around them treats them as a couple. Even though people might not fully realise they are a homosexual couple, the tendency is to naturally pair them together. In society, too, once such gay people become more commonplace, that’s when true advances will be made.
Do you think the US Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling can have some far-reaching impact on the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community elsewhere in the world?
Most judiciaries can be quite independent, and I don’t think judges are going to be necessarily swayed by public opinion. However, what does happen is that each time there is a decision like DOMA, a record of the intellectual arguments presented gets created. These can be quite influential. For instance, a foreign lawyer may quote the same arguments to say, this is why gay rights should be advanced. It’s such ideological precedents, based on humanistic principles of equality that different judiciaries will have to confront each time LGBT communities fight against discrimination. Even more than a legal precedent, the DOMA ruling sets a moral precedent on what is fair and just.