Why did you decide to set this book in Mumbai?
My first book was a snapshot of Mumbai’s present, my second traced the city’s past, so it was natural to return and look at Mumbai’s future in the third. But a very dramatic future, where the city has been split along Hindu-Muslim lines, and is facing both terrorism and a nuclear threat from Pakistan. There’s no other Indian city I know well enough to imagine (and describe) in such a chaotic, pre-apocalyptic condition.
Did your protagonists — Karun and the Jazter surface from meetings with particular people, or were they a culmination of several people?
Writers are like magpies — we incorporate bits and pieces of whomever we encounter in our characters. But that’s rarely enough — the true body and substance of any character usually depends on imagination more than anything else. For the Jazter, in particular, I tried to create someone who was completely uninhibited and irreverent, and who’s open to admit that the activity he enjoys most is sex with other men.
The conversations, dialogues, lingo...so to speak are very typical of what one hears in the city. How were you able to retain this vibe throughout the book? Was it conscious or did it happen along the way?
The advantage of having spent enough time in first Bombay, and now Mumbai, is that one picks up speech patterns unconsciously, by osmosis. The biggest challenge was to capture class differences on the page — especially to give the impression that someone is talking in Marathi (say), when my book was actually in English.
First it was Vishnu, then Shiva and now, Devi...was there a stream of thought that goes with the titles of your books?
Originally, it was going to follow the standard Trimurti of Vishnu-Shiva-Brahma, representing the mythological cycle of preservation, destruction and creation. However, as I progressed with the third book, I realised that if I was writing about Mumbai, I needed to match the book with Devi, the mother goddess (since “Mumba(devi)” is the city’s patron goddess, and “ai” means “mother” in Marathi). Hence was born the title, “The City of Devi.” This new trinity also reflects the fact that Devi has many more worshippers than Brahma, and has incarnations that embody not only creation, but also destruction — the perfect deity to preside over either the annihilation or salvation of the city.
While working on this book, did you discover another, different Mumbai?
The true discovery was the geometry of Mumbai. Long, thin, and surrounded by water on most sides, the city is ideally suited for a literary thriller — in fact, the map helped determine a lot of the action. Sarita starts at the southern tip of Colaba and has little choice but to make her way north. Since normal transportation is dead, I had to figure out how to get her to Juhu and beyond (I ended up using a runaway train, a ferry, even an elephant).
The City of Devi, Manil Suri, Bloomsbury, Rs 499 (hardcover). Available at leading bookstores