The City of Devi by Manil Suri + Author Interview [in Bookslut]
So a writer walks into a bar. It’s dark, but thankfully not smoky. The majority of the people there are more bookish (including Booker-ish!) than biker brutish. The writer finds a drink, and is standing slightly off the side with a couple of companions.
The trendy bar is the venue where the venerable Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center (my former day job) and its co-sponsor, the Network of South Asian Professionals, are hosting a pre-event welcome reception in anticipation of the annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival that begins in just over 12 hours. The close friends and admirers of four notable writers (including Kiran Desai, fresh from her 2006 Booker win) and two filmmakers with a debut film each, have gathered to celebrate. Among the guests, although not slated for the Smithsonian stage (that year – his turn comes two years later), is Manil Suri.
At first sight, he’s exactly as I expected the author of an exquisite, nuanced literary novel – The Death of Vishnu, his 2001 award-winning debut about the memorable inhabitants of a Bombay apartment building – who also happens to be a university mathematics professor, might look like. He’s elegant, genteel, and soft-spoken; he has an ever-so-slight hint of nervous energy about him, but that could be because his mind is moving so quickly that the rest of his body needs to contain his excess brain cells somehow.
So much for first impressions.
By the time he takes the Smithsonian stage in 2008, he’s published the second installment of his planned trilogy, The Age of Shiva, which features a headstrong young woman who becomes an overly protective mother to her less than appreciative only son. Suri’s literary star has been highly polished over the years since his debut, as have his creative impulses. What’s making the Internet rounds just in time for his Smithsonian appearance is a most revealing – campy, shocking, delightfully entertaining – video of Suri at the Brooklyn Book Festival, garbed in elaborately embroidered red drag, channeling his inner Bollywood diva. He certainly proved he can do more than just write bestsellers and teach a mean linear algebra class.
This month, Suri completes his promised trilogy with The City of Devi. Kiran Desai provides the most prominent blurb: “The City of Devi combines, in a magician’s feat, the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller… Manil Suri’s bravest and most passionate book.” If Vishnu was subtle and controlled, and Shiva impetuous and emotional, then Devi proves to be a psychedelic, surreal overthrow of expectations and conventions.
The end of the world – at least in one part of India – is nigh. The apocalypse is coming in four days, delivered via nuclear bomb directly to the city of Bombay. For the first time in centuries, the teeming city is virtually empty as its citizens flee in hopes of finding shelter somewhere, somehow. Sarita is one of the few left behind, frantically searching for her missing husband Karun who walked out of their apartment – into global chaos – claiming he was attending a conference.
Meanwhile, a mysterious young man seems to be following her: Jaz trails Sarita, his hopes also focused on Karun… and what will happen if they actually find him? In a lawless new world in which a single religious label is enough to excuse murder, cause war, and threaten complete annihilation, Sarita and Jaz are running toward true love. Just who belongs to whom will be a wee small detail they’ll have to work out, after they survive gangs, kidnappings, glowing goddess servants, elephants, a levitating multi-armed goddess-in-training with quite the nasty temper, and an evil thug with a bit of a God-complex. Oh, and did I mention the steamy sex scenes? Somebody (or rather, some bodies) must practice how to repopulate the world after annihilation, even if reproduction isn’t the actual goal. Practice makes perfect, right?
Did you plan Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi as a trilogy from the beginning?
The plan for a trilogy happened after I wrote the first book, The Death of Vishnu. I realized there were three deities in the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, so why not a book for each? By the time I tried to back out of this rash announcement, my publisher was already excited about the idea, so my agent told me I was writing a trilogy whether I liked it or not. After the second book, it became clear that what I had was a triptych, rather than a trilogy (since the characters and plots were unconnected), and by the time I started writing the third, poor Brahma (who’s supposed to create the universe in a single breath) had been shunted aside by the mother goddess Devi. Devi does make more sense than Brahma, because she has a lot more worshippers than he does. Besides, in the words of Karun’s father from the book, “Creation comes from the womb, not the breath.” And, of course, there’s Mumbai, which is a common thread in all three books. The patron goddess of the city is Mumbadevi. [… click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Manil Suri,” Bookslut.com, February 2013