February 2013

Terry Hong


An Interview with Manil Suri

Let's go back about seven years.

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 twelve 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.

If Death of Vishnu is the more understated literary novel, Age of Shiva the more emotional, then City of Devi is definitely the most impossible Bollywood, on-the-verge apocalyptic speculative fiction. How did that huge leap in style come about?

With each book, I've been trying to create something different, to reflect the deities. Vishnu is a very active god (think Rama, think Krishna), so the first book was quite energetic, I would say, rather than understated. Shiva is an ascetic, which made it natural that the second novel was more introspective. The mother goddess has all sorts of different avatars, symbolizing creation, destruction, and everything in between. How does one encompass such a wide range of characteristics? My solution was the pre-apocalyptic scenario, which also made it plausible that the characters in the story, in their search for love, were ready to risk everything, since they had nothing to lose. It was great sinking my teeth into something I'd never tried before.

But growing up, your interest in all things Bollywood, with its over-the-top sort of impossible stories, was such that you actually once drew movie posters.

Sure, Devi has elements of Bollywood in the story, but I also think you would never see this turned into a Bollywood film. In the book, I'm subverting some of the norms of a Bollywood story. For instance, the idea of exoticism: Indian novels -- at least some of them -- might be accused of pandering to Western ideas of what happens in the East. I took some of those elements and turned them on their heads: You want elephants, I'll give you elephants, but I'm going to take those elephants completely over the top! My exotic elephants are self-referential, self-mocking -- but irony is not something Bollywood understands very well. It's risky, since some reader might read this and say, accusingly, "Hey, you wrote an exotic novel – it has elephants in it." But I hope people will get that I'm being tongue-in-cheek.

You've dealt openly with complicated issues -- the Hindu-Muslim divide, socioeconomic limits and barriers, the traditional and ongoing oppression of women -- in both Vishnu and Shiva, but Devi also introduces open homosexuality on the page, albeit it remains a taboo subject in even the about-to-be apocalyptic contemporary India you portray. Are you concerned at all about possible fallout from your readers? Your Western readers might find Devi to be quite a stylistic departure from Vishnu and Shiva; your Indian and other non-Western audience might be surprised with the openly gay content.

People in India are so busy showing how hip they are, how inured they are to issues like homosexuality, that, at least in my early Indian interviews about the book, no one even touched on that. I don't know if that's an indicator of discomfort in talking about such a topic, or proof of how blasé modern, English-speaking Indians would like you to think they are about it. As much as one might expect homosexuality to be an issue in India, I suspect that it won't be a big deal. There was a novel by R. Raj Rao called The Boyfriend that came out in India some years back, which was very open about gay sex. It didn't get so much attention, so the issue never really erupted to the forefront.

Bombay has a vibrant gay community: for instance, Time Out Mumbai just had an entire LGBT issue in January, DNA is a paper based in Mumbai that has a weekly page on gay matters. There is beginning to be some open acknowledgement of it, even if it has not yet become a burning issue publicly. But things in the big cities are moving very fast. I've now read some steamy gay scenes from the novel in both Mumbai and Kolkata, and people seemed fine with them. (I was warned, especially, that Kolkata would be too conservative, but the city seems to have survived.)

And what happens if you become known more as a "gay writer" after this?

That's great. Why not? I'm a gay writer, a mathematician, an Indian writer. I'm fine with all those titles. I'm never just one thing. My next book is going to be a math novel, so then I'll be a gay-Indian-math writer. The more titles, the merrier.

Gay fiction was such a big thing when I was becoming a writer in the early '80s. I would attend these conferences on gay writing called Outwrite, go to Lambda Rising, a flourishing gay bookstore with branches in DC and Baltimore. Now being gay is so mainstream in the U.S., that it's refreshing that in places like India, gay characters and situations still remain relatively unexplored in literature, which has made it easier for me to come up with situations that are new and interesting.

Who do you see as your ideal audience for this novel?

When you're writing a book, it's very easy to start worrying about the audience -- what they'll think, how they'll react, whether they'll like it. So I really have to just write the book, rather than worry about who is going to read it. That said, I suspect a rather wide audience will find Devi appealing -- in the same way that a Bollywood movie might have different facets that appeal to different populations. I've certainly paid a lot of attention on creating characters who are (I hope) both believable and different. What's new for me is that I've concentrated on pace above all -- almost as if I were writing a literary thriller. I want to make sure I hook people who start the book, keep them reading until they reach the end.

Governments don't fare well in Devi -- India and Pakistan obviously, but the Chinese prove to be an even bigger threat. The "red scare" has been regularly splashed across the western media over the last two centuries. Is this view of China-as-a-looming-threat becoming dominant in India?

No, no. Absolutely not. The references to China in the story are there more as quirky details, as something readers won't be expecting. Here's the thing: China and India had a big war in 1962 over borders. So there's a history of mistrust there. Eastern India has had recent border skirmishes with China that have been in the news. And yet in terms of actual cooperation between the two countries, they are huge trading partners; the economic relationship works well both ways, which considerably lessens the possibility of hostilities escalating.

India, Pakistan, and China make an interesting triangle, historically and economically. I think China tilts toward Pakistan on several issues. China is Pakistan's ally in matters of defense, something people in India are aware of. In terms of a "red scare," what happens in the book is totally unexpected, and not actually driven by the Chinese government. One of the side effects of liberalization in China is a rise in individualism; I don't want to give too much away, but that individualism gets manifested in the novel. What happens in the book could have originated from other parts of the world instead.

The India-Pakistan-China relationship is also an example of the triangle motif that is woven throughout the book. A subtler example comes from the quarks Karun is researching: exactly three generations of quarks make up all matter. Besides the obvious triangles of Vishnu-Shiva-Devi and Karun-Sarita-Jaz, there are also few more such triads hidden throughout the book.

And thirty-three! Sarita is thirty-three! Double trinity! The age that Jesus died!

Jesus was thirty-three? Really? I didn't even think of that! I thought thirty-three was just her age and that's it; I got to that age by figuring out the major events of her life -- she graduated college, she worked, did this and that, so she must be thirty-three. I promise I did not imbue my narrative with special numbers! Mathematicians hate that sort of numerology mumbo-jumbo! That just wouldn't be me as a writer!

Okay, so no special thirty-three. Let's go back to your trilogy of books: while the stories are not related, Bombay (Mumbai) is definitely a recurring character in all three. Plus it's the city of your birth. Do you call it Bombay? Mumbai? And is that still "home" for you?

I call it Bombay. I had to train myself to write Mumbai in certain circumstances, as in when I write out addresses. Also, if someone says Mumbai to me first, I'll answer back with Mumbai. But depending on their class and language, some people from India almost always say Bombay. In the West, people feel guilty when they say Bombay because of the British colonial history. That's a strange dynamic -- political correctness, perhaps? How you refer to the city has a lot to do with how you grew up in India. Bombay is what the English-speaking middleclass said. And even among their younger generations, that's what they still say. However, one thing seems clear by now: in terms of emerging on the international scene, the city's going to be known as Mumbai. So I need to get used to that.

In terms of Bombay being "home" for me, if I look at the whole country of India, then certainly it's the city that's closest to "home." But it's not quite "home" anymore. My family never owned an apartment that I can still physically return to. When I go back, I worry about where I'm going to stay; should I choose a hotel, a guesthouse, stay with a family member, a friend, or whatever? I lack that physical link, so I can't quite call it "home" anymore. And yet I do have a sense of recognition whenever I go back. I can smell the city at once. I have that homecoming feeling, that familiarity as I come out of the airport and drive into the city. You're always arriving in the middle of the night, entering the city when it's still hazy, in the darkness, and then the sea suddenly emerges as you reach south Bombay. That always gives me a thrill of recognition. All the sights along the way, like the mosque in the sea at Haji Ali, the glittering Queen's Necklace of Marine Drive, that's when I feel like I'm really entering the city.

You're Baltimore-based and tied to an academic teaching schedule: how often do you need to go back in order to recreate the city onto the page? How do you keep up with the fast-paced, seemingly neverending changes happening all over the city?

I've been going back quite frequently, usually twice a year, sometimes three times a year. I've realized the best way to keep that connection is to go for short bursts, and to never go too far from the city. I think that's worked out quite well. For this book, it was especially helpful to not be living in the city, because then I could better imagine its fictional future. Also, its possible destruction, like a toy city, made out of Legos, that I'd constructed.

So Bombay is done for a while. At least your trilogy is finished. What's next?

My next novel, as I mentioned before, is going to be a math novel; it has an unspecified geography because it's in the realm of numbers, and who knows what else. I'm always at the beginning, although I've been writing this one for a long, long time. It was originally supposed to be nonfiction, but then I realized, wait a minute, fiction is what I do best. I'm planning to make it an enhanced ebook, so it will make use of video. That's all been fun, but it's becoming much bigger than I ever imagined. If you ask my agent when it will be out, she'll tell me it had better be finished this year. Then I look at the math: my first book took five years to write, the second book seven, this third one twelve. If you know about Fibonacci numbers, the sequence goes five, seven, twelve, nineteen, thirty-one. Each number is the sum of the previous two, which suggests my next book is going to take nineteen years. I hope that won't be correct; I'm most certainly going to prove it wrong!

Speaking of formulae, did you choose math? Or was it chosen for you? That is, were you being the good son in taking a so-called practical career path?

Part of the reason for my math career is that I was channeled so efficiently into the sciences in school. I didn't really have a choice. It was what young India in the '70s needed most. I always enjoyed science, I was good at science, so that's where I ended up by the time I got to university. I thought I might go into chemistry, but I didn't like organic chemistry very much. So then I considered physics, but a professor told me I was so good at math, I should switch, so I did. My family always wanted me to become a doctor, so I was determined not to. My grandfather had been a doctor, so I was supposed to carry the family flag.

And how and when did the writing start?

Writing was a hobby that was thoroughly encouraged when I was in school in India. I used to paint as well. When I came to the US, I dabbled in both writing and painting, but math took most of my time. Once I became a professor, I thought I needed a hobby, so I decided to return to the dabbling in writing. Then I got more serious, started going to writers' groups. The one that was most effective in channeling and exposing me to other writers, was called -- I find it so comical to even say the name! -- The People of Color, Third World, Gay and Lesbian Writing Group. You had to be two out of three to be allowed to belong. I was all three. There were seven black lesbians, one other gay woman who grew up in Malaysia but was of Indian origin, one Chinese gay man, and then me. The group was very political, which was great. But the reason it eventually split up was because a woman who was bisexual wanted to join. The group couldn't decide whether or not to take her, so instead they decided to disband. I can laugh now, but it wasn't funny back then. Everyone was shouting and screaming.

So you turned out to be the most successful of that group, right?

I suppose so, although I don't know if anyone else actually pursued writing after that. When the group disbanded, I found another gay writing group -- this one was called Print Q -- as in "q" for queer, queen, quill. That group lasted for quite a few years; we used to meet at The Writers' Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That one disbanded because we all started thinking we were too good for each other. It started as an open group, but then we had to close it because people would come once or twice and then not show up. Then some members started whispering that some were not quite up to the caliber of rest of us, so let's meet somewhere else and not tell them. And that's what happened. The group started meeting in secret to jettison those it deemed not quite up to snuff. For all I know, they're still meeting somewhere and I just got dropped along the way. What was nice, though, is that after that experience, I actually took a class at The Writers' Center. That's when I was working on the opening of my first book, which initially was just supposed to be a short story.

Your daily life now clearly includes both math and literature. How do make sure both sides of your brain stay well balanced?

That's actually something I've been trying to get closer and closer over the years, the dual activities of math and writing. It's been challenging because the two subjects are so far apart. I've always been jealous of people who do writing and history together, or write fiction and work in some other social science. Those people can draw regular parallels in their fields. With math and literature, that's a little tough.

I had a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new class I taught with a fellow University of Maryland-Baltimore County English professor, Michele Osherow. It was for incoming humanity students, a compulsory seminar called "Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human." The students were initially horrified that the class included math, but they started to see some of the possible links. I'm constantly trying these sorts of collaborations in order to bring both parts of me closer together. This math novel, of course, fits with those attempts.

Would you ever admit you have a preference?

That really depends on what day of the week it is! One thing that's been great -- which might be surprising, because it's what people think is the least engaging -- is teaching. Teaching math gives me that regular human contact by allowing me to get knowledge across to the students. As a writer, I'm usually very alone, so it's great to have this human interaction. That's been a wonderful balance.

Could you ever see yourself teaching writing?

No, I couldn't. I tried it once at American University. I was invited to give a talk, and they asked me to lead a workshop, so I did. I found the experience incredibly difficult. The reason for that is that in math, there is one answer, and I have it. If you don't agree, then too bad. Writing is nothing like that. "On one level, your story doesn't work, but not to worry, I just loved your use of prepositions." One constantly has to figure out how to give positive feedback since people have poured their hearts into their pieces! In math, a wrong answer doesn't lead to great soul-searching -- an answer is right or it's wrong -- it's not a judgment call, it just is. When I taught that shared seminar with my English colleague, I found evaluating all those essays much harder than something completely objective like math problem sets.

Well, there is the old adage "Try, try again..."

I suppose if I taught writing more, I would become more comfortable with teaching it. Sharing my math energy with others while keeping my writing energy for my own work seems to be in such harmony right now that I'm hesitant to tamper with it. Then again, I should probably give it a try. After all, in today's world, it behooves us all to be more Devi-like -- balance multiple professions, maybe even sprout a few extra arms and heads.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.