Manil Suri's new novel, The City of Devi, opens with India and Pakistan on the verge of nuclear war. India is roiled by factional violence between Hindus and Muslims. Bombers strafe citizens, vigilantes settle scores, and terrorists set off dirty bombs around the country as Mumbai boils over with fear and fury. And if that's not enough, it's also a sex comedy.
The City of Devi is Suri's third novel in a series that's roughly based on the Hindu trinity. (The highly praised Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva are also in that series.) Suri was born in Mumbai and is now a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss why he writes about India, and how performing a Bollywood striptease helped him write his new novel.
On the character of Sarita, who is searching for her missing husband
"She's a statistician. I'm a mathematician so I thought I have to put someone similar as a character finally in one of my novels. Playing with stereotypes, unfortunately, she's also a little reticent; she's not sure about her own attractiveness. So when she finally does meet Karun, she's in her 30s; her mother thinks she's unmarried, and that's terrible. So when she meets Karun, she really invests all her love and affection in him, and it's not quite reciprocated in terms of sexual consummation of their marriage. And so when he disappears and the world is coming to an end, she feels that she really needs to not only find him but also find what's been going on with their marriage."
On Jaz, the gay Muslim man whom Sarita befriends
"[He's] grown up all over the world. He's a symbol of globalization in some sense. He's Muslim, but only nominally so. His true religion is really more sex. I mean, when he discovers himself, it's through the sexual act, and so he's really out there. He's very open about himself. He's very honest, and he knows how to have fun."
On the meaning of the love triangle that develops
"That's something, a motif, that kind of runs throughout the book. There are these three main characters — Sarita, Jaz and Karun — and it's actually something that is reflected in the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. Not a one-to-one correspondence, but there's that number three that keeps recurring. Also India, China and Pakistan, they form a triangle. And there's also this whole idea of Karun being a physicist, and all matter is made up of three generations of quarks. So it all sort of comes together."
On why he's written three novels set in India, but nothing set in his current home of Baltimore County
"I think first of all, I mean when I started this it was always meant to be a sort of triptych of three panels, you know — the present, the past and the future of not only Mumbai but India, because Mumbai's a representation of that. I've talked through this with other people, and what comes out is it really depends on where you grow up. I think that just gets emblazoned on your mind, and if I reach into myself for what is dramatic and what is fictionally fertile, Mumbai is what I reach towards, and that just keeps having more and more material that it gives to me. ...
hide captionManil Suri's The Death of Vishnu was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Nina Subin/Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Co.
Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Nina Subin/Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Co.
"I feel that I haven't yet finished with Mumbai."
On whether it helps to write about India from another part of the world
"For me it certainly does. I mean, if I were still in India — I grew up in like one room of a large apartment, and we were kind of the only Hindu family in an apartment that had three families of Muslims, so you know, that's why I think the Hindu-Muslim thing keeps coming up in my novels. I don't think I would have had the space or the quiet to actually concentrate on fiction. I do think that coming here I can sort of see the country much more — much more like a globe, like you would see the moon from the Earth or vice versa. And I think especially with this novel, I can see these relations like, OK, [India is] sitting there next to Pakistan and China, you know, all three of which are armed with nuclear weapons. So that's one of the advantages."
On preparing to write a character like Jaz and whether he worries about backlash
"I sort of think — and this is something that is true of all novelists, hopefully — that writers have to be somewhat fearless. And so in preparation for Jaz, I tried to put myself out there. I even did a Bollywood dance which was a complete striptease in the middle of Brooklyn. ...
"This was something for the Brooklyn Book Festival and the dare was, the challenge was, you could only read if you do something you've never done before. I went to India, I got a whole outfit and everything, and I had the music, I did the moves and everything. And I took off everything — not everything, I had a bra underneath. So this was really out there for me. And it actually did give me the sense that I need to push the envelope. So when it came to Jaz, I did push the envelope. I've just returned from India, and you know, I've been giving readings all over, and in Kolkata, I was told, 'Well, this city is very conservative. Whatever you do, be sure you don't read out a Jaz scene, especially the ones with sex in it.' So naturally, that's exactly what I did. And fortunately the city seems to have survived."
On where the idea for this novel came from
"It started 12 years ago, and I always had this idea of something pre-apocalyptic, when you know that the world is going to end, and what are you going to be looking for? So I have these characters who are kind of desperate because they know things might end very soon, and they're really looking for the people that they love."