The City of Devi
Mumbai, or Bombay, is one of the most literary cities on the planet right now, with brilliant nonfiction accounts of the city like Suketu Mehta's Maximum City and then Katherine Boo's magisterial Behind the Beautiful Forevers elevating the factual details of its slums, singers, movie stars, and gangsters to the highest level of art.
Manil Suri's new novel, The City of Devi, takes an entirely different approach. The slightly futuristic, war-torn Mumbai of his book-the third in an Indian-based trilogy-is streamlined and cinematically purified, bearing approximately the same relation to the real city as filmic Casablanca did to its North African model.
V.S. Naipual once said that when he was learning how to write, he would take the plots of Humphrey Bogart movies and transpose them to the Trinidad of his youth, and it seems as if Suri took the same approach, suffusing The City of Devi with a mixture of Hollywood and Bollywood. This is not a criticism. Suri, a professor of applied mathematics at UMBC who grew up in Bombay, may not paint as realistic a picture as Mehta, but by narrowing his focus and heightening the emotional tenor of the city, he manages to give it a mythological quality.
City of Devi does have a certain fairy-tale quality and yet the events that form the backdrop for the plot are also quite plausible. As the book opens, Sarita, one of the two narrators, haggles for a pomegranate in a Mumbai market four days before Pakistan is supposed to nuke the city. Even without the threat of THE bomb, the uncertainty of daily bombardments-from terrorists and air raids-and evacuations that attend the war, along with a tragic love triangle, fill the book with the cynically heightened mood of Casablanca. Everyone is rushing to get somewhere, or else they have failed to escape and are hunkered down, trying to exhaust all sources of pleasure before it's too late or to gain power in the chaos. But these scenes of a war-torn city, in the narrative present, are juxtaposed with a series of flashbacks far more domestic and also more generous and moving.
Sarita is so desperate for the pomegranate because she hopes it will help her reunite with her husband, Karun, who suddenly disappeared. A large part of the book details the ill-fated courtship of statistician Sarita and shy physicist Karun, a courtship which, though it results in marriage, is never fully consummated-hence the pomegranate in which Sarita detects aphrodisiac powers. The scenes of Sarita coaxing out the reluctant Karun night after night deal with sex in a way that is sweet and tender and sometimes graphic-but not at all dirty.
During the time of their courtship, a Bollywood film named SuperDevi sweeps not only the city, but the world, turning Mumbai's patron goddess into a super hero. The goddess Devi unites this book with the other two in Suri's trilogy. The traditional Hindu trinity is Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer. Suri's first book was called The Death of Vishnu, the second, The Age of Shiva, and so we might expect the third to have Brahma in the title. But as Karun, who studies subatomic particles, points out to Sarita, "creation comes from the womb, not the mouth-a simple matter of anatomy. . . . So logically, the true third should be the mother goddess, Devi." Karun goes on to tell Sarita his father's theory. "[H]e'd say that three was the magic number of the universe, its most intrinsic configuration, not just because of the triad of primary colors or our three space dimensions, but also because of all the trinities in different religions, especially the [Hindu] Trimurti. He was convinced that everything derives from the basic building blocks of Vishnu, Shiva, Devi."
Math prof Suri puts this trinity to the greatest use, not only in unifying his three books-one might call them the Trimurti Trilogy-but also in structuring The City of Devi and explaining its characters. Sarita wonders when a third element would be added to her life with Karun, imagining that a child would complete their trinity. But, unbeknownst to her, the third has always been there, in the very aspect of Karun's sexual reluctance.
It is impossible to write about this book without giving something essential away, something which Suri does not reveal until a third of the way through the novel: that Karun's sexual hesitation with Sarita is the result of a long and serious homosexual affair with the book's second narrator, Jaz, a Sybaritic and vain, gay, Muslim man who considers himself a sikhari-a sexual hunter- and calls himself "the Jazter" when he talks about himself in the third person: "Let's just settle the most burning question right away-in the looks department, the Other Woman simply did not make it to the Jazter's league." His voice is annoying at first, but it grows on us as he matures, following Sarita through a series of lies to the heart of the anti-Muslim forces and to the Devi herself, in the hopes that he too may find Karun.
I won't give away anymore except to say that it all plays out rather brilliantly in the end, incorporating Suri's notion of "three" and the qualities of each of the deities in this modified Hindu trinity. The sacrifice the characters make at the end has a different tone from that in Casablanca, but it is every bit as moving in its stoicism.
The Death of Vishnu was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, but we can see now that its author's sights were always set on the trilogy. With the completion of this one, we find in Suri a major novelist of rare accomplishment.
Manil Suri will read from The City of Devi on Feb. 6 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at UMBC at 7 P.M., and at the Ivy Bookshop on Feb 7 at 7 P.M.