Manil Suri looks far too glamorous to be either a mathematician or a novelist. His short, silver hair shines, almost arrestingly over his dark eyes. But Suri, a mathematics professor at UMBC (where, full disclosure, my wife also works) has been juggling these two careers for decades now. The author of a trilogy, set in India, that is loosely structured around the Hindu trinity or Trimurti, Suri also a playwright and a contributing op-ed columnist to The New York Times.
The trilogy's first book, "The Death of Vishnu," was also Suri's first serious work of fiction. Moving back and forth between the perspectives of several families in a Bombay apartment building, it was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award. Suri continued teaching math and the second novel, "The Age of Shiva," also set in Bombay, or Mumbai, during the period just after the partition with Pakistan, took him seven years to write. Both "Vishnu" and "Shiva" deal as much with Bollywood and sex as they do Indian religion and politics, but the third book "City of Devi" pushes both of these concerns to new levels, creating a mythical future, where passion is heightened by a threatened nuclear attack brought on by a Bollywood movie. Suri will be speaking on the Ivy Bookshop Stage on Sunday at 1 p.m. (Baynard Woods)
CP: You grew up in Bombay, the city you write about most often. How did you end up at UMBC?
MS: I was supposed to become a doctor because my grandfather was a doctor and I realized I would do anything to not be a doctor so I gave up biology—I developed an intense dislike for it. Then it was chemistry, and I didn't like organic chemistry so I switched to physics. Then two years before graduating, this professor said, "You really have this aptitude for mathematics, you should switch to it." And I really liked it. I sort of wandered into coming to the U.S. just because everyone else was doing it. Once I did my Ph.D. the only thing I could do was become a professor. So it wasn't something I gave a lot of thought to.
CP: What was your dissertation?
MS: The area was finite elements. It's a technique to solve equations that arise in engineering. You can only approximate them using a computer, so my field actually looks at ways that will enable you to do that approximation and also some sort of estimate as to how small the error will be.
CP: Is that still basically the field you're working in?
MS: Yes. But I've been trying to veer off more into mathematical outreach. I've worked with schools, with non-mathematicians. I figured out I have this exposure with non-mathematicians through the book so I should use it for outreach.
CP: And you were already a professor when you started writing fiction?
MS: Yes. It was pretty much about the time that I first joined UMBC in '83. I was always dabbling but in 1983 or '84 I said, let me sit down and write a short story. I used to paint a lot and that fell by the wayside and I said this will be a replacement for that. I need a hobby because I don't want to do the same as everyone else. I didn't want to do mathematics all the time because that's the model in academia that you're forced into. So, I started going to this gay-writers workshop in this gay-writers center in Washington, D.C. and part of the attraction was that it was far enough from Baltimore that people wouldn't really find out that I was writing.
CP: So you were going to D.C. to hide the writer part, not the gay part?
MS: Probably both, actually. I was less out. But I didn't have a computer at home and I would often write at my office. And that had a few mishaps. I remember there was this one steamy scene that I'd written and I printed it out and went to the computer room where it's supposed to print out and it didn't come out and I printed it again and again it didn't come out and then it turned out I was sending it to the secretary's. I rushed to the office and of course it was closed and I could see the paper coming out. And this was Friday evening and I called security and had them unlock and retrieve the stuff. It happened again at a research institute in France, I was typing merrily away and saving it in my directory and it had this gay sex scene and one day at lunch someone said how's your story coming along and I said, "How did you see that?" He said, "Oh, it's on the computer," and everyone nodded and said we see that all the time. I didn't understand how I was saving it and saved it into everyone's directory. Once the book came out, my secret was finally out to people at work. And two people at work in my department came out to me as actors in secret and said they wanted a role if anything was ever made into a movie. There is a thing about not revealing that, because you're afraid of being thought of as lesser mathematicians or lesser academics.
CP: Do you feel one of the two is a more primary career or part of your life at this point being a mathematician or being a novelist?
MS: What I've been trying to do is to combine them so I don't have to worry about that question. Because I did spend several years worrying about that after the first book came out. In fact, I tried to decide, even before the book, when I was trying to write my first book, I thought, "Why am I doing this?" I thought I should just be spending my time being a better mathematician and doing better research. After the first book, people said you should just give up math and do the writing because you've got this wonderful opportunity. I've finally got a project where I'm doing both, in a mathematics novel: It's got math in it, and it's got narrative in it, so I'm actually combining the two. I'm thinking of it as an e-book. The problem with mathematics is people don't know enough about it, so how do you talk about it without completely turning them off or sending them to oblivion. With e-books I've been playing with having little bits of animation and video incorporated in, where any mathematics that's used, you can see it in a different way and it would give you an example of the same math. I don't know how well it will work, but the segments I've done so far are pleasing. But there's narrative too.
CP: Is it set in India?
MS: No, I'm finally breaking free of India. And there are no gods, as such, but there is this mathematical entity that is part of the thing controlling everything and you don't really know what that is or who that is. It's this woman who is almost held hostage and forced to learn mathematics against her will, if I had to summarize it in one sentence. Why would someone pick up a book on mathematics? So I'm trying with the visual aspect and the story aspect. But I think it's still nice for people to have some knowledge of the ideas of mathematics, even if they can't do calculations. Just like you know things about philosophy or art, it would be nice for people to know about it.