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Manil’s math fiction
Manil Suri at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival at The Park on Friday. Picture: Rashbehari Das

Manil Suri, who straddles the disparate worlds of logarithms and literature with eclectic ease, got talking to t2 ahead of the launch of his third novel, The City of Devi [Bloomsbury India, Rs 499] at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2013. The 53-year-old is a maths professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, US. His first novel, The Death of Vishnu, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. This was followed by The Age of Shiva (2008). The City of Devi is a haunting pre-Apocalypse tale that raises the question, when all else is lost, what will you search for?

After Vishnu and Shiva, wasn’t your third supposed to be on Brahma?

Yes, I was going to call it The Birth of Brahma. In fact, I had bought all these books on Brahma to read up on the mythology. But when I started writing, there was actually no Brahma. The story just went in another direction and when I followed it, the Mother Goddess seemed to be a better deity for this story. And when I started reading about it in Hinduism, I found that there are scholars who actually think that the real trinity is with Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. As one of the characters in the book explains, Brahma is supposed to blow out the universe through his mouth, but creation comes from the womb, not the mouth — a simple matter of anatomy.

And the ‘city’ here is Mumbai?

Yes. Mumba Devi is supposed to be the patron deity of Mumbai. But you know, while I was deciding on the title, I was thinking, ‘Will people think the city is Calcutta?’ This could be the city of the Devi too, with the big temple to Kali.

Three books with names of Hindu gods by someone who’s an agnostic... are you enjoying a private joke here?

Oh no, not at all. I’m very interested in mythology and all of my books really look into mythological aspects of these deities. I look at it as an intellectual subject, which is very rich and full of metaphor. Even if you necessarily don’t appreciate things from a religious point of view, you can appreciate the beauty of all these deities. What’s fascinating for me with Devi is that she has so many different characters; Vishnu as well... he has all these avatars.

I was in the seventh standard when I read Gods, Demons and Others by RK Narayan, where he looked at tales from Hindu mythology and turned them around a bit, making them sort of fictional. That book stayed with me.

You make subtle comments on women in your books, be it Sarita in Devi feeling “overqualified” for the marriage market or in Shiva, Meera’s husband being named “Dev”, because the husband is supposed to be ‘god’... Do you think women in urban India are still considered inferior to men?

Well, things are changing, but it’s still there, somewhere in the psyche almost. And let’s not even get into the soap operas and television! But some people are beyond that, and that is heartening. A lot of it has to do with economics. The more economic power women have, the less they have to really subscribe to that theory.

Bollywood is a recurring theme in your books, be it Kavita’s notions of love in Vishnu or the film ‘Superdevi’ that sparks religious riots in Devi...

It’s amazing how much press time India gives to Bollywood actors. Entire supplements of national dailies are devoted to Bollywood, pictures and so on. Many papers don’t even review books anymore, so yes, I think Bollywood is a big thing here.

My dad was an assistant music director to Madan Mohan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. So, once in a while we’d go see a movie before its release, which was fun. But mostly it was about standing in queue and buying the ticket and watching a movie at least once a week, sometimes two.

Recently, I saw Barfi! and just couldn’t stand it. It was just so derivative, so predictable. But I really liked Kahaani. That director [Sujoy Ghosh], he knows what he’s doing, and he has a way with film that’s very different.

[Manil’s real Bolly connection was, however, outed by Sandip Roy at the book launch an hour later. “Go to YouTube and type ‘Manil Suri + Helen’”, said Sandip. Manil revealed the rest.

“At the Brooklyn Book Festival, everyone was supposed to perform something. I decided to do the Helen dance from Caravan, Piya tu ab toh aaja... complete with a striptease. I remember going bikini-shopping with my cousin in Bandra and the shopkeeper getting annoyed since none of the bra tops was obviously fitting me! I also took dance lessons from a university colleague.”

So, how did he feel doing what he did? “It was just so liberating,” came the clear and candid reply.

Now, back to the interview]

You’ve coined a term called ‘Mathematics of Fiction’. Was that an attempt to marry your day job and night job?

After The Death of Vishnu was successful, everyone said you should just give up your job and become a writer. But I love mathematics and also I like teaching. While I was working on the second book, which took seven years, I realised if I hadn’t had my teaching, I’d have gone crazy!

But I realised that if I was going to be writing so much, I couldn’t do mathematical research. So I thought what kind of research can I do that uses the fact that I now have some sort of a public profile. So I’ve used whatever little voice I have to talk about mathematics and marry the two. Mathematics of Fiction was sometime back, my next novel is going to be a math novel. I’ve been trying to do this for several years on and off but now with e-books, I’ll actually be making some math videos as well. It’s going to be something totally unexpected. It’ll be elementary math and then you’ll see a video that’s related.... The Mona Lisa for instance and how it relates to symmetry.

So, no gods in your next book?

Strangely, there’ll be a mathematical entity that appears almost like a sort of a deity. The other project is to try and combine my three books into a fourth book.

But they are from different time periods...

Exactly! So, it can’t be done linearly, right? I’m looking at it mathematically. I’ve actually written a mathematical paper on how to connect these. (Uses the cutlery on the table for a demo) See, a linear connection would be clumsy but what if you look at it mathematically and try to connect them with a free loop? One cylinder that’ll come from above, go under the paper and come up again — an extra dimension. I’ve been thinking of meta-fiction, where there’s an extra character looking down on things that have already happened.

What’s your take on the most famous mathematician-author, Lewis Carroll [real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, mathematical lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford University]?

I’ve actually tried to like him, but I don’t. He’s quirky and fun and everything but somehow I just don’t get into his stuff [in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland].

You’ve spoken about how easy it was to be your homosexual self in the US in the ’80s. And now we have a character like Jaz in The City of Devi. Do you think India has become more receptive to homosexuality?

Jaz is a very interesting character. He’s a homosexual and on the other hand he’s also a symbol of changing India. This is one of the last frontiers.... Of course there’s been some legal advances but culturally India hasn’t really started grappling with it. Jaz gives you an idea of how far India might have come and how far it still has to go.

If I look at my life in the US, it’s certainly much more relaxed as far as being gay is concerned, especially in the last couple of years. The state that I live in now, I can actually marry my partner [Larry Cole].

Your literary influences?

Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers. I remember when I was 13, I declared that I would read it. I’m an only child and you know how it is, I was precocious and my parents would do anything for me, so I marched to the library with my mother because they wouldn’t issue it to me. And my god, I had never read anything like that, so much violence and sex and this and that, it was wonderful!

The last book you read and loved?

A Free Man by Aman Sethi. Just so honest and so devastating.

Samhita Chakraborty