The city of Devi By Manil Suri, Bloomsbury, Rs 499
This book is a testament of Manil Suri’s newfound veneration for the mother goddess. The trilogy he planned to write was to feature Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. But after The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva, Suri suddenly decided that The City of Devi would better complete his trilogy than ‘The Birth of Brahma’, which was slated earlier.
At a point in the novel, he makes an elaborate effort to justify his reason for choosing Devi over Brahma. One of the three main characters, Karun, explains to his soon-to-be wife, Sarita, why trinities are important in the scheme of the universe, and why the divine trinity must leave out Brahma and include Devi. What Suri offers by way of explanation is half-cooked at best — it is neither based on strong logic nor on a sound knowledge of mythology. He makes an elaborate attempt to stress the significance of the womb in his vision of creation, and also the fact that the Devi (Mumbadevi, or one of her incarnations) has always been more popular among the people than the bearded Brahma.
Suri seems eager to display his respect for women. He evokes Sarita as a pivotal character around whom the story revolves. She embarks on a mission to find her husband — missing for some days in a Mumbai torn by riots, terrorist bomb blasts and the threat of nuclear explosion — with a pomegranate in her hand. Her husband had been having the fruit to increase his libido — and trying, fruitlessly, to impregnate her — before he went missing. She takes great pains to acquire the last fruit in the city. Her passionate efforts to protect it in the midst of death and destruction immediately bring a Bollywood image to mind: the archetypal mother guarding the proverbial seed. She therefore is a perfect representation of the goddess herself.
What has been viewed by the author as a celebration of womanhood, ironically, is a notion that makes a woman further subservient to patriarchal interests. Seeing the woman as synonymous with the womb encourages the idea that a woman’s sole purpose in society is to facilitate reproduction. This vision is necessarily chauvinistic, although it has often been passed off as a feminist approach quite conveniently, and sometimes even unwittingly.
Suri also seems eager to establish his credentials as a sensitive writer. The other character — who completes the trinity along with Karun and Sarita — is Karun’s homosexual lover, Jaz, who also happens to be a Muslim with a global upbringing and liberal parents. It is not difficult to see that Suri’s empathy is always directed towards him. Most often Jaz is the one wronged, the one ready to sacrifice, although apparently he is a Casanova, a “shikari”. He is the one who accompanies Sarita in her search for Karun and keeps her safe at a time when vicious riots have spread across the city.
The novel delves quite deep into sex and sexualities. Elaborate passages describing Karun and Sarita’s communion, and then Karun and Jaz’s lovemaking, are sure to keep the readers interested. Towards the end, the author turns remarkably experimental. Tossed to and fro by fate, Karun, Sarita and Jaz are forced to sleep together on the same bed after a particularly thrilling escapade. Their nocturnal adventure becomes a spectacular orgy — Karun’s potential as a bisexual is explored to the optimum. And, as a result, Sarita is impregnated.
Afterwards, when Karun is killed on a boat by a plane spewing bullets, Sarita — an otherwise timid wife — displays commendable shrewdness in dragging Jaz into the role of the father. She therefore makes sure that her perfect trinity (or family) remains intact despite Karun’s absence. It is funny how, in the end, despite the author’s ample empathy for the homosexual, Jaz is compelled to fit into the perfect picture of a heterosexual family. The imposing structure of society admits a homosexual into its folds only when he or she succumbs to its norms, and acquiesces to play along. This reality is what the novel projects in the end.
The author tries so hard to project his obsession with trinities that it becomes a tad comic at times. As though it was not enough that he had written a trilogy to prove his point. To start with, the three main characters form a trinity. One of the purposes of the orgy towards the end is to reinforce this vision. Then, in the broader backdrop, China intervenes into an India-Pakistan war, therefore making a political trinity which, far from being a creative force, proves to be rather destructive. Then there is Karun’s erstwhile family which, he says, was a trinity (that included his parents and himself), and the new one he intends to build with Sarita which also, he insists, must be a trinity. Suri seems confident about the virtues of the nuclear family. And then, the leitmotif of a trinity recurs every now and then throughout the novel, sneaking up at unexpected places.
The other thing that is comic is the environment of violence and paranoia, stretched — maybe deliberately — to the point of nausea. Mumbai, or Bombay, seems to be the site of eternal carnage, hit by bombs and air raids every five minutes, thick with endemic communal strife, and a constant spectre of a nuclear attack looming over it. What is interesting, though, is Suri’s conjuring up of the events that led up to Mumbai turning into such an inferno. The idea of the Superdevi movie is brilliant: a monstrous Hollywood-Bollywood joint production with a child artist from the Mumbai slums featuring as the star, Devi — which ultimately ends up stoking communal fires, starting riots, and therefore drawing Pakistan’s attention.
The character that may actually arouse a tinge of sympathy in the reader in this extravagant, family-size drama is the real “Devi ma” herself — who gives darshan to her teeming devotees every evening from atop a huge hotel to reassure them in the trying times, and who herself is a child from the slums born with an extra limb. Her petulant cries, her tantrums, the manner in which she has her way by making herself believe that she is the real Devi and making everyone else play along, and her helplessness as a puppet in the hands of the villainous extremist leader, Bhim, makes her a bit more interesting, and even more real, than the other characters in the novel.
Finally, if this novel was supposed to make a statement on either the communal picture in India or the larger society, I must say it was completely lost on me. All it did was to conjure up flashbacks of the Godhra riots, ghosts of 9/11 and 26/11, and, perhaps, a weak caricature of Narendra Modi.