Indian legacy a winning formula
Manil Suri found his writer’s voice when he began to focus on his birth land, writes Ben Naparstek
FOR years, Manil Suri wrote in secret. Fearing disapproval from his fellow mathematics professors if they discovered he spent his down time writing fiction and not just scholarship, Suri attended writing courses clandestinely while establishing himself as a tenured academic at the University of Maryland.
Absconding to a writers retreat one summer, he said he was writing a textbook. When asked to see his efforts, Suri said he needed to return the following year to complete the book. ‘‘ People, at least in the sciences, really want to hear that you’re spending all your time doing whatever your field is,’’ says Suri, 48. ‘‘ I decided I wouldn’t take any chances.’’
But when his debut novel The Death of Vishnu ( 2001) won a $ US350,000 advance and was extracted in The New Yorker , Suri’s cover was blown. After coming out as a writer, he realised he wasn’t alone in the mathematics fraternity for having secret hobbies. Two colleagues confessed to being closet actors, while another confided that he was a passionate pianist.
By that point, the mathematics department risked losing Suri to writing altogether. With a novel translated into 22 languages and shortlisted for the respected PEN/ Faulkner Award, many novelists would happily abandon academe to write full time. But Suri’s numerical interests continued to consume him. ‘‘ It would be just too difficult to sit at home and write all day. You have to wait many years for any gratification.’’
Elegantly dressed in a gold- striped shirt and tan Versace suit, Suri has angular features and careful, professorial speech. He exudes the neatness and precision of someone naturally drawn to mathematical formulas and finely chiselled prose.
Over his black cod with miso at a Japanese restaurant in New York, where he has commuted from his Washington home, Suri explains that he started writing after becoming an academic and deciding he needed a hobby. His first short story, The Tyranny of Vegetables , was published in Cyrillic after an editor approached him for a story without telling him it was for a Bulgarian journal.
It was only after he began writing about India that he found an assured voice. ‘‘ When I first started, I was writing things that were not geographically specific. Then I wrote a story about India and the writing seemed much more alive.’’
Suri showed the first two chapters of The Death of Vishnu to novelist Vikram Chandra, then to his writing instructor, who pressed him to complete the novel. ‘‘ He said, ‘ This is going to be a real trenchant novel.’ That word trenchant gave me a year of writer’s block because all I had to do was write this ‘ trenchant novel’ and I couldn’t do it.’’ But Suri came unblocked after a five- day workshop with award- winning US writer Michael Cunningham, who told him: ‘‘ You are a writer. You have to do this at any cost.’’
He still had much to learn. When influential literary agent Nicole Aragi agreed to represent him, Suri travelled to New York to interrogate her. ‘‘ I had no idea how difficult it was to find an agent so I really tried to trip her up. After I put her through all this, she told me that she gets about 20 applications a week and takes only two or three a year.’’
The Death of Vishnu explored various lives in a Mumbai apartment block, modelled on the building in which Suri grew up, where an alcoholic odd- jobs man named Vishnu lived on the landing. ‘‘ I saw his death and I wanted to give some meaning to it. It was a question of coming up with a background and life.’’
Though Suri, an only child, lived with his parents in the single room of a flat shared with other families, they skimped to send him to an elite school. ‘‘ I was careful never to invite people over because I was always anxious about people finding out about my humble origins.’’
He discovered privacy for the first time on moving to the US to pursue his PhD in 1979, which enabled him to come out as gay and find a partner. ‘‘ I didn’t meet a single gay person in India. It was completely invisible.’’ Growing up gay in India wasn’t difficult because ‘‘ whether you were gay or straight it was a very closed society where there wasn’t any premarital sex and there wasn’t much dating. Everybody was in the same boat.’’
Suri’s move was traumatic for his parents, planting in him an enduring sense of responsibility for their happiness. After years of receiving letters every second day from her son, his mother Prem wrote to The Guinness Book of Records, but was told there was no entry for which she could qualify. Suri returns to India three times a year to visit Prem, now in her 80s, whose family were Hindu refugees from Pakistan after Partition.
The tensions between Hindus and Muslims in post- independence India form a backdrop to Suri’s newest novel, The Age of Shiva. Whereas The Death of Vishnu takes place in one day in a single building, The Age of Shiva incorporates several decades and cities, telling a story surely shaped by Suri’s intense bond with his mother.
The novel’s narrator, Meera, marries the handsome but remote Dev, an aspiring pop singer from a less affluent family. Even before Dev descends into depression and alcoholism, Meera realises her mistake. She sees the birth of her son, Ashvin, as offering an escape from her bleak life, becoming devoted to him with a suffocating and latently sexual ardour.
The novel is partly narrated by Meera in the second person addressing her son, which Suri
says makes the reader ‘‘ really get to see how close this woman’s bond is with her son’’. Suri speculates that his homosexuality contributed to his depiction of the mother- son relationship because ‘‘ being gay means that the strongest relation you have with a women is probably with your mother’’.
Writing in the voice of an assertive female was second nature given his family’s history of independent women.
Suri’s grandfather died soon after his mother fled with her parents and three siblings from Pakistan, leaving the five women to fend alone in a rigidly patriarchal society. Desperate for a job, Prem wrote to Indira Gandhi and served as her secretary in 1952 before becoming a teacher. His father, Ram, was an assistant music director in Bollywood, and Suri’s familiarity with that milieu fed into his portrayal of Dev’s dispiriting experiences in the music industry.
Meera’s story reflects the Oedipal myth of Shiva’s wife, Parvati, who, neglected by her ascetic husband, sculpted a son out of mud and trained all her attention on him at Shiva’s expense. Suri set out to remedy the cliche of Shiva as a purely destructive force that ‘‘ goes around with a flaming sword and smites down everything’’. He is a destroyer ‘‘ but in a very different sense’’, he says. ‘‘ He’s an ascetic and he withdraws from the world and his presence is needed for the world to keep going. It’s without him that the world starts dying.’’
The Age of Shiva forms the second part of a triptych about the trinity of Hindu deities, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. But Suri says the trilogy has become primarily about India rather than mythology, with The Death of Vishnu being a snapshot of contemporary India and The Age of Shiva tracing its history. His next novel, about Brahma, will imagine India in the near future. After writing 100 pages set in the US, he recently started again from scratch after deciding to set it entirely in India.
‘‘ I keep being pulled back there,’’ Suri muses. ‘‘ I don’t know if some day I’ll break free.’’
Ben Naparstek is a Melbourne journalist.
Precise, chiselled prose: Author Manil Suri
Force of transformation: A traditional depiction of Shiva