In­dian legacy a win­ning for­mula

Manil Suri found his writer’s voice when he be­gan to fo­cus on his birth land, writes Ben Na­parstek

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Im­age cour­tesy Photolibrary

Force of trans­for­ma­tion: A tra­di­tional de­pic­tion of Shiva

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.