In 1994, Manil Suri went back to Bombay for a visit, only to fall ill with chicken pox. This unfortunate event brought him exactly what every writer prays for-the idea for a story. For, outside his apartment, another man was gravely ill. Called Vishnu, this general dogsbody ran errands for other tenants and had been a fixture of Suri's childhood.
"Vishnu was always on the steps of my building when I was growing up and he was usually drunk. He would say Salaam Baba to me," Suri recalled in a recent interview with Rediff.com. After getting a degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Suri had left for the States when he was twenty. Now, years later, he was back and Vishnu was still there-but just barely.
"I was ill in bed and pampered and there he was just outside and dying. That was chilling especially when he passed away," Suri says.
It was when Vishnu died that Suri decided to write a short story based upon his death. "I knew nothing about him and I wanted to create some sort of history for him." He created a whole imaginary life for the dead man. "I am sure he had a hard life, but I also wanted to make sure that he had some parts that were good and fun," Suri says.
|In the novel, his symbols point to the esoteric--the Bhagvad Gita, the Koran, near-death experiences, Indian mythology.|
The short story he wrote in 1994 grew up and became a novel called-you guessed it-The Death of Vishnu. Last year, W.W. Norton wrested the rights to the book from ten of the nation's top publishing houses for a handsome $350,000 in one of the fiercest bidding wars seen in recent times.
Michael Cunningham, Pultizer prize winning author and Suri's writing workshop teacher, has compared him to literary heavyweights like Flaubert and Flannery O'Connor. This September, Suri was featured in Time magazine's People To Watch column.
Yet for Suri writing has added a whole new dimension to his life. "I liked knowing that I was not just a mathematician as everyone else seemed doomed to be," he says.
For all his urge to have what he calls his "secret life," the mathematician in Suri refuses to rest. He constantly loops back to comparisons between writing and math. "It's the writing of math that is correlated to writing. I do a lot of mathematics research and when I am writing a paper then I have to make sure everything is understandable and clean." Similarly when he writes, as he said to Time, "Every line should be correct and necessary as an equation."
|His current project also draws from Indian religion and is based around Shiva's dual aspects as the destroyer and the ascetic.|
One only has to look to The Death of Vishnu to see Suri's hankering for all that is correct and necessary unfold. The central character, Vishnu, lies dying on the steps of an apartment building in Bombay. As we acquaint ourselves with Vishnu's fantasies and reminiscences we also become immersed in the lives of the other tenants of the building, people he has served for most of his life.
Written in prose that swings between the hauntingly lyrical and the unsentimental thrust and parry of street-talk, Suri's novel bursts with the chaos, petty disputes and necessary accommodations that life in Bombay demands. Contrasted with the dream-state of Vishnu's dying moments are the gritty details of ordinary life-poverty, domestic and religious disharmony, class war. As we read on, the building transposes into a metaphor-it stands for Bombay and ultimately for India itself.
Even Suri's process is different from what most other writers practice. When he began writing The Death of Vishnu, he started with the ending, the last chapter of the novel. The beginning came much later. Suri has a mathematical explanation for his preference for this reverse order. "It is actually similar to math because you know what result needs to be proved and you are trying to get to that goal." Although he admits that writing also presents more surprises than math. "There are always these pesky characters who don't behave and insist on going their own way," he says ruefully.
Suri's encouragement of the anarchy of his characters has obviously paid off. The book spills forth a cast made up of, among others, quarreling housewives, cowed husbands, a man in love with his radio, Muslims and Hindus, women who labor and ladies who kitty party, cigarettewallahs and councilmen. However in this marvelous circus one character looms largest of all -Bombay. Although the book was written entirely in America, the heart of the novel beats in the dingy by-lanes, Irani chai shops and smoke-filled mosques that make-up Suri's Bombay.
|He's well aware that he is dealing with volatile religious subjects, especially given the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India.|
"Bombay entered my blood and I never got rid of it," Suri says of his hometown. He wanted to recreate what he calls "a wonderful jumble that works," he saw around him. Or perhaps it was simple nostalgia. "Every year I feel I have to go back .just to take a whiff of that nice polluted air," he says, laughing.
However nowadays he prefers to write about Bombay and India from his home in Baltimore. The distance, according to him, "puts things in focus. You begin to see allegorical connections." And the drawing of connections is paramount in Suri's world. In the novel, his symbols point to the esoteric-the Bhagvad Gita, the Koran, near-death experiences, Indian mythology.
Like Mr. Jalal, his character in quest of spiritual truth, Suri's research too led him to discover something deeply meaningful along the way. "I read the Gita and the Koran for the first time. I never had a formal religious education and in the purely secular sense it was so inspiring I had to put it in my novel. I still read it a lot," he says of his sources. His current project, called The Life of Shiva, also draws from Indian religion and is based around Shiva's dual aspects as the destroyer and the ascetic.
Still, he's well aware that he was dealing with volatile religious subjects, especially given the fraught history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. "If people want to take offense I am sure they will find a million things in my book, although I don't think that would be fair," he says of the potentially controversial religious aspects of The Death of Vishnu. He is quick to assert, however, that he has been "very careful to treat all religions with utmost respect."
Suri's attention to detail springs from his awareness of the sensibilities of his readers, both Western and Indian. Whether it is math problems or writing he believes it's important to hold on to the reader's understanding. Thus while he does use Hindi words, he makes sure an explanatory or contextual English word in the next sentence reveals their meaning. As he says, "the reader is God and I don't want to lose the reader."
Even a cursory glance at The Death of Vishnu is enough to convince us of Suri's abilities to hold his reader. His scenes careen from the erotic to the terrifying with equal intensity. "When I write a scene I try and feel the same thing. If I am writing a sex scene I better start sweating a little," he explains.
The Death of Vishnu will be in bookstores in January 2001. Asked if he is afraid of bad reviews both here and in India, Suri answers with tongue firmly in cheek. "The nice thing about me is that I can always say that I am a mathematician and not a writer...so it doesn't matter in some sense."