Thursday, February 14, 2013

The City of Devi

Finally, Manil Suri writes a gay novel. Not really. But what he does in his latest tome, ‘The City of Devi’ is far better than being mum about the subject. After all, Mr Suri is a gay man himself, despite the fact that he never mentioned his sexual orientation to the media or elsewhere, especially in India; he told a ‘The New York Times’ reporter years ago that he decided to leave Mumbai, India, for America on an academic scholarship (he teaches math in an American university), because he could not imagine himself being in India and be gay, within the context his middle class upbringing. 

It was a personal decision; we don’t have anything to say on the subject. But, now that he is a best-selling author of Indian origin (the aforementioned Devi is his third book, after ‘The Death of Vishnu’ and ‘The Age of Shiva’), he becomes a de-fecto role model for the queer community in India, very much like Vikram Seth, who finally admitted in national television that he may be gay or bisexual or whatever, whether he likes it or not. 

Even in US, Suri’s adopted homeland, where queer identity and queer politics is more pronounced and more public (they are now fighting for marriage equality, whereas, in India, the fight is still for de-criminalization of homosexuality), the coming out of a celebrity is treated like an important event (Apropos the coming out reports of Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean.). 

In this context, Mr Suri becomes an icon and a role model for the queer community in India, despite the fact that there is no evidence (at least to my knowledge) that Mr Suri is actually gay or his discussed his sexuality in public. Yet, the gay right movement will co-opt him, without his endorsement if it comes to that. In the thaws of liberation and acceptance, the gay right movement in India actually needs as many celebrity names as available. Mr Suri will be dragged into the equation. 

Then again, unlike so many other Indian famous names, Mr Suri is not entirely a closet case, if he’s not flamboyant. He’s that too, as evident in the essay he wrote for the collection, ‘Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do To Writers’ edited by Jai Arjun Singh. In the essay, Mr Suri narrates how he danced to the Helen number, ‘piya to ab toh aa ja…’ in full drag, in a book festival in Brooklyn. It may be an assumption, but it’s an informed assumption when we say that only a gay man would come up with such a performance and would actually dare to do it.

Writes Suri: “The dance I decided to perform was Piya tu ab to aaja, from the 1971 movie Caravan. I’d first seen it several months before its release — my father, who worked as an assistant to the music director Madan Mohan, was friends with the director, Nasir Hussain.
Read the full story in Caravan://

You can also see the dance here.

As his new novel contains a gay character, who is also a stereotype to a certain extent, as gay men as promiscuous sex freaks, the questions about sex and sexuality would be inevitable while discussing Mr Suri’s work.

So, here’s to queer Mr Suri….   

Answering the question, “how and when did the writing start”, in an interview with Terry Hong, in, Mr Suri answers, almost as a coming out: “…Writing was a hobby that was thoroughly encouraged when I was in school in India. I used to paint as well. When I came to the US, I dabbled in both writing and painting, but math took most of my time. Once I became a professor, I thought I needed a hobby, so I decided to return to the dabbling in writing. Then I got more serious, started going to writers' groups. The one that was most effective in channeling and exposing me to other writers, was called -- I find it so comical to even say the name! -- The People of Color, Third World, Gay and Lesbian Writing Group. You had to be two out of three to be allowed to belong. I was all three. There were seven black lesbians, one other gay woman who grew up in Malaysia but was of Indian origin, one Chinese gay man, and then me. The group was very political, which was great. But the reason it eventually split up was because a woman who was bisexual wanted to join. The group couldn't decide whether or not to take her, so instead they decided to disband. I can laugh now, but it wasn't funny back then. Everyone was shouting and screaming…”

Mr Hong has more questions on the issue and Mr Suri answers dutifully. Though his answers regarding R Raj Rao’s novel and how the issues of queer writing is taking roots in India, Mr Suri sounded ill-informed. ‘The Boyfriend’ is quite well known in the community (though the book was criticized heavy for its quality!), and there have been other works that have seen mainstream press, the recent example being the collection ‘Out: Stories of the New Queer India’.  

Q. You've dealt openly with complicated issues -- the Hindu-Muslim divide, socioeconomic limits and barriers, the traditional and ongoing oppression of women -- in both Vishnu and Shiva, but Devi also introduces open homosexuality on the page, albeit it remains a taboo subject in even the about-to-be apocalyptic contemporary India you portray. Are you concerned at all about possible fallout from your readers? Your Western readers might find Devi to be quite a stylistic departure from Vishnu and Shiva; your Indian and other non-Western audience might be surprised with the openly gay content.

A. People in India are so busy showing how hip they are, how inured they are to issues like homosexuality, that, at least in my early Indian interviews about the book, no one even touched on that. I don't know if that's an indicator of discomfort in talking about such a topic, or proof of how blasé modern, English-speaking Indians would like you to think they are about it. As much as one might expect homosexuality to be an issue in India, I suspect that it won't be a big deal. There was a novel by R. Raj Rao called The Boyfriend that came out in India some years back, which was very open about gay sex. It didn't get so much attention, so the issue never really erupted to the forefront.

Bombay has a vibrant gay community: for instance, Time Out Mumbai just had an entire LGBT issue in January, DNA is a paper based in Mumbai that has a weekly page on gay matters. There is beginning to be some open acknowledgement of it, even if it has not yet become a burning issue publicly. But things in the big cities are moving very fast. I've now read some steamy gay scenes from the novel in both Mumbai and Kolkata, and people seemed fine with them. (I was warned, especially, that Kolkata would be too conservative, but the city seems to have survived.)

Q. And what happens if you become known more as a "gay writer" after this?

A That's great. Why not? I'm a gay writer, a mathematician, an Indian writer. I'm fine with all those titles. I'm never just one thing. My next book is going to be a math novel, so then I'll be a gay-Indian-math writer. The more titles, the merrier.

Gay fiction was such a big thing when I was becoming a writer in the early '80s. I would attend these conferences on gay writing called Outwrite, go to Lambda Rising, a flourishing gay bookstore with branches in DC and Baltimore. Now being gay is so mainstream in the U.S., that it's refreshing that in places like India, gay characters and situations still remain relatively unexplored in literature, which has made it easier for me to come up with situations that are new and interesting.
Read the entire interview Here.

Now, about the novel itself, which has received mixed reviews… It tells the story of a woman, Sarita, who goes on a journey to find her ‘shy’ husband in Mumbai under attack in near future, with nuclear Holocaust round the corner, with Hindu and Muslim communities at each other’s throat, and civilization at the brink of its own destruction. As Sarita buys a pomegranate, which she thinks will help her find her lost husband, she is joined by the other half of Suri’s narrator —Jaz — “nominally a Muslim, but whose true religion has always been sex with other men.”

On Jaz, the gay Muslim man whom Sarita befriends, the author explains in an interview:  "[He's] grown up all over the world. He's a symbol of globalization in some sense. He's Muslim, but only nominally so. His true religion is really more sex. I mean, when he discovers himself, it's through the sexual act, and so he's really out there. He's very open about himself. He's very honest, and he knows how to have fun."

On preparing to write a character like Jaz and whether he worries about backlash, Suri says: "I sort of think — and this is something that is true of all novelists, hopefully — that writers have to be somewhat fearless. And so in preparation for Jaz, I tried to put myself out there. I even did a Bollywood dance which was a complete striptease in the middle of Brooklyn. ...

"This was something for the Brooklyn Book Festival and the dare was, the challenge was, you could only read if you do something you've never done before. I went to India, I got a whole outfit and everything, and I had the music, I did the moves and everything. And I took off everything — not everything, I had a bra underneath. So this was really out there for me. And it actually did give me the sense that I need to push the envelope. So when it came to Jaz, I did push the envelope. I've just returned from India, and you know, I've been giving readings all over, and in Kolkata, I was told, 'Well, this city is very conservative. Whatever you do, be sure you don't read out a Jaz scene, especially the ones with sex in it.' So naturally, that's exactly what I did. And fortunately the city seems to have survived."
More here.

>>> The review in Kirkus calls ‘The City of Devi’ Part international thriller, part romantic soap opera and less satisfying than the author’s previous works: “Most of the novel details that increasingly dangerous quest, through a narrative interspersed with various flashbacks to the courtship of Sarita, a statistician past 30 when she meets her future husband, the sexually ambivalent Karun. Early on, she acquires a companion and accomplice, and the novel a co-narrator: a handsome cosmopolitan of Muslim origin who shares her goal—“Karun, whom I must find, whom I need to dazzle, whose rectitude I hope to penetrate”—though the passion of the “the Jazter” (as he calls himself) for her husband remains secret from Sarita…”
More here.

The publisher describes The City of Devil: Armed only with a pomegranate, Sarita ventures into the empty streets of Mumbai, on the eve of its threatened nuclear annihilation. She is looking for her physicist husband Karun, who has been missing for over a fortnight. She is soon joined on her quest by Jaz - cocky, handsome, Muslim, gay, and in search of his own lover. Together they traverse the surreal landscape of a dystopia rife with absurdity, and are inexorably drawn to the patron goddess Devi ma, the supposed saviour of the city. Groundbreaking and multilayered, The City of Devi is a fearlessly provocative tale of three individuals balancing on the sharp edge of fate.
More here.

The City of Devi in the Manil Suri website Here.

Writes Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal: "The City of Devi," which takes its name from Mumbai's patron goddess, is Mr. Suri's most ambitious fusion of large-canvas strife with intimate stories of troubled romance. It places an unlikely love triangle in the midst of a Mumbai on the verge of nuclear annihilation after every worst-case-scenario disaster has come to pass: On the anniversary of 9/11, Islamic terrorists stage a concerted attack with dirty bombs and computer viruses, triggering a chain reaction of blackouts, nuclear-plant meltdowns and confused rumors of world war. In the resulting havoc, writes Mr. Suri, "people could no longer separate reality from fabrication, trust the ground they walked on, the world they lived in. Did Morocco actually invade Spain? Did a string of reactors really blow up in France? The actual answers mattered less and less, as panic (and despondency) increased."

These events, however, are only of secondary concern to the novel's heroine, Sarita, who is on a journey to find her husband, Karun, an achingly shy physicist who stubbornly left home for a conference soon after the attacks and never returned. Sarita has reason to fear that something other than the crisis may be keeping Karun away: Despite enjoying an elaborate regimen of foreplay, described with gusto by Mr. Suri, the two have never consummated their marriage.

The explanation becomes clear to the reader, if not yet to Sarita, when the book shifts to take the point of view of a brash, wisecracking Muslim man named Ijaz, who lived with Karun as his lover for years when the two were young, until family pressure and Ijaz's infidelities sent Karun running for socially acceptable matrimony. Taking an alias to conceal his religion from Hindu hooligans, Ijaz follows Sarita through Mumbai. Sarita wants to find her man and finally succeed in seducing him; Ijaz wants to reclaim Karun as his own.
More here.

Writes Ron Charles in The Washington Post: Suri splashes around the garish colors of this humanitarian disaster, but his real focus is on close, intimate detail. A young statistician named Sarita can’t find her husband, Karun. He left two weeks ago, supposedly for a scientific conference, and she hasn’t heard from him since. As she searches the pre-apocalyptic landscape, she recalls their tentative courtship and strange, awkward marriage. Her reports of bombings and drone strikes all around her are interrupted by memories of a romance between two adults who were hilariously ill-at-ease with their bodies.

But the more we hear about their marriage, the more troubled Karun sounds, his anxiety about sex suggesting some deeper issue. “We hugged more than we kissed,” Sarita says. “Our lovemaking remained restricted to above the waist.” He apologizes and weeps, pleads fatigue and promises better efforts later, but she’s driven to invent an elaborate star system to energize their tepid foreplay. (And she’s so devoted to the aphrodisiac power of pomegranates that I suspect a sponsorship from POM Wonderful.) As a statistician, she can’t resist the temptation to keep careful track of their slow progress toward consummation — which eludes them for almost two years. Readers, I suspect, will infer the nature of Karun’s resistance long before Sarita does.
As in his previous novel, “The Age of Shiva” (2008), Suri proves himself adept at inhabiting a female narrator. What’s surprising, though, is how shadowy Sarita’s closeted husband remains. Like a construct of dark matter, Karun generates tremendous attraction while remaining mostly unseen. He’s a sweet nerd who leads his wife along without ever giving us a sense of his inner life beyond his rather adolescent regrets and conflicted desires. “The passivity at the core of his being” makes him a particularly problematic centerpiece for a novel.

This certainly doesn’t stem from any prudishness on the author’s part. Alternate sections of the novel are narrated by a gay Muslim named Jaz. Predatory and witty, he recalls a life of unrestrained sexual conquest (and fabulous fashion sense). He’s a well-traveled sophisticate, “Jaz Bond dropping into the villain’s lair,” an operator who radiates “shifty wavelengths” — obscene, ironic and seductive. But as nuclear armageddon approaches and Hindu thugs take over Mumbai, Jaz finds himself on the wrong side of the new partition without a foreskin.
More here.

Writes John Cheeran in The Times of India Blog: The novel centres around the relationship of a young Muslim gay with a Hindu physicist, who is married to a determined but diffident Hindu woman. But for all that narrative dexterity, Suri does not quite manage to come up with a satisfying theorem. Suri knows about gay relationships intimately and has a link with Bollywood (his father was a music director) but what he leaves the reader with, in the end, is absolutely uber Bollywood stuff.

A woman who is looking for her gay husband in a city under siege has been joined by her husband’s partner in the search. Both of them are looking for the third angle in the triangle. And then finally they locate the third angle, but now they are more than the triangle. The symmetry, balance, is lost and that has to be restored. It is incredible the role Ijaz, Karun’s gay partner plays here. He arouses Karun so that he can, for one and only time, plant his seed in his wife, Sarita. It was stretching the equation a bit too far. The kind of changes that Suri effects, so that the conflict of who gets whom is neatly addressed, would evoke dry laughter from you.
More here.

Suri talked to Lata Srinivasan, of The Times of India during his visit to Jaipur Lit Fest 2013:

Q. And is it your secret desire to be a cabaret dancer like Helen? (He has danced to a Helen number)

A. I did that dance on a dare, in the middle of New York - dressed up in women's clothes, and then stripped them off. It was one of the most fun things I've ever done, and certainly very liberating. I think for writers, it's important to constantly push the envelope, push through boundaries, force ourselves to venture outside our comfort zone. Certainly this was an important step in terms of getting the courage to tackle controversial issues like sexuality, religion and politics, that I then went on to write about in The City of Devi.
More here.

Writes Earl Pike: "The City of Devi" should be viewed through the lens of the Bollywood romanticism from which it takes its inspiration -- hyper-real, sensual, wild with colors, textures, tastes, transformations, and sometimes horrors. As Jaz recounts, describing a parting with a lover, "I had expected our goodbye meeting to resemble one of those sad old Hollywood romance endings -- music swelling in the background, sepia cinematography, and wistful sense of drama."

The reader knows, by then, that Jaz isn't joking. Suri's deft handling of the novel's many melodramatic moments keeps them from becoming caricature, and instead preserves the sweetness and light that lie at the core of such romance.
More here.

Writes Baynard Woods: Math prof Suri puts this trinity to the greatest use, not only in unifying his three books—one might call them the Trimurti Trilogy—but also in structuring The City of Devi and explaining its characters. Sarita wonders when a third element would be added to her life with Karun, imagining that a child would complete their trinity. But, unbeknownst to her, the third has always been there, in the very aspect of Karun’s sexual reluctance.

It is impossible to write about this book without giving something essential away, something which Suri does not reveal until a third of the way through the novel: that Karun’s sexual hesitation with Sarita is the result of a long and serious homosexual affair with the book’s second narrator, Jaz, a Sybaritic and vain, gay, Muslim man who considers himself a sikhari—a sexual hunter— and calls himself “the Jazter” when he talks about himself in the third person: “Let’s just settle the most burning question right away—in the looks department, the Other Woman simply did not make it to the Jazter’s league.” His voice is annoying at first, but it grows on us as he matures, following Sarita through a series of lies to the heart of the anti-Muslim forces and to the Devi herself, in the hopes that he too may find Karun.

I won’t give away anymore except to say that it all plays out rather brilliantly in the end, incorporating Suri’s notion of “three” and the qualities of each of the deities in this modified Hindu trinity. The sacrifice the characters make at the end has a different tone from that in Casablanca, but it is every bit as moving in its stoicism.
More here.

Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all, I stand in the ruins of Crawford Market, haggling with the lone remaining fruit seller over the price of the pomegranate in my hand.
"Is five hundred rupees not an outrageous price already? Why won't you sell it to me for five hundred?"
"Look at what's happening around you, memsahib. Do you think the orchards are overflowing with pomegranates? Do you think the lorries are driving into Mumbai every day and filling the markets with fruit? I'm only asking for a thousand because it's you, memsahib, but even three times that wouldn't be too much for this last piece. Which really was the best one in the pile to begin with."
I look at the sign for Crawford Market behind me, still smoldering from last night's air raid (or has it simply been another terrorist bomb?). All around are shops gutted in the fire. Remains of baskets lie scattered on the ground, pieces of fruit too charred for the scavengers to steal rest at my feet. I notice a tangerine that still has its characteristic knob at the top — it has been roasted to a black, perfectly whole crisp. Down the corridor, only one other stall stands intact — a spice merchant who has also somehow escaped the attack. He is using a stick to try and rouse the carcass of a dog that has died in front of his store.
Read an excerpt of the novel Here.


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