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Interview: The Wizard of Words… and Numbers

By Franklin Abbott Email By Franklin Abbott
November 2013
Interview: The Wizard of Words… and Numbers

When fiction writer and math professor Manil Suri visited Atlanta to promote The City of Devi, the last novel in his trilogy, at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, he talked to Khabar about his work, the Bombay of his childhood, Bollywood, his mother, Indira Gandhi, his passage to America, the intersection of math and fiction, and being a gay Indian-American.

It’s been a busy year for Manil Suri. His new book, The City of Devi, has been published in several editions, two of his opinion columns appeared in The New York Times—one on math appreciation and the other on how marriage equality in the U.S. will affect the lives of gay people everywhere—and he’s also penned an autobiographical essay for Granta, along with a how-to-write piece for The Wall Street Journal. And all that is just for starters.

Suri, a math professor at the University of Maryland, was a frequent flyer to India to visit his mother, before she died earlier this year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was a bit reluctant to add an appearance at the Decatur Book Festival to his busy schedule. I had to promise him dinner at The Iberian Pig, one of Decatur’s trendiest restaurants. Suri, a foodie, had fond memories of a dish he’d eaten there. We went to dinner the night before his talk. That dish was gone, but there were others similar enough that Manil the gourmet was not disappointed. We talked about his new novel and what the response to it has been in the U.S., U.K. and in India where he promoted it at a number of book festivals. We spoke of his mother’s death and his return to India for her funeral.

We talked about his recent travels in Italy. And we talked about his plans for a new novel. Suri says the new novel will be about math. My face must have betrayed my confusion, because he went on to explain that this was not a commercial project but a labor of love and a way for the two parts of him, the writer and the mathematician, to come together in dialogue. I will read it, of course, and he assured me that my poor math skills would not interfere. Still, I’m anxious to read his next novel—because his characters are always so compelling that I’m sad when the book ends, making me feel as if my friends have moved away.

How is the Bombay you were born in different from the Mumbai of today?
The Bombay I grew up in was a lot more provincial, though in a rather innocent way—it had a family feel, a small-town atmosphere, which one can still experience if one walks around the south part of the city late at night. Even then, it was clearly the most Western-looking city in the country. So with globalization, it was only natural that Bombay would change the most. In fact, it even changed its name!

Your father worked in Bollywood. What are some of your memories of how his work impacted your family?
I remember lots of musicians coming over to our house. Once in a while, the odd music director would also pay a visit. Sometimes, the night before a song was to be recorded, a famous singer like Lata or Asha might come by to check if it was still on (we didn’t have a phone for many years). Mostly, I remember going to the recording studio to watch background music being recorded, or to the preview theater, to watch an advance screening of a movie.

Your mother, who is recently deceased, worked briefly for Indira Gandhi. Could you say a little about that and how it influenced her career?
A few years after Independence, my mother just decided to write a letter to Indira, asking for work. Amazingly, the reply came back in just a couple of days, in a letter from Indira herself (who was not yet prime minister, of course). She asked my mother to come for an interview, and ended up hiring her! So my mother worked as Indira’s personal assistant for about a year. She always regretted not using this connection later on in life—not getting into politics, or something like that. Instead, several years after I was born, she went back to school to get her B.Ed, and had a very fulfilling career as a school teacher. [Watch Manil's video on www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPVxsynT0VY]

Naturally, when I wrote my historical novel, The Age of Shiva, I was sure to include a few cameo appearances by Indira in it.

You are an only child in a culture where that is unusual. How does that influence your writing and your fascination with triads?
Well, I certainly had a lot of attention lavished on me while growing up. And a huge amount of encouragement when I embarked on anything like painting or writing—my mother was always my biggest fan. For my first book, I’d send her whatever I wrote, chapter by chapter, then wait to hear her comments. I guess I was in a triad myself while growing up—so perhaps that’s why Karun, in The City of Devi, keeps looking to recreate his own triad, formed with his parents.

Like so many Indian-Americans your passage to America began with your pursuit of higher education. What was it like to come here as a young man? What were some of your challenges? What were some of your surprises? Have you ever overcome being homesick?
One day, about a month after I landed in the U.S., I felt terrible homesickness. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “Why am I not back in Bombay?” The feeling was gone the next day. That, surprisingly, was the only instance of homesickness I’ve ever experienced. America was so much like all the movies and books said it would be (and even more so, like MAD magazine predicted), that I knew exactly what to expect. I was shocked by how well I fit in. It was a land of incredible opportunity—not just in education and work-wise, but also in terms of exploring my own identity. I could start taking my first steps in terms of coming out as gay.

Although you have three successful novels you continue to work as a professor of mathematics. Your area of specialty is “finite element methods for partial differential equations.” Can you explain how your math intersects with your novels?
I think the mathematical training helps in terms of the writing. I instinctively try to find all the different ways the story can progress, the ways the characters can interact, the “feasible set” of narrative solutions, in mathematical parlance. Of course, this slows the writing, since I feel obligated to optimize things at every step. Sometimes, this analogy of viewing it as a chess game, with different possibility trees, goes too far—as for The City of Devi, when I concluded, on the basis of all the plot possibilities I’d diagrammed, that the novel was impossible to write. Fortunately, my agent was not impressed with my “proof” and told me to get back and finish it.

Your trilogy is about relationships on one level, the relationships of families and their servants in the first, the relationship between mother and son in your second and the relationship between a woman, her husband and his gay lover in your third. How have your relationships informed your fiction?
I think growing up in a building much like the one in The Death of Vishnu certainly helped in bringing all the color and drama of living in close quarters with other families you see there. Like any good writer, after my own story was done, I decided to steal from my parents—they were refugees from Rawalpindi, much like the family in The Age of Shiva. In both these novels, though, I really only got the setting this way. The actual narrative had to be my own, since real life simply isn’t interesting enough in most cases. This really showed up in The City of Devi. Originally, Jaz was going to be American, and I was hoping to borrow from my own experiences coming out in Pittsburgh, but that quickly turned very dull. I had to throw just about everything out that was remotely based on autobiography.

Mumbai is the hub of all three novels. Are you tempted to write a novel set in America? Do you think of yourself, percentage-wise, now as more American than Indian?
Well, I did make a start last year—I wrote a short story based in Washington, D.C., called “The Silver Spring Laxmi,” which appeared in The Washington Post Magazine. I’m sure people in India would say I’m more American, while people in the U.S. would still think of me as Indian.

What is the language of your dreams?
English, definitely. Hindi might be my “mother tongue” but all my schooling was in English. Thanks to the British for that—it certainly gives you a much wider audience for your fiction.

Desert Isle Question: three books by Indian authors, three books by American authors.
Let’s get serious here. If I were on a desert island, I’d be just thinking of food, not reading. I’d trade the books for three orders of good tandoori chicken with three cold beers to go along.

With the U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming gay marriage you have been the pundit on record for gay rights in India. How did you decide to come out as a gay man? What have been the significant challenges and milestones of your life since you came out? What advice do you have for LGBTQ people who are living in non-affirming cultures?
Yes, it was a strange twist. I had an article on growing up gay in India appear in Granta the day before the DOMA decision. That was picked up by the BBC, so they interviewed me on their international program. Which led to an editorial in The Times of India, an op-ed piece in The New York Times, and two interviews in Bombay. And in the same week, Gay Times London finally published the interview they did weeks ago.

I actually came out with the previous (second) book, not this one, since it had an acknowledgement to “my partner Larry.” The hardest part this time around was coming out to my math students. I invited a bunch of them to the reading I gave from The City of Devi at my university (UMBC), and made it a point to read out the gay scenes. They were very supportive, and gathered around afterwards to have a nice, long chat—one of the most treasured coming-out experiences I’ve had. The university has been incredible. Recently, they tweeted about me being on the cover of Metro Weekly, an LGBT weekly magazine in D.C. I thought coming out in India would be a challenge, but it’s been really positive there, too. In fact, I’ve been a bit disappointed in a way—perhaps a part of me had been hoping that the gay theme in my novel would at least be a wee bit controversial. Could everyone in India really have turned so hip?

Advice is hard to give. Some cultures like India may be outwardly conservative, but may tolerate great diversity, and have much latitude in what is considered acceptable. In other cultures, you can get killed for being gay. Who would have thought Russia would suddenly become so homophobic, for instance? My advice is to feel your way slowly, figure out what’s going to be acceptable and what isn’t. In many places, you can find a comfortable niche to live a contented and productive life. Although being gay is a very important part, it probably isn’t the ONLY aspect of your identity, so a reasoned, holistic viewpoint on how to live and what risks to take is probably wisest.

Why are you proud to be gay?
Some years ago, one talked about “gay pride” to counter the negative feelings people often harbored about their homosexuality (something amplified by society). I think a number of us are fortunate enough to be past that now. Maryland, where I live, is a state where the citizens have actually voted to extend marriage rights to all. So more than being proud of being gay, I’m proud of all the people who have risen above prejudice and negative stereotyping and extended support and equality to gay people. I’m proud to live in a country where DOMA being struck down is celebrated by so much of the population.

If you were a Bollywood director who would you cast in The City of Devi?
The only one I really am sure of is Dev Patel (from Slumdog Millionaire). He’d make a great Karun, I think. Hrithik Roshan has that feral look needed for Jaz (though he’s perhaps a bit old for the part now). Somebody suggested Rani Mukherjee for Sarita, though I think the heroine Vidya Balan from Kahani would be better.


Franklin Abbott is a writer and psychotherapist based in Atlanta.



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