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Manil Suri on The Age of Shiva and more

June 2008
Manil Suri on The Age of Shiva and more

By Maria Giovanna

On Sunday nights, before resuming the grind at the office, many people dream of winning the lottery and picking up the phone Monday morning to tell the boss they’ve quit.

Not Manil Suri.

The 40-something South Mumbai native, who came to the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Carnegie-Mellon, is very happy as both a tenured professor at the University of Maryland, and also as a twice-successful author.

The Age of Shiva, a long anticipated successor to Suri’s debut novel The Death of Vishnu, was released in February, and to judge by the flood of reviews from papers as diverse as The Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, Suri continues to garner interest worldwide.

If The Death of Vishnu was like what you see when a dolls’ house opens to reveal all the goings-on in the various rooms, The Age of Shiva offers pore-deep close-ups. At the center of the novel is Delhi-born Meera, an impulsive young girl whose rash actions and decisions prove the adage “Marry in haste, repent in leisure.” Her story unfurls between Delhi and Bombay.

The author, just back home from many weeks of engagements to promote The Age of Shiva, spent a recent Sunday morning talking with Khabar.

The Age of Shiva

When asked why he chose to situate his story in the early years of independent India, Suri reveals that, owing to his own family’s shift from Rawalpindi at the time of Partition, he originally planned to set the story then. But, he explains: “I saw there were some very good books and didn’t want to retread that. A few years later you’ll see quite a few things happening: India was shedding its colonial past, new ideas were sprouting and women’s positions were slowly changing, and I thought that was a more interesting period.”

Suri had an uncle who lived in the refugee camps for a few months after 1947, but aside from hearing about those experiences, he needed to research a lot. “In the political context,” he says, “I really spent a lot of time looking at old newspapers and getting an idea of what the climate of the country was like in different decades. I go to India two or three times a year, so each time I was faithfully at the Times of India archives.”

Suri attributes the seven-year gap between novels to two factors: first, the book was originally anticipated to be much longer, and to include the life of Meera’s son (Ashvin). Several hundred pages were removed. “The other reason,” he says, “was after the first book I was kind of disoriented, if you will, for a couple of years and I couldn’t really do much, just trying to get my bearings right. Being a mathematician then suddenly being thrust into this world of literature and writing and authors. He adds, “I didn’t see any particular need for hurrying because I have this other job too, so I just felt I’ll take my time.”

I commented to Suri that The Age of Shiva is quite an indictment of men for their treatment of women. “It is something that I’ve observed in my own life and in my family where women’s choices were really determined primarily by their interactions with men. My mother wanted to become a doctor. Her father was a doctor. He told her, ‘It’s too difficult for a woman. The education is too hard.’ This was in the ‘40s and she was very frustrated by this and it stayed with her whole life.”

Suri recounts an experience from a book reading in Los Angeles that shocked him: “Two women of Indian origin—one from Singapore and one from Africa—they had arranged marriages with Indian origin men who had also grown up somewhere else. They had been married into this very conservative household and said their family expected them to touch their husbands’ feet. In Los Angeles! It’s really quite amazing that these traditions or orthodoxies carry on.”

Reaction to his protagonist is not uniform, Suri says: “A lot of women in America who grew up here really look at it as being Meera’s fault that she’s not assertive enough. They have a very hard time sympathizing with her. They say, ‘Why doesn’t she just tell them off? Why is she playing the victim?’ You have to have grown up in that culture to see how insidious it is and how difficult if everyone is doing a certain thing, to get out of that framework.”

The novel opens with long passages taking place as Meera breastfeeds her son Ashvin and, in her head, talks to him. Many have commented that Meera’s feelings seem quasi-sexual. The author explains that this is a phenomenon he read about when doing his research. “It’s more a hormonal feeling,” he says, “where the same hormones are released that would be released when you have sex. It just boils down to that. Interestingly, women who have had children did think that it was accurate.”

Dual careers

Suri’s “day job” as a professor of math would seem worlds apart from that of a fiction writer. He admits they are very different, and it’s a challenge to bring them together. “What really got me into it was the abstraction of it all,” he says, “where you have these moments, when you’re doing a problem, you see the solution, and, just like a runner’s high, you get a mathematician’s high. Suddenly these flashing bulbs go off and you feel something is released in your body that makes you feel great. I find that very invigorating.”

In May Suri made a presentation at the American Center in Mumbai, about the similarities in the thinking processes between writing a story and trying to prove a theorem. The silver-haired professor looks forward to returning to the classroom in the fall. “It will completely clear my mind and help me get prepared to go back to the next novel,” he says. In an effort to do what he calls “math outreach,” Suri has been working on another presentation called Taming Infinity. You can see a five-minute clip of it on YouTube. He hopes it will become a TV program or documentary.

The Pleasure of Writing

Suri was drawn to writing because he wanted a hobby that would give another dimension to his life. The attraction to fiction came, he says, because “fiction gives you more freedom in the sense that you can really construct everything out of nothing.” He credits his writing with making him a better teacher, inspiring him to come up with “new and unusual” courses, like one on mathematics in the media, and another where students had to pick a creative field, such as art, literature or music and come up with a project combining that with math.

Suri also says, “I’m more attuned to how difficult it is to get things across. This I’ve seen through the written word, especially writing about India. People not familiar with the culture can often misinterpret things, same thing with mathematics. I’ve become more sensitive to that.”

He lists some of his favorite writers as V.S. Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk and R.K. Narayan. Two newer writers Suri likes in particular are Altaf Tyrewala (author of No God in Sight) and Rupa Bajwa (The Sari Shop).

Mother India

Though Suri has resided in the US for over 20 years, both his novels are set in India. He explains why: “When I first started, I was writing stories not set in India. It was only when I started writing about India that things started making more sense and the writing gelled together and the stories got more immediate and compelling. For the third book I decided, ‘Ok, it’s time to set at least part of the story in the U.S.’ I actually wrote about 100 pages set in Pittsburg, which I know. Last year I started thinking, ‘If these characters were in India, it would be so much more dramatic.’ So I found myself getting rid of those 100 pages and rewriting them. Now I have four pages set in India, so I’m back there again. I’m hoping at some point Mother India will let me go.” And yet, of his thrice yearly visits Suri says “I always feel like I’m a battery and I go to India and store up things and slowly discharge them through my writing when I come back.”

Out and fine with it

Manil Suri belongs to just a handful of Indian public figures who are openly gay. It was on his first trip back, at age 22, that he first told someone, his mother. Suri believes it was not a total surprise, likely gleaned through references in his letters. She took the news well. He says, “She has an M.A. in psychology so it was much easier for her to deal with it. When she came in 1984, she spent two months with me and met my partner. When she was here she went to a meeting of PFLAG (support group for parents of lesbians and gays).”

Suri and his partner, Larry, a civil engineer, will celebrate 18 years together in May. When asked how he’s managed to make a relationship work for so many years, he says, “You just get lucky and meet the right person.”

Suri’s father passed away a few years ago. His mother lives just outside of Bombay, and they spend time together in the city on each of his visits.

Up next

On the final novel of the trio, Suri says: “I know it’ll somehow answer the question: India’s progress and the Asian century, how is this story going to end? What could happen tomorrow? The Age of Shiva was all in the past, so the next one is going to be in the future.”

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