Photograph: Hemant Sareen
When Manil Suri, a professor of Mathematics at an American University, wrote his first novel The Death of Vishnu (2001) he admits its critical and popular success around the world felt ‘disorienting.’ The internationally bestselling novel, translated into dozens of languages, was a heady mix of the mythical and the modern, about a man named Vishnu dying in an apartment building in the crowded city of Bombay. Initially just a one-off book, it grew into a full-fledged Hindu epic in three parts thanks to his agent who wanted to know if Suri had another book in the offing. Suri, off the cuff, offered to write a trilogy on the patriarchal Trinity of Hinduism Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva not necessarily in that order.
Now, seven years later, Suri has come up with the second book The Age of Shiva, an intimate epic that simultaneously reads as a personal narrative of the coming of age of young girl from being a silly little shadow of her elder daring sister to a woman of independence and the story of India from Independence to a free nation negotiating a torrent of choices, not all of them easy. Hemant Sareen caught up with Manil Suri to talk to the writer and his vision.
Hemant Sareen: The Age of Shiva is part of an allegorical trilogy based on the Hindu Trinity. One expected to read about a character based on Shiva, just like in the first novel of the trilogy The Death of Vishnu actually had a central character named ‘Vishnu’. But instead this is a book written from the point of view of Shiva’s consort Parvati, reflected in the leading character Meera, the daughter of a Punjabi, Daryaganj-based publisher telling her story from a young girl to motherhood. What was the design behind it?
Manil Suri: I actually started writing the book about [Meera’s] son, who was supposed to be Shiva. At some point I said ok, let me write a bit about his mother and have some back story about her. At that point I started reading a lot about Indian history, and it was the first time I enjoyed history -- I always hated history. I got so involved and inspired by it that I said I have to interpret this word ‘Age’ as something to do with India, make this a novel about India.
Before I knew, I had written 200 pages about this woman, and the son still hadn’t been born. I new then, it was really [going to be] about her, rather than the son.
The question then was how to still have it in the context of Shiva. And the way I interpreted it is that Shiva is an ascetic. He’s also a destroyer. But the way I have been told he is a destroyer is that he withdraws from the world and without his participation the Universe winds down. He is most often felt by his absence. When he withdraws from the world, a vacuum is created and people have this intense longing for him. Much like a mother has for her son. In this context it was natural to bring Parvati in. She was the one who actually feels this absence, and what happens in Shiva’s absence.
HS: This is a political novel too.Your Parvati-based character in the book, Meera, also represents India. Early reviews consider the politics of the novel distracting. You said once that before publishing an academic mathematical paper, you comb through the drafts to weed out extra equations. Could you have excised the political equation in the novel?
MS: I approach a novel as something very multilayered. So what is attractive to me is if you can have several interpretations of the novel. So, there you have Shiva and Parvati myth that is going on. Then there is this story of a woman making her way in this male-dominated world. But there is also the maturing of India in the background. After Independence this young country is coming of age just like the female protagonist of the novel. So, to have eliminated the politics would have cut out one whole level of complexity. That I didn’t want to do.
Politics is very much [a part of this novel]: the political maturation of the right wing in particular, is a very important, [as was] the experimentation with Emergency. [But] all these things are in the background. They are not the primary focus. The primary focus is still the woman, the family story. Like all those authorial ambitions are best layered underneath.
HS: What does it take for a man to write from inside a woman's mind?
MS: Here’s what I did. When I knew I was going to write about this woman, before [starting] the novel I read a lot about women who had given birth, the idea of breastfeeding. There are some web sites for example where women have been sharing their experiences, like the kind of flush that they feel when they are breastfeeding an infant. I read some texts like Of A Woman Born, a classic feminine text by Adrienne Cecile Rich.
At some point though the research had to stop. And then I just said to myself, ok, now I have to feel what it means to be a woman. I had filled my head with facts, let me try to feel [now]. It was only after allowing myself to ‘feel’ for almost two months that I actually sat down and wrote the first two pages. After that it was still a matter of feeling -- and intellectualising too -- but really feeling, trying to enter Meera’s mind, and taking small steps, looking at the world through a woman's eyes. lt was a very long process. It took seven years to write this novel. It was also scary, I wasn't showing it to anyone. I wasn't showing it to women and asking 'Is this correct?' I had only my own intuition to guide me.
One of the things was this [relationship] between the mother and son that I explore. It has been really talked about a lot by Freud, the Oedipal Theory and so on, but it was always from the male point of view. I looked all over but couldn’t find anything from the female point of view.
HS: Like Salman Rushdie you seem to reject belief in favour of myth while you embrace your Indianness. But compared to Rushdie, your take on Indian myths is much more earnest?
MS: I am sure all those things are correct. One thing I must point out even though it doesn't not address your question is that whenever I read an author like Rushdie or Naipual there is always a red light that goes on in my head saying, ok, this is someone very famous, you have to go perpendicular to it. You can’t do the same thing. So there is always this kind of censorship that goes on anytime I find myself [drawn towards them]. Like in the first novel, was tempted to dabble with magic realism. But I said no, that’s Rushdie, let’s stay away from that. Especially for younger authors, they seem larger-than-life icons, that we have to kind of stay away from them. So when you compare me to them, I get nervous.
HS: But isn’t it a process of acculturation -- you go abroad, you start thinking about your Indianness, consolidating it? But it so happens that belief or religion is easily eschewed? Culture, mythology, no problems.
MS: Everything you say about consolidating my Indianness is correct. Just as I was inspired by history in Shiva, in Vishnu I was inspired by religion. I am an agnostic, but I read the Bhagwad Gita and I found myself inspired by it. And that is what I was really trying to bring out -- just the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. Which can be interpreted in different ways. You don’t have to subscribe to the whole religious aspect of it. You can just take out various spiritual things.
HS: The microcosms that you have created are too true to be imagined. Where do they come from?
MS: The first one was inspired by my own situation. When I grew up it was as a paying guest in one room of a large flat in Bombay. There was actually a kitchen, and toilet that everyone shared. Also, though this was not in the novel, we were the only Hindu family and there were three Muslim families in the rest of the flat. So it was a very fraught situation. Even though it turned out that most of the fights we had were not about religion but space. When you are all packed together its space that counts not culture.
The Age of Shiva is set in Delhi where I hadn’t spent much time in. I never experienced a joint family. And I didn’t know anyone in the family who did. So that was sort of imagined. It actually came about when in my university UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore County], the president has taken a real interest in what I ave been doing. So one day he just asked me, ‘You know these joint families in India stay in one big room. When a couple gets married how do they have sex?’ And that is what started me thinking well how am I going to engineer this [make couple have sex in a shared room in a joint family]. The setting is Nizamuddin where my uncle used to be a station master. So I know that area and I know a little bit about that. But every thing else is made up.
HS: Two books out of the trilogy behind you, do you have a sense of what you are aiming at in the trilogy?
MS: Yes. And it has been a process of evolution because it was really about mythology but now its become about India. Where the first book was a snapshot of India in contemporary times, the ‘80s and the ‘90s, this book is the evolution of India from the Independence to how it got to the [present] point. The next book is going to be a prediction of what is going to happen in the future, so propel it [India] into the future.
HS: The novel as a narrative of the nation, novels with scope and breadth, something like the 900-page long Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra and now your The Age of Shiva, these seem to be coming more from the Indian writers living in the West. How important is the West for an Indian writer?
MS: I haven’t finished reading Vikram Chandra’s book, but I know it is a long epic. Certainly, Salman Rushdie’s books like Midnight’s Children are very encompassing of the whole picture of India, maybe that is what you are alluding to.
When you go away [from India] you have time to reflect and consolidate. You start seeing India as a whole. I have been very fortunate that I come back three times a year. So I get to see both aspects. I don’t know if it is a very Western phenomenon, there are many authors who are living in the West who have a much more intimate views and picturisations of India. But surely you can pick up some Indian authors [in India] who have an epic view of India? I don’t know.
HS: Not any contemporary writer.
MS: Then there is a mathematical theorem there then, almost!
HS: Apart from making one rethink one’s Indianness and the material support in terms of literary agents, editors, publishers, advances, not to mention markets, do you think the West is our constant interlocutor? An easy audience because you must always begin from the beginning while you explain yourself to the West?
MS: It is hard to say. Like for the first novel, even though I was living in the West, I don’t think I had any particular audience in my mind just because I had not yet been published. So I wasn’t thinking of advances and publishing. With this novel, I think I had to make a very conscious effort to keep shutting out my audience. Because it is so easy, since this novel is so steeped in culture and history that a lot of the references will not be fully grasped by the West. And I am quite resigned to that. Even the character of Meera, I found that the few western readers who read Shiva have been much less sympathetic to her than people in India have.
So that is the kind of danger you [under]take for a novel to succeed. I have seen many [Indian] novels where there is an actual pandering to the West like ‘samosa’ with an asterisk and then at the bottom it says ‘a pastry filled with peas and potatoes.’ That is the kind of thing one has to avoid. I will say that what you are saying is true at the subconscious level. But consciously, I try not to think which audience I am writing for.
HS: You have attended writing workshops by Jane Bradley, Vikram Chandra, and Michael Cunnigham. What was the most useful piece of advice you picked up from them?
MS: The best piece of advice was from Michael Cunnigham who said, based on the first three chapters of The Death of Vishnu, ‘You are a writer,’ and he was the first to call me a ‘writer.’ He said something like, ‘I don’t know what advice to give you except this that you have to finish this [Vishnu] at every cost.’ That was the best piece of advice.
HS: You are reluctant to talk about authors who inspired you. You said somewhere you started writing in around 1983. So that was two years after Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children came out. It would be easy to assume that as an inspiration like it was for a spate of new Subcontinental writers that followed Rushdie’s groundbreaking book?
MS: No! Actually, I will tell you why. I had no idea who Salman Rushdie was until 1989. I used to write but did little reading surprisingly! I was busy doing math. I didn’t have time to read for several years. In 1989 I was in France for seven months. There was this Spanish student there who said he had read this book in school, everyone had to read it. It was by an Indian writer. He than gave me a copy of Rushdie’s Shame [because] he could not find Midnight’s Children. [Shame] was the first literary novel I read. It was so bizarre and wonderful. So, that was my introduction to Rushdie.
HS: You went to the US in your early twenties. Was getting assimilated easy or difficult?
MS: Anyone who has education in one of these convent schools [in India] you kind of know what the US is going to look like. And it is truth in advertising because the US is exactly like it appears in [Hollywood] films, Mad magazine, and everything else [i.e. American cultural consumables].
HS: You think the US culture has lost some of its allure with globalisation?
MS: I think the US has squandered a bit of its international clout. I don’t know if it is economic or it is political. [But the US has made] bad political choices in the last 8 years. It is going to be interesting to see how that pans out. In terms of culture, there is always going to be a large segment of people both in the East and the West [who would look at the US for cultural consumption]. Even Europeans are very Americanised that way.
If it is to become less culturally attractive or become a beacon of culture, it is only because that culture has [already] spread across the world so much that it is almost like the US culture has won. It is the dominant globalised culture now, a lot of it. There was this article ‘The End of History’ by Fukuyama. It is not the end of history really but the end of culture. In some sense, the US has taken over and there is this globalised culture [extant around the world] with bits and pieces [of local and imported] much like the US potpourri, the melting pot.
HS: Do you get a feeling writing from the US that some things have irrevocably changed. You are no longer, what someone a decade ago would have called, a Third World Cosmopolitan, rather someone from a rising economic power in the world, and that it is the US that has increasingly become just another country?
MS: [Like in] India, people in the US need a lot of economic prodding before they will actually pay attention to any country. Finally, India has reached a point where yes they will have to pay attention now. And I suspect in the next few decades this Asian century that they talk about is really going to happen, there is no doubt in my mind.
HS: Do you feel anxious at times of being out of touch with the contemporary India, not being able to keep up with developments?
MS: A little bit, yes. As I said, I have been coming 3 times a year to India. So that has helped. But India is changing so fast that it is hard to keep pace now. And I haven’t ever worked in India, so if I am trying to depict what it means to work in India it is going to be a challenge. But then I knew very little about Indian history, I didn’t know anything about mythology when I started The Death of Vishnu. So, I can learn.
HS: You once rued being treated like an NRI. Has the reception in India improved since?
MS: Oh, it changed dramatically when The Death of Vishnu was released [in India]. I found that that is when I really came to India when especially the press here and the public, the audience that counted, embraced my book as an Indian novel. That was very energising. Since then, one of the nice things is that I have become an Indian citizen again because of the Overseas Citizenship of India which was always something that bothered me that I had to give it up. So it was very nice to be treated like, and be, an Indian again.