What if a Bollywood film was the genesis for what threatens to be the end of the world? Manil Suri’s third novel, City of Devi, explores that possibility with romantic passion, humanitarian distress, and twisted humor. He has a keen eye, a sharp wit, and a blazing pen with which he delivers the tale of a goddess, three lovers, and the impending annihilation of the world as they—and we—know it.
Following the Bollywood/Hollywood box-office super-duper hit Superdevi, religion in India meant “Hindus only.” The country took a harder turn to the religio-political right than ever before, manifested in gigantic Mumbaidevi statues all over the film capital, including areas strategically meant to irritate Muslims and Christians. Now nicknamed “City of Devi,” Mumbai had its own Devi logo which was required to be displayed by every establishment and place of worship, Hindu or not. Entrepreneurs jumped into the capitalistic fray, cashing in on Superdevi’s success with offerings like McDonald’s movie tie-in action figures; Pizza Hut’s Devi mouse pad giveaway; plus Superdevi and religious location tours. So began the current that incited riots, grew into war, and threatened nuclear destruction courtesy of Pakistan, China, and India.
Mumbai is in ruins, bombed and shattered. Most residents have fled, gangs have flourished, food is scarce. As a young, educated, and patient wife, Sarita needs two things in Earth’s four remaining days: a pomegranate and to find Karun, her scientist husband who vanished a fortnight before. As a symbol of their delicate movement toward the consummation of their marriage, the fruit is an imperative when they reunite. Meanwhile, Jaz, a flip, confident hipster who is always on the hunt for his next conquest, needs to find the one who got away, the man with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love.
Sarita and Jaz first meet in a bomb shelter and again on a train that derails on its way to Bandra, where their respective journeys should end. But Sarita is a Hindu, and Jaz —Ijaz—is a Muslim. That’s a dangerous combination, and teaming up turns out to be a necessary evil in order to survive crossing through unfriendly religious territories in the search for their loved one. What they find when they reach their destination is not what either expected.
The story is beautifully told as an all-encompassing romance and present-day end time saga via alternating sections of Sarita’s and Jaz’s chronicles. Moreover, their stories internally alternate between past and present until there is nowhere to go but to move forward together.
The constant theme of the trinity, the triangle, the trimurti swirls throughout the story, engulfing Sarita, Jaz, and Karun with triangular satellites orbiting around them. Likewise, City of Devi itself forms the trinity of Suri’s novel—The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and now Devi, the debated alternate third in place of Brahma.
This lusciously-told tale scandalizes, criticizes, and fantasizes, and why not when the end is near?
As Suri says in his conversation with A.X. Ahmad, “You don’t want the end of the world to be depressing! If you’re going to go out, go out in Bollywood style!”
Everything required of a Bollywood extravaganza can be found in the novel: action, drama, comedy; politics, religion; rag-to-riches; suspense, magic; sex, a romantic triangle; and crowds of worshippers that clamor for a glimpse of the Devi.
There is, however, a serious side to the novel. Suri takes a sobering look at grave issues including religious warring/gang mentality; the dark side of religion and power; and how much we, as humans, can endure and how resourceful we can be when faced with the suggestion of our own mortality. He easily covers so much ground that to say the novel is multi-layered is being conservative.
Extremism rears its ugly head more than once. In one scene, while Sarita is in the bomb shelter, we are treated to an explanation that, “… the new coalition government’s edict to mollify their loony right fringe [was that] all cartoon characters must now have traditional Hindu names. Bugs Bunny has become ‘Khatmal Khargosh’ …” Shortly thereafter in the shelter, a man is accused of being a Muslim. He is beaten, about to be lynched, but then discovered to be Hindu. Oh well, so sorry, have a cigarette. One example is tongue-in-cheek regarding homogenization, the other frighteningly close to a possible reality.
Like a pomegranate, City of Devi is overflowing with arils, seeds that are covered with a fleshy outer layer. For some, a pomegranate is sweet, while for others, tart. So it is with City of Devi. Nearly all religions have used the pomegranate as a symbol of many of mankind’s fundamental desires—life/death, birth/eternal life, fertility/marriage, abundance/prosperity. In City of Devi, these human desires are plentiful, Bollywood flamboyance included.
Suri, a professor of mathematics and affiliate professor of Asian studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is working on his next book.
“It’s called The Godfather of Numbers, about a mysterious entity that controls not only mathematics but also the universe,” he explained. Then he added, “In case readers are worried about the math aspect, fear not. It’s especially geared towards non-mathematicians.”