Tag Archives: Manil Suri

Interview with Manil Suri

So I got the opportunity to interview Manil Suri, the writer who I have admired since some time now and it felt amazing speaking with him and interacting with him and talking about books that he has written, their plots and his thoughts. It is always a surreal experience speaking with a writer. When you want to uncover some questions and know something more about the writer and what led him or her to write the books he or she has written. Here is another interaction with another writer of great quality and who has many more books to write.

Manil Suri

1. I read somewhere that you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham when Death of Vishnu was just in its initial stages. How has that affected your writing style, if it did?

It did not affect my writing style at all. What I got out of it was that it was he was so encouraging. He made me see where I wanted to go with my writing. I had barely written two to three chapters when I met him. He was able to anticipate the problems I would have, from the allegorical plot to the number of characters, whether too much had been written or spoken about them.

He gave me the confidence I needed. I was not a full time writer then. Someone who is not published needs the encouragement and Cunningham gave me that.

2. The trilogy is distorted in its approach, which I loved and yet it connects so effortlessly. How much of a task was this? Also, how come earlier it was supposed to be a trinity of Gods that ends with Devi?

Well it was like when I was doing The Death of Vishnu, I had no idea that it was a trilogy. The original idea was Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva is supposed to destroy things and Brahma is the one who creates. The way it turned out was the first book was more of a contemporary times novel and the second one was more of a book in the past and the third book is about the future, maybe it occurs, maybe it does not.

It was a very organic and unplanned process. It was one book after the other. I was still trying to keep them separate. Some connections are to be made and they are sort of in there, in all the three books.

The shift to Devi from Brahma: Just before I published the first book, I met Devdutt Pattanaik, and I told him about my idea about writing these three novels, with these varied themes of trinity. He told me that that is one way of looking at it, but some people look at it from Vishnu, Shiva and Devi’s perspective.

That’s where the Devi idea came about. Academically also it does make sense. I knew that the city would play a major role for sure. Until I was half-way through, I did not know whether it was Brahma or Devi. There had to be someone to save the city. The saviour then had to be Devi.

3. A mathematician and a writer. I am sure you must have been asked this several times, however how does it all add up? Does any influence the other?

Yes I think it does but not as much as one might suspect. But not something that I can easily put my finger on and say, “I had this followed because I am a mathematician”. For instance at times, I did try and follow the decision tree making process to writing. A character makes one move and then different moves which affects the narrative as well.
The danger in that is that it rarely provides the complete picture. With this book, I did all the plotting, and realized that the ends were not working. I finally decided that more or less I experimented writing it in a mathematical manner and then gave it up. I was relieved that I did not have to work on it. But later, I looked beyond the mathematics. I saw something more to fiction, than cold reasoning that numbers provided. I actually started seeing the main characters and then started connecting those, to give form to this novel.

4. “The City of Devi” reads so fast and yet there were so many times, I had to put down the book and mull over the intricate parts. Was this intentional to your writing?

Yeah it was. On one hand, looking deeper, other structures and metaphors, and dig deeper, try to put more in there was always the concern. It did finally work out the way I wanted it to.

5. The book of yours that touched me the most and which I ended up reading on a Sunday afternoon was The Death of Vishnu. How did the idea come to you? How did it all work out?

There was really named someone Vishnu. I was a kid in Bombay, growing up at that time. He used to wave at me. I guess he lived around our area. It was around 1994 or in 1995 that he died on the steps. The municipality came and took his body away – that was kind of a springboard, from where I wanted to start my story. At first I thought I will write a story about the neighbours. I then slowly began to think that there was more to it than a short story. The scary part was that people started saying it was novella, and it ultimately took the form of a novel.

The Death of Vishnu

6. Your novels are all about faith – sometimes the lack of it and sometimes the point when it becomes a little too much to handle. Does this affect you as a person?

Well, it certainly is something that is deeply invested in various parts of my life. Different terms of my own faith, you would call it – it can be seen very deeply in the first book, my own faith and lack of it. From one perspective as a mathematician, I brought about the rational, cold and unrelenting attributes in Mr. Jalal. He had to discover his faith and I had to voice through him all the questions I had in my mind.

Faith in a person – that’s what plays out more visibly in the last book. Faith in someone you think you know and someone you trust and what does that mean. I tried to work on a spectrum. I guess for myself, it’s always a question of faith, which is the opposite of rationality. I don’t care about the evidence but I believe in it. For a mathematician it is bad news, because you need evidence and proof.

7. Your love for the city by the sea. How would you explain that? Though you live far from it, does Bombay continue to enter your dreams?

Oh yes it does and you would think that I spend 20 years here, and 32 in US, that I should be able to write more about where I live now. However that did not happen. It is almost that I transferred the obsession of Mumbai to the US. I could not imagine writing anything deep – with reference to any other city. It had to be about the city I grew up in. It is definitely a very deep-rooted connection; I guess I was not aware of, however it definitely is there. I renew it each time I come here. On the other hand, capturing Washington DC in my books would not have the same effect. It would be flat. I don’t have the same kind of connection with the city.

8. Your literary influences.

When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of bestseller fiction, from Harold Robbins to Arthur Hailey to James Hadley Chase. It was the “rites of passage” almost for people growing up in the 70’s.

I read all of that and after that serious fiction – R.K. Narayan to the others. I think the first kind of real kind of lit fiction that I remember reading was Shame by Salman Rushdie. This was in the late 80’s. I did not have much of lit fiction education till later. I slowly started reading more lit fiction like some of the Indian authors in the last couple of decades. The big thing was Salman Rushdie – huge larger than life. I always end up comparing my writing to his at some point or the other.

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

9. Dystopian fiction has always intrigued me, and yet going by what you have written earlier, I would not imagine something on those lines to come from you. How did that process develop?

With dystopia, there is more futuristic and speculative writing involved, about what might happen, 70 years from now and 100 years from now, nuclear war has come and gone and that is lot easier to write and you can arrange the landscape. People have to accept the landscape. The difference in my book is that it is set in near future, which is harder to relate to and you have to give it more depth and angles.

The near future was definitely harder to write about. The near future has the uncomfortable characteristic of being near. How am I going to make this believable if someone reads it two years down the road? That was the question. I had to cancel the dates and make it believable. It is also after all a love story too.

10. The dual-narrative structure in the book is what kept me going last night, up and about to finish the book. Did the narrative at any point drain you as a writer?

The City of Devi was a very complicated book to write. I had to almost structure it like a thriller. Hold back bits of information and give some. The hardest thing was to write about India and what happens in the world at the same time – apportion between the two narratives.

The right narrator had to be on stage when certain actions demanded that. If something has happened and say it was Jaz’s turn to narrate things, he better be talking.

It was actually a lot of technical stuff like that. Towards the end, the cutting back and forth, happened more frequently. At the same time, it had me picking up the pace alternatively, which helped the book.

11. Now that the trilogy is over, what is next on the cards?

There’s this thing that I am working on which is completely different. A combination of sorts – a math novel infused with fiction. I hope it works best for me. It will for sure be a different experience for the reader.

This was the end of a great interview. I had so much to learn from the man – his insights were amazing and the way he communicates is stupendous. I had a great time for sure.

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Book Review: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

The City of Devi by Manil Suri Title: The City of Devi
Author: Manil Suri
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-93-82563-09-9
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 381
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I started reviewing books when I first read, “The Death of Vishnu” by Manil Suri. In fact, that review is also one of the first on this blog. From there on I have read everything that he has written, not because of the fact stated above, but because I admire his writing and his thought process. Suri has the uncanny ability to make so much sense of ordinary situations. His characters aren’t larger than life, however the circumstances are and with good reason – to move the plot ahead, to make the reader see and above all, to make them feel.

It is no wonder that I absolutely loved reading his new book, “The City of Devi” (the last in the not so connected series). “The City of Devi” has been touted as a dystopian novel; however I did not think it had anything to do with it. The story as his other two books has been set in Mumbai. It is about Sarita, a thirty-three year old statistician (the math angle did not surprise me considering Manil is a mathematician) who can throughout only think of one thing: To be reunited with her physicist husband Karun, who has disappeared. The times are tough: Mumbai is emptying itself under the threat of a nuclear annihilation. There are not many people left. This has almost led to anarchy. The past can but only be remembered.

Amidst all this Sarita sets out to search for her husband, in-between the gang wars of Hindus and Muslims (this angle makes you also choke a little). With her is Jaz, a Muslim whose religion is only to have sex with other men. That is what he enjoys the most – sex and nothing else and at the same time he is looking for his own lover in the city. The third angle to the book is the Goddess Devi herself who has materialized on the beach to save her city. Sarita, Jaz and Devi play their roles in the book from there on. That in short, is the summary of the book.

The book is quite unusual. Something that probably has never been tried by an Indian writer. The book is easy to read and yet there were times, I had to stop and think more about the scene I had just read or turn back the pages and read some parts all over again. Devi and her role in the book is humongous (but of course), and yet it is so calming at times, that I almost wished that she would materialize in this time and age to save her city. On the other hand, I could most relate to Jaz and his dilemma – the way he is searching for answers and not finding any.

Manil’s writing is direct in most parts and yet the web he weaves of storytelling almost leaves the reader breathless. His descriptions of a dying city are breathtaking. You can relate and yet at times, you choose not to. The city comes alive with his words and that is the power of some great writing. The situations he creates aren’t easy, the answers provided are not black or white, and yet as you turn the pages of “The City of Devi” all you want is to feel the city and hope that the characters’ lives are sorted. A must read this season.

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Book Review: The Popcorn Essayists: What movies do to writers: Edited by Jai Arjun Singh

Title: The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers
Editor: Jai Arjun Singh
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
ISBN: 9789380658353
PP: 227 Pages
Price: Rs. 395
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Thirteen different genre writing and thinking writers all come together to contribute to this collection of essays – as the title suggests, about movies. If you are a film aficionado and also love reading about movies, then this book is sure meant for you. The Popcorn Essayists is a compilation of 13 essays centred around films, the way they are made and how they are perceived by the audience – in this case the writers.

The contributing writers include Manjula Padmanabhan, Manil Suri, Kamila Shamssie, Anjum Hasan, Amitava Kumar, Namita Gokhale, Jai Arjun Singh (the editor of this collection), Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Madhulika Liddle, Sidin Vadukut, Rajoshri Chakraborti, Sumana Roy and Jaishree Misra. The reason I have mentioned all names is for you to understand the variety that this book provides and the themes it touches – from Art House Cinema (as it was termed in the days gone by) to a day in the life of a writer as a Helen Cabaret Dancer to a writer’s experience about watching Satya, this book has it all.

What I loved about the book while reading it was that I immediately wanted to see all the movies recommended by the writers, even if I had seen some of them some time ago, I still wanted a re-viewing and only to understand the essays better.  When a group of writers come together to contribute to any collection, it is so important to see that the ideas merge and the flow is consistent, and it is with this precision that the editor delivers on this book. The writing is crisp and sharp and to the point, without forcing any opinions down the readers’ throat. At some point though some essays do get technical, but I guess that could not have been avoided, considering the topic.

Movies are magic and we are all aware of that fact. The book attempts I think to introduce us to different genres of movies, like I said without sounding condescending or patronizing. It is about the nuances that are noticed while watching a loud Punjabi Masala Movie or at the same time about the experiences of another author while viewing the works of Finland’s Kaurismäki Brothers and their impact and contribution to world cinema.

All in all, The Popcorn Essayists is a book that must be read for the love of cinema or for the joy of reading and in the process, discovering some great cinema.

You can buy the book here on Flipkart

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, I happened to read “The Death Of Vishnu” by Manil Suri. I picked up this book with great trepidation. Also, on the personal front, who would like to read about a man dying? That’s what I thought until I read this one. As the title goes, the narrative also comes directly to the point – that of Vishnu, an odd job man, laying dead on an apartment landing of Mumbai. This is where the crux of the story lies.

Here we meet the Pathaks and the Asranis, two arch rival neighbours; what’s worse is that they share the same kitchen and each claims to be taking care of Vishnu better.

Then on the other hand there are the Jalals – the husband who doesn’t believe in any religion and just wants to gain spiritualism the easy way; the son Salim who is madly in love with the Asranis’ daughter Kavita (here comes the Hindu-Muslim divide).

Not to forget the Tanejas – Vinod Taneja whose wife’s death has left him with so much grief that he just doesn’t get out of his apartment anymore…

And what’s surprising is that all these characters are intertwined with one. And the connecting factor: Vishnu! The story binds itself based on what others perceive Vishnu to be – his mother, the Pathaks, the Jalals, the Asranis, Padmini, Kavita, and others like the scavenger and the sweeper working in the apartment. There is a holistic perspective to the point that it infringes on who Vishnu really is and what he embodies for all the bystanders.

There is a singular thread running through the book – that of isolation on various levels. The Pathaks and Asranis share a kitchen, almost to the point of invading each other’s privacy and yet are so distant and cold. Vishnu is dead and yet no one wants to claim him and take him to the nearest morgue. Her husband and son, seeking refuge in intellectualism and staunch belief, leave Mrs Jalal alone.

Vishnu in another realm altogether believes that he is God (or rather is made to believe that by Mr Jalal) – Vishnu, who had ten reincarnations. His love for… Padmini, his longing for Kavita, and his thoughts on living make the book one delicious course.

This book is not an easy read. There are layers and sub-layers to this course though. On the surface, things are quite simple and easy to understand, but what Mr Suri has created is something else. He has created what one might call “a quilt of emotions” – right from love to the isolation one feels in the metropolis to the bare human nature. In short, Manil Suri has created a Universe in an apartment of Bombay – a city so huge and yet so cold and distant. So uninviting.

The spiritualism as one would expect from this book is on many levels rather ambiguous and unclear. In the sense that while the author tries to portray the elements of reincarnation and giving up on worldly pleasures – like Mr Jalal often tries doing – it all is actually a mockery of the same. One of the redeeming features of the book is that it is not written from an outsider’s perspective. It is carved by an Indian living in India and breathing the air, which was what Vishnu did. An ordinary man elevated to something extraordinary to satisfy the superstitions and religious notions of the upper notches of society. This is where the element of comedy throws itself in your face.

The prose is certainly clever; however, the ending is left hanging. Possibly the author expects the reader to decide that for himself. In many ways, this resembles a grand chorus from a huge and wonderful comic opera, with all the inhabitants of the building singing at once. And underneath all the voices wailing about their personal concerns is the insistent bass of Vishnu as he prepares to die. Dealing with the most basic aspects of religion, love, and human kindness in a city setting which challenges its inhabitants to the limit, Suri creates a warm, funny, and very human drama of a every man’s search for meaning in life.

Suri writes with obvious affection about a Bombay perhaps already lost, evoking easily its moods and attitudes, its light and smells. One can almost feel the heavy evening sea breeze, taste the roasted peanuts sold in paper cones along the sea wall, or see the Maharaja looking down from the Air India hoarding. A Bombay that rings true with its Irani Cafe, cigarettewalla, and radiowalla. Manil Suri’s sharp eye for detail and natural ability to create a strong sense of place and time define his considerable talent, and one can look forward with a certain assuredness to its maturing in his promised books on the other two Gods of the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Shiva.