Gods, Monsters and all that Jazz
This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post, 17 March 2013
The City of Devi
by Manil Suri
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
This is the third book in a trilogy that is Manil Suri’s ode to the city of his birth, Mumbai. A professor of Mathematics at a US university, Suri has woven Mumbai as a leitmotif in his writing. In the first, The Death of Vishnu, Mumbai was the throbbing visceral city of today, a megalopolis that hides within its uber urban façade a labyrinth of localities marked by ethnic and linguistic histories of migrants into the city. In the second, The Age of Shiva, Suri goes back to a newly-independent India when the city’s urbanity still held a salve to the oppressive caste-class-religion ridden flesh of the rest of India. In this third book, The City of Devi, Suri looks to a Mumbai in the future where the subcontinent teeters on the brink of a nuclear war and the city has broken down into communal ghettos.
The Hindu trilogy is popularly understood to comprise three male gods – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – and Suri’s novels draw from the trinity, at least in their titles. However, in The City of Devi, Suri interestingly overturns this established notion, either as a plot device or as an act of artistic liberty. Early in the narrative, Karun, a pivotal figure explains it thus: “Vishnu the caretaker and Shiva the destroyer – my father had an interesting take on who should occupy the final spot in the trinity… who do you think should rightfully be called the creator of the universe? … creation comes from the womb. So logically, the true third should be the mother goddess, Devi.” Suri displaces Brahma, credited with creating the universe by blowing out everything in a single breath, in a feminist flourish and this sensibility informs the rest of the narrative.
Mumbai apparently derives its name from Mumbadevi, goddess of the fisherfolk who were the city’s original inhabitants. Besides the resident goddess, a screen goddess, Superdevi, protagonist of a blockbuster Bollywood film, permeates the story as a woman, Sarita, trudges through the devastated city in search of her missing husband. The overwhelming female presence is counterweighted by the missing Karun, a research scientist, and his lover, the young, cocky and handsome ‘The Jazter’. The novel thus has its own triumvirate, pegged on two men and a woman, and as the narrative unfolds it’s clear that the neat roles of caretaker, destroyer and creator will get obfuscated.
So far so good. Suri is on firm ground as he describes a city gone apoplectic with approaching destruction, incendiary rumours, and ghettoised enclaves. A bomb will annihilate Mumbai in four days and with her husband Karun mysteriously missing for a fortnight, Sarita has only one lead – the address he last mentioned. She must head to the northern suburbs but not before haggling in Crawford market for what she believes is the last pomegranate in the city, one which she is blindly convinced will draw out Karun to her like a talisman. Chaos is rampant in the city that has split along communal lines. Khakis, the Hindu extremists, are fighting street battles with Limbus, the Muslim right-wingers as information networks break down and nobody knows what to believe. The air is fervid with speculation on who will bomb whom and when – names thrown in the mix include Pakistan, China, USA, a militant Hindu leader Bhim and a mysterious Muslim mafia don from Dubai.
What caused the city to tip over? A news analyst traces the dystopia to the megahit Bollywood film Superdevi that aggravated the existing communal situation. “A year after Superdevi’s release,” he enumerates, “free screenings (using bootlegged DVDs) were still being organized in thousands of rural venues, each followed by a fiery religious discourse on the film’s supposed message of “purifying” the country’s population.”
As Sarita seeks refuge in a bomb shelter she makes the acquaintance of Jaz who, cognizant of her identity, masks his, hoping to find Karun through her. Hindu Sarita and Muslim Jaz are thrown together as they lurch through a series of increasingly bizarre encounters, the terror alternating from the Hindu Rashtriya Manch to the Islamists, from a Hindu ghetto to a Muslim enclave, as they progress towards the last known location of Karun. The narrative switches between Sarita, the statistician wife scouring the ravaged city for her mild-mannered research-scientist husband, and Jaz, whose “true religion has steadfastly been sex with men”, latching on to her in his quest for his own lover.
Suri does a good job of fleshing out Sarita and Jaz, whose real name is Ijaz. They are believable characters, each filling out the missing Karun with his point of view. Sarita and Karun had an arranged marriage that stayed unconsummated despite Sarita serving her husband pomegranate juice nightly to increase his virility. Karun had a secret past that he was unwilling to divulge, a past with Jaz as his sexual partner, roommate and soul mate.
The pursuit for Karun is plagued with random events, none of which is initiated by the characters but only serve to move the plot forward. This contrivance gets out of hand as the incidents get increasingly bizarre and colourful. The propulsive energy of Sarita and Jaz’s individual reminiscences of Karun and the recountal of their very different relations with the same man, fleshed in the mundane yet intimate minutiae of daily life, yields to an exotic tableau of multi-armed deity, trumpeting elephants and grotesque villains.
The City if Devi is an amorphous creature. What starts off as a credible journey beset with menace and uncertainty turns burlesque. The emergence of Devi as the city’s saviour, the circus surrounding her, complete with dwarves, airborne chariots, and Mughal domes, derails the narrative with a tragicomic air. The kaleidoscopic vignettes appear a slapdash way to add some highjinks to the narrative. Consequently the terror of an incoming nuclear attack falls by the wayside. Even the quest for Karun loses its urgency as the reader wonders at the absurdity of it all.
This makes the book an uneven read. The characters of Sarita and Jaz are grounded and we root for them. Yet everybody else is either a cipher – Karun, or a wild caricature – Bhim, the Hindu rightwing leader. The menace of the early pages where Sarita is set upon by a woman with a hungry child who craves her pomegranate, or the khakhis who pounce upon Jaz, ready to skin the Muslim in their midst, gives way to buffoonery.
If Suri intended this book as a tongue-in-cheek look at Mumbai and its particular festering communal pot then it fails because the second half gets ludicrous. If it was meant to be a comedy then perhaps some would enjoy its over-the-top incidents.
Suri is excellent at lampooning self-styled religious leaders and puncturing their noble motivations, reducing them to gangsters outdone by the mayhem of their own orchestration.
After all the furious flimflam the story winds down to an ending that is again at odds with the rest of the narrative, reiterating its patchwork appearance and feel. Which is a shame because Suri writes well and makes us feel for the two primary characters – if only he could get the highjinks under control.
The story of three souls in search of love and fulfilment is overwhelmed by the suffocating canopy of epic wars, fantastical villains and conniving communities.