Thursday, February 14, 2008

A conversation with Manil Suri

[This is most of the text of my talk with Manil Suri at his book launch a few weeks ago – it took me some time to transcribe the thing after I received the DVD of the event from Penguin Books, and then there was the Mumbai trip in between. A version of this appeared in last Sunday's Business Standard]

Manil Suri’s second novel The Age of Shiva follows one woman – the book’s narrator-protagonist Meera – over nearly three decades, portraying the various facets of her life: as a supportive but often unhappy wife, a rebellious daughter and most crucially as a single mother raising a son through the awkward phase of adolescence and becoming increasingly dependent on him. Suri, whose day job is teaching Mathematics at the University of Maryland, was in fine fettle at the book launch despite his concern that his voice wouldn’t hold up through the reading (he’s been giving a lot of interviews, talking and reading constantly: “I was told it would be madness to do a book tour in India without a cellphone”). He read out a couple of passages, including the startlingly sensual description of breastfeeding that opens the book, and was eloquent throughout the question-and-answer session that followed.

On your website, you’ve mentioned that The Age of Shiva is the second book in a trilogy of contemporary stories that evoke the three major Hindu Gods. In your first novel The Death of Vishnu, Vishnu was the name of the central character (a man slowly dying on the stairway of an apartment block in Mumbai), but here the protagonist is a woman. How does Shiva fit into this work?

The book was originally called The Life of Shiva and my intention was to have a central Shiva character. But then I thought it would be formulaic to exactly repeat the structure of the first novel – to have a Vishnu character there, a Shiva character here. Also, Shiva means so many things to so many people that if I had tried to deal with all those things it would have taken me 21 years to finish the book instead of seven! So I decided to focus on the aspect of Shiva that attracted me most – the fact that he is an ascetic – rather than the cliché of Shiva as Destroyer, or the Shiva-lingam thing which has also been done a lot.

As an ascetic, Shiva withdraws from the world (which also connects to his role as Destroyer because without his participation, the universe starts to wind down). This withdrawal creates a vacuum and people start to yearn for him – that longing was the central idea of the book, and it still is in there. Originally, Meera’s son Ashvin was to be the Shiva character: I thought of it as the story of a mother trying to become intensely close to her son, but there are all these barriers between them. But what happened as I started writing was that Meera took over and the book became more and more about her.

Shiva is still there of course, as an abstract concept, not just as a figure of longing but also as a symbol of religious upheaval.

Meera is such a fully realised character, it’s hard to believe she wasn’t originally the focus.

Originally, there was to be only a chapter or so about her back-history – I wanted her family to be from Rawalpindi, where some of my own relatives come from – but then I started researching, reading up on Indian history post-Partition. History was always my weaker subject in school – I would memorise it all and get through it somehow – but here I found myself in raptures reading books like India After Independence, by Bipin Chandra. There were characters like Nehru and Indira who were shown as real, flesh-and-blood people with good points and faults; there were insights about how one political development leads to another.

I became so fascinated that before I knew it I had written 200 pages about Meera, and Ashvin still wasn’t born! So I said okay, it’s time to have her as the lead and forget about all these things I initially wanted to do.

Meera’s interior life is very convincingly portrayed, and in general this book is so driven by the woman’s experience of the world. You have these vivid descriptions of Karwa Chauth, female bonding, Meera’s possessiveness towards her son. As a male author, how difficult was it to make this imaginative leap? Did you get many inputs from female relatives or friends?

I didn’t, actually – there were no inputs. The only person I asked was my mother when I was dealing with the scenes between Meera and her son, but she wasn’t much help either! I knew I wanted to start with the breast-feeding scene at the beginning, so I spent about a month reading up on the various things women feel when they have newborn children. I read classic feminist texts like Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, I read all sorts of things. But after a while I said that’s enough reading, that can only take you so far, you have to feel.

When I finally sat down at the computer, the first thing that came through was Meera’s voice. The challenge was to sustain this voice, to follow this character, over a book. It was a gradual process. I was stepping into her mind in tiny steps, feeling my way in her, looking at the world through her eyes – how she would look at her child, her husband, how the sexual act would be to such a woman; not just intellectualizing, but also trying to feel those things.

It was scary, because all this while I wasn’t showing the manuscript to people – I could have been completely wrong, and you would be telling me what a fool I was, and women would be rising in protest! But it was also very challenging and quite intense.

The Age of Shiva is a much larger book than The Death of Vishnu, not just in size but in scale – it moves between Delhi and Bombay, there’s plenty of political activity in the background, including the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars, and the Emergency. Did you see Meera’s personal development as paralleling the changes in modern India?

About the two books: it was my intention to make this one as different as possible from the first one. I wanted the challenge – this was only my second book, and at this point I don’t even know how many I’ll manage to write! While The Death of Vishnu had strong male characters, this one has a strong female protagonist. Vishnu was set in one building over 24 hours and was a very concise, scaled-down piece of work – I was very much a mathematician at work, clipping wherever something was not necessary. Here, it was the opposite: I forced myself to follow some of the side-stories (like Zayida, Meera’s Muslim neighbour in Bombay, or Sandhya, her sister-in-law) and to branch out.

About the parallel story of India...yes, that was very much the intention. I always thought Meera was going to be the action that happens in the foreground, while in the background the country is coming of age. Meera is making her way through a very male-dominated, patriarchal society – she’s vacillating between factions, like her father who’s a liberal, progressive person, and her brother-in-law Arya, who’s conservative, and she gets close to both of them at various times, much like India has flirted with all sorts of different things in its history.

Also, Meera is always reacting – remember, there were limited choices available to women in this period, and the only way she can take control of her fate is to react. Her father says do this, she reacts and does the opposite. Now think about India’s progress, think about the Non-Aligned Movement and Nehru’s policies – which were not necessarily the best in terms of feeding people and so on, just like Meera’s choices aren’t always the best for herself, but the overriding idea behind most of those decisions was that we should be independent, that we should have a say in our own destiny. It’s similar to Meera’s life in that sense.

You work as a professor of Mathematics in Baltimore. How do you divide time between your two lives? Does it ever happen that in the middle of a lecture on differential equations, you’re suddenly struck by a flash of writerly inspiration...

...and I yank people’s books out and start writing on them and tell them, shut up, I’m composing? (Laughs) Author at work! No, it’s pretty much compartmentalised. It’s like when you’re swallowing your windpipe gets cut off – it’s something like that. I can’t switch back and forth so easily. On days that I’m teaching, I have to get up and write at least a paragraph before breakfast – if I eat first, I’m too contented and I can’t write anymore. I can still do mathematics though, that’s different!

I balance my time very poorly, obviously, since I took seven years to write this book! But I get a lot out of it too. For a while everyone was asking will you quit Math and do this full-time, and now I know that I won’t. It’s nice to have a profession, to actually see real people – it’s a good balance. If I were writing full-time and someone asked me at the end of the day “What did you do?”, I’d have to say “Well, I wrote a paragraph and then I deleted it.”

But more seriously, since this topic has come up, I’d like to touch on something that’s very prevalent in academia – the idea that you are expected to do one thing, and if you don’t do that one thing you aren’t taken seriously. In my first year as a professor, another professor came and gave us a talk – and he was a famous bridge player as well – and after the talk one of my senior colleagues came up and said, “That was a terrible talk.” I said, “You’re a statistician, that was on Applied Math, how do you know?” He said, “Well he spends all his time playing bridge, he can’t possibly be a good Mathematician.”

I’ve seen that attitude a lot. Consequently, when I started writing I kept it a secret – I wanted to get tenure. So I would disappear and lead a James Bond-like existence. But interestingly, when the first book came out, two people from my department came up to me and confessed that they were both actors – one of them said he wanted a part if a movie got made!

How long till the next book?

According to my calculations, it can’t be less than four years. I’ve written 150 pages already, and thrown away 100 of them. But I’m still optimistic.

Postscript: there was some light banter after the discussion. When someone in the audience asked Suri how he could write about India despite being based in the US for 27 years, he replied that when you’re sitting on the moon, looking at the earth, you can see the complete picture. “You can only see one side,” replied the questioner, to which Suri said “Yes, but the earth turns around!” Of course, none of this gives us any sort of insight into the complex questions about authenticity in Diaspora writing, but it was a fun way to end a solemn evening. Later, asked about his own religiosity, Suri replied that he did think of himself as religious – in the spiritual sense – but would on the whole categorise himself as agnostic. “When I was a teenager I turned atheist because it was the rebellious thing to do,” he said, “but later, when I became a Mathematician, I became very concerned about the need to have proofs for everything – so I’m on the fence now.”

[An earlier post about The Age of Shiva here. And some earlier conversations with authors: Anita Desai, Mohsin Hamid, Vikram Chandra, Rajorshi Chakraborty, Raj Kamal Jha, Amitava Kumar, Kiran Desai, Hari Kunzru]


  1. One interesting question would have been as to why does he feel that he needs to compartmentalize the two selves - that of a mathematician and a creative writer. Someone with a mathematician's sensibility exploring dark hidden corners of the subconsious and the affairs of the heart would make a much more interesting, at least much more unconventional, writer and conversely a much bettern mathematician. There haven't been many but the example of Robert Musil makes me wish there were more like him.

  2. I don't know if this sounds a little crude, but I am curious. Were you expecting him to hint at his sexual orientation when you asked him about the female experiences?

    PS: He looks like a body double of Ted Danson!

  3. Alok: interesting question, yes, but it might have been too highbrow for a 20-minute session at a glossy cocktails-and-canapes book launch where most people were waiting for drinks to be served. At these events people tend to glance at their Cartier watches and readjust their chiffons when a phrase like "dark hidden corners of the subconscious" is used!

    Regardless of what Suri himself says about compartmentalizing, there must be a subconscious (or unconscious) process that connects the two selves and allows them to feed off each other. Though I know many people who find his books trite and precious, I think he's an interesting, unconventional writer who provides new perspectives on a lot of things in our society we take for granted. Don't know about his Math, of course.

    ArSENik: No, I wasn't expecting him to hint at his sexual orientation - I think most serious writers manage to avoid simplistic pop psychology of that sort. (I'm not saying there can't be a connection between being gay and having empathy for the woman's position, just that most authors wouldn't be comfortable "explaining themselves" in such cause-and-effect terms.)

    Ted Danson - really? I thought Danson had a squarer face. But just saw his recent Wikipedia pic - yes, there is a resemblance from the side.

  4. I dunno but the interview is somehow disappointing. I'm reminded of Rushdie's It is always a disappointment to meet a writer.

  5. "Someone with a mathematician's sensibility exploring dark hidden corners of the subconscious and the affairs of the heart would make a much more interesting, at least more unconventional, writer and conversely a much better mathematician."

    The "much better mathematician" part is exceedingly unlikely, but there is something to be said about making for a more interesting writer. The fiction of Lewis Carroll, the criticism of William Empson and the poetry of Paul Valery could be used to argue something, but I'm not sure exactly what... You might enjoy Scott Buchanan's book, "Poetry and Mathematics".

  6. cat: Primo Levi and J M Coetzee also come to mind. Both come from technical and mathematical background and both bring a rationalistic and analytic sensibility to creative writing too.

    About mathematics You will obviously know better :) I probably should have phrased my comment better. I felt what he said just reinforced the conventional notion that these two faculties are entirely separate and have nothing to do with or say to each other... to the extent that one has to shut down one to work with the other. One may not become a better mathematician but one will definitely become a more "humane" (sort of unalienated) mathematician. It is true not just for the professionals, I think it is true for all us. in fact it is one of thesis of Musil's The Man Without Qualities.. that a fusion of these two sensibilities will lead to a more authentic existence.

  7. Alok, those are very good examples; two others are the poets Miroslav Holub and Nicanor Parra. And in a more contemporary context, there's the Argentinian mathematician and writer Guillermo Martinez, whose writing, like Suri's, fits the picture of what one would expect from someone with a mathematican background.

    I agree with one half of your comment: technical knowledge can certainly inform writing in an interesting way, in terms of both subject and style. This is a reflection of the universality of writing - it embraces all modes of human experience. In this respect, there is an asymmetry between writing and mathematics. Mathematics is entirely concerned with itself, and these concerns stand alone, insulated from the outside world. Certainly an engagement with other modes of being might make a mathematician a more interesting person, but it will almost surely have no positive effect on the quality of his mathematical work. The idea of a "humane mathematician" is an intriguing one, but I cannot imagine what it would mean in practice.

    There is a much stronger correlation between music and mathematics; too many people are good at both for it to be merely a coincidence. Maybe this is an indication of similarities to the "patterns" that occur in the two fields, but I wouldn't know - I'm tone-deaf.

  8. I have to say, I read Manil Suri only a couple of weeks ago. I thought I should read Death of Vishnu before this one.

    I was underwhelmed. It was a very pedestrian book and I no longer have any very high hopes of this new one. So though it's interesting to see othr favourite authors thrown up in this discussion - Levi and Holub being my personal favourites - Suri doesn't even come near.

    But that's just me.

  9. Space Bar: it isn't just you. Most people I know disliked The Age of Shiva strongly and I've had to do my familiar defensive eye-roll when asked the perplexing and meaningless question "How could you like that book?" (while simultaneously reminding people never to read/watch anything just because I've written good things about it). Maybe it's just me!