The first lines of "The City of Devi" detail the character Sarita haggling over the price of a pomegranate. That might seem relatively insignificant, except that the price has risen dramatically in light of the impending apocalypse - a bomb due to incinerate the city. In this case, Mumbai. Or Bombay, depending on your preference.
Adding more layers are the author’s interests. Manil Suri loves Mumbai, his hometown. The haggling and the doomsday countdown touch upon Suri’s position as a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, putting that Ph.D. in applied mathematics to good use. As for the pomegranate, well, Suri is no slouch in the kitchen, either.
’’I had one recipe that was published,’’ says the charmingly soft-spoken, Silver Spring-based Suri. ’’I wrote an article on food for ’The New York Times Magazine’ and I came up with this dish that was a sort of Indian version of coq au vin. So it had all the chicken and the wine and everything. Then it had these Indian spices in it, too. It really makes a completely different dish. The key ingredient is star anise. It just gives all the wine and chicken a different flavor. I call it ’murgh au vin,’ because ’murgh’ is the word for chicken in Hindi.’’
Obviously, there is a creative spark in Suri that burns brightly. The world got a taste of that spark with his first novel, 2001’s "The Death of Vishnu." He followed that in 2008 with "The Age of Shiva." Now, it’s Devi’s turn.
’’I kind of wandered into this whole idea of using the names of Hindu gods in the titles of these books,’’ Suri explains. ’’In the first book, there was an actual man named Vishnu who was dying in the building in which I grew up. He used to live on the steps. I started writing a story about it, because while I was there he actually died on the steps. I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and the instructor said, ’You can’t name your character Vishnu and not tie it to the Hindu god. It’s a very loaded name.’
’’That’s when I started thinking of the little analogies. This guy takes care of little errands in the building, and the god Vishnu is supposed to take care of making the universe go round. So, from that, Vishnu went into the title. Then I started thinking this could be a trilogy, because there are three gods - Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma - who are the creators. By the time I got to the third novel, Brahma had changed into the mother goddess, Devi, who seemed to be a better choice in terms of the theme I was developing. She’s sort of the patron goddess of the city of Bombay. And also because she’s more worshipped. Those motifs are very much in the background.
"The books are really about India, and Bombay in particular. They form a nice trilogy in the sense that the first one is about the city in contemporary times, and the second one looks at the past, and the new one really takes the story into the future. It’s not the same story - it’s three panels of the city and the country.’’
Another change for this new work is the introduction of a gay theme. The aforementioned Sarita is heading out into the chaos of a city at war to find her husband, Karun. So is his male lover, Jaz.
The gay turn, says Suri, has not been much of a shock in India. Traveling there earlier this year, with is partner of 23 years, Suri read to receptive audiences.