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India: Past and Present

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Feb. 22, 2008
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Since publishing his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, Manil Suri has joined the pantheon of Indian writers gaining widespread recognition for their English prose. The first of his books to use the Hindu trinity to explore the present-day realities of India, it was intended as part of a trilogy, albeit one that departs from the traditional format of continuous plot and characters.

“It’s rather like three panels of a triptych in the sense that there are these three faces of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, and I was trying to distill the essence of each,” Suri says.

The Age of Shiva, the second part of the trilogy published earlier this month, affirms Suri’s ability to explore the inner workings of his characters’ lives with sensitivity and insight. Here once again Hindu mythology is offset with the enticements of the Bollywood film industry, both acting as a delicate framework against which the characters’ hopes and desires are pinned. But unlike his first novel, set almost exclusively in one apartment building, The Age of Shiva moves from Delhi to Bombay, beginning just after India’s newfound independence and continuing through Indira Gandhi’s increasingly tyrannical leadership.

“The first book was really a snapshot of India in contemporary times,” Suri says. “This book tells us how we got there from independence to this point.” Meera, the main character, tries to strike out a path between the ardent liberalism of her father and the traditionalism of her in-laws. Dissatisfied with her meager lot, yearning for something she can hardly name, she eventually finds the affirmation and love she craves at the birth of her son, Ashvin. But her love for him proves so intense she fears it will stifle him. In a sense this character, and her relationship with her son, is a paradigm for India itself.

“[Meera’s] being pulled in both directions and she’s even flirting with both sides, just like India has had both left-wing and right-wing governments and seems to always teeter between these two extremes,” Suri says. “Even Ashvin, who’s sort of the next generation of India, also has this dual hold on him.”

You can meet Manil Suri when he comes to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Mequon on Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. To read an interview with the author, go to www.expressmilwaukee.com. On Thursday, Feb. 21, Historic Milwaukee will hold its second in a series of four panel discussions at 7 p.m. in the penthouse space at 1000 N. Water St. This discussion will focus on Old Milwaukee. Panelists include Jim Draeger, architectural historian at the Wisconsin Historical Society and coordinator of People’s Books Cooperative, and Whitney Gould, recently retired urban design columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The cost of attendance for each panel is $15 for members of Historic Milwaukee and $20 for nonmembers.

Here is the full text of the interview conducted with Manil Suri:

In his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, Manil Suri used Hindu mythology and the tinsely allure of the Bollywood film industry to explore the lives of characters inhabiting a Mumbai apartment building. His second novel, The Age of Shiva, continues the tradition, affirming his talent for creating well-drawn characters and sensitive prose.

The books are part of a trilogy? What prompted you too structure them in this way?

I never thought of this trilogy to be the standard one with the same story and a continuing set of characters but rather like three panels of a triptych in the sense that there are these three faces of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, and I was trying to distill the essence of each.

And when you put the pieces together, do they represent India?

Yes exactly. Initially I thought it would be something to do with mythology, the cycle of destruction and regeneration, but now it’s really India that I seem to be getting at.The first book was really a snapshot of India in contemporary times, the eighties or nineties let’s say, and this book tells us how we got there from Independence to this point. In the next book I’m really going to dabble with what could happen tomorrow, and go into the near future.

Which writers have influenced you most?

If I look back to the writers I read when I was growing up, one Indian writer I read was R. K. Narayan. He has a book called Gods, Demons and Others that’s on Hindu mythology. He kind of twists all the tales around so they’re not your usual mythological subjects… I enjoyed that book very much and it must have stayed with me.

In many other religions stories of creation are set in stone. What is it about Hindu mythology that allows the imagination a freer reign?

There are several myths that revolve around the same kind of story. For example I used the myth of Andaka in my book, which is about the blind offspring of Shiva and Parvati. When he regains his sight he falls in love with his mother. But some other myths will have him as a demon and nothing more…it’s very interesting that there are several myths explaining any one particular story, and so you can find different interpretations.

Was it difficult to write in the voice of a woman?

It was. I think the initial part came quite easily—the first two pages. That voice, for some reason, just emerged from within me—the way this woman is addressing her son… the harder parts were trying to figure out what would be going on in Meera’s head. So the voice itself came easy, but what she was thinking and feeling, how she was looking at the world and at her own son, that was quite difficult and I had to take tiny steps and use all my intuition…

Are we supposed to look at her relationship with her son as an unusual one?

I think this is a cultural issue. What I’ve found is that people who’ve grown up here are different in their reaction than people from India ... In India people seem much more relaxed about this…just about everyone felt it was a variation on normal behavior and there was no alarm. It appeared much more accepted that these feelings could occur, whereas here there seems to be a magnifying glass on this.

Is this what you intended?

Well I’m comfortable with both reactions. It is looking at something’s that a variation. It’s natural in a way…things are much more sensationalized here.

Is it a coincidence that the most liberal and well-educated characters in your books, like Mr. Jalal in The Death of Vishnu and Paji in The Age of Shiva, happen to be atheists and also show a distinct lack of empathy or imagination?

With Paji I did want a very strong male character that would be oppressive in a way. And the traditional way would be to make him very orthodox and conservative, but I thought that was kind of boring. Why not twist things around and make him a Nehru character and show that even this can lead to oppression? So it was an intellectual exercise…Mr. Jalal came more from myself. I was thinking of someone who’s completely immersed in the world of logic and rationality and is searching for something more than that… You asked me what authors have influenced me and there’s a little bit of Paul Bowles in that; wonderful stories about professors going into the desert and being imprisoned… Mr. Jalal had to have an end that was in keeping with that…it was kind of an ironic commentary on myself.

In Age of Shiva you plant Meera between two extremes: her father’s intolerant liberalism on one side and the fervent traditionalism of her in-laws on the other. How far does she embody the predicament facing India at that point in time?

Pretty much that’s what I had in mind. She’s being pulled in both directions and she’s even flirting with both sides, just like India has had both left wing and right wing governments and seems to always teeter between these two extremes. And even Ashvin, who’s sort of the next generation of India, also has this dual hold on him.

Meera is in command of her own destiny to a point though, isn’t she?

At each step along the way she is making the decision in some sense, and a lot of the predicaments she finds are of her own making. I didn’t want to let her off the hook too easily. In a lot of women’s fiction … the protagonist doesn’t have control over what’s happening and she’s put in a horrible position and has to rise above it. I was working against that stereotype. She barely manages to rise above it. Meera does have all these things happen but they’re partly her own doing.

In both your books tensions between Muslims and Hindus are bubbling beneath the surface of their interactions. Is this still a reality in modern-day India?

I think it is. It’s amazing that even in classes that are well educated…they will still go around making statements to the effect that “minorities should be put in their place.” So yes I would say those tensions are still very much there…Part of it was to do with my upbringing. We shared this apartment with three other families and we were the only Hindu family and the others were Muslims…so I have this way of looking at things from both sides.

So will your next book be based on Brahma?

That’s a tough one. Brahma has very limited mythology and what I’ve read about him isn’t that absorbing…he might be abstracted to represent creation. For a while I was thinking about abandoning Brahma altogether and have the mother goddess, Devi, because she’s really the third one in the trinity…she’s going to play big role in it.

Additional Links:

Manil Suri's Blog

Taming InfinityClick here to watch a video of a presentation Manil Suri gives on infinity—a deep and intriguing subject, which needs nothing more than knowledge of decimals and fractions.

Listen to Manil Suri talk with Sheilah Kast of NPR about mathematics and math anxiety.


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