Gods, monsters and all that jazz in Mumbai-set book trilogy

Trilogy closes with quest for love in the shadow of annihilation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 4:55pm

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 India's most populous state as a leitmotif in his writing.

In the first, The Death of Vishnu, Mumbai is the throbbing visceral city of today, a megalopolis that hides within its uber urban facade a labyrinth of localities marked by the ethnic and linguistic histories of migrants. In the second, The Age of Shiva, Suri goes back to a newly independent India when the city's urbanity still holds a salve to the oppressive caste-class-religion wounds that are felt in the rest of the country.

And now, in this third book, The City of Devi, Suri looks to a Mumbai in the future where the subcontinent teeters on the brink of 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 overturns this established notion, either as a plot device or as an act of artistic liberty. Early in the narrative, pivotal figure Karun explains: "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, the 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, Karun.

This powerful female presence is balanced by the missing Karun, a research scientist, and his lover, the young, cocky and handsome "Jazter". So the novel 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 become confused.

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.

Sarita 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, the US, 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 reports, "free screenings [using bootlegged DVDs] were still being organised 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 meets Jaz - who is aware of her identity but masks his own, 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 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 onto her in his quest for his lover.

Suri does a good job of fleshing out Sarita and Jaz. They are believable characters, each filling out the missing Karun with their point of view. Sarita and Karun had an arranged marriage that stayed unconsummated even though Sarita served him pomegranate juice every night to boost 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 quest for Karun is plagued with random events, none of which is initiated by the characters but which serve only to move the plot forward. This contrivance gets out of hand as the incidents become increasingly bizarre.

The propulsive energy of Sarita and Jaz's memories of Karun and their recollections of their very different relations with the same man yield to an exotic tableau of multi-armed deities, trumpeting elephants and grotesque villains.

The City of Devi is an amorphous creature. What starts off as a credible journey full of 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. Consequently the terror of an incoming nuclear attack falls by the wayside and 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. While Sarita and Jaz are grounded and worth rooting for, everybody else is either a cipher or a wild caricature. If Suri intended this book as a tongue-in-cheek look at Mumbai and its particular festering communal pot, then it is a failure because of the sheer number of over-the-top incidents.

Still, 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 silliness, the story winds down to an ending that is again at odds with the rest of the narrative, reiterating its patchwork appearance and feel.

And this is a shame. Suri's story of three souls in search of love and fulfilment need not have been overwhelmed by the suffocating canopy of epic wars, fantastical villains and conniving communities.