Manil Suri has written what’s sure to be the best sex comedy of the year about nuclear war between India and Pakistan. But the Baltimore mathematics professor is used to having categories all to himself. After all, his spectacular debut, “The Death of Vishnu” (2001), is the best novel ever about a man dying in a stairwell. His new book, “The City of Devi,” completes a loose trilogy about the Hindu trinity. Even amid the wondrous variety of contemporary Indian fiction, Suri’s work stands apart, mingling comedy and death, eroticism and politics, godhood and Bollywood like no one else.
His three novels don’t need to be read together, and they’re likely to appeal to slightly different readers. “The City of Devi” is the broadest, a careening ride through modern Mumbai — on foot, train and even elephant. The story veers unpredictably from romantic to satirical to outrageous, as though multi-armed Durga herself had sat down at the computer.
Any CIA war planner will recognize the opening scene: Tensions between India and Pakistan, egged on by China, have unleashed an epidemic of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims. Terrorists have exploded dirty bombs in major cities around the world. Reliable news and communication are the first victims amid rumors of massacres, incursions and reprisals. A leaked communique — real or fake? — outlines a Pakistani nuclear attack in four days. The 20 million people of Mumbai, the fourth-largest city on the planet, are in a rampaging panic, “mesmerized by our approaching doomsday.”
In a clever bit of cultural satire, Suri describes a popular adventure film called “Superdevi” that has helped precipitate this panic. A cross between “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Superman,” it portrays “a young girl from the Mumbai slums with the power to assume different avatars and Devi to fight crime.” Lady Gaga sings the soundtrack, McDonald’s gives away the branded action figures, and cynical politicians use the film to incite Hindus into a frenzy of bloodlust and invincibility. Globalization and technology will not, it seems, lead directly to a world of ecumenical peace and tolerance.
Suri splashes around the garish colors of this humanitarian disaster, but his real focus is on close, intimate detail. A young statistician named Sarita can’t find her husband, Karun. He left two weeks ago, supposedly for a scientific conference, and she hasn’t heard from him since. As she searches the pre-apocalyptic landscape, she recalls their tentative courtship and strange, awkward marriage. Her reports of bombings and drone strikes all around her are interrupted by memories of a romance between two adults who were hilariously ill-at-ease with their bodies.
But the more we hear about their marriage, the more troubled Karun sounds, his anxiety about sex suggesting some deeper issue. “We hugged more than we kissed,” Sarita says. “Our lovemaking remained restricted to above the waist.” He apologizes and weeps, pleads fatigue and promises better efforts later, but she’s driven to invent an elaborate star system to energize their tepid foreplay. (And she’s so devoted to the aphrodisiac power of pomegranates that I suspect a sponsorship from POM Wonderful.) As a statistician, she can’t resist the temptation to keep careful track of their slow progress toward consummation — which eludes them for almost two years. Readers, I suspect, will infer the nature of Karun’s resistance long before Sarita does.