Manil Suri: Doing the Numbers

Sunday, February 8, 2009

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle calls the four operations of arithmetic "ambition," "distraction," "uglification" and "derision." Such scorn! And Lewis Carroll called himself a mathematician. "In America, there's even a doll that says, 'I hate math!' " Manil Suri says indignantly. It's shocking how marginalized numbers can be.

For Suri, mathematics has always been a great love. There's a physical rush, he says, in finding the solution to a problem -- akin to a runner's high. It's what lured him to mathematics.

But he also has a surprising aptitude for words. His first novel, The Death of Vishnu (2001), an intricate story about a teeming apartment building in old Bombay, won him wide and instant recognition. His second, The Age of Shiva (2008), about a young mother caught up in India's violent partition, garnered legions of readers in many languages. His third, which he has yet to begin, will complete a trilogy.

He was born in Bombay in 1959, the only child of a Bollywood music director and a schoolteacher. "We all lived in one room," he recounts, "the three of us, cramped together. We were the only Hindus in the apartment; the rest were Muslims. It was there I learned something about how humans interact."

As a boy, he was a frequent visitor to his father's Bollywood studio, and every week without fail he would accompany his parents to the movies. "It was our only entertainment," he recalls. Film made such an impression that, four decades later, he can remember every move of a wiggly dance in the Indian blockbuster "Caravan." You can see the professor perform it, veil and all, in a snippet captured by YouTube.

His mother was the bookish one. She kept a suitcase of classics under the bed. She took her son to libraries, savoring novels before passing them along to him. With such a mother and father, he became a reader, a painter, a boy filled with dreams. "But in India, if you are good in school," he says, "you are pushed into science." By 16, he was at the University of Bombay, studying mathematics. By 20, he was in America, doing graduate work at Carnegie Mellon. Not until he was a working professor at the University of Maryland did he allow himself to be openly gay.

He speaks of math as if it were real-life drama, and of drama as if it were hard-core math. In his lecture "The Math of Fiction," he describes the work logicians have done to distill novels into a few building blocks. Could it be there are no more than 31 plots in all the world's fairy tales? And, in all the millions of novels ever written, only seven characters?

Suffice it to say that this gay Indian American novelist and mathematician knows what it means to juggle possibilities. Just multiply those identities. Do the math.

-- Marie Arana

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