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.
As in his previous novel, “The Age of Shiva” (2008), Suri proves himself adept at inhabiting a female narrator. What’s surprising, though, is how shadowy Sarita’s closeted husband remains. Like a construct of dark matter, Karun generates tremendous attraction while remaining mostly unseen. He’s a sweet nerd who leads his wife along without ever giving us a sense of his inner life beyond his rather adolescent regrets and conflicted desires. “The passivity at the core of his being” makes him a particularly problematic centerpiece for a novel.
This certainly doesn’t stem from any prudishness on the author’s part. Alternate sections of the novel are narrated by a gay Muslim named Jaz. Predatory and witty, he recalls a life of unrestrained sexual conquest (and fabulous fashion sense). He’s a well-traveled sophisticate, “Jaz Bond dropping into the villain’s lair,” an operator who radiates “shifty wavelengths” — obscene, ironic and seductive. But as nuclear armageddon approaches and Hindu thugs take over Mumbai, Jaz finds himself on the wrong side of the new partition without a foreskin.
In one of the novel’s many wonderfully surreal scenes, Sarita and Jaz meet in an abandoned aquarium, where all the fish have been eaten by scavengers, except for one lonely shark. Supremely vulnerable apart, the Hindu wife and the Muslim homosexual decide to join forces to find her husband. From this point forward, a Bollywood “Wizard of Oz” vibe electrifies the peripatetic tale, as Sarita and Jaz make their way through an increasingly bizarre landscape, hoping to get answers from the goddess Devi.
We know from Kurt Vonnegut how scenes of carnage should blend with moments of comedy to sound bitter, but “The City of Devi” never dips toward cynicism, never loses its essential sweetness, no matter how cruel or kooky the action: Prisoners burned alive during religious celebrations! Disciples drinking their god’s urine! Despots ripped apart by angry mobs! Imperiled heroes escaping on elephants! Only a careful writer could choreograph these cliches — cliffhanger escapes and just-deflected bullets — without sinking into parody or bathos. Moments of melodrama risk jumping the rails (the train carrying Devi’s maidens literally does run off the tracks), but the whole story manages to keep hurtling along toward a surprisingly tender ending.
If the political resolution is ultimately a little too pat, the resolution of the novel’s romance is full of guileless charm. “We rise and fall under the empty sky,” Sarita says toward the end, “borne back toward the land by the frisking waves.” Would F. Scott Fitzgerald recognize his famous closing line transformed so boldly in this weird, complicated world?
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
THE CITY OF DEVI
By Manil Suri
Norton. 384 pp. $26.95