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Sunday April 28, 2013

Unmasking Mumbai

The City Of Devi
Author: Manil Suri
Publisher: Bloomsbury UK, 400 pages

Comedy, tragedy, love, hate – all the big reactions and emotions are mixed together into an enticing masala of a novel.

PERHAPS it is only fitting that a novel so intrinsically Mumbai in flavour should have more than a touch of Bollywood about it. For all that it deals with heavy subjects like sexual identity, religious-racial tensions and politics, Manil Suri’s latest offering, The City Of Devi, also revels in the sort of manic plotting that wouldn’t seem out of place in a classic masala movie.

Alternating between a sensitive love story, ribald humour and horrific tragedy – often on the same page – the story is a whirlwind ride through India’s biggest city, with its beauty and ugliness laid bare. Far from being a minus, this is very much a part of what Suri intends, and it is to his credit that he manages to balance the story’s more outlandish elements with the kind of poetic, layered writing that he is known for.

The novel’s premise is fascinating in its uniqueness: Mumbai is rapidly emptying out thanks to the imminent threat of a nuclear attack by Pakistan, communication with the outside world has been effectively cut off, and gangs of Muslims and Hindus are slaughtering each other as the city divides up along religious lines.

Amidst the chaos, we are introduced to Hindu wife Sarita, whose sole concern is locating her husband Karun, a physicist who disappeared mysteriously two weeks ago. She finds an unexpected ally, the cocky, urbane and smooth-talking Jaz, a gay Muslim man in search of his own missing lover.

Braving their way through a city rapidly devolving into barbarism, they find that the answers they seek lie with the Devi, a supposed incarnation of the patron female goddess of Mumbai to whom thousands are flocking as their last refuge.

Suri begins the novel in Sarita’s voice, but later alternates between her and Jaz. Moving seamlessly from present to past, the author reveals the journey that brought Sarita, Jaz and Karun to their present positions. While not unusual, it is a clever narrative device that works well in Devi, keeping the reader engaged and eager to know more.

Where the book is let down, though, is in its characterisation of Sarita. While Suri tries hard to get us to empathise with her, he never manages to get to the core of the character. Despite her insecurities and doubts, and later her determination to find Karun, she never becomes more interesting than the events happening around her. In contrast, Jaz is absolutely addictive, and the book is worth reading simply to take in his narration. His devil-may-care attitude, huge sexual appetite, and dirty sense of humour make him a delight to read about, and all the more loveable for the fact that his brassy exterior hides so much pain.

Meanwhile, Suri’s realisation of a Mumbai on the brink of destruction is brilliant. Though the scenarios he paints have a definite comedic streak, there is an uneasy sense of familiarity that is sobering, from the bloodthirsty right-wing Hindu leader to the mobs lynching Hindus in their neighbourhood – we have heard of too many atrocities committed in the name of religion to not recognise the possibility of these events.

With The City Of Devi, Suri completes his triad of novels, which began with The Death Of Vishnu (longlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award) and was followed by The Age Of Shiva. While the books are not linked narratively, a larger theme, one that is discussed at some length in Devi, unites them: that of an alternative trimurti (the Hindu trinity of gods), made up of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi – the mother goddess – instead of the traditionally-included male god of creation, Brahma.

As the concluding story, Devi is very much concerned with bringing this idea to the forefront, and it doesn’t take much to see Sarita, Karun and Jaz as embodiments of it.

It is perhaps here, in trying to fit into an overarching metaphor, that Devi falters a little. As the book nears its conclusion, it loses that delicate balance between farce and realism, and veers toward the heavily symbolic. For a novel that sets up such a gloriously sprawling story, the ending just seems too neat, too intent on serving a purpose other than simply telling a good tale.

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