Manil Suri’s novel is like a ‘masala movie’ — a Bombay mix of genres, spicy, often subtle, often corny, and distinctly addictive. It is difficult to pin down its overriding flavour. A reviewer on the back cover notes that ‘Manil Suri has been likened to Narayan, Coetzee, Chekhov and Flaubert’; but there are twinkly sprinklings of Armistead Maupin and Frank L. Baum, and a strong dash of apocalyptic thriller.
The City of Devi is the third and most flamboyant of a trilogy, each volume named after a Hindu deity. After The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva, readers who know the Hindu trimurti might have expected Brahma the Creator to complete the trinity. As one of the characters in the novel argues, however, ‘creation comes from the womb’ (though surely birth via a lotus flower from the male navel has distinct advantages over a method I have found to be painful, messy and dangerously inefficient); and the proposed substitute is ‘the mother goddess, Devi.’ And Mumba-devi is the patron deity of Mumbai, Suri’s own mother city, which is central to this novel.
It is a city which, at the beginning of the novel, is threatened with nuclear annihilation in four days’ time. Religious tensions have been inflamed by a Bollywood hit, Super-devi, a mixture of Slumdog Millionaire and Superman. Opportunistic extremists are exploiting bloodthirsty Hindu and Muslim mobs; relations between India and Pakistan have reached meltdown; cyber-attacks and terrorist bombs have destroyed communication by internet and phone; rumours and violence proliferate.
In the remnants of Crawford Market, Sarita is set upon buying the last pomegranate in Mumbai, which ‘instinct’ tells her she needs for her ‘quest’ to find her missing husband, Karun, who has disappeared from a scientific conference. The pomegranate is an attribute of Bhumi-devi, associating Sarita with the mother-earth; but readers who are not interested in Hindu mythology need not worry. The mythological triad in this novel turns out to be a love triangle.
Sarita is an educated woman who has married late. Her husband, Karun, is a physicist, shrinkingly self-contained, and peculiarly passive. After her marriage, Sarita sets herself to coax him from his sexual shell. Progress is glacially slow.
Given the early clues about the Vishnu-Shiva-Devi triangle, it should not be a plot-spoiler to reveal that Sarita has a rival in love — a Muslim man, Jaz, who is also searching for Karun in the wreckage of the city. Jaz is a cocky, preening, insatiable sexual ‘shikar’: ‘sex was my true calling, my raison d’être — as guilt-free as yoghurt, as natural as rain.’ He is a fount of camp wisecracks, and likes to refer to himself as ‘the Jazter’: a device which allows the suggestion that his boastful, cynical posturing is partly a persona.
Karun shows considerably more enthusiasm for sex with Jaz: indeed, descriptions of their love affair become a trifle repetitive — too much ‘plunge-fest’. It is kept interesting by the rich slang of homosexual Bombay, and by the touches of vulnerability in hard-boiled Jaz.
The novel, however, picks up to a positively rackety pace as the rival lovers — each unsure of whether they possess the love of the tantalisingly reserved object of their desire — struggle through Muslim and Hindu mobs in their yearning quest. There are escapes by elephant, glow-in-the-dark saris, train crashes, fake gods, and a Hindu extremist villain straight out of central casting for a Bond film — even down to a weakness for arranging unfeasibly elaborate executions. Multiple deaths are jauntily gruesome; violent action is like an elaborately drawn frame from a graphic novel: ‘We arc through the air, the compartments liberated from their earthly existence, our persons conveyed heavenward by the freed spirit of the train.’
Under all this razzmatazz, or razzmaJaz, the novel explores the importance of love which is more than just sex. Suri is, one suspects, a delightful softie — as Jaz would say, resisting sentimentality, ‘overwhelmingly Hallmark’.