A few years ago I read “The Screwfly Solution” in the middle of what felt like an epidemic of random, violent attacks on women (it is possible that it was just the normal amount of violence against women, at a period when the media was particularly keen to report it. And that possibility is scary too.) and it was terrifying. I didn’t think [spoiler?] that aliens were orchestrating the end of our species, but something of the horror of the book echoed off the horror of the real world and made both worse. Something of the sort happened to me with Manil Suri’s latest, particularly since I haven’t been able to go online in months without being immersed in worrying (and very shouty) news. I’m not sure any book should have to shoulder the weight of the world in this way, but it did rather wish it upon itself.
From this week’s column.
Perhaps the middle of India’s elections was not the best time to read a book in which the election of a right-wing religious party sets off a series of events that rapidly lead to impending nuclear war.
“Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all,” Sarita haggles over the cost of a pomegranate in Crawford Market. Her family, along with much of the city’s population, has fled the city. Sarita alone stays, waiting for her husband Karun, who has disappeared.
There’s a lot going on in Manil Suri’s City of Devi; probably more than there needs to be. It is part of a thematic trilogy (though the author has hinted that there may be a fourth book) with Suri’s earlier books The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. Trinities are invoked many times in the book, though often through the characters’ musing upon them in a way that is neither particularly subtle nor profound. It’s the weakest aspect of a book that has a lot more to recommend it.
The love stories, for one. City of Devi has two alternating narrators, Sarita and Jaz (Ijaz), both of whom are in love with the same man and who find themselves becoming allies in the attempt to find him and to escape the city. It would be easy enough simply to read this set of relationships as a cliché of Indian family life—the gay man unable to come out, the bewildered wife married as a smokescreen, the secret lover (doubly scandalous because of another religion!) on the side. It’s to Suri’s credit that he makes more of them than this. Jaz is profoundly irritating (must he call himself “the Jazter?”) and his courtship of Karun is often comical (“’Jai Hind,’ he declared. ‘What?’ I had been given the brush-off before, but never with a patriotic slogan.”) but these are human failings. Sarita and Karun do build something between them, even if that something is fragile and unconventional and features the worst euphemism for sex that you will hear this month; she’s never just the poor, deluded wife.
At one point, as she documents the violent political changes taking place around her, Sarita is able to claim that she was too caught up in her personal life to really pay attention. Which explains why she is able to stand in the middle of a market after a bomb blast and worry about the cost of the pomegranate that becomes a talisman of sorts for their relationship.
It’s rather pointless to argue whether Suri’s near-future, communalism-flavoured nuclear apocalypse is plausible, though watching or reading the news it can easily feel that way. Religious mobs roam the streets within carefully-maintained borders; in a darkly comic interlude a man is nearly hanged when mistaken for a Muslim, but saved at the last minute when they pull his pants down. Legislation has decreed that cartoon characters can only have proper Hindu names, so that Donald Duck lives on as Bimal Batak. The whole country is obsessed with Superdevi, star of a superhero film and the perfect mix of religion, commercialism and pop culture.
Jaz and Sarita’s journey through this landscape can often get tedious, with message overriding all other concerns of setting. But the early scenes of the novel are a thing of beauty. Perhaps there’s something inherently compelling about not moving, about staying in one place, waiting for the end, being certain of doom. There’s a feeling almost of hyperreality about this section of the novel—the deserted aquarium with most of its fish eaten by a security guard, the empty street down which Sarita runs to retrieve her pomegranate. Normal rules are in abeyance, and the motivations of ordinary people aren’t what you expect them to be. And perhaps it’s simply the eeriness of seeing Bombay, of all cities, almost empty.