Right from the title—which puts the words "city" and "devi" (Sanskrit for goddess) together to cannily evoke the stereotypical global image of India as both cosmopolitan and spiritual—it's clear that Manil Suri's The City of Devi is a meticulously composed novel, engineered to deliver a taste of the paradoxes of modern India to Western audiences without offending the sensibilities of the middle-class, left-leaning Indian reader. Consequently, the novel's liberalism nestles a little too comfortably, its critique of the fallacies eating away at the world's largest democracy expected but not barbed. The brutal contradictions and tensions of contemporary India (and the world) are here made palatable by sublimation into a Bollywood-ready narrative about the boundary-breaking powers of love at the end of the world. If drafting a more progressive, liberalized template to replace the fiercely heteronormative, conservative tendencies of Bollywood's camp mythologies was Suri's intent, he could have done far worse.
But in trying to show the various facets of India by evoking various genres in one novel, Suri creates a tonally imbalanced tale that can't quite focus on any one of its goals properly. There are just too many potential novels vying for domination here, from a pulpy yet socially aware political thriller to the more muted story of an urban middle-class love triangle that brushes up against an examination of sexual mores and marriage in contemporary India. There are strands of satire in the central plot-point of a pointedly ridiculous Bollywood superhero movie (Superdevi, which translates as the rather redundant "Supergoddess") which partially triggers a nationalist movement that begins the country's breakdown, again calling to attention Suri's own use of blockbuster tropes. There's the McGuffin of a recurring symbolic pomegranate that hesitantly courts magic realism for no particular reason. The novel rams popular genre bombast and apocalyptic speculation into the long-established tradition of Indian English-language literary fiction writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh. A worthy aim, but not quite successful.
Bearing Suri's considerable narrative and thematic ambition upon their shoulders are his fictional surrogates, protagonists Sarita and Jaz (short for Ijaz). Sarita's a sexually inexperienced, newlywed Hindu woman from a moderately conservative family looking for her missing husband Karun, in a Mumbai tearing itself apart along religious lines while it awaits a possible nuclear strike from Pakistan. Jaz is a well-traveled, sexually experienced gay Muslim man from a very liberal family, also searching for his former lover in the same city at the same time, with the catch being that his former lover is Karun. Their shared paramour Karun is a malleable, hesitant cypher for either of them to mold into their vision of the modern Indian domestic partner—something of an angelic "conduit," as Sarita calls him.
Considering that Suri is writing about incendiary topics, including sectarian violence and the threats of fascistic nationalism, endemic bigotry and inequality—topics clearly close to his heart as an Indian expat and a gay man—there's a real lack of spontaneity, of palpable anger or heat in this agreeably diverting tale. Probably because there's too much going on around what Suri's most drawn to: a love story that draws out the hypocritical convolution of sexual repression. That love triangle, further complicated by the fact that Sarita knows nothing of her husband's past with Jaz, is what lies at the heart of all the apocalyptic plotting and sociopolitical and religious commentary. But as characters, Sarita, Karun, and Jaz are limited by Suri's demands on them as thematic puzzle pieces.
Suri has said that he "literally drew diagrams plotting the characters and their paths," and in this case, it shows in a way that doesn't do the novel any favors. Much is made of trinities, with attention drawn to the fact that Sarita, Karun, and Jaz form one, corresponding to the Trimurti, the trinity of Hindi divinity—"Vishnu the caretaker and Shiva the destroyer" (p. 36), and traditionally, Brahma, replaced in Karun's ideal by the "mother goddess, Devi" because "creation comes from the womb" (p. 37). But while it's understood that these three characters represent Hinduism and Islam, male and female, hetero and homosexuality as they strive for balance between their conflicting life-paths, the symbolism here ultimately just made me shrug my shoulders. Perhaps Jaz is the "destroyer" of outdated and crippling social mores, as the gay Muslim man. Perhaps Sarita is the "creator," as a woman who wants to be a mother. Perhaps Karun is the "caretaker" who attends to both old and new, easing the pain of transformation. But so what if they form a trinity? As a metaphor for a new India that accepts all its citizens regardless or religion or sexual orientation, a new nation (and world) to be scrabbled out of the ashes of the old one, it feels reductive, an obligatory nod to the mysticism associated with India.
The two love stories involving Karun and his partners are constantly diluted by Suri's larger story of political and religious chaos in India and the world, preventing a significant emotional investment in their travails. A large amount of the book is taken up delivering dry, news-worthy exposition setting up the geo-political collapse which provides the stage for said love stories to unfold. Suri's speculative flights of imagination regarding the role of India, Pakistan, and China in a global war are interesting enough, but they unfold like essays, right down to quotes from newspapers and political figures.
Suri's grand metaphorical plans also sterilize a sometimes compelling ground-level evocation of war-torn India into easy, secular-spiritual wonderment at the harmonic balance of the universe (which we can all agree is pretty damn wonderful), never the mind horrific violence that has fueled the plot to get to that summation. His picture of a war-torn urban India should be where things get interesting, but even at their boldest—say, a deformed girl being used as an incarnation of the supreme goddess (Devi) by politically-inclined extremists to whip up the Hindu population of fallen Mumbai—they never feel too original, or properly explored.
Which is not to say that Suri flinches when faced with the ugliness of the real-world violence and hatred that the novel's apocalyptic scenario is predicated on (and continues to embroil India as we speak). There's plenty of unpleasantness in The City of Devi, as there should be in a novel dealing with cyclical violence and intolerance. But Suri appropriates that real-world violence into something more cartoonish than expected from a story that opens with Mumbai descending into religious war while being firebombed, and goes further downhill from there.
I don't doubt Suri's actual anger and frustration at the issues he brings up. Sometimes it comes through quite effectively, such as in the bleakly ironic observation that an all-out escalation of massacres by various different religious factions seemed "as if the national goal of religious integration had finally triumphed, and the bloodbath were a grand celebration of multiculturalism, of equal opportunity" (p. 103).
But the tonal shifts sit too uneasily. This is a novel that veers from genuinely disturbing moments like a man mistaken for Muslim by Hindu extremists being lynched in a bomb shelter, to last-minute deus ex machina escapes from the grasp of a boilerplate villain (Bhim, a Hindu nationalist leader) that says things like "Ah yes, the Muslim. We were about to do away with you, weren't we, before the interruption?" (p. 329) so as to give our heroes a chance to get away. As Jaz himself observes when faced with one of Bhim's standard villainous expository rants, "I'm about to give his performance a B-plus in terms of Bond-worthiness" (p. 292). The self-awareness isn't unwelcome, but it doesn't make the many tonal contrasts any less jarring.
The feeling that Suri is at his most comfortable writing the pre-apocalyptic lives of his characters makes the apocalypse itself feel like window dressing, an unpleasant dream surrounding a romantic conundrum. For instance, we get Sarita explaining how "one hundred and eighty two people perished" (p. 103) in a terrorist attack before launching into pages of exposition on escalating, shocking religious violence in Mumbai, only to end the exposition by saying, "Caught up in the turmoil of my personal life, I failed to notice" (p. 105). Hardly the most convincing reaction to one's city falling into daily atrocity, personal problems or not. Cue the soft-focus flashbacks to her and Karun's courtship, which, while providing a more convincing sense of place that post-apocalyptic Mumbai, feels too drawn out while never giving either Sarita or Karun much personality. They're both annoyingly passive, and remain so for far too long. Instead of drumming up narrative tension, it makes their love story feel repetitive, before Sarita finally takes some small steps towards becoming the more assertive of the pair.
The novel is at its strongest when describing the experience of being gay in a country known for its sexual conservatism (its ancient history not withstanding). Concentrating unabashedly on a romance between two men (across Hindu-Muslim lines, no less) in India is the novel's least self-conscious, and most inherently successful, political statement. Karun and Jaz's courtship is where the novel feels most unencumbered by its own baggage, aided by Jaz's affectations (such as calling himself the "Jazter" and referring to himself in the third person at times) which—while silly—prove more entertaining than Sarita's generic voice. At one point, Jaz says:
The future, as always, felt too abstract to worry about, too nebulous, too otherworldly. What mattered was the here and now. The feel of Karun's body as he reclined against me, the spices perfuming his hair and resting in their jars in the kitchen (p.158)
It's when it focuses on the "here and now" of intimacy, of relationships and family life, that The City of Devi feels most real. The apocalyptic "future" of the novel feels "too nebulous, too otherworldly" despite, or because, Suri has worried too much about what it represents, without immersing the reader in it to the extent he does with the more familiar landscapes of urban romance in contemporary India. It's a pity that the people at the heart of Suri's story get lost amidst the sound and fury of his all-encompassing national narrative of India’s symbolic death and potential rebirth. Suri is clearly an interesting writer, and I applaud the effort, but hope for a novel that's either more focused or less calculated in its ambition next time.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines including Asimov's, Apex Magazine, and Redstone Science Fiction. He has written reviews for Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).