Manil Suri, who is a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has published his first novel, The Death of Vishnu. Suri, who was born in Bombay, India, in 1959, came to the United States in 1979 to pursue his academic studies and career. Along the way he had dabbled in fiction writing and began The Death of Vishnu as a short story in 1995. Although he has published 50 mathematical research papers, his fiction has only appeared in two places. An excerpt from the novel appeared in The New Yorker on February 14, 2000 and a story, “The Tyranny of Vegetables” in the Bulgarian language journal Orpheus in 1995.
Professor Suri has taken workshops with Jane Bradley, Vikram Chandra and Micheal Cunningham and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The MacDowell Colony, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His novel has been praised by distinguished writers such as Chandra, Michael Cunningham and Amy Tan and garnered attention by national publications such as Time, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post’s Book World.
While the setting of The Death of Vishnu is the microcosm of an apartment building in Bombay, it encapsulates the riveting complexity of modern India. The vivid interweaving of Hindu mythology, religious and ethnic rivalries, the pervasive Indian film culture, caste and class conflicts, and India’s struggle with modernity, are presented in a singularly masterful narrative.
The story begins as the lowly Vishnu of the title lays dying on the Bombay apartment building stairwell that has been his home for many years. Around him swirl the hectic, melodramatic lives of the building’s tenants. These are intermingled with his own recollections of his life as we are presented with the possibility that he is the current incarnation of the god who is, in Hindu mythology, Keeper of the Universe. Both the novel’s compelling resolution and setting of modern India, which is skillfully presented as a relentless experience, provide a powerful and illuminating narrative.
Robert Birnbaum: You began this book in 1995. You have spent years on it, and now it has come to fruition, and it is getting favorable publicity, and you are going out to talk about it. Has any of your thinking about the book changed since you finished it?
Manil Suri: I had a pretty clear idea of what things I wanted to say in the book. The nice thing about it is that when I finished it, I had managed to get it the way I want it. It was like some Rubik’s Cut. It just fit into place. And I don’t think that’s changed really. When I talk about the book, sometimes the challenge is to bring up some of these things. In terms of whether I interpret it some other way, I don’t.
RB: More than a few writers have said to me that they write the book and then they wait for people to tell them what it is about.
MS: No, I think I had a pretty clear idea of what it was supposed to be about. That’s what was satisfying about writing it. That I felt that I had said it.
RB: Place this book in a category for me. Is it an American novel? English novel? Indian novel?
MS: I was just in India, where The Death of Vishnu was first launched. One of the very interesting and, for me, very pleasing, things was that people there thought it — they certified it — to be an Indian novel. The danger was that being in this country for the last twenty-one years, who am I to write a novel about Bombay or India? The press there really accepted it as an Indian novel and that support was very heartening.
RB: Isn’t there resentment directed to emigrant Indians by Indians who are still living there?
MS: We are called NRIs. Non Resident Indians. People in India love abbreviations. So that’s what I am. There is not really resentment. There is more like wariness in some ways. The resentment would have been more prevalent a few years ago. There is so much of the West in India and globalization seems to have reached out its tentacles everywhere. I think that it is not as prevalent. But, I might be wrong…
RB: The loop seems to be continuous. The fact that you have gone back…I don’t know how frequently you go back. It would seem that as long as there is that back and forth then there is more contact, less separation…
MS: What has happened is that there was this massive drain, emigration, and now those same people are bringing back resources into the country. They are starting off businesses. So it’s not a negative thing anymore. On the other hand, especially where writing is concerned, there are several very good Indian writers who might write in English or various Indian languages, their work is not as widely disseminated and not well known in the West. That is something…it would be nice to address that in some way and until that is addressed I can see that people would be sensitive to the idea of someone…
RB: There are Indian writers that are well known in India but not well known in the West?
MS: I’m not sure how well-known they are in India. There are Indian writing awards that are given out every year. But those authors might not be published in the West.
RB: Hasn’t there been an Indian mini-boom in the US? Arradunti Roy…
MS: The God of Small Things has been the only book by an Indian author that has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. That’s the book that started this interest in Indian writing. It did so well and got so many readers. But since then, there hasn’t been anything that has reached that level. One reason that there is this interest in Indian writing is because it is so accessible to the West. This is a country full of people who are educated in English. It’s pretty much their first language. And so anything they write you don’t need a translation…
RB: I would contest that. There are many nouns in your book that I do not know what they are. While I like your writing, I had the same difficulty with your book as with, for instance, a Russian novel. I can’t pronounce the names, therefore I can’t remember the names, and so I have difficulty with the plot and continuity. In your book, the unfamiliar words interrupt the flow of my reading. And despite the fact that this is English, there is American English, Canadian English, British English, and I wondered if there is Indian English?
MS: There is. I would probably not characterize my own English as that. It was. When I first came from India it was very different from the English here. But I have been writing for so long. I have been writing mathematical papers, which has really changed my English. At least, if you took those nouns out that you didn’t know — which are usually things that I try to put them in context — so that the reader has some idea of what they are. And they usually can’t be translated anyway… If you take those [words] out, then my English is not different. It is interesting that you brought that up. While I was in India I was interviewed by the BBC Asia and the interviewer criticized me for not using enough Hindi words. She suggested that I was pandering to the West. She said, “Salman Rushdie uses so much Hindi, why haven’t you used it?” So that was some bizarre criticism.
RB: Would you do what she suggests in subsequent editions or work?
MS: No, I put in what I needed. I wasn’t thinking about whether this is the right amount. Hindi is not really spoken by the whole of India. People in the South don’t know what these words are either. So it’s not a valid thing to do.
RB: Why is there a fascination with India?
MS: There always has been. It’s not like in the UK. There is this wave of Indian color that is crowding the market. People are wearing Indian bangles, they’re wearing nose rings, scarves and what have you. That you don’t see here. There was an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer about something similar, wearing nose rings and drinking chai. But it doesn’t seem like a wave to me.
RB: A few years ago Madonna…
MS: In fact, Madonna was mentioned with photographs of her with a bindi (the red dot on the forehead…)
RB: When I look at photographic collections of India, the imagery is profoundly dense and complex. The informational content of the photos is overwhelming…there is so much…
MS: That’s amazing that you say that. I’m not good at names, but a couple of years ago, there was a very famous Indian photographer who passed away, and in his obituary in the New York Times, the same comment was made. And this was something he said. In India you don’t have this same focus on one thing. You won’t have this one perspective that you have perhaps in American photography. You’ll see a lot of different things happening. And that’s the way it is there. Life is like that. You are just thrown into it and things and people are just coming at you from all sides. And there are a lot of things happening and I think you adapt to that, that you can really take all of that in and see that photograph with not just one point of perspective but several centers of activity. And you learn to process it, too. In a way, when you see all this, you can make sense or order out of things and maybe get out the stuff that is most relevant.
RB: You have been here half of your life. How American are you? What’s your point of view as you write fiction set in India?
MS: When I was writing this book, I did try to put myself in the place of the characters and try to think like I would have when I was back in India. But certainly the emphasis in certain points and the point of view has been changed by my being here. So that is something that does go through the book. On the other hand, just looking at the reaction in India, it wasn’t strong enough for people to notice it there. Because they thought it was an Indian book. I feel that I have changed a lot since coming here. My mother thinks that all Americans are very cold people and she sometimes tells me that, “That you’ve become cold too.” I don’t think that’s totally true, but when I compare myself to what I was before, I think I have learned to react less emotionally to various things. So that’s a definite change.
RB: The Death of Vishnu is specifically Indian in coloration by way dealing with Indian mythology, politics, films, but lift out the particulars and you still have a universal story…
MS: I did a reading to a mathematical audience last April — at a conference — afterward this one professor came up to me to explain his theory of fiction. He said all of fiction can be broken up into some basic components. Just like radio waves can be broken up into sine series. He said that creating a piece of fiction is just combining these components in different, interesting ways and coming up a completed signal.
RB: Had he written any fiction?
MS: No he hadn’t, but he was very pleased with his theory. I can imagine him going back thinking he had solved the central theorem of fiction.
RB: I have to ask. Other than being published in The New Yorker you have been published in a Bulgarian language journal. How did that happen?
MS: I was at a reading of an informal writers group. And we decided to have a reading. We invited this one writer. I don’t remember his name. He was in the audience, and it turned out he was an a honorary editor of this one Bulgarian journal. So he invited several of us to submit to this journal. We went for brunch and he took photographs of us. Luckily these photographs appear in the back of the journal. By matching that with the actual letters of the title, I was able to tell which article was supposedly mine. I never had it retranslated. I don’t even know if the name of the journal is Orpheus or Orpheum.
RB: What are the languages your novel has been translated into?
MS: Lot of the European languages, Spanish Italian, German, French, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch. Portuguese. There is a separate Brazilian edition. Then the new ones are Catalan, Hebrew, Polish, Greek…
RB: Why do you think there has been such international interest?
MS: I’m hoping that it struck a chord in people. That are aspects of this that contain the universal components of fiction. Maybe that’s what it is? Also, let’s not forget The God of Small Things, which did very well in all these countries. That book opened doors.
RB: How much does your study and presence in the world of mathematics have to do with your writing?
MS: The interest is like action/reaction, equal and opposite. I need something to balance that. I was in my first year as a mathematics professor when someone came in who is a mathematician and a bridge player and he gave a talk. A senior member of our faculty dismissed the talk, saying that anyone who does something else like play bridge can’t possibly do good mathematics. There is this very strong feeling that you have to do one thing. You have to spend all your time doing mathematics research. I heard one colleague criticizing another because he taught too well. Saying how does he get so much time to spend on his teaching? There is this amazing point of view that you have to stick to… so anyway, I just found that I couldn’t conform to that. It was just to get away from mathematics and have something else in my life that I started dabbling in it. And it was truly dabbling because I would write one thing and then not write for a year. And then just write something else. That went on for many years. But I kept it a secret. I wasn’t going to tell these people.
RB: Your first public foray into writing was at the Fine Arts Work Center [in under Michael Cunningham]?
MS: Before that I had met people who wrote, and I had been to several writing groups. And then the first course that I took was in ’95. And it was very helpful. And then I took another course with an Indian writer, Vikram Chandra, who did a semester long workshop. And then the FAWC came in ’97.
RB: By the time you started these workshops you had already been writing for a five years?
MS: Actually, more than that. I started in ’83 or ’84. I took my first formal workshop in ’95.
RB: As a student…
MS: I used to write. I enjoyed that. When I was just home my mother pulled these all Campion reviews — Campion was the name of my school — and there were these book reviews. One of them I saw was this horrible flashy review of Wuthering Heights.
RB: Is there encouragement to pursue a life of writing and literature?
MS: Not as a profession. To pursue it as a hobby. In India, if you are good at studying, then you are pushed to the sciences. And if not the sciences then business and commerce. It’s only if you can’t get into either of those then you go into fine arts or art.
RB: How rigid is the class structure?
MS: Very rigid. But it is class structure not caste. People often confuse the two. I’ve heard people say that Vishnu is of a lower caste. But there is never really any mention of caste. It’s really a socio-economic thing, what you do and how much money you have and what family you come from. There might be more elements of caste in villages but I am only familiar with the Bombay experience. In Hindi there are three ways of addressing people. There is Aap, which is someone higher than you, there is tum, which is someone the same level as you and tu, which lower than you. In French there is tu and vou. But there you would use vou for everyone you didn’t know.
RB: Familiar and formal use…
MS: Right. But here it’s really…like you would use tu if you had a servant. So it’s not symmetric, and that something that always trips me up.
RB: Your description of how students are guided into certain professions leads me to wonder who becomes creators; writers, artists and filmmakers and journalists? Not the academic cream of the crop…
MS: There are some people who are so dedicated or so know exactly what they want to do that they would go into the arts. Another scenario might be that there are families where the father is well known as a writer or something and that might lead to similar things. This definitely something where you aren’t encouraged to go into the arts because it is harder to make a living. Just in practical terms that’s something that is not encouraged. I’m talking about when I was growing up, which is many years ago. I don’t know how things are now, but I suspect it’s similar.
RB: Are books expensive?
MS: They are very expensive.
RB: Therefore there aren’t many published? Only a few people get to read them? What’s the effect of costly books?
MS: I don’t think the limitations come from [the expense of] books. By books, I mean novels, like my novel. But there are other books that are much cheaper. While I was growing up, I only bought books that I absolutely had to, books for school. The idea of going out and buying a novel would have been preposterous. Even now a book like mine costs half of what it costs here, but people make a tenth of what they make here. What people do — they belong to circulating libraries — you go in and you rent a book. Your choices are limited because they are best-seller type of things. That’s what I read growing up. It’s changing now because people have more disposable income. Already in the last five or six years there have been actual bookstores like Crosswords which have opened several branches in India. The projection and the hope is — coming from David Davidar — who is one of the people in charge of Penguin India — he feels that in about fifteen or twenty years there is going to be enough of a market that it will equal Australia. It will be the third largest English-language market. Right now it’s not there.
RB: As in the US and France, films have such a central place in the pop culture of India.
MS: It’s even more so than either of the other countries. India is the largest producer of films in the world and has been for many years. Certainly when I was growing up there wasn’t any TV. And film was the one thing that everyone saw and it was a common frame of reference. But you also have to remember that the films are very escapist, and one theory is that people go either to forget about their worries and get carried away or to cry and weep for the characters and have some sort of catharsis. What you are saying is absolutely correct. Film stars are it. If you open an Indian newspaper the color sections are always full of film stars, their lives and this and that. They are often called the common man’s entertainment because they are very inexpensive and everyone could go and see them. Even on TV now one of the most popular things are film songs and things related to film.
RB: In the ’60s and ’70s in this country the Indian filmmaker was Satajit Ray. What is his place in Indian culture?
MS: It depends on who you are. He’s from Bengal. And the Bengalis certainly do revere him. When I was growing up his films were not being shown in Bombay. Maybe they were shown once or twice.
RB: Beyond the occasional bursts of Indian trendiness do you feel that non-Indians get how complex India is?
MS: It’s very complicated…
RB: Right, we are agreeing, but do people in the West grasp that?
MS: Well there is always this… the most absurd comment I’ve heard was…there was this television series A Jewel and the Crown. A colleague of mine came up to me and said, “Well, now after seeing that series I finally understand India.” He is admitting that before he even had a more simple version of India…it’s hard. There is just so much and so little filters in, into this country, into an other culture that…often while India is exotic with a capitol E you never see elephants or snake charmers…I’ve seen one snake charmer in India my whole life…that was at a place frequented by tourists. So people have this weird…they haven’t been there.
RB: There are obvious connections with India and English-speaking countries. What about India and China? India and the Middle East?
MS: India and China view each other with great suspicion because of the war that they fought. Historically, there must have been…chai comes from China and so on…
RB: Even as China has entered this incredibly entrepreneurial era?
MS: Actually, when I was India recently there were newspaper articles complaining that the Chinese were infiltrating the Indian market. There is trade and economically there are ties. India and the Middle East…there is so much exchange. The state of Carola has exported so many people to the Middle East and Indian films are very well known there…they are translated into Arabic.
RB: What of the Hindu-Muslim animus?
MS: It’s amazing that even though there are these controversies between India and Pakistan, India and Arab countries have always had extremely good relations. With Pakistan it’s territorial…it was one country and there are all these issues.
RB: The influence of the West seems obvious, but are there other cultures that have affected India beyond the homogenization of globalization?
MS: Like the influence of Brazil, say? That’s harder to see. There are pockets in India. The Portuguese were in Goa, so you would see that. The French were in Pondicherry…but beyond that it’s only people who came as historically as traders and so on. There are those influences which remain. Other than that, it’s really the Persian influence — the Mugal influence — I don’t know that there’s been that much from other countries.
RB: And the Western influence by way of the computer industry?
MS: Yes, that has a big thing. I want to back-track and answer — you had asked about China and India. If you go to Bengal, which is quite close — much closer geographically — there are influences there. There is a large Chinese community in Calcutta. And I was just looking at an exhibit in Bombay this group of painters at the turn of the century who painted in a very Chinese/Japanese style and even wrote their names with Chinese characters. There have been some influences…
RB: During the Cold War years there was some resentment towards India here in the US because of its policy of non-alignment but that didn’t seem to translate to a distancing of American pop culture?
MS: Politically being non-aligned but embracing the West in terms of culture? Western culture is very pervasive and very insistent and it’s hard to…
RB: Other than the French no one has set limits…
MS: I know that’s the thing. I grew up on Mad magazine and Archie comics. The British were there, and a lot of the intelligentsia had strong ties and aspirations to be like them. And they’re in everything — the judicial system, the constitution, their fingers have been everywhere. So it was natural to look westward rather than somewhere else. By extension the British set up things and than the US took over once the British Empire waned. That’s why there is this strong cultural bias toward the US and the UK.
RB: How important is an understanding of Hindu mythology to the comprehending The Death of Vishnu?
MS: The basics are very clear. Vishnu is the preserver, the preserver of the Universe. That’s the only thing you really need to know to understand the story. If you do know a little more you might see things or see connections or make your own interpretations which might be different from someone who is reading it for its story line of characters. Whether you do or you don’t might change the way you look at the book. But it’s not essential.
RB: You haven’t written this book with a concern for the reader’s expertise?
MS: No, my aim was to put in enough that the reader would know what is going on and then perhaps if certain readers are more curious about it, then they might go out and read more about. It was more to tantalize people — this is what Hindu mythology is like, here’s a little taste of it, there’s a whole world out there if you want to explore it.
RB: At what point did you decide you wanted to go beyond this book and create a trilogy?
MS: It was around the fourth or fifth chapter. It was almost a word game — there are three gods in Hinduism, three faces of the trinity, Rama, Shiva and Vishnu. The cycle is life, death and birth. So just match these three up and you get three titles. That was all I thought. Unfortunately, I haven’t progressed that much beyond that.
RB: So it is not a trilogy in terms continuity, of prequel or sequel?
MS: Yes, it will be different, there will be different characters.
RB: Is it a burden when as you are writing you are going to extend it beyond the boundaries of the present work?
MS: Right. The thing is that these three gods represent such different chunks of the Universe that it’s actually quite nice to have this outline. Otherwise I would be grasping for what to do as a second novel. Now I know I have taken care of the whole idea of care taking and Vishnu looking after the building and so on in the first novel. And now let’s look at Shiva, who stands for asceticism and withdrawing from the world, and the world dwindling and waning because of that. And create characters related to that.
RB: How religious are you?
MS: I was born a Hindu. Right now, I would characterize myself as an agnostic. My father is very religious. I feel that having written this book I have started thinking more about various spiritual aspects. Which you have to, I can’t imagine not having done that. I have stated questioning a lot of things that wouldn’t have before. The whole idea of ego, of materialism and so on. So in some way you could say that…the Bhagavad Gita, that’s my ideal. If I could follow some of the things in that that would be great. That’s what I am working towards in my own spiritual development.
RB: As an expatriate Indian, does writing this book make you more Indian? Does it bring you back in touch with your ‘roots’?
MS: It’s been amazing how that’s happened. I would have never predicted this. That this man Vishnu who died on my steps five years ago pulled me back into the country in some ways. Exploring all this, thinking back on my life in Bombay, trying to extract things out of that… there’s a real connection there. Life here will never change. Every time I go back I feel that even more.
RB: What’s it like to talk to fellow NRIs who have read your book?
MS: I don’t know that many people of Indian origin here. I do think the reaction of people will be different based on whether they are second generation or first generation. There is a completely different experience between the two. The people of the second generation are really Americans, who have grown up here having to bear taunts or whatever just as someone who’s different but very much of this country. People who have grown up here are trying to find a connection with the Motherland of their parents. It’s not clear how that will work out. There’s a big emphasis in this country to look at your roots and have an identity. Which is good but not the way I feel. I just take it for granted.
RB: When someone asks you what you are?
MS: I say Indian-American. That covers both bases.
RB: If you are from Chicago you are a Chicagoan or from New York a New Yorker. What is someone from Bombay?
MS: That’s very complicated. The name has changed now it’s Mombay. It is used to be Bombayite now its Mombaykar. That’s much more complicated and it would be correct. If people from India asked me where I’m from. That’s not the answer they would expect. They would expect me to say I’m Punjabi. Because my parents are from Punjab. It’s not caste or class, it’s this ther kind of thing…
RB: It’s regional identification.
MS: Yes, which community are you from.
RB: Do you do any other writing besides fiction and your mathematical papers? Essays, book reviews…
MS: I’ve written one or two small things. I just finished one for the Telegraph in London. Last year when I started this book, the second one, I couldn’t go one anymore. So I started this short story about something even more exotic and that’s a mathematician. I’ve written it but I’m not satisfied with it.
RB: Do you write everyday?
MS: No. When I’m writing I try to write five or six days a week.
RB: Do you think about the ‘writer’s life’ and the regimen that is part of that?
MS: Yes, it’s terrifying. You’re at home and you are writing and you have to push yourself…the thing is that math is similar. If you are doing math research there is often things, that you’ll be sitting at home the whole day trying to think of something and you might have nothing to show for it for days. So there’s a definite similarity…both of these things you have to be prepared to spend vast quantities of time alone…
RB: …and unsatisfied.
MS: …and unsatisfied. Right.
RB: Do you have a sense of where you would like to be in five or six years, what you would like to accomplish?
MS: My main goal is to do this trilogy. It’s like this book, I couldn’t write the second book because I have to finish promoting this one. Now I think, before I look at the rest of my life, I think that if I can finish this trilogy, that’s already an enormous mouthful. Rather than have to go around next year saying, “Trilogy, what trilogy? I never said that.”
RB: You look at things in an orderly, sequential way…
MS: Yeah, yeah. I have often charted out things. It’s much easier to chart out things and write outlines than to actually do it. Certainly when I write…like this novel…it was very sequential. I have to get the beginning right. Then I keep going back and wording it until it looks right. Then I find it easier to proceed.
RB: Have you stayed in touch with the people from your Fine Arts Work Center workshop?
MS: That was one of those experiences that while it was happening you are thinking to yourself is this one of those life-changing experiences. I could really feel that. And it was.
RB: Thanks very much. I guess in another year or two we can expect another book…
MS: (laughs) You’ve got to be kidding. It took me five years for this.