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12 noon Jan 23, 2013

On his book 'The City of Devi'

In the desolate streets of Mumbai, empty after threats of nuclear annihilation, Sarita can only think of one thing. She must buy the last pomegranate that remains in perhaps the entire city for her physicist husband Karun, who has been mysteriously missing for over a fortnight. Jaz - young, cocky and handsome - is also looking for his own lover. 'The Jazter', as he calls himself, is a Muslim, but his true religion has steadfastly been sex with men. Traversing the surreal landscape, always under the pervasive influence of the Bollywood cinema megahit Superdevi that some blame for sparking religious fanaticism, both Sarita and Jaz find themselves drawn to the patron goddess Devi ma, supposed saviour of the city. A wickedly satirical and fiercely provocative tale of individuals balancing on the sharp edge of fate, 'The City of Devi' upsets assumptions of politics, religion and sex in the present day's rising global superpower and demonstrates that, in the fallout of our mass media world, we are left seeking those we love most.
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33 questions answered | No question pending
  • I recently read an interview on Bloomsbury India's Facebook where you mentioned your recent love for seafood. What else do you like about the city? Asked by: Sunil
  • Manil Suri The sea! Mumbai has one of the most dramatic sealines I've ever seen. I've visited the French Riviera, the Caribbean, and the Amalfi Coast - they all are very beautiful, but there's something about that sight of Marine Drive that never fails to get me each time.
  • Do you think people read a lot less now, than they used to? Asked by: Joycee
  • Manil Suri I think they probably read less books, given that there are so many different pastimes and pursuits vying for their attention. Look at us, chatting away on the computer - perhaps a half century ago, we'd both be curled up, engrossed in a book.
  • What was the biggest lesson you learnt while writing The City of Devi? Asked by: Rajat
  • Manil Suri I had a very tough time writing it - tying together the plot strands was incredibly different. At one point, I approached it like a mathematician, drew out a decision tree, much like you would plot possible moves in a chess game. Realized that none of my "moves" worked, so thought I had proved mathematically that the novel could not be written. Abandoned it, but eventually picked it up again, and managed to finish it this time. Lesson learned: fiction is different from mathematics.
  • Congrats Manil. I am fond of writing and would love to write a novel, but haven't written one as yet. How can i know if I have it in me what it takes to be a good novelist ? Asked by: Ravi
  • Manil Suri The only way to know is to give it a try. In fact, give it two tries, since a long time ago, I started a novel, and then abandoned it after 5 chapters.
  • Wow! That was a very mathematical response! A little difficult for me to comprehend! Will your next book on maths make it simpler for mathophobics like me? Asked by: Rhea
  • Manil Suri I certainly hope so! The idea is to do math outreach, since it has such a bad reputation. The ideas of mathematics are actually very interesting, it's the calculations that people have problems with.
  • Do you have a favourite, out of all the books you've written? Asked by: Simone
  • Manil Suri Well, right now, I can only think of "The City of Devi" - definitely my favorite for the moment. Perhaps you should ask this on my deathbed - maybe I'd give a more reasoned answer then. Not only is it my favorite, but Jaz is my favorite character - and I even have a favorite amongst his one-liners: "I gave the Sikh a seekh kebab of my own." That one had me rolling on the floor for a while.
  • What do we look forward to next from you? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta
  • Manil Suri Well, there's the math novel I think I mentioned earlier - I was hoping that one would be a quickie, but it's probably going to take me my usual five or so years.
  • Jaz is quite an interesting character. Did you have someone particular in mind while writing about him? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta
  • Manil Suri Not really, though I'm sure I've borrowed from a whole spectrum of people I must have met, plus characters I've read about in fiction. In many ways, he is a composite. I also like to think of him as a symbol of globalization (given his childhood spent growing up around the world) - in that sense, he represents the interaction of India with ideas more associated with the West (say homosexuality). Of course, the book proves that these ideas are Indian as well.
  • How important is it to win an award for your work? Asked by: Rhea
  • Manil Suri Awards like the Booker certainly help in getting a huge audience, plus critics are forced to take you more seriously. That said, the way awards are decided is such an unstable problem (mathematically speaking) that one can't really invest too much into them. What I mean is that if you change the conditions slightly (for example, change one of the judges), the outcome can be completely different - so it's very unpredictable.
  • What is the best and worst thing you've been told about your writing skills? Asked by: Sujata
  • Manil Suri I actually cannot recall - I'm sure I've been told lots of both. The thing is, by the time you've written 3 novels, you know exactly where you stand. I'm very comfortable with the style that I've developed. While I was writing "Devi" I was still not completely confident of myself as a writer - since I had such difficulty in trying to complete it. But once I managed to finish, it was a tremendous shot in the arm - now I'm really much more confident that I can tackle a wide variety of writing projects.
  • About advertising your book, maybe you should use your performance to Piya Tu! How difficult was it? How did you feel once it was over? Asked by: Mohit
  • Manil Suri Yes, I've posted this on my website, and Parmesh Shahani, who did the Bombay launch, showed it to the audience after my reading on a giant video screen. The dance (strip-tease in the middle of New York City) took a month of work - I even got lessons from a dance professor at my university. It was perhaps the most liberating experience I've ever had. Writers need to push the envelope in their work, and I felt that now that I'd done the dance, I could do anything. It certainly gave me the courage to write characters like Jaz, make them (and me) completely fearless.
  • ok so i should visit Bloomsbury India's site for seeing advertisment of you book ?? any way congrats for a new launch .. wish you very good sucess :) Asked by: vishal kotak
  • Manil Suri Thanks! All writers need a lot of luck to make their book a success. And yes, do look up the Bloomsbury India site.
  • Is the response to The City of Devi worse, better, or similar to your expectations? Asked by: Juhi
  • Manil Suri So far, so good, though it's too soon to say. Sunil Sethi will be interviewing me for "Just Books" on NDTV, a real plum interview. And in the US, I'm scheduled to appear country-wide on Feb 3, on NPR, Weekend Edition.
  • "Write drunk, edit sober" Do you relate to this? Asked by: Zahir
  • Manil Suri My training is as a mathematician, so I need to have all my faculties about me. SO I'm a very poor example of the booze-ridden, drug-addled writer. Nope, I need to write sober, edit even more sober.
  • Hi! When is this book getting launched? Asked by: Sadiq Kazi
  • Manil Suri The official lauch was at the Kolkata Book Festival on Jan 11th. Since then, I've launched it at Mumbai, and now Delhi - off to Jaipur today, where it will be again launched tomorrow at 12:30 in a session there. And after that, in the US on Feb 6, and in the UK in March. See "appearances" under manilsuri.com
  • why there is no advertisement for this book ?? i have seen it right now from ibn live..why this lack of advertising ? Asked by: vishal kotak
  • Manil Suri It's just been launched, so you'll see a whole bunch of reviews and articles in the coming weeks. That's the way these things go. If you go to Bloomsbury India's webpage, you should see it there. Also, please look at my facebook page as well. I'm hoping that a few weeks from now, you'll be screaming, "Stop! - There's TOO MUCH advertising for this book!"
  • What is your greatest inspiration to write? Asked by: Seema
  • Manil Suri The challenge of getting it just right, of combining plot and character and language to make something that I'm happy with, something that hopefully others will derive enjoyment from. I work on things endlessly - so you can imagine how out of character this is, to be typing out answers furiously, without any chance to correct my choice of words....
  • Which contemporary authors do you enjoy reading? Asked by: Priyanka
  • Manil Suri Just finished some great works by Indian authors - Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton was completely chilling and engrossing. AMan Sethi's "A Free Man" was heartbreaking. Earlier, I enjoyed Manu Joseph's A serious man. And also recently read Tahmima Anam's "The GOod Muslim" - simply fantastic! What a great writer.
  • How different would the direction be had the story were set in present world? Asked by: Vijay
  • Manil Suri Actually, one could interpret the story as happening today, so it wouldn't be any different. All the ingredients are already there to some extent - for instance, the hostilities between India and Pakistan, the use of Twitter to cause widespread panic in the country, and so on. I purposely set the story without a date, so that it could work either now, or any time in the indefinite future.
  • Have you ever thought of settling down in Mumbai, since you love the city so much? Asked by: Caroline
  • Manil Suri I certainly enjoy visiting Mumbai, but it's definitely a love-hate relationship. The traffic is horrendous, and it's impossible to find housing (we never owned a family home here, so I don't have that connection). Plus, my partner of 22+ years is American, so don't think I could ask him to migrate here. Most of all, I need the quiet that boring life in Silver Spring,MD affords me, so that I can write.
  • Any tips for aspiring writers? Asked by: Jugal
  • Manil Suri I already gave one earlier in this chat, but here's another: be sure you're writing because you enjoy it. Only keep going with a project if you're fully invested in it (especially a novel!)
  • What's with the distortion in the mythological trio? Asked by: Vikram
  • Manil Suri The Trimurti came into being in post-Vedic times, as an attempt to synthesize the three main strands of Hinduism together (Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism). The scholar Majumdar points out that the addition of Brahma to the trinity was never very successful, since he did not have the same number of worshippers as the others (or as Devi, for that matter). Devdutt Patanaik points out that Brahma was added because every story needs a creator - and that the shrine at Jaggannath, for instance, really has a trimurti of 2 males and one female. For all these reasons, an alternative version of the trimurti is considered to be VIshnu-Shiva-Devi.
  • Why Mumbai? What was special about the city that made you choose it as the City of Devi? Asked by: Vikram
  • Manil Suri Certainly it's the city I know best, and am very familiar with. It's full of dramatic possibility. Plus it's a microcosm of India, so writing about it means I'm writing about the whole country. Beyond that, it does have the Devi as its patron deity (Mumbadevi) - the word itself is related to "mother" in Marathi. ANd look at all the localities in the city: Mahalaxmi, Prabhadevi, Kalbadevi, Mumbadevi, etc. Truly the city of Devi.
  • 12 years is a long time! Do you miss being around your characters; now that the book is written? Asked by: Neeraja
  • Manil Suri Yes - Jaz, especially - so much so that I was thinking of even starting a Twitter account in his name and tweeting the occasional comment. I feel that his and Sarita's story isn't quite done (just like that of Kavita and Salim from "vishnu" or Meera and Ashvin from "Shiva") I actually have an idea of trying to tie them all together....
  • Does it annoy you when people keep asking you about being a mathematician and being a writer; as if the two cannot happen together? Asked by: Rupal
  • Manil Suri I've been asked this question so many times - especially the connection between the two, that when I was doing the book tour for "The Age of Shiva," I actually announced at the beginning of every event that there was a secret question I had in mind - the person who asked it first would win a prize. Sure enough, at each and every event, I gave away the prize (a DVD of my math talk on Youtube, called "Taming Infinity."). I'm actually happy that people are so intrigued by this - more interest in math, the better. We're all capable of many things - our jobs and professions often force us into narrower pathe.
  • If you had to describe The City of Devi in one word; what would it be? Asked by: Priyanka
  • Manil Suri page-turner (Ok, it's a hyphenated word, but still counts as one word)
  • Can we expect a radical departure from this trilogy next from you? A more brighter, probably less intense work? Asked by: Sadiq Kazi
  • Manil Suri I'm actually writing something far out from left field now - a mathematics novel! Yes, a combination of fiction and some ideas (not calculations!) from mathematics, aimed at a general audience. It's actually becoming quite intense though, since there's an abstract mathematical entity controlling the strings in it, who's quite philosophical. But the brightness is there to - some funny videos I'm incorporating on mathematics - will work especially well in the e-book version.
  • How seriously do you take critics? Asked by: Neeraja
  • Manil Suri I've learnt to stop worrying about them. With the last book, I promised myself I wouldn't read my reviews, and then did, which was often unpleasant. The problem is: if you believe the good, you need to believe the bad as well. With this book, I'm definitely not reading reviews - just skimming them, to see if they're positive or negative - maybe only reading a word here or there. The thing is, I've spent 12 years on this book, I know exactly what's in it, what it's meant to portray. A critic who spends a few days (sometimes even less) reading it can hardly give me a good picture.
  • What advise would you give an aspirational writer? Asked by: Debolina Raja
  • Manil Suri For me, what worked really well was being able to work on my craft for several years in complete annonymity, without worrying about getting published. It takes a long time to get any good, so treat all your initial work as exercises, to be perfected, then thrown away. Eventually, you'll hit on something that will really click, and you'll know it.
  • What led you to coin the name 'The Jazter' for Jaz? Asked by: Rohit
  • Manil Suri I actually read someone's blog once, and he referred to himself in the third person by a similar name - can't quite remember what it was exactly. But it seemed really hip and cool. THe Jazter is someone who loves to have fun, so this is the persona he shows to the world.
  • What is actually the Super Devi? Asked by: Vikram
  • Manil Suri She's a character from a Bollywood movie of the same name which has taken not only India, but the world by storm. Part Slumdog Millionaire, part Superman, the superdevi is a girl from the slums of Mumbai who can assume different avatars of Devi to fight crime. The movie is innocent enough, but also is used by religious fanatics to provoke communal tensions.
  • How long did it take to write The City of Devi? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta
  • Manil Suri I actually started it in September, 2000 - believe it or not! Long before 9/11, even. It took 12 + years in all to complete (of course, I was writing "The Age of Shiva" at the same time as well). But if I look at the number of words that made it to the printed page, it works out to about 63.4 words a day for "Shiva" and 69.6 words per day for "Devi". So I guess I'm getting faster...
  • How did this plan of writing a triology come across? Asked by: Rutuja
  • Manil Suri When I started my first book, it was inspired by a man whose name was really Vishnu - a writing instructor said it behooved me to tie the character to the god Vishnu. After that first book, I thought to myself - why not write a book about each of the other two gods in the Hindu trilogy as well? I tried to back out, but my agent said the publishers loved the idea and like it or not, I WAS writing a trilogy. So that's how I ended up with a single word to inspire my second book: Shiva. And poor Brahma seems to have been left out, since Devi, the mother goddess, has more worshippers than him.

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