The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri emerged from a crowded pack of first novels in 2001 to win praise from The New York Times ("Deft and confident") and be nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award.
Suri, who is also a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, has just published his second novel, The Age of Shiva. It's the story of Meera, a young girl who falls into a marriage for the wrong reasons and soon recognizes she's probably made a big mistake. She struggles to retain a semblance of self amid the competing tugs of the men in her life. Suri offers a glimpse into a unfamiliar (to most of us) culture that's detailed, absorbing, and never estranging.
Suri will read from The Age of Shiva it this Friday, February 22, at Borders Books West at 7 p.m. We spoke by phone before he left on his book tour.
The Daily Page: How does The Age of Shiva differ from The Death of Vishnu?
Suri: The first novel was basically a snapshot of India. It was all set in one building, it was very concise, it was a period of one day. This novel is geographically very expansive; it stretches over several decades. But more than that, the whole tone of the novel is different. That reflects the differing deities. Vishnu is energetic and full of mischief. Shiva is the ascetic, he withdraws from the world, and this creates a yearning in people who find him unattainable. I interpret him as a more romantic deity, one that engenders great longing.
The theme of women's rights and self-empowerment is significant. Meera's father is, on one level, saying he wants to free his daughter from the traditional demands of Indian society, but his own controlling needs put her in a similar position. It was moving to me to find a man writing so feelingly about women's issues. How did you come to that?
I am certainly influenced by my mother, whom I'm very close to, but I didn't find it very interesting to just write about her. Her father was a doctor and she wanted to become a doctor herself. This was in the 1940s and her father said, "You can't become a doctor -- it's too difficult for a woman and I'm not going to let you do that." She was frustrated by this and that stayed with her.
So I thought, why don't I twist that around? Let's make the father the liberal person, and he wants to educate his daughter, but she doesn't want to get educated. She's resisting his control. As far as getting into women's issues and really trying to see the world through Meera's eyes, it was a gradual process. I stepped into her mind little by little, feeling my way through her.
There's a surge of Indian-American and Indian-Canadian writers gaining mainstream popularity in the U.S. How do you see yourself fitting into the group thematically?
There is such a wide range of people....I think just as India is so diverse, all of us have different things that we look at. A common theme, though, that runs through a lot of these works is interpersonal relationships, especially in terms of families. India is a country that, more than in the west, the family is really primary. Everything is built upon that.
With Americans not always being very knowledgeable about the rest of the world, do you find people getting confused about some of the political situations, like Partition, that are mentioned in the book?
Any time you read a book about a foreign country, you have to open yourself to learning more about that culture or country. As a writer, the aim is to try to make it easier for the reader, who might not be familiar with everything. With something like Partition, there's enough background given. And there are human stories that are brought out that bring the reader closer to the experience.
Even if you don't know the history, it's the experience I'm interested in conveying. For example, the story in The Age of Shiva with Meera's sister-in-law, Sandhya (whose family must escape Pakistan at Partition), really brings the reader to what it might be like to have to leave and go to a different country. I try to do the same thing with foreign words and cultural references, try to bring it out through the context what is going on and why.
I'm curious about your job as a math professor. There's a time-honored connection between math and music, but much less so between math and fiction. Do people ask you about that all the time?
They are always wondering why a mathematician might be writing novels. I'm kind of inconvenient in that way. My goal would be to find some common ground, some synergy, between the two, and that's been very hard because they are so far apart, these two fields. I've come up with [a video] that explains infinity to non-mathematicians, and I've written a short story [The Tolman Trick] about mathematicians. But the public just wants stories in which the mathematician goes mad. Like A Beautiful Mind or Proof or Pi, any number of them. Like Chekhov's gun, it has to go off -- if there's a mathematician in a story, he has to go mad.